I'd stated not two posts ago that I'd considered this song to be one of the highlights of an album not really noted for them; I made that statement based mainly on my memories of having heard the album some time back (this really isn't part of my regular rotation, as you might have guessed). Upon listening to the track again, I now believe I was mistaken. The RS writers pegged it pretty well as "a slick exercise in vocal control" - not that there's anything wrong with those, but it's not exactly something you would expect out of Bob, who has earned something of a reputation of not particularly giving a damn about how his vocals sound. If nothing else, the word "slick" aptly sums up what this track is all about, as everything sounds like it's been burnished to a glossy sheen with Pledge or something. Some might suggest that this is the perfect environment for Dylan's country croon; I think that taking that voice out of the more down-home rustic environment of Nashville Skyline and plunking it into (for lack of a better term) a huge wankfest does it no favors. It all adds up to a strange bit of business, a song that is more easily admired than actually liked.
Of course, that's not to say that people might actually admire this song - it's technically well played, sure, but that doesn't really mean anything. But what makes the song so difficult to like is what many Dylan detractors feel is a real weak point for Bob's music - the fact that he keeps you at an emotional distance. I don't really see how that's the case with much of his classics, but it certainly applies here; between the glossy production and Bob's droll vocal performance, there really isn't much genuine feeling that you can glean from this song. Seeing as how so much of music's appeal lies in feelings and emotions, that constitutes something of a problem. There is a lot more of that rote playing throughout the album, music with a certain amount of skill but not too much feeling, and that drags the album down more than the actual material Bob chose to record does.
This sort of leads, then, into the 3rd section of the RS review, where an unidentified person discussing how his feelings about this album make him question his feelings about Dylan's previous music, perhaps wondering if he'd overrated those songs and albums all this time. As part of this discussion, he plays the Isle of Wight version of "Like a Rolling Stone" again and ponders just what a trainwreck it is by comparison to the original. Now, while there's an element of this piece that feels just a little bit too pat (if anybody REALLY believed this music was comparable to what Dylan was up to in the mid-60s, he'd probably need his head examined), this does raise an interesting debate about what exactly music means to us and how we perceive music. We are, after all, talking about one of the most notorious albums ever released; there isn't a shortage of issues to discuss here.
In the opening section of that 3rd part, the anonymous speaker asks two questions. The first one is "was the mid-60s stuff not that good and this stuff is just as good?" Now, most of you would obviously answer "of course it is", and I'd be right there with you. There is, however, probably a very tiny minority of the population that would disagree, and would take songs like "It Hurts Me Too" and, well, this one over "Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat" and "Gates of Eden" and all those classics we know and love. Now, does this necessarily make them wrong for feeling that way, or make their opinions on music any less valid? Of course not. Still, I would assume that most people that listen to music and really, deeply care about it (for better or for worse) would probably agree that the Electric Trilogy knocks this album into a cocked hat. That cannot be a coincidence.
That leads into the second, and more interesting, question that was asked - "was it some sort of accident in time that made those other records more powerful, or what?" We all can surely concede that timing plays a major part in both making and breaking bands - think of how perfectly suited Nirvana was to break out as hair metal began to give way to alternative music, or any number of indie bands that toiled in obscurity during their time only to receive great acclaim after their careers ended. And I also believe that context has a huge part in determining the fates of certain albums and singles. As great as those Electric Trilogy albums are, it doesn't seem like a stretch to suggest that their reputations have received a boost from the mere fact that they were released in arguably the most fertile period in the history of popular music, and that their impact might not be as major if they hadn't influenced so many other artists (not that it's Dylan's fault in that regard). And a lot of the argument for Self Portrait as misunderstood comes from taking the album out of its environment (as an aside, the RS review should be read as entirely of its environment, the post-Altamont era where rock stars began dying off and the hippie era began to fall away) and listening to it outside its massive dead cat of a reputation. I don't buy those arguments, myself - quality and lack thereof transcends generations - but they're still there to be made, all the same.
What makes the experience of that anonymous friend so noteworthy is that, by worrying if one bad album tarnishes a host of good albums (it doesn't), he calls in to question the notions of what a good and bad album actually are. Ultimately, much like beauty itself, those questions are left up to the individual person. It's really kind of incredible that so many people can reach a consensus on anything that has its merit called into question, let alone something so artistically inclined as a piece of music. And it is the minority that isn't part of that consensus that makes debating music or film so much fun, trying to figure out if The Conversation is Coppola's real masterwork or if Dylan's truly great run was in the mid-70s instead of the mid-60s. Sometimes it's nice to have what you believe is true to be called into question. That way, you can know for certain just how true what you believe actually is.
Sunday, July 26, 2009