Sunday, 22 December 2019

Bob Dylan - The Renaissance (1997-2012)



An ageing Bob Dylan produced some of his best work for a long time in this, the final creative period of his career. It ended, possibly underwhelmingly, with cover versions of standard easy listening ballads.

The albums covered here are:-

Time Out Of Mind (1997)
Love And Theft (2001)
Modern Times (2006)
Together Through Life (2009)
Christmas In The Heart (2009)
Tempest (2012)
and Shadows In The Night (2015)

Scroll down to read the reviews chronologically.

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TIME OUT OF MIND (1997)

1. Love Sick
2. Dirt Road Blues
3. Standing In The Doorway
4. Million Miles
5. Trying To Get To Heaven
6. Till I Fell In Love With You
7. Not Dark Yet
8. Cold Irons Bound
9. Make You Feel My Love
10. Can't Wait
11. Highlands                  

This is one of Bob Dylan's darkest albums. He had not released an album of new material in seven years, and 1990's Under The Red Sky contained largely good-time pieces of bluesy fun. Here, we have a Dylan accepting and expressing awareness of his own mortality. He again uses Oh Mercy producer Daniel Lanois, who is a producer with a liking for a deep, sombre sound. This production seems to fit with Dylan's often reflective, deep lyrics. However, it has a bit of an intransigent feel to it. It doesn't breathe much. Critically, however, it was an album that had many purring and reclaiming Dylan as their Messiah after a long sojourn. The washed-out old has-been was now the wise old sage.
              
The tracks seem to follow a slow track/upbeat blues track pattern. The reflective, shuffling Love Sick is followed by the lively Dirt Road Blues and then we get the walking pace, dead slow, mournful Standing In The Doorway, which sounds like Dylan is about to give up on it all. "I can hear the church bells ringing in the yard, I wonder who they're ringing for...". He sounds tired and old. Ironically, many of the albums he has produced in the wake of this one have found him in a much livelier frame of mind. Million Miles is a mysterious-sounding, swampy blues, with an addictive bass sound and a convincing, croaky Dylan vocal. It was on this album that we saw that gruff old man's vocal appear that would dominate all his albums post this one. There was a different perception of Bob Dylan after this album. He was now credible again.

  

Trying To Get To Heaven is an update on Knocking' On Heaven's Door and is a moving, melodic slow burner with tones of the Oh Mercy material about it. "I'm trying to get to Heaven before they close the door..." sings a sad-sounding Dylan. It is a most evocative, emotional track. Time for some more blues in the grinding, insistent Till I Fell In Love With You. Juxtaposing the yearning, sad songs with the more bluesy, upbeat ones is a good idea. Not Dark Yet is the album's finest track, for me. A deeply moving, dignified song reflecting Dylan's feelings upon ageing. "It's not dark yet, but it's getting there...". As I write, twenty-one years later, Bob Dylan is still here. When he wrote that song, he was four years younger than I am now.


Cold Irons Bound is an electric, rocking blues full of intense atmosphere. Make You Feel My Love is now well known to many due its being covered by Adele. Dylan's original is a beautiful haunting love song and seems destined to be a much-covered classic. It does, however, sit somewhat incongruously with the rest of the album's material. Can't Wait has an appealing guitar underpinning its slow rhythm. The final track is the longest track ever recorded by Dylan, the sixteen minute Highlands. It is a slow, regular paced song with a reflective mood to it. It just keeps going. There is no real story to it, though, unlike some of Dylan's other longer songs. Despite its length, I don't tire of it as it goes on its way, possibly because it is absolutely jam-packed with memorable couplets.

This album proved to be a real turning point into the final creative phase of Dylan's career. Strangely enough, despite its strong reputation among critics, it is not an album I return to as much as I do others. That doesn't mean it lacks quality, though. Far from it.

