On June 8th, 1970, Self Portrait was released to a disbelieving, astounded, and even totally pissed off listening audience. On July 23rd, just over six weeks later, the infamous Rolling Stone review of that album hit the newsstands. And, to the general surprise and almost relieved joy of said listening audience, on October 19th of that year New Morning began appearing on record store shelves. Just for the record, I'm certainly not in the camp that believes New Morning came out so soon to stem the critical beating Bob was taking in the wake of the disaster he'd just released (and I'm DEFINITELY not suggesting it had anything to do with the RS review - I may be crazy, but not that crazy), no matter how many people have suggested that that was the reason for the quick release. I find it more akin to when Radiohead released Kid A and Amnesiac, two stylistically similar albums, within eight months of each other. And it's not as though Bob had never done this before - maybe not within that short a time, but Dylan did release four acoustic albums basically within the span of two years, after all. It's just worth noting how short that time period was; the teapot-sized tempest surrounding Self Portrait didn't have any time to really get going before Dylan snuffed it out with an album that essentially serves as the Gallant to that anti-opus's Goofus.
In fact, the closest stylistic link to this album would in fact be the one that immediately precedes it - there is, after all, a preponderance of backup singers, mellow arrangements, and a laid-back feeling all throughout. However, we have two rather significant differences here, which help explain the latter album's enhanced reputation. The first, at least in my opinion, is that there's a jazzier feel to this album, the arrangements owing more to that particular free-form genre than to the blues, and parodoxically (at least, considering Dylan's blues knowledge, even at that young age) Dylan manages to do better with that style of music and this set of songs. The other difference, of course, is that there are better songs here. Funny how that works, no?
It says a great deal about the puckish nature of our man Bob that he would devote a chapter of the first (and, one can only hope, not last) volume of his own autobiography series to this album, one that has its share of cult follower appeal but is by no means a major work in his catalog, over any number of more famous masterpieces in his career. It also says a great deal that the actual telling of the circumstances of the album, with some of the songs being written for a musical that Bob would end up quitting after a few months, is pretty damn interesting - then again, any information about the wilderness years, with Bob mentioning a certain number of people he'd like to stick in his own personal Room 101, would probably be of a great deal of interest. And then there's the contentious nature of the sessions, which took place as the world reacted with scorn and shock over Self Portrait, and Bob found himself in the uncomfortable position of having to follow (horrors!) a bad album, or at least a critically disliked album (or, in this case, both). Under the circumstances, with the pressure on and all sorts of people beating on his door, it seems entirely remarkable that Dylan was able to record at all, let alone record an album, a wealth of outtakes, and a treasure trove of cover versions that could very well have made a second (and maybe better) Self Portrait. And that resulting album is GOOD? My stars.
Now, just HOW good this album is, that's a topic of debate. There are those that consider it Bob's lost masterpiece, the classic nobody talks about but really should. There are those that think it's really not that great, and only benefits from a halo reputation based on not being That Album. And then there's just about everybody else, that thinks the album has its merits, its weak points, but in the end is certainly worth the 36 minutes it takes to spin from front to back. I happen to fall in that third class, as you'd probably expect, but leaning a bit more towards the first - songs like "One More Weekend" and "Sign on the Window" (ESPECIALLY "Sign on the Window" - if ever there was a song that needs the "The Man In Me" treatment, it's that one) give the album an extra edge when debating the second tier of Bob's great long players. And the best thing about the album, especially in the wake of his last album, is that it holds together marvelously; a unified set of good songs will almost always get the edge over a disjointed set with some classics and some stinkers. In the end, New Morning is an album that probably deserves a critical reappraisal, and I hope one day it gets it.
