CK Retro Review: New Morning by Bob DylanPosted: June 5, 2013
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.)