Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Dylan's 'Nashville Skyline' breezy and pleasant...but mysterious

Bob looks happy.

Bob Dylan's Nashville Skyline has always fascinated me because of the context in which it was released in 1969. From 1965-67, Dylan released four albums that are undeniably great. Bringing It All Back HomeHighway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde are unlike anything ever created in music history. Full of impressionistic poetry and raucous rock and roll, the three broke new ground in unfathomable ways.

After that came John Wesley Harding and it was a departure. Coming after his much-chronicled motorcycle wreck and an extended break, the record was acoustic and quieter. It still contained strong poetry, but it hinted at new directions. This was especially true on the album's final two songs, 'Down Along the Cove' and 'I'll Be Your Baby Tonight.' Dripping with Pete Drake's sweet steel guitar, both songs are warm and seem light years away from 1965.

Then came Nashville Skyline. If the final two songs of John Wesley Harding hinted at a departure then Nashville Skyline took it further. It was a mainstream country album, and the song's lyrics reflected a simpler and more straightforward approach. There were no magic swirling ships to be found. Dylan had re-invented himself again.

The album has three indisputably great songs. 'Lay Lady Lay' may be the greatest love song in pop music history. Incredibly, Dylan's vocals are warm and seductive and Kenny Buttrey's drum work is fantastic.'Tonight, I'll Be Staying Here With You' is equally penetrating and Drake's steel guitar playing during the instrumental break is shimmering. It is one of many great songs in Dylan's catalogue that does not get the attention it deserves. 'Girl from the North Country' is his famous duet with Johnny Cash and is as charming as a summer day is long.

The rest of the album is far less meaty. This does not mean the songs are bad. In fact, there is not a bad song on the album. However, some are so lightweight they might float away with a gentle wind.

As stated earlier, my primary fascination with this album has to do with the context in which it was released.It came on the heels of four profound efforts. As the release date for Nashville Skyline approached, it had to have produced intense anticipation. After getting through the Dylan/Cash duet that opens the album, I can only guess at the reaction of the pseudo-intellectuals who love nothing more than to imagine interpretations of Dylan songs that aren't there.

After that opening song, there is the instrumental 'Nashville Skyline Rag.' It is a breezy and well-performed song, but after listening to a minute or two of it, I am sure many thought: What is this doing on a Bob Dylan album? With many of Nashville's best playing on it, the level of musicianship cannot be denied. However, it appears more suited for a soundtrack of a film about jaunting through the back roads of Tennessee than a Dylan album.

Based on what I understand about the country music scene in 1969, the songs 'I Threw It All Away,' 'One More Night,' and 'Tell Me That It Isn't True' are all songs that could have been played on country radio. The songs are all about the ups and downs of love.

The song 'Country Pie' appears to be about pie. Who doesn't like pie?

As with most actions taken by Dylan, a person cannot help but wonder why he released the album when he did. Surely, he understood the impact it would have on those riding on his bandwagon.

After all the triumphs of the previous years, had he simply developed writer's block? Or did he finally become fed up with all those trying to anoint him as the ‘spokesman’ of his generation? His next album, Self Portrait, might cause one to decide that the answer to both those questions is 'yes.' It was weaker and even more of a departure than Nashville Skyline.

We can speculate endlessly about these questions and others, but the bottom line is we do not know. And it really does not matter. Because of this, we should accept Nashville Skyline for what it is. It really has a happy vibe to it, and because of this, it deserves a spot in your collection.

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