Thursday, July 9, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #121: One More Night

"One More Night", like the other songs on this album (with the possible exception of "Girl of the North Country"), is the type of song that could have been recorded by any great country artist and would have sounded just fine. Note that I didn't say "any country artist" - there is enough poetry and rhythm in the way Dylan stitched the lyrics together to make it virtually impossible for some hack to write and perform the song the way Dylan did on Nashville Skyline. But the original point still stands; this is a song that paints a universal sentiment, more or less removing what we'd consider Dylan's own original voice from the equation. It's this removing of his voice that is usually the bane of contention when it comes to this album, where Dylan's usage of the occasional cliche and the more common impersonal phrase gives the album more distance than it should have, the equivalent of a great painting of some random landscape or a bowl of fruit or something. One wonders just how personal, say, "Gates of Eden" or "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream" actually were, but that's a whole other post.

Let's assume that Dylan wasn't recording this album purely for any financial/career-linked considerations, and that he was genuinely interested in following that thread he suggested at the end of John Wesley Harding to its logical conclusion and exploring a genre of music that legitimately interested him. The question, then, is one that's been puzzling for a full four decades: why did Dylan choose to completely hide his writing voice? Putting aside the thorny issue of what exactly that voice actually is, we can reasonably state that whatever that voice is, it isn't anywhere to be found on the nine songs with vocals found on this album. Did Dylan really believe that there was no way to record a country album with any sense of "authenticity" (whatever THAT means) or "legitimacy" without sticking strictly to songs of love and the absence thereof? Why not any songs about growing up poor or running from the law? He's made up those stories before - would anybody really have called him out if he penned a few ditties on those subjects? And, most of all, why has Dylan "dumbed down" his approach to lyricism, giving us an album that could very well have been written by one of the country artists I mentioned in the initial post for this album, rather than the Bob Dylan we know and love?

Roger Ebert, who has been keeping up a blog that suggests he may have missed his true vocation when he decided to become a film critic, has posted a couple entries related to the steaming pile that is the second Transformers movie and his evisceration of a review for that particular dud. The most recent entry is a spirited discussion about our current cultural divide, where the educated and intellectual are derided nonstop for being "elitist", "snobby", and so on. Although Ebert stops just short of saying this, he also advances the notion that the great majority of the general population is of average intelligence and below, and tends to confront those in the other part of the spectrum with fear and disgust. He's right about this, of course. He also challenges people to keep their minds open and curious, to seek out higher forms of entertainment, and to never simply settle for big explosions and cheap jokes about poop or doing it. He's right about this, as well.

But there's something of an undercurrent to this argument that I think deserves some discussion. I'm not talking about the insanely trite "it's just entertainment" excuse that people have been chucking at Ebert; if you are willing to settle for lowest common denominator in that which stimulates and entertains you, where else will you be willing to lower the bar? I'm talking about the idea that the masses do need to be entertained, and that occasionally they will not want to be entertained by something that shakes us to our very core and makes us question God or the meaning of life or what have you. For most people, life is hard. Life is a constant struggle of doing work you probably don't like, living in a relationship that isn't always perfect, maybe having kids that give you migraine after migraine. The vast majority of Americans deal with traffic jams and 401(k)s, with going to McDonald's because they're too tired to cook, and with paying insane bills just so they can TiVO some Food Network show and watch it on Saturday when they have an hour to spare. And, these days, most Americans are dealing with a painfully crippled economy still struggling for signs of recovery. These Americans are, I'm sad to say, just not going to be appeased by The Seventh Seal or, yes, even by Blonde on Blonde, and the odds are good they never will be. Do they not have a right to be entertained?

Look, I think Michael Bay peddles a particularly odious brand of filmic garbage (no wonder Ebert, a man who has dedicated his life to great films, hates that movie so much), most music people download for ringtones tends to suck big time, and a certain amount of artistic power has to be present in even the lowest forms of entertainment for that entertainment to have any merit at all. I also think that too much can be made of this. People sometimes just want to laugh, just want to hear music that makes them happy, and so on. We don't have to make too much out of those impulses. Now, if ALL they want to do is just laugh or just listen to happy music or whatever, there's a problem. But emotions don't always have to be deep or thought-provoking.

That brings me to Nashville Skyline, an album that has sold its fair share of copies and somehow managed to entertain despite not reaching the same dizzying intellectual heights that Blonde on Blonde has. People like this album just fine, without pondering why Dylan's used such a nondescript lyrical voice or why the album wanders between all of two separate themes. And that, to me, is okay. Dylan, in recording this album, didn't worry about any snobs-against-the-slobs cultural war or being taken to task by people who'd already grasped what "It's Alright, Ma" is all about and now feel almost let down by an album that doesn't force us to approach it with that much brainpower. He wrote a bunch of songs that sounded good to him, recorded an album that he wanted to record, and that is that. A piece of art that simple doesn't need to be twisted around like some kind of Rubik's Cube. We can let it just be what it is.

Author's note: for the readers of this post that come via Expecting Rain, please note that if you go to the main page, below this entry is an article I wrote yesterday about Michael Jackson and what might appear to be a tangential, but I think is quite interesting connection to our man Bob. I invite you all to read and comment.

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Rob said...

Arguably, this radical change of direction was a very UNoriginal and cliched move. BD going all gooey and loved-up just because he was starting on the "young family" chapter.

I'm sick of hearing about former hell-raisers and rebels who have suddenly morphed into caring dads - it's all sooo predictable.

Just offering another view, another shockingly conventional "side" of our dear leader.

J├╝rgen Kloss said...

There is this quote by Dylan that in these years he tried learn to do "consciously what I used to be able to do unconsciously". That means he had to start from the pit and learn songwriting anew.

What he did on Nashville Skyline was to try his hand at the genre of so-called "simple" love songs. He must have listened to and studied a lot of different music, not only country but also mainstream popular songs.

The lyrics of "Tell Me That It Isn't True" are for example derived from - but in no way as good as - an old Irving Berlin classic ("Say It Isn't So", 1932). "One More Night" is simply a finger exercise in writing that would make every songwriter of the older generation cringe (Berlin or someone like Johnny Mercer would have been ashamed of these kind of dummy lyrics).

Reinaldo Garcia said...

I may be paraphrasing Flaubert wrongly, but I believe he said something about the artist being like God, "everywhere and nowhere in the work of art." Dylan's usual self-referential persona disappears in this collection.

I think Dylan was paying homage to the artists who (and a genre which) inspired him when he was young. Instead of doing an album of covers (that would be next), he wrote his versions of them. He's always experimented with masks and poses. This was his country squire period.

Music of Bob Dylan said...

Hello Tony, Thank you for posting this interesting analysis of a song composed by Bob Dylan. Join us inside his Music Box and listen to every version of every song composed or performed by Bob Dylan.