Sunday, July 12, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #122: Tell Me That It Isn't True

Author's note: My original post was accidentally deleted, so I'm more or less stitching this together from memory. With any luck, it's better than the original.

One of the more gratifying aspects of Dylan's career, so diverse and full of albums that sound remarkably different from each other, is that any number of his albums can grab your attention for long periods of time and not let go until you've fully exhausted the joys of that particular song cycle. While this type of obsessive listening can lend itself to adverse results (for a while I'd pegged Desire as Dylan's best album, whereas today I don't even consider it the best representation of that era in Dylan's career), on the whole that sort of nonstop listening can prove to be truly rewarding. As you might expect, I bring this up because I spent the first week or two after my first time hearing Nashville Skyline cueing it up again and again, pulled in by its hit-and-run brevity (one can make too much of this, but let's face it - this album is great at 27 minutes and would be interminable at 54), the catchy tunes, and that (in)famous croon. How can it not be such a weird standout, especially if you start with the Electric Trilogy or BOTT like just about everyone else?

A song that caught my attention from the first time was this one, "Tell Me That It Isn't True", a song that I still enjoy to this day. It has one of the best intros on the album, a gently rising guitar line backed up by some really nice organ work (the organ playing throughout is a real standout on the album, understated yet always well-deployed). Some of the best lyrics of the album can be found here, with Dylan's narrator quietly pleading for his woman to affirm that the rumors of her infidelity are false and that she really is faithful to him. And the band arrangement, gently adding emphasis to Dylan's singing (mainly aided, again, by that organ), is as good as it gets here. For an album that boasts a strong internal consistency as one of its strengths, in that the songs all suggest each other without sounding like each other (if that makes sense), this is one of the songs that helps hold that consistency in place. It's not a stone cold classic like "Lay Lady Lay", but it's well worth the listen.

It occurs to me, as the Nashville Skyline series winds down, that one of the main talking points of this album is also one of the most ultimately irrelevant. I'm talking, of course, about Dylan's voice on this album, the high-pitched singing style he'd adopted for these ten (well, nine) songs alone and would only adopt once more, for his shambolic joke of a cover of Paul Simon's "The Boxer". It's always been debated as to where that voice came from - be it a side-effect of quitting smoking, or a conscious reverting to his singing voice from 1960, or whatever it is. But I think that concentrating on where the voice came from kind of obscures the main question - why that voice came to be. I touched on this earlier, but that question seems to have an obvious answer, as well as an important one. I'll put it like this - imagine a song like "Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?", with its vicious barbs towards some poor fictional (?) woman, and imagine it in the smooth Nashville Skyline voice. Now take "Tell Me That It Isn't True" and try to hear it in Dylan's sandpaper and grit snarl from Highway 61 Revisited. It just doesn't sound right, does it? Just as the lyrical styles are so very different - if "Tell Me That It Isn't True" had been written in 1965, the woman's infidelity would not even be a question - the voices Dylan used to sing those lyrics matches so very well. You want rough edges for 1965 Dylan's poetic slings and arrows, and you want baby skin-smooth sounds to match 1969 Dylan's charming, folksy words.

For an album that, lyrically, appears to have no preconceptions or hidden motives, it also shows a remarkable amount of self-awareness on Bob's part. He knew perfectly well that nobody would accept the Dylan that sneered his way through "Positively Fourth Street" singing songs about laying in a big brass bed or throwing his suitcase out the window. And he also knew that his regular voice had no antecedent in country music's already-rich history to that point, and any country fans that picked up this album would be instantly turned off if they heard "I Threw It All Away" in even the less-rough vocalizing found on John Wesley Harding. So Bob reached into his bag of tricks, pulled out a vocal style that he'd either never or very rarely tried before, and used it to his absolute advantage. It is that singing style that stands as the absolute hallmark of this album, and that is because the singing style works so very well. Kudos to Dylan for taking that chance, and making it work for him.

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8 comments:

T.R. Hatherington said...

Looks like just as Nashville Skyline was an aberration in Dylan's career, so too has it been with your blog. Mixed up tracklisting, special Michael Jackson reports, deleted entries...you're keeping us on our toes Tony

Tony said...

Mixed up tracklisting, special Michael Jackson reports, deleted entries...you're keeping us on our toes Tony

...but in a good way, right?

T.R. Hatherington said...

Of course!

peter b. said...

good reporting on one of my favorite dylan albums

Anonymous said...

Wow thanks for rewriting this, it really sucks when that happens

JP said...

Well, i think he used the same crooner voice in other songs of SP (ex: Living The Blues, Let It Be Me) and DYLAN (ex: Spanish Is The Loving Tongue)

Gus said...

He used a similar vocal style on the basement tapes version of "Spanish is the loving tongue" a good year or 2 before, which casts doubt (if there wasn't enough already) on quitting smokes being the reason for his new voice. Anyway, appreciate your work Tony, always fun to read.

David George Freeman said...

Hello there Tony, Thank you for posting this interesting article. If you would like to listen to every version of every song then come inside Bob Dylan's Music Box http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/625/Tell-Me-That-It-Isn't-True and enjoy all the music.