Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #138: Blue Moon

Having listened to this song, I find it appropriate that Bob used his Nashville Skyline voice to sing this song, one of our most famous standards (many of you know the "bom bom bom ding a dang ding" doo-wop version, and of course there's Lady Day) and one of those tunes we've all probably heard at least once in our lives, whether we know it or not. Leaving aside the aesthetic issues of Dylan's sandpaper/grit regular voice vs Dylan's honeyed croon, we already have a whole album's worth of examples of Dylan's country voice wrapped around platitudes (of which Nashville Skyline has its share, even in the classics), and we know that for those platitudes the country voice works great. A song like "Blue Moon", then, which is saccharine in the way so many standards tend to be, would be a great fit for that particular voice.

It's almost disappointing, then, to hear the listless version of this song that crops up on Self Portrait; the drawbacks to Dylan's country voice (which I tend to enjoy in the right context) become more apparent when it seems like Dylan's downshifted to first gear. What comes off as relaxed and casual for something like "I Threw It All Away", a song that bears the hallmarks of concerted effort, instead sounds lazy and dispirited in this environment. The band behind him gives a very loose, minimal backing - even the backup singers sound like they'd rather be doing or singing something else. About the only interesting aspect of the song is the fiddle that occasionally crops up. I'm not saying that I was expecting Holiday's or the gorgeous version by The Mavericks (let alone the Marcels' doo-wop version, which is so late 50's-early 60's that you should only be allowed to listen to it on a transistor radio), but...well, I guess I don't know what I was expecting. Getting your hopes up for this album is really an exercise in futility.

That isn't to say, though, that taking a stab at "Blue Moon" was a wrong decision. I would assume that nearly every Dylan fan has had at least one discussion about the merits or lack thereof concerning Dylan's singing voice (I know I have), and at a certain point the pointlessness of the exercise makes you want to beat your head against a wall. I mean, we're all well aware that that sort of thing is entirely a matter of personal preference; besides, I happen to enjoy the way that Dylan sings, I believe that he has a technique and a delivery that accentuates his songs in a way that they'd be negatively affected if he'd sung them differently, and I think he does interesting things that a more classically trained or physically gifted singer might not dream of being able to do. And I especially say this with the country voice in mind; it's the closest Dylan got to what most people consider a more palatable singing voice, and sometimes I wonder what would've happened if he'd decided to develop that voice more and take his career in a different direction.

As I mentioned before, one of the perks of having a career like Dylan has had is that, at this point, Dylan has the creative freedom to do just about whatever the hell he'd ever want to do. To borrow Marcus' phrase, "in mythical terms, he doesn't have to do good, because he's done good". Marcus threw that out there because he believed that to be wrong (and in a certain sense, I agree), but that was in the midst of Dylan running away from his audience in 1970, with the scars of one of our nation's most crucial periods still fresh and with a nation turning its lonely eyes to him in the absence of Joe DiMaggio. With the full weight of his career now more or less settled (aside from his more recent albums, of course - I still think we're a few years off from seeing where Together Through Life or even Love and Theft sit in the canon), it can be reasonably stated that Dylan has done enough good that his need to do further good is more or less exhausted. If he wanted to record a death metal album, or a screamo album, or a Christmas album (wait, what?), he's entirely free to do so. As I'd also said before, he could've recorded this album this year and its reputation would probably be a lot different.

Which is basically my way of saying that if there was one avenue of the many roads this album went down I'd have liked to see Bob develop further, an album of standards probably would've been my choice. As we all know, when it comes to a standard, the arrangement and the passion you bring to it make all the difference in the world. Dylan's always had more or less his pick of crack supporting musicians, and I don't doubt that he has enough feeling towards these types of songs that he would've given them the requisite emotion to really make them take off. Unfortunately, we'll never know for sure what it would've sounded like back then (I dunno why, but I'm not quite as gung-ho for Bob doing an album of standards today, if that makes sense); the only real bases we have to go on are on this album, and they pretty much stink. But, if nothing else, it's always educational to remember that for all the twists and turns in Bob's career, there were a million other potentials twists and turns that never had the seed to take place. That's part of what makes Bob's career so damn fun, wouldn't you say?

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Nick said...

Are you going to cover the album "dylan"? You know the one with the psychedelic rainbow Dylan profile? I actually liked a number of songs ( well, like two) from that album, especially "The ballad of Ira Hayes."
You mentioned an album of standards and this is a whole album of assorted covers. Even though it consists of studio warmups, it's kind of interesting. But since it wasn't put out with Dylan's approval I can see why you wouldn't cover it.
But still, his cover of Ira Hayes on that is pretty darn good.

Sean Keeley said...

Another great post! I discovered this blog recently and am backtracking to read all your previous reviews. You write with great clarity and insight, even managing to keep an album like Self Portrait interesting. As a Dylan addict and a somewhat lazy blogger, I am really impressed by your dedication to this project.

Someone Somewhere said...

Yes, this a very good post. I also think this is the first time I've read anyone writing about track from Self Portrait without mentioning the Elvis Sun version. Keep it up man (although I think you're well wrong about Love & Theft, I'd say the jury is in on that one: it's top shelf).

Kenneth Lobb said...

The latest news is Dylan IS recording a Christmas album! "Ya gotta love it." He is absolutely fearless.

Anonymous said...

The haunting beauty of Doug Kershaw's fiddle never fails to send shivers down my spine. Plus, Dylan uses the origianl guitar chords that are more complex and precise than the ones used in other cover versions of this song.


The latest news is Dylan IS recording a Christmas album! "Ya gotta love it." He is absolutely fearless. see my blog He is absolutely less.

Music of Bob Dylan said...

Hello there, Thank you for posting this analysis of a song from Bob Dylan's Music Box: http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/79/Blue-Moon Come and join us inside and listen to every song composed, recorded or performed by Bob Dylan, plus all the great covers streaming on YouTube, Spotify, Deezer and SoundCloud plus so much more... including this link.