I'm going to be completely honest - I'd wanted to spend a chunk of this post talking about how Wes Anderson used "Wigwam", a goofy instrumental that sounds like Bob recorded it after a night of tequila and cigars, to surprisingly emotional effect in his masterpiece The Royal Tenenbaums. However, two separate things stopped me from doing so. The first is seemingly obvious - with time running out on this album, there's much bigger fish to fry in terms of stuff to talk about, and it might not be prudent for me to take up valuable real estate talking about how much I like that film. The other reason, equally obvious, is that I could very well talk about the topic of movies and music linking together not too long from now, in a more appropriate setting (no points for guessing what that future post might be). So, with that in mind, I'll have to think of something else to say here.
What I do think bears mentioning is that this song is pretty hard not to like - I mean, granted, it's kinda dumb and kinda wacky (not in a good way) and is just about the worst possible (or maybe best possible?) "centerpiece" for this album. On the other hand, it doesn't try to be anything that it's not, and basically acts as the musical equivalent of extending a warm handshake with a big smile on your face. That sort of refreshing directness is the sort of thing you don't get in Dylan's career in general, and only in fits and starts on this album in particular, and is a welcome sound as the album finally winds its way to its end (it's over 60 minutes, you know; think of that!). And the horn section, managing both to be a grand brass arrangement and a remarkable parody of a grand brass arrangement, is the sort of musical touch that you easily wish Dylan had made more use of throughout this album. The best thing that I can say about this song is that it probably sounds best if you're outside on your porch, cooler full of beer on ice, staring at a really gorgeous sunset. That's a pretty darn good thing to say about a song, don't you think?
Now, then. The RS review, having winded its way through all sorts of crap, saves its two most interesting topics for last. The first topic, labeled "vocation as a vocation" (I always figured at least one of those was a "vacation"; it's hard to believe that it's not), discusses the prospect of Dylan having a calling and the consequences of if he decides to live up to it or not. That vocation, of course, is being a writer and performer of music, but Marcus has chosen to mix that in with a possible new vocation, as seen through the kaleidoscope of this album - Dylan as keeper of the spirit of our country. Marcus suggests, not without reason, that Dylan may have been reaching for it on this album, with its odd collection of folk songs, country music, blues, and Dylan's own particular brand of American music (filtered through his own country phase, country music being one of the most truly American forms of music that exist). But thanks to the overall half-assedness of the whole enterprise, Dylan displaying both considerable ambition and the lack of ability or desire to take that ambition to its natural conclusion, an opportunity has slipped both through his and our fingers. Instead, we're left with a man that (quoting Marcus - maybe my favorite and surely the most interesting bit of this review) is "hardly a prophet, merely a man with good vision".
It bears asking what, exactly, is wrong with having that good vision; it surely beats having no vision and not even seeing the zeitgeist, let alone having any part of shaping it. Where I think Marcus does have a point, though, is that you can hear the makings of something very special on this album, only to be tamped down by sugary sweetness and general lack of any spark. I find myself yet again having to assuage the readers of this blog that I don't hate Self Portrait, not nearly as much as I constantly find myself bored and disappointed by it. But it's only thinking about this idea of Dylan finding a calling for himself as a keeper of the red/white/blue flame that I actually, just a teeny tiny bit, find myself resenting Bob for recording this album. It's surely not Dylan's responsibility to BE that keeper of the flame, of course...and yet you hear some of the blues stuff that works, the left-field cinematic grandeur of "All The Tired Horses", the remarkable takes of "Copper Kettle" and "Living The Blues", and all the ways that Dylan showed he knew his shit w/r/t music before he was ever given a radio show to prove it, and, well, I don't know. You can make too much of anything if you want to, but if you don't make too much of anything, there's no point in caring about anything, now is there?
The funny thing is that, as he reaches the twilight of his career, Dylan has become that very keeper of the American flame Marcus had hoped he could be way back in 1970. Ever since the recording of those mid-90s folk albums, Dylan has taken just about every opportunity to integrate as many strains of the music he's loved his whole life into his albums, from the white-hot rumble of "Rollin' & Tumblin'" to the shimmy and shake of "If You Ever Go To Houston" to the almost indescribably gorgeous Apocalyptic vision of "High Water (For Charley Patton)", a four-minute tour of Bob's blues record collection scored to that amazing banjo track. And somehow, nearing his eighth decade, Dylan has managed to become even more an American figure than he ever has, shrouding himself in the past and eluding any attempt to understand what he's on about. Maybe all Dylan needed to reach that vocation was just a little more time. Either way, you can put together enough tracks from the last twenty-odd years to create that Western Marcus had seen Dylan nearly writing with Self Portrait. And that Western would be every bit the equal of The Wild Bunch, that is for certain.
Thursday, September 3, 2009