CK Retro Review: Desire by Bob DylanPosted: June 17, 2013
Bob Dylan’s 1976 album Desire was notable for its exotic, violin-tinged, gypsy sound and its ambitious, sprawling story-songs. The bold gambit paid off in spades for Dylan, as the album turned out to be one of his biggest commercial successes. Here is a song-by-song review.
9. “Mozambique”- I understand that this was meant as a change of pace. But I think the album could have handled another epic, specifically the sublime “Abandoned Love,” which was recorded for these sessions but bumped off by this breezy, melody-free lark.
8. “Oh Sister”- You could argue that Dylan was singing to a love interest, a nun, or a sibling here. I’ve always heard it as a plea for a rapprochement in the battle of the sexes. Whatever the case, the great Emmylou Harris, whose vocals throughout gave Desire some of its extra-special flavor, lifts the tune into a place of tenderness and warmth with vocals that weave all around Bob’s steadfast croak.
7. “Joey”- If you’re one to be offended by songs that may stretch the truth a bit (or, let’s face it, a lot), you’ll never believe this one is worth anything. My take is that Hollywood romanticizes gangsters all the time, so why not Bob? My deciding factor on the song’s effectiveness is how well Bob, and co-songwriter Jacques Levy, tell their version of the story of Joe Gallo, and “Joey” passes muster and then some by that standard. If anything holds the song back, it’s the staggering tempo of the music, which seems to make the tale drag in parts. But like a Scorcese or Coppola movie with a little too much exposition, you can sit through it because the good parts are worth it.
6. “Romance In Durango”- Dylan really gets inside the skin of this Mexican bandit on the run, even laying the accent on a bit thick (check out the way he exaggerates the long “e” in “people.”) What carries the song is the ingenious way the story is told, as this outlaw tries to calm his Magdalena with soothing visions of their idyllic future together, even as his enemies close in on them. The narrative ends with him wounded and yielding his gun to his lover; the final chorus might as well be our hero’s final, death-addled vision of the life he won’t get to lead.
5. “One More Cup Of Coffee (Valley Below)”- The recording sessions for Desire were famously chaotic, but out of that craziness some really vibrant performances emerged. “One More Cup Of Coffee (Valley Below)” would have been fine with just Bob on his guitar singing this tribute to a girl of exceeding beauty and mystery whom he’s about to leave behind. When Dylan’s wild melody is coupled with the sinewy violin lines of Scarlet Rivera, the song really haunts.
4. “Hurricane”- The influence of Levy’s theatre-trained knack for shaping a story really comes to the fore on this plea for the innocence of Rubin Carter. Note how the choice of short, impactful words evokes a pulp fiction tale and how some of the lines seem like stage directions. It also helps that the music really kicks, with Rivera’s violin lurking in dark corners behind the rumbling drums of Howie Wyeth before Bob blows everything away with an impassioned harmonica solo. Dylan belts the chorus out like an ironic ring announcer. The fact that the song has sustained as one of Bob’s most popular long after Carter’s case has been settled by the courts says something about its enduring power.
3. “Isis”- In the midst of all the tomb-raiding, there is something deep going on in Dylan and Levy’s lyrics, something about how self-destructive tendencies can wreck a relationship and how some couples are brought together by the combustibility which will inevitably cause them to part. It’s all rendered in thrilling fashion thanks to Dylan’s wondrous vocal, which finesses the quirkier aspects of the story and brims with ravenous emotion when describing “Isis.” One of those songs with a high degree of difficulty that few even attempt, let alone pull it off like Bob does here.
2. “Black Diamond Bay”- Let’s just consider for the moment the main story of this song, in which the inhabitants of a doomed island play out their final moments in dramatic and sometimes idiosyncratic fashion. Had the song ended with the evisceration of “Black Diamond Bay” and all the fascinating characters on it, it would have been an excellent effort. But Dylan and Levy push things up a notch with the trick ending, as the narrator enters the song and tells of seeing a brief news item about the sinking island. Bob may state at the end that there are a lot of “hard-luck” stories being told, but very few are told with the cleverness on display here.
1. “Sara”- Dylan laid it all on the line in this immense, album-closing tribute to his wife, but the shadows that creep into the song are what make it more than just another rocker writing a love song. For one thing the song keeps returning to pesky minor keys every time a ray of sunlight breaks through. For another, the eloquent and heartfelt testimonials that make up the bulk of the song are bookended by a pair of telling scenes on a beach. In the opening verse, that beach is filled with the sights and sounds of a happy family; in the last verse, it’s deserted. Sara Dylan has maintained her privacy throughout the years, and good for her for managing that, but this song, and all the woeful love-lost songs that Bob has written since Desire, tells us all we need to know about her specialness to him.
(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.)