The last thing that should be mentioned about this album is that, in many ways, it closes the book on the initial era of Dylan's career. In the obvious sense, it's the last official Dylan album* for three years, a pretty darn long time in the context of his career (hell, Bob put out an album just over a year after he BROKE HIS NECK), and when Bob returned he was practically a classic rock artist, something that would dog him through Tour '74 and would only dissipate when he bucked that title with his absolute masterpiece and the most vital live work of his career. In a more theoretical sense, New Morning is where we stop thinking of Young Bob, the counter-cultural Voice of the Sixties, the Man of Myth and Legend. When Bob Dylan would finally re-emerge from his self-imposed "slumber", it would be as Older Bob, the Middle-Aged, Wiser Man of the Seventies, not as out-there as he used to be, but just as capable of creating amazing music. In a sense, it's like pre-retirement and post-retirement Michael Jordan - the amazing basketball player with the highlight-reel dunks and boundless athleticism replaced by a smarter player with less hop in his legs but a bottomless well of tricks and skills that put him on a level above everybody else. And, with that in mind, New Morning takes on an even more nostalgic quality, as the Bob Dylan the 60s knew and loved gracefully exited, stage left. The king is dead. Long live the king.
It should be noted, then, that we actually kick things off on New Morning with what might be considered something of an inauspicious start, with my personal "wait, this is considered a classic?" song, "If Not For You". This is not to say that I don't like "If Not For You" (we'll get to my complaints in a moment), just that I don't hold it in quite the same regard as, say, George Harrison did. As a way of getting into this song, one thing I didn't mention in the introduction is a second dichotomy that links this album with its predecessor, one that Greil Marcus mentioned in the RS review (mentions of that will be much rarer now, I can assure you). He refers, as you no doubt remember, to Self Portrait as "such a...friendly album", which was also no doubt supposed to be a bad thing. Given how well Dylan tends to do unfriendly, and given that the idea of Dylan with a smile on his face was still relatively unsettling at the time, maybe it was, who knows.
Well, here's the kicker - New Morning is easily as friendly, if not even more so, than Self Portrait could ever claim to be. Just take this very first song - from the bouncy, electric piano-laden, casual guitar lick driven arrangement, to those moon-June rhymes as Bob declares his undying love to some anonymous person (the "and you know it's true" is a particularly nice touch), you have a song that's almost impossible not to love. It's almost like Dylan's version of an adorable dog that you can't help but want to pet; it makes no other intimations than to be a nice, poppy little song, and to think of it as anything else would be entirely disingenuous. Trying to pick some sort of deeper meaning out of this song is both fruitless and besides the point. It's a fun song. Bob's certainly allowed his share.
Where my problems with the song lie, then, is in that very arrangement that Bob ended up using for the official version. This is obviously a matter of preference arising here, but I consider myself a much bigger fan of the take that made it onto the first Bootleg Series, with George Harrison riding shotgun. Taken at a slower tempo, with a nifty little slide guitar arrangement cropping up between the verses and Bob chiming in with some always-welcome harmonica, this particular version (which Harrison would end up utilizing for his own version of "If Not For You") gives the song a more laid-back feel, one that might not have worked quite as well in the context of the rest of the album, but one that suits the song far more than the bouncy, yet slightly jumpy official arrangement. Dylan, for whatever reason, ended up scrapping that take (perhaps it was never meant to see official release - maybe it was meant as guideline for Harrison's eventual version), and going with one that has its own merits but seems distinctly inferior. Ah well, that's just me.
Inauspicious start or no, I still believe that Dylan could not have chosen a better way to kick things off for this album than "If Not For You". Even with the simplistic lyrics, it's still miles ahead of anything on Self Portrait; it'd have to be pretty hard not to be an improvement in that department (although I'd argue "All The Tired Horses" is the better song...). But what's most important is that Bob established right off the bat that while he was still the Bob with a smile on his face (well, until "Day of the Locusts" turns that smile into a sneer), this was a Bob with a stronger focus behind that smile, one that was eager to remind us that he could still write songs with vitality, songs that had life to them. It's not the greatest possible return to form, but it is a return to form all the same, and a welcome one indeed.
*note: that rationale is why I'm going to leave the 1973 album Dylan be. It may be in print thanks to iTunes (those bastards!), but let's not forget that it was only released by Columbia Records as a big middle finger to the recently departed Bob, and I don't think that makes it worthy of this little project. My apologies to those hoping to read my thoughts on "Big Yellow Taxi".