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LOVE AND THEFT (2001)

1. Tweedle Dee And Tweedle Dum
2. Mississippi
3. Summer Days
4. Bye And Bye
5. Lonesome Day Blues
6. Floater (Too Much To Ask)
7. High Water
8. Moonlight
9. Honest With Me
10. Po' Boy
11. Cry A While
12. Sugar Baby  

This is a Bob Dylan album packed full of nostalgic Americana - it is folky, bluesy, cajun, swampy, country, rockabilly. All of those things make for a nice gumbo of an album, very much influenced by a Louisiana Southernness, more so than on any other Dylan album. It is also part of the HDCD remaster series so the sound is top notch.
                                           
Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum attracted much derision upon release many expressing incredulity that the man who wrote Desolation Row or Like A Rolling Stone could have lowered himself so far down as to write a song with such a title. The title is an easy target, however. The song is a lively, rollicking almost rockabilly romp, with some beguiling lyrics and Dylan's croaky voice rising above the rapid, shuffling beat. It has real instant, catchy appeal to it. Just forget the title.

Mississippi sees the great ageing genius applying his now stately growl to a beautiful, slow-paced and emotive number. I love this one. Dylan's voice is just so appealing here and the song is both sad and uplifting, simultaneously.

  

Summer Days is just an upbeat, toe-tapping joyful delight. Nobody can fail to enjoy this. Dylan sounds as if he is positively enjoying himself, his singing matching the guitar-picking, frantic rockabilly, Cajun-ish beat throughout. He packs words into the music - "what do you mean you can't of course you can..." he crams into a split second, effortlessly.

Bye And Bye is a slow-paced fetching song, with and air of 1920s-1930s sleepiness about it. It is a song from days gone by, sung by a man who by now is already starting to seem ageless. The messiah has become Methuselah.

Despite the relaxing, pleasant nature of a lot of the songs, Dylan still finds time for some acerbic, wry, cutting lyrics. Any tenderness, and there is lots of it, is often tempered by a dark gallows humour  and a constant awareness of mortality.

Lonesome Day Blues is a magnificent, chugging blues rock number, with a repeated guitar-driven blues riff and the usual blues thing of repeating the first two verses of each stanza. "Settin' my dial on my radioI wish my mother was still alive..." Dylan suddenly emotively announces at the end of one of the verses. You believe him too. There are so many other wonderful couplets throughout the song - "he's not a gentleman at all, he's rotten to the core, he's a coward and he steals..." he spits out, Idiot Wind-style. Great stuff.


Floater (Too Much To Ask) is a country-style, fiddle and steel guitar number which has Dylan declaring "I'm in love with my second cousin, I tell myself could be happy forever with her..." possibly taking the backwoods thing a bit too far! Again, the song is packed full of wonderful lyrical images. The period coincided with Dylan starting to present radio shows full of Americana recordings, so the direction on this album was no surprise.

High Water is a banjo-led ominously prescient tale of a flood, several years before Hurricane Katrina. It is a dark song, with dark images and a sonorously portentous vocal from Dylan.

Moonlight sounds like one of those "Great American Songbook" crooners that Dylan now records. It is a slow country ballad, with a delicious slide guitar and a lively vocal.

It is back to the blues with the powerful, rhythmic Honest With Me, more wonderful, exhilarating fare. I know a lot of people feel that 1997's Time Out Of Mind was Dylan's finest later-era album. Personally, I prefer this one.

Po' Boy is another swampy, bluesy country-style romp and Cry A While is a copper-bottomed, grinding blues. Sugar Baby is a walking-pace, slow and mournful closer to what is a most enjoyable, highly-recommended album. "These bootleggers, they make pretty good stuff.." croaks Bob. So do, you old man, so do you.

Aside - strangely, Dylan looks considerably older on the back cover as on the front.

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MODERN TIMES (2006)

1. Thunder On The Mountain
2. Spirit On The Water
3. Rollin' And Tumblin'
4. When The Deal Goes Down
5. Someday Baby
6. Workingman's Blues
7. Beyond The Horizon
8. Nettie Moore
9. The Levee's Gonna Break
10. Ain't Talkin'        

Five years after the delicious, Americana-influenced Love And Theft, Bob Dylan gave us pretty much more of the same with this uplifting, often exhilarating album, which had a real ad hoc, almost live feel to it. His band were on top form and they just got on with it, or it certainly seemed like it, listening to its loose, ready groove. Apparently, several lines in some of the songs were ones that had appeared earlier in old blues songs, sparking a bit of controversy. You know what? I don't care. I didn't care when Led Zeppelin did it and I don't care when Dylan does it. He is influenced by these songs so he goes somewhat jackdaw-like when writing new ones. I guess he should have credited the original writers of those lines, but I'm not going to lose any sleep over it. Dylan loves Americana and he uses it wherever he can to enhance his songs. That is what he is all about in this later phase of his career. The whole album has hints of songs and artists all over it.
                                  
