CK Retro Review: New Morning by Bob Dylan

The media painted it as an artistic comeback for Bob Dylan from the poorly-received Self Portrait, but in fact 1970’s New Morning was formulated at roughly the same time (and released just four months after) its infamous predecessor. As a matter of fact, the album has its own quirks and peculiarities that make it a bit of an outlier in the Dylan catalog, albeit an enjoyable one. Here is a song-by-song review.

TWO STARS

12. “If Dogs Run Free”- Lounge-act kitsch also attracted The Beatles around this time (their goofy novelty song “You Know My Name (Look Up The Number)” is evidence of this), so maybe Dylan can be forgiven. While there’s no doubt he was in on the joke, it doesn’t mean that the joke was all that funny. This one would have been better suited to the erratic weirdness of Self Portrait.

11. “Father Of Night”- The lyrics have some interesting things to suggest about a God who births both the good and the bad, but they are ultimately let down by the song’s repetitive melody and brevity. Dylan usually is right on with his choices for album-closing songs, but this one sends New Morning off in forgettable fashion.

THREE STARS

10. “One More Weekend”- A bit of the old rasp in the voice helps authenticate this bluesy, randy ode to getting away from it all, if only for a couple of days. It’s a bit of a throwaway, but a fun one nonetheless.

9. “Time Passes Slowly”- Slowing down the pace of life is something that clearly appealed to Dylan around this time. This song is a sweet little ode to that kind of lovely lethargy. The piano is somewhere between gospel and jazz, while the urgency in Bob’s vocal suggests that the quiet life isn’t easily obtained or sustained.

8. “New Morning”- The preponderance of downright happy songs are what makes New Morning such a refreshing listen. There’s nothing fancy going on with the title track, but that’s only right since the simple pleasures are what Dylan is espousing here.

7. “Three Angels”- Dylan ingeniously contrasts the bustlings of city life with a trio of heavenly statues watching them all. Bob speak-sings the lyrics while the mournful music swirls around him. The message about man’s obliviousness to spirituality might be overdone a tad, but it’s hard not to get swept up in it in the end.

6. “Went To See The Gypsy”- The common critical consensus used to be that this song was inspired by a visit to Elvis Presley (the line “He did it in Vegas and he can do it here” is supposedly the giveaway), but Dylan has since denied meeting him. Whatever the case, the song works as a meditation on the chasm between living life in public and staying out of the limelight. Considering the emptiness of the narrator’s visit to the gypsy and his final transportation back to a small Minnesota town, it seems that Bob was contemplating the proper road to take.

5. “Winterlude”- It’s one of the most charming songs in the Dylan canon, all coy come-ons and sweet nothings that amount to a romantic proposal that’s impossible to resist. The niftiness of the wordplay is impressive, the warmth of the music is enchanting, and, as cheeky one-liners from Bob go, “Winterlude, this dude thinks you’re fine” ranks right up there.

FOUR STARS

4. “If Not For You”- I think that this song would have prospered even more if a middle ground could have been reached between the muddled arrangement that Dylan chose and the overly lush take that producer Phil Spector created for George Harrison on All Things Must Pass. None of that can mask the fact that this is one of Dylan’s sweetest and most direct love songs, making it an excellent tone-setter for an album full of gentle reflections on love, life, and happiness.

3. “The Man In Me”- Maybe the Coen did us all a favor by making this The Dude’s unofficial theme song in The Big Lebowski, because they captured its essence in the process. It is indeed the perfect embodiment of amiable aimlessness, echoed by Al Kooper’s wandering organ. Dylan’s “la-la” refrains reveal in their own special way more about the inner workings of the narrator than any verbose verses ever could.

2. “Day Of The Locusts”- Dylan’s freaked-out experience during his reception of an honorary degree at Princeton University inspired this fascinating track, one of the few in Bob’s career which can be considered nakedly autobiographical. The skepticism of higher education is a recurring theme in Dylan’s career from “Like A Rolling Stone” to “Foot Of Pride,” and it manifests itself here in darkly comic fashion. This is one of the most vibrant musical tracks on the album as well, gathering momentum throughout and featuring a memorable chorus that Dylan cathartically belts.

