CK Retro Review: Desire by Bob Dylan

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.

TWO STARS

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.

THREE STARS

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.

FOUR STARS

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.

FIVE STARS

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 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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15 Comments on “CK Retro Review: Desire by Bob Dylan”

  1. Jacek says:

    Cheers, Kid! Your three five-stars are absolutely my favorites here, too, and by some way. Abandoned Love would’ve joined them but it’s absent—fittingly, I guess, in a thematic manner of speaking. Where did you hear that it got the shaft in favor of Mozambique? I’ve read about Joey being the one responsible for giving ole “Love Copy” the boot, but I think that claim, in the context I found it, was similarly unaccompanied by a source. Not challenging you; just wondering!

    • countdownkid says:

      I’m not sure if I read it somewhere or if I just projected my own desire to have “Abandoned Love” on there. You might indeed be right. You’re also right that it would have been an odd duck thematically, but, with a great song like that, you can live with a little disjointedness.

  2. Baggy says:

    I love the fact that nothing else in Bob’s catalogue sounds quite like this album. Mid-60s had the thin wild mercury sound, and mid-70s he nails the wild swirling gypsy violin and harmonica vibe. And then moves on…doesn’t he ever.

    • K.C. Ramsey says:

      I absolutely hate this album! Scarlet Rivera sounds out of tune a lot of the time; the story songs are more convoluted than usual; “Joey” is hands down the worst song he ever recorded; and “Hurricane” I have also come to loathe because as usual Bob played around with the facts (hence the lawsuit that he was slapped with way back in the day) to suit his own “desire.” Rueben Carter never road a horse along a trail . . . he was a thug and evidence points to the fact he was guilty, which is probably why he was convicted.

      • Baggy says:

        Do you dislike the Rolling Thunder tour sound as well then KC ? That’s a shame. I love to hear it when the violin and the harmonica play agst each other throughout this period.

      • countdownkid says:

        I can appreciate you disliking the album on the grounds of the stretched truth on the fact-based songs; that’s just a philosophical difference in how we view the responsibility of the songwriter. I do disagree about the violin and how well the story-songs come across.

      • KC Ramsey says:

        Baggy, I am not much of a Rolling Thunder fan. In fact, the live album “Hard Rain” is an unabashed disaster. Poor sound quality ruins it for me right off the bat, and the performances I don’t care for either. “Idiot Wind” is over-the-top in its vitriole. I read where Dylan was in a bad way emotionally due to marital issues during the second leg of Rolling Thunder. The first incarnation, with McGuinn and Ramblin’ Jack and some of the others was probably better, but I never heard much of that stuff. The Bootleg series from a few years ago was OK, but I presume there is much better stuff in the vaults than that. But back to “Desire” and Countdown Kid’s comment about the songwriting perspective. I’ll agree that its better to tinker with something like “Joey” because that’s sort of biographal sketch (skewered as it
        is) but “Hurricane” deals with the facts of a murder for goodness sake. How can any artist, even one as great as Dylan, feel he can rewrite that kind of history. Too bad because the song does kick ass.

  3. whalespoon says:

    Great review of one of my all-time favorite albums–by Dylan or anyone else for that matter. The only fly in the ointment of this incredible album is “Joey,” one of the most lifeless dirges that Bob ever committed to vinyl. THAT’S the song “Abandoned Love” should have replaced, adding “Seven Days” and “Rita Mae” to round it out.

    • countdownkid says:

      Thanks for the kind words. I’ve gone back and forth on “Joey” over the years. I enjoy it now as a sort of intentionally over-the-top ode to a larger-than-life character. It can be hokey in places, but it draws me in every time, even flaws and all.

  4. JS says:

    I love the sonic quality of this album, particulary Howie Wyeth’s drums. Dylan’s voice never sounded so good as on this record, very warm, melodic and powerful.

  5. street legal says:

    AMAZING ALBUM & AMAZING TOUR
    Both album & tour one of the best ever by any artist

  6. rob ford says:

    I gave up after the pathetic “the steadfast croak “…Dylan is the greatest singer of all time and his singing on Desire is wonderful and mesmerising.

    • countdownkid says:

      You’re assuming that I meant that phrase as an insult, but I didn’t; I was just describing what it sounds like to me. I also think Bob is one of the greatest singers of all time (I don’t know about the best; I’d have to think about that), but let’s not kid ourselves that it’s a smooth voice. What makes that duet so cool is the way he kind of stays on the melody almost like a guide vocal while Harris swerves all around him.

      • rob ford says:

        Sorry, croak does sound like a very negative description. I know that he has many voices which sets him apart …the smooth voice is the lovely Nashville Skyline voice and the voice on the Hard Rain album ( which for me is in his top 5 albums ) is one of his most compelling and still gives me goosebumps to this day.


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