Thunder On The Mountain is a lively, appealing bluesy rocker with a namecheck for Alicia Keys, who Dylan was thinking about, apparently. There is some excellent rocking blues guitar on the track and just a great vibe to it. It just gets you going. Spirit On The Water sounds like it is straight off Love And Theft, with that laid-back, swampy, jazzy guitar and shuffling, appealing beat. Dylan softly croaks away and it just sounds so reassuring and comforting, even. Rollin' And Tumblin' is an upbeat, Muddy Waters-influenced rocking blues of the style we have come to expect from Dylan now, particularly since Time Out Of Mind. I really like these later-era Dylan albums - they are invigorating, enthusiastically played and just most enjoyable. When The Deal Goes Down is a slow, yearning song with Dylan actually crooning, a style he would come to utilise in later years when he covered that sort of material. This is more a piece of old time, bluesy slow swinging jazz.

   

Someday Baby recycles that old six note blues riff that Dylan and many, many other artists have used before - Muddy WatersSleepy John Estes (originally) and The Allman Brothers Band, to name just a few. Now, the mighty Workingman's Blues is up there in my top ten Dylan songs of all times - it is a slow-burning, sad-sounding song, jam-packed with great lines and Dylan's voice just makes me feel tearful when I hear it on this song. I can't express just how much I love it."Sleep is like a temporary death..." is just one of the lines that really does it for me.


Beyond The Horizon is another old-time crooning, shuffling jazzy slowie with some lovely jazz guitar at the end. Nettie Moore is a re-working of an old nineteenth-century folk ballad. It is performed here over a thumping, funereal drum backing as Dylan's grizzled old voice delivers the tale of his devotion to Nettie Moore despite his struggle and strife. A sombre violin backs him as he launches into the growled chorus. "The world has gone berserk - too much paperwork..." he tells us. Indeed.

The Levee's Gonna Break is a lively blues romp with some killer rockabilly guitar, throbbing bass and Dylan on enthusiastic vocal form. Finally, Ain't Talkin' is a solemn, extended number to end upon. It is reflective, thoughtful and dignified. As with all the post-Time Out Of Mind albums, this has been an impressive outing.

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TOGETHER THROUGH LIFE (2009)

1. Beyond Here Lies Nothing
2. Life Is Hard
3. My Wife's Home Town
4. If You Ever Go To Houston
5. Forgetful Heart
6. Jolene
7. This Dream Of You
8. Shake Shake Mama
9. I Feel A Change Comin' On
10. It's All Good         

This is a blues rock album from Bob Dylan, played straight and without frills by a tight as a gnat's chuff band and by a Dylan sounding lively and committed. It was, apparently, recorded very quickly, but therein lies its appeal. It sounds almost "live" and is all the better for it. Dylan collaborated on the songwriting with The Grateful Dead's Robert Hunter, with whom he had written a couple of good songs on 1988's Down In The Groove
                                       
Beyond Here Lies Nothing is a harmonica, bass, guitar and rums-driven industrial chugging blues with some great instrumental breaks and Dylan's croaky old voice strangely powerful and charismatic. Dylan's pre-occupation with "Americana" music from the pre-rock'n'roll days (something begun strongly in "Time Out Of Mind and Love And Theft is exemplified in the slow, folky, croony ballad Life Is Hard.

My Wife's Home Town is a very stark, bluesy number in the style of which continued on the next album, Tempest"Hell's my Wife's home town..." sings a cynical, world-weary Dylan over a classic four-note blues riff. If You Ever Go To Houston is another one sung over a repeated riff, this time played on an accordion (or something similar). This is an album very much rooted in the past, in both musical and lyrical history, speaking of an almost mythical American past, a seemingly forever stuck in the 1950s sort of groove.

  

Forgetful Heart starts with lots of hissy, crackling noise in the background, as if it were an old blues record. Dylan's ageing but strangely comforting voice suits the slow grinding melody down to the ground. There is some great scratchy guitar on here. Jolene is not the Dolly Parton number, but another copper-bottomed blues with some seriously top notch guitar riffery. This album cooks, big time. This Dream Of You has Dylan going all Tex-Mex, complete with accordion and yearning lovelorn Latin vocal. It is a quite endearing, most enjoyable song.