FIVE STARS

1. “Sign On The Window”- The album’s standout is marked by some lovely interplay between Dylan’s forceful piano playing and Al Kooper’s wistful keyboards. The female backing vocals are well-utilized as well and it’s a nifty little gospel-tinged melody with melancholic undertones. Dylan’s lyrics, perhaps his best set since John Wesley Harding, and his emotional performance are truly what make this one so special. The narrator’s yearning for an unassuming homestead and a large brood in the last verse is made even more touching by the contrast of his struggles to get there in the first few verses and the bridge. “That must be what it’s all about,” is what he concludes about his dream life, but it doesn’t mean it will be an easily achieved dream.

(E-mail me at countdownkid@hotmail.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For more on Bob Dylan, check out the link below to my upcoming book Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs.)

http://www.amazon.com/books/dp/0810888238

 

 

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9 Comments on “CK Retro Review: New Morning by Bob Dylan”

  1. Jacek says:

    Father of Night is actually my favorite on here! The lyrics are gorgeous, and I find the arrangement to be so too—I love the gospel singers and Bob’s rhythmic little roll on the black keys of the piano. It’s short, but I don’t think it needs to be any longer. For me it’s definitely one in what you rightly point to as being an excellent catalogue of Dylan closers across many, many albums. And New Morning is one of my favorite albums, despite If Dogs Run Free and One More Weekend (which I wholeheartedly agree are otherwise the two weakest tracks). It’s so light and unassuming and for a long time I didn’t like it myself, but it’s grown on me immensely, to the point that I prefer it to any pre-’67 record of Bob’s. Thank you for the write-up, Kid!

  2. Baggy says:

    The last shall be first…I actually quite like If Dogs Run Free. In fact I’d stick it in the list somewhere around four stars. I remember when Bob started playing it live….circa Wembley 2000, and it was a real thrill.

    Otherwise your rankings are pretty sound CK, and highlight the stronger tracks. Overall this is a very strong album. I think that the oddities this time – Dogs/Winterlude/Three Angels/ maybe Father of Night as well, really round out New Morning and take it past what he delivered with Nashville Skyline. Whenever I put it on, it is full of surprises; then I slap my knee and say “Goshdarn this is good!”.

  3. Peter van de Kerk says:

    I am really sorry to post a comment – in fact I am sick about this review – when I listened again to New Morning after maybe twenty years, I still had a very warm feeling when I heard Father of Night, Three angels, and If dogs ran free – who ever wrote this garbage spoilt my day

  4. Bob says:

    Agree entirely about ‘Sign..’ A minor masterpiece: one I wish he’d revisit.

  5. Foxtastic says:

    Bob creates more in “Three Angels” two minutes than the two hours of “Wings of Desire” (in itself a magnificent film). One of his greatest songs and an album way before its time, or any time…

  6. hans altena says:

    The magnificent trouble with New Morning is that it seems lightweight, even strives to depict a life without the force of gravity, a way of being that appears to be yearned for, yet behind that scheme lingers a melancholy doubt, about the possibilty of reaching and living it and even whether it is really desirable. Something of a dead is sensed behind the sober countryfied arrangements, a slight despair undermines the joyous gospel, and it all sounds better for it because deeply human, fragile, warm, like a tentative smile that breaks through on a sad face. It is a minor masterpiece that wasn’t meant to be such at all. It’s the last gleam of sunlight before the night fell on Dylan’s creativity for some years. And in all his singing you can feel he knew he stood before the brink of that.
    Concerning the rating of the songs, somehow this is just only digested as an album that levitates the deceptively simple ingredients. Sure, One more weekend and Winterlude and New morning are just no more than sympathetic and rocking, to keep up the spirits and the help to make the record so enjoyable. But If dogs run free, Father of night and Three angels are interesting and moving experiments deserving at least three stars and in my book more, while Time passes slowly, The man in me and Sign on the window form a trilogy that to me cannot be seperated in parts, even in the amount of stars individually and as a concept it deserves five. In a more subdued way I see also a connection between Day of the locusts (very strong) and Went to see the gypsie (Basement tape like intriguing), four stars at least.
    Keep on going with these interesting retro reviews!

    • countdownkid says:

      Very well said, Hans, and I agree with your ideas about how the album stacks up in Bob’s career. I will also say that “Went To See The Gypsy,” “Winterlude”, and “Three Angels” were close to four-star territory when I ranked them.

  7. Jane says:

    At last! Winterlude gets some respect! And you got it absolutely right. But Father of Night has always eluded me, seems scraped and thrown together.

    I also think Hans nailed the feeling of the whole album – a tentative smile, a melancholy doubt.


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