Thursday, September 17, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #149: Winterlude

Eyolf Ostrem, curator of the astoundingly awesome Dylanchords website, has a nice little line in reference to "Winterlude", where he says the song "has this corny, guy-on-the-sleeve-of-Nashville-Skyline-ish, country dude thing going on". That, honestly, about sums it up. So that's the end of the post. Good night, everybody!

Okay, fine. The reason I really enjoyed reading this line is that you can take the reference to Nashville Skyline as either a compliment or an insult, depending entirely on how you feel about that particular album and the songwriting metier Bob indulged himself in while recording it. As ten posts previous to this one should attest, I like Bob's style on that album just fine; there are many, I'm sure, that disagree. But for those on my side, it would seem somewhat strange to enjoy a song like "Tell Me That It Isn't True" and not go for something like "Winterlude", which almost seems to revel in its droll waltz-like tempo, its moon-June rhymes (but then, of course you'd want to rhyme "Winterlude" with "dude", am I right?) and its peaceful imagery of ice skating rinks and cozying up by the fireplace. I'd already written about the domestic tranquility that Bob brings to this album, and here he basically takes that tranquility to its logical extreme, painting a picture like the kinds that made Norman Rockwell a rich man. That, I'm sure, will put people off.

I will admit that I do find the song a little slight at times, what with some of the more saccharine-sweet imagery ("go down to the chapel, then come back and cook up a meal"? When do the neighborhood carolers come by?) and goofy rhymes ("darlin'" with "quarrelin'" - actually, that's not all THAT bad) kind of grate a little bit. I freely admit that I give songs like these a little bit more leeway, simply because I like the tone of the album so much, but I do have my limits, and "Winterlude" brushes right up to the edge of them. The song, really, works best as part of setting that tone, with its tempo reminiscent of "To Ramona", the gentle backup singing, and Dylan painting those pictures right out of the 1950s we all imagine but probably didn't really exist in that way. It would sound out of place on most any other albums Bob's put out (even Nashville Skyline, really), but it sits just fine here, and that's a good thing.

We all know, I'm sure, that quote Dylan said about his songwriting style, the bit about having to learn to do consciously what he used to do unconsciously; I'm sure I've even quoted it somewhere on this blog. I think about it now because, were that actually true, I can see this song as part of that process, a process that Bob embarked on more or less non-stop for the four years between his neck break and the recording of this album. In those years, Bob goes from the left-field Americana of The Basement Tapes, to the spare mystical folk of John Wesley Harding, to the straight-up country of Nashville Skyline, to the quasi-Western balladry of Self Portrait, and then finally to the jazziness of this album; that sort of stylistic ping-ponging suggests a man trying to get a handle on where his music ought to be, now that it can no longer return to where it used to be (as, of course, it hasn't returned to since). I've been guilty of penning a few bits of doggerel myself, and while nothing is nearly as good as even "Winterlude" is, in this song I see some of what I used to do as a songwriter, grasping for easy rhymes and already built-in emotional imagery, relying on four chords to carry the day, letting sentiment inform my lyrics in occasionally embarrassing ways. It's kind of endearing to think about that and then hear this song, quite frankly.

One of the reasons this album gets overlooked so often, I think, is that you can hear that casting about more on this album than any other pre-1974, even more so than Self Portrait. At least that album was just throwing all sorts of shit at the wall and seeing what sticks. Here, Bob knows what he's aiming for, he's got his arrangements down and the tone he wants for the album set...and there's something there nonetheless, something that can put people off if they're not in the mood to buy what Dylan's selling. It's funny to say about an album so gentle and unassuming, but it's really an album that needs to be played in a certain frame of mind, or else you're just not going to like it. I wouldn't even go as far to say that's an excuse to say to people that don't like the album no matter what; you can like what you like, obviously. But I find it funny that "Winterlude" shares at least one trait with Metallica's "One", a song that couldn't be more different musically - there's a time and place to listen to it, and if you ain't there, it's not gonna work.

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Anonymous said...

"Winterlude this dude thinks you fine" has always been one of my favorite Dylan rhymes.
I have read every one ofyour pieces on Bob so far and I hope you live forever!

Anonymous said...

This was the first waltz at our wedding 8 years ago.

And yes, this dude still thinks she's fine!

David George Freeman said...

Hello Tony, Thank you for posting this interesting analysis... Join us inside Bob Dylan's Music Box and Listen to Every Version of Every Song.