A lot of people didn't seem to like this album, as they didn't like Tempest either. They don't seem to like an old man continuing his career singing bluesy songs based in style on a time long gone by, yet they also seem to want him to come out with stuff that matched his material from forty-five years previous to the recording of this album. Not going to happen. A blues like Shake Shake Mama would have been perfectly acceptable on Blonde On Blonde, given the "wild mercury" treatment, so why not accept it here, with its down 'n' dirty guitar sound and gruff vocal. None of these artists can re-create their genius from their twenties - not Dylan, Springsteen, Morrison, Costello, The Stones, McCartney, Elton John, Paul Simon - any of them. It does not mean what they do in later years is not worthy of attention, in my opinion. I really like this album.

I Feel A Change Coming On again has some essential accordion, some searing guitar and yet another wise-sounding Dylan vocal about "reading James Joyce...". He was always good for a literary name-drop, like Van MorrisonIt's All Good sings a wry Dylan above another classic, often used blues riff on the energetic, shuffling closer. It has all been good, Bob. All of it.

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CHRISTMAS IN THE HEART (2009)

1. Here Comes Santa Claus
2. Do You Hear What I Hear?
3. Winter Wonderland
4. Hark The Herald Angels Sing
5. I'll Be Home For Christmas
6. Little Drummer Boy
7. The Christmas Blues
8. Adeste Fideles (Oh Come All Ye Faithful)
9. Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas
10. Must Be Santa
11. Silver Bells
12. The First Noel
13. Christmas Island
14. The Christmas Song
15. O Little Town Of Bethlehem                         
I really don't know what to make of this album. Parts of it are quirkily appealing, such as Adeste Fideles (Oh Come All Ye Faithful) and Hark The Herald Angels Sing, which has Dylan croaking his way through two favourite carols of mine. The First Noel is a nice one too. Be warned, though, his voice is desperately wheezy throughout and these recordings will certainly not appeal to the Michael Bublé/Rod Stewart Christmas album marketOh Little Town Of Bethlehem is not quite so good, Dylan just about making it to the end. The carols are generally ok, though. For me, where the thing falls down is on execrable slices of Christmas cheese like Here Comes Santa Claus and Must Be Santa. I find these pretty much unlistenable, like a drunken old Grandad doing a turn in the lounge on Christmas day.

Look, I know Dylan is clearly having a good time doing this and if he wants to do it, fair enough, he has every right to do so and it remains a genuine oddity of a Christmas album.

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TEMPEST (2012)

1. Duquesne Whistle
2. Soon After Midnight
3. Narrow Way
4. Long And Wasted Years
5. Pay In Blood
6. Scarlet Town
7. Early Roman Kings
8. Tin Angel
9. Tempest
10. Roll On John           

Like most of Bob Dylan’s “later period” albums - Time Out Of MindLove And TheftModern Times and Together Through LifeTempest is very much and album chock full of Americana - folky blues, railroad blues, country, folk, rockabilly and bluegrass influences and the usual perplexing lyrics often dark, sometimes mournful, mischievous and disarmingly tender at times. Basically, it is 21st century Bob Dylan.

Something that is constant with these five albums is that Dylan seems to have found musicians he is happy with, whom he can go into a studio with, and quickly thrash out this music, played to an extremely high standard. He draws, like he does in his “Radio Hour” show, on the American folk music of his youth and constructs songs in that style but played to contemporary standards.
I am certainly no Dylanologist, so I do not spend hours poring over his lyrics trying to decipher Biblical or Shakespearean oblique references, neither do I hail every album he contemporarily puts out as a “return to form”. I listen to it, and I decide whether I like the sound of it or not. It is that simple. I don’t compare it to Blonde On Blonde or Blood On The Tracks. I just take it at face value. It sounds like a good album of songs to me.

                       
Duquesne Whistle is an infectious, slightly rockabilly, lively country-style opener. It has a captivating “brush” drum sound and Dylan’s old man’s throaty voice is so vibrant, so vivid. It gives great gravitas to the song, like an old bluesman would. It also has that rubber band, jazzy bass sound. I love this track. The sound quality on this, and all the tracks, is excellent and the band are top notch, as always.

