Saturday, April 21, 2012

Bob Dylan Song #175: You're A Big Girl Now

Author's note: When I said my posting would be more sporadic, this wasn't quite what I had in mind. Let's see if I still know how to do this...

There are still Dylan fans, I'm sure, that still think the all-acoustic New York version of Blood on the Tracks is superior to the released version that everybody knows, and if you asked them why, it would be a song like "You're a Big Girl Now". To New York faithfuls, the Minneapolis version, with its sparse and tasteful arrangement (the acoustic guitar work is a particular standout), manages to serve as a fine song without quite capturing the raw hurt of the New York version, which sounds more like a demo than anything else (maybe not on the level of one of the Bob-and-guitar-only tracks where you can hear the coat buttons scraping the back of his guitar, but close), and benefits all the more for it, like how Nebraska probably would've suffered if Springsteen had given it the full-E Street Band experience. And that rawness is the best way to hear Blood on the Tracks - nearly everything that could undercut Dylan's anger and pain stripped away, leaving us with the greatest bedside confessional album ever recorded. The official album, then, is the Hollywood version (not the Hollywood version supposedly in the works, thankfully), just enough angst sanded away to make the album palatable for the folks back home.

I've never subscribed to that theory, and not just because I greatly prefer hearing fleshed-out band arrangements to Bob and his guitar (not always, but very much so for this album). The main reason I think the released version is so perfect and the New York version is, well, not, is because the released version does not lack for raw hurt, but does not make that the album's focus. My ever-present blog companion Eyolf Olstrem, in  his essay on the album for Dylanchords, sums that feeling up perfectly: " have 10 songs, all quite slow, mostly staying in the emotional range between sadness and bitterness". An album like that can simply wear you out without anything to take you out of that emotional low (even the aforementioned Nebraska, for all its darkness and death, contains "Atlantic City", surely one of the last century's great love songs); there must be a matching high, or at least a low that doesn't feel so low, to keep us from wanting to jump off a bridge. And that's what the released version gives us - epic canvases, sharp pain, wistful nostalgia, bitter insults, and through all of it a weird sense of optimism - that maybe, just maybe, the next album Bob records about a woman won't be so darn sad.

Which brings us back to "You're A Big Girl Now", my sneaky favorite of this album (that's for long-time readers of this blog), and one of the album's strongest compositions. To me, that sparse and tasteful arrangement helps open the song up, releasing some of the acid of the New York original, and offering something more complicated and mature in its stead. That third verse, in particular, captures everything that makes this album so remarkable in six tremendous lines, running the gamut from a longing reminiscing ("what a shame that all we had can't last") to the most heartbreaking thing Dylan ever wrote in his life ("I can change, I swear"), to a sudden and swift turn of the screw that lets out some of that bile ("see what you can do" - at least, that's how I always heard it, as a defiant re-establishing of his emotional armor after letting his guard down for once), ending with a plea for his ex to hopefully get through the heartache, as he has (or says he has). Everything you could ask for out of this kind of album is there - rage, sadness, acceptance, even a sliver of hope for the future.

In an odd way, this song also serves as a throwback to the younger, acoustic-era Dylan, the one that was still writing songs as emotionally bare as "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right", without sacrificing the more poetic imagery of something like "Girl of the North Country" or "Boots of Spanish Leather". This is Bob as direct as he'll ever get, going directly for the jugular with his corkscrew metaphor, even invoking the "other man's bed" scenario of "Mama, You Been On My Mind" (only this time, instead of the sighing acceptance of the latter, Dylan offers that thought with an accusatory sneer, even while saying "well, that's how it has to be, I guess" - an emotional complexity as rich as "Mama"'s was), while also imagining himself as a songbird offering his tune for his former lover. You can feel the ties that this song has to Dylan's former broken-heart classics, while also feeling like that decade in between gave him an added maturity necessary to write something like this - I truly believe that 70s Dylan could've written "Tomorrow is a Long Time", while younger Dylan never could have written this. And that's one of the great thrills of listening to your favorite artist - hearing that maturity in his singing and songwriting voice, the accrual of time shaping and melding his words into something that is recognizably the voice of Bob Dylan, while also serving as one of the many voices of Bob Dylan. Read more!

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