Saturday, August 8, 2009

Better as a Single: "Blonde on Blonde" by Bob Dylan

In the introduction to this blog, I condemn the lazy critical platitude “It would have been better as a single album” while, ultimately, agreeing with it. I think that this critically-worshipped album is an example. I have to presume that its double-album status has helped raise its critical reception from ‘excellent’ to ‘exalted’, but I’m not at all convinced that the added running time has really added much to Blonde on Blonde. Had Columbia refused to make it a double, Dylan would surely have just stripped some of the songs off, to become cherished ‘cutting-room floor’ mementos in later years, like “She’s Your Lover Now”, recorded during the sessions and superior to most of what made the cut. Blonde on Blonde has many great, amazing moments. But the added running time really just waters those down, leaving an album that is ultimately a less satisfying listen than, say, Highway 61 Revisited.

I can’t say much about the rapturous critical reception this album enjoys. No best-of list is complete without it and, at the risk of killing sacred cows, I don’t understand why. I can think of so very many albums I prefer to the (admittedly excellent) album we’re looking at here. And I defy anyone to listen to “Pledging My Time”, “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” and “Fourth Time Around” on repeat for half an hour and then tell me they’re listening to popular music at its rarest and best.

Even though Blonde on Blonde has a shorter per-disc running-time than most Dylan albums, my one-disc version features precisely 7 in 14 songs: half the album. But in fact, it’s rather more than half the album as, atypically for me, I include all three of the albums seven-minutes-plus epics. Here is the tracklist of my single-disc take:

Blonde on Blonde

Side one
  1. I Want You (3:07)
  2. Most Likely You Go Your Way (and I’ll Go Mine) (3:30)
  3. Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again (7:05)
  4. Visions of Johanna (7:33)
Side two
  1. One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later) (4:54)
  2. Just Like a Woman (4:52)
  3. Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands (11:23)
Rainy Day Women Nos. 12 & 35: lose

Being perhaps the album’s best-known and maybe best-loved song, it might seem perverse beyond degree to ditch this song. The facts, though, are as follows: what I like about this song is the brass band and the rather genuine ‘stoned party’ atmosphere. I accede that it’s an arresting opening track and, to a degree, ‘statement of purpose’. Unfortunately, ultimately I think that’s about all I like about this one-joke novelty song. Yes, it went to #2 on the charts, but “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” actually went to #1, and that doesn’t stop it from being an annoying novelty. My main problem with “Rainy Day Women” is that it’s lyrically nothing more than a single joke (Whoah! ‘Stoned’ has two meanings!) over uncertain instrumentation (are those the worst drums ever to grace a Top 5 hit?). Ultimately a silly drunken chant, it appeals to people who don’t really like music very much. This album has too much more to offer. Still, the brass is nice.

Pledging My Time: lose

Bob Dylan has rather famously praised the ‘wild mercury sound’ of this album. The first 100 times I listened, I had no idea what he was talking about. I think that’s because if you ignore “Rainy Day Women” as a novelty, this is your first taste of Blonde on Blonde. And it’s a horrible-sounding song, with some of the most annoying harmonica I’ve ever heard. Those who worship at the altar of this album rate this song highly, but I swear I can’t see why. The blandest of twelve-bars, boring lyrics, and, oh, did I mention that harmonica? Rather comically, this was the b-side of “Rainy Day Women”, making for one of the least pleasant seven inches Bob’s ever put out.

Visions of Johanna: keep (side one, track four)

Blonde on Blonde’s biggest fans will salivate at the mere mention of this song. Yet for the first time on the album so far, they are absolutely correct to do so. “Visions of Johanna” is the kind of song that Bob Dylan was created to write. With a beautiful, slow-building dynamic, this song carries on at its own pace, painting a picture as evocative as it is ultimately abstract. Sure, there are characters, events, a handful of those infamous Dylan aphorisms – but I think the song works better if you avoid literal interpretation and take it as a mood picture of rueful disappointment and loss.

I programmed this song to finish off the first side due to its similar feel to “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”. I wanted each side to end on a note of poetic mid-tempo, especially after the relative bounciness of the rest of my side one.

One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later): keep (side two, track one)

Perhaps Dylan’s most unknown a-side, “One of Us Must Know” was the commercial flop that “Rainy Day Woman” by right should have been. Swimming with that ‘wild mercury sound’ despite being the only BoB song not recorded in Nashville, this song has an amazing structure of rises and falls, led (as all great Dylan songs must be) by an organ line. Dylan sings the song beautifully, with force and with regret. In many ways, “Idiot Wind” from Blood on the Tracks is a continuation of this song, with the same mood of bitter regret and analysis of a love gone cold. Even the melody is similar. But this first time treatment has a specialness that is all its own, all the more so for being such a forgotten song.

I start the rather moody side two with this song, which is more morose than sluggish. Side two presents three different takes on relationships with women, and this is perhaps the most spiteful of them.

I Want You: keep (side one, track one)

If only radio could always be like this. This song is, in its own way, the most perfect pop song Dylan has ever recorded. Lighter in tone than such classics as “Like a Rolling Stone”, “I Want You” is amazing for sacrificing none of its depth or ‘poetry’ to the more radio-friendly mood. This song has it both ways: subtle, sophisticated and fascinating lyrics (that supposedly stab at Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones) over a joyous, breezy melody that sounds great on a beach or a barbecue or wherever true ‘pop music’ is required. No one in the mid-1960s was able to do this as well as Dylan. Perhaps the relative simplicity of the chorus has denied this song the ‘classic’ status it deserves, since by rights it should be a mainstay of ‘classic rock’ radio stations, and it isn’t quite that.

I open the entire collection with this song. I think it’s at least as good a ‘statement of purpose’ and, of course, a much superior song. It sets a standard for the album with its rush of energy and unashamed poetry. And it’s exciting as hell.

Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again: keep (side one, track three)

I wasn’t entirely sure whether this song would make the cut. Dylan loved it enough to put it on his erratic but rewarding Greatest Hits, Volume II, despite its ‘extreme’ length, and to later put out a live version as the a-side of a single. Ultimately, it’s clearly good fun but clearly a pile of meaningless nonsense too. The question, then, is: ‘does this matter?’ John Lennon, sore from being dissed on BoB perhaps, was critical of this song for its ultimate meaninglessness. It’s my guess that people would find meaninglessness something to scorn since, in 1966 at a peak, people were so obsessed with analysing every word out of Dylan’s mouth for ‘hidden meaning’. It’s only now that so many years have passed and we don’t expect cryptic life-lessons from every Dylan song that we can appreciate this as a wild fairground-ride of enjoyable gibberish with great organ backing. It does perhaps go on too long, but then again that’s the point. You get the sense that Dylan could have made this song 20 minutes long, or written 20 others exactly like it, if he so chose. Maybe we should see “Memphis Blues