Soon After Midnight is a gentle, reflective, almost walking beat sad ballad with a steel guitar quietly sounding away in the background. Narrow Way has an archetypal blues harmonica repetitive rhythm that stays at the same pace throughout while Dylan confidently delivers his words of warning. “Even Death has washed its hands of you”, bemoans Dylan, portentously. Only Dylan comes up with this sort of stuff, even now. “I got a heavy stacked woman, with a smile on her face…”.

Long And Wasted Years has another constant musical refrain, a melodious tune and another excellent vocal. Pay In Blood  has Dylan railing and growling about paying in blood, but not his own, over a truly gorgeous bass line. “I’ll give you justice…” croaks an angry Dylan. He sounds as if he means it.

Scarlet Town is a slow burning, solid piece of country rock, with a slow banjo accompaniment.  Early Roman Kings revisits that “da-dah da-dah” repeated harmonica riff again, and Dylan’s lyrics are a stream of invective. “I ain’t dead yet….my bell still rings…I keep my fingers crossed… like the early Roman Kings….”. There is some really dark, “house of death” imagery on this one, it is full of it. Dylan cuts a frustrated, world-weary figure as indeed he does on the somnolent, chugging Tin Angel. Insistent and potent, this is one of my favourite songs on the album.

Tempest, the fourteen minute song about the sinking of The Titanic has been derided by many. I don’t really understand why. Myself, I love these long Dylan narratives - Lily, Rosemary & The Jack Of HeartsJoeyBrownsville Girl - they are superb story songs and nobody tells them better than Dylan. Tempest is my favourite song on the album. It is full to the brim with marvellous characterisation, narrative and imagery. Nobody does this sort of thing better than Dylan. If people don’t like this, then what attracted them to Bob Dylan in the first place?

The John Lennon tribute, Roll On John, is also very evocative and atmospheric and displays a real sensitivity and tenderness towards Lennon. It is almost surprising to hear Dylan so personal in his tribute.

So, there you go. No real analysis or gushing “return to form” stuff. I enjoy this album every time I listen to it, and that is good enough for me.



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SHADOWS IN THE NIGHT (2015)

1. I'm A Fool To Want You
2. The Night We Called It A Day
3. Stay With Me
4. Autumn Leaves
5. Why Try To Change Me Now
6. Some Enchanted Evening
7. Full Moon And Empty Arms
8. Where Are You?
9. What'll I Do
10. That Lucky Old Sun                   

Bob Dylan has always liked a cover version, even from way back in his folk days (his first album was full of them). He has always liked to dip into what Van Morrison would call "the days before rock 'n' roll" and the "Americana" from the fifties, and sometimes from even earlier - the Delta blues standards, of course and nineteenth-century folk songs.  Here, he covers songs sung by Frank Sinatra. These are not "big band", It Had To be YouNew York, New York songs, however. They are "torch" style songs from Sinatra's "dark of the night" period from the late fifties - songs intended to be played in the dark of night after an evening hitting the saloon bars, alone, your girl having gone God knows where, with God knows who.

  

It is not, in any way, like the more common Sinatra covers album that TV stars put out for the Christmas market. It is a sombre, highly evocative, atmospheric collection of sad, reflective songs. They suit Dylan's croaky, ageing voice perfectly. Yes, Sinatra purists will say that they do not want to hear anyone sing these songs but Sinatra, and, in many ways, I can understand that, but, as a Dylan aficionado, I can derive considerable pleasure from this. Yes, this was the artist who defined the change from when artists covered other people's songs to writing their own songs, and, of course, he is possibly the greatest lyricist popular music has ever known, but, as I said before, he always likes a cover. He respects music that has gone before. He wanted to do this album, and he does it well.






















My personal highlights are The Night We Called It A DayAutumn Leaves, the heartbreaking Where Are You and That Lucky Old Sun. The backing on the album is understated and sparse, subtle enough to concentrate on the lyrics, as indeed the originals were. As mentioned earlier, these were not big band-backed songs. I find this an ideal late evening album. I have the Sinatra albums too, but sometimes I like to play this. I do feel, however, that the subsequent albums of "Great American Songbook" crooners were a couple of steps too far from Dylan.

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