It occurs to me, listening to this track, that I'd never really gotten into the whole late 60's-early 70's singer-songwriter deal. Gordon Lightfoot, James Taylor, John Denver - you got a couple good songs in there, but it was just never my cup of tea. And hearing Dylan's runthrough of "Early Morning Rain" doesn't exactly change my mind. The RS review has particularly harsh words for this particular track; references are made to the "mawkish" quality of the actual song, the "stiff-formed-vowel" vocal, and an extremely uninteresting and generic backing track. And I'm absolutely with them - calling this song "cookie-cutter" might be an insult to cookie cutters. Perhaps if the song wasn't so bleh (to quote Patton Oswalt, "feelin' kinda sorta") to begin with, some of the lesser qualities of the track could be overlooked. Sadly, that's not the case.
A couple of readers have suggested that Dylan was highlighting the music that he was into on this album (which I'm inclined to believe), offering up the cornucopia of covers as a way of saying "hey, this kind of music is what I liked then and like now, so this is just an homage". That's kind of nice in that a) it does seem like a cool thing for Dylan to do and b) it alleviates some of the blame for the fact that the album's so bland, but it does raise a few questions, especially when it comes to a track like this. Dylan has basically been considered the first singer-songwriter from the moment the term "singer-songwriter" came into existence, and it's pretty safe to say that guys like Taylor and Lightfoot would not have had the careers they did without Dylan pointing the way. So why, then, does Dylan feel the need to highlight a brand of music that is basically, well, his brand of music, only with all the edges buffed away to make mass consumption all the easier? Look, I have nothing against "Leaving on a Jet Plane" or "You've Got a Friend"; those are all fine songs for what they are. But it's entirely disappointing to hear Dylan, who relates to those songs the way The Godfather relates to, I dunno, Analyze This or something, try his hand at what basically amounts to a pale imitation of his best work. If you like this song, I don't know what to tell you. To me, it's one of the things that makes this album such a failure - a cover version with no reason to exist, performed in a way that gives it even less of a reason to exist.
(Author's note: You might want to stop reading here - the next three paragraphs get REAL thorny. Apologies in advance; believe me, I gave myself a headache writing this out. Hey, points for honesty, right?)
I found myself really puzzling over the section attached to this song - to me, it's one of the stranger bits of the review. We do have to remember that this album was made in a period of seclusion for Dylan, in which he seemed to have no interest in the outside world (although he almost certainly kept up with it; this is a bright guy, after all) and attempted to create art with no real bearing therein. This isn't impossible to do - Nick Drake's final album and Emily Dickinson spring to mind - but it is a lot harder if you don't have those bearings in the real world, with any particular idea of what's going on around you. The funny thing is that you don't really get too much of that in Dylan's Electric Trilogy; even an album like Blonde on Blonde was becoming far more insular as Dylan started to disappear into his own navel. To be honest, the only real reason people think of much of that music as being part of the revolutionary 60s was that it was released during the revolutionary 60s. I do believe that songs like "Subterranean Homesick Blues" and "Ballad of a Thin Man" owe something to the changing times, and that Dylan was just as much a creature of his era as vice versa. But Dylan gave up real social protest in 1964. The music that RS crowd revered was no "Only A Pawn In Their Game"; so much of it was invested with meaning it was probably never meant to have. Marcus suggests that music can only be made in times before and after revolution - so what do we make of Dylan's music, supposedly the benchmark of a musical (and, arguably, cultural) revolution?
It's the last sentence, though, that really sticks in my mind: "but in the midst of it all artists sometimes move in to recreate history. That takes ambition." Aside from the fact that the sentence is somewhat confusing (in the midst of what? Revolution? The pre-revolution decadence? The post-revolution deluge?), you have to ponder if that sort of artistic movement really does, indeed, take ambition. Unless I'm missing something, what Marcus is suggesting is that these artists will dip into the past during times of great cultural foment, both to remind us of what has been and to show us what might be (those who do not remember the past, etc., etc.), and that requires some doing. In that, then, I am inclined to agree with Marcus to a certain extent - if Ridley Scott's Alien, released during Reagan's second administration, really is an allegory of the Vietnam War, then that gives it extra layers and displays ambition. The flipside to this coin, though, is that recreating history can also breed a certain amount of laziness, the whole standing on the shoulder of giants deal. For every great piece of art that draws on history, there are any number of others that fail miserably.
I assume that the whole rigamarole is in regards to what Self Portrait is - essentially a pastoral album, one made up of covers, older folk songs, and more contemporary "light" music. Not only does it not make any effort to recreate history, it more or less sinks into history, tethered to a certain era as firmly as the Pet Rock or a high-top fade. You could argue that the revolution, in all its ill-defined glory, had ended by now, with the Silent Majority fully in charge, and with a counterculture grasping for leadership and for something to tell them "it's gonna be all right, maaaaan". And Self Portrait is most assuredly not that album. That had to have pissed Marcus et. al. off to no end. I assume I'll be returning to this point as these posts go on, but it's still going to remain as valid then as it is now. Great albums transcend their era, after all. When you've tied music inextricably to its release date, you suck a lot of life out of it. Self Portrait had its life sucked out from the very beginning.
Wednesday, July 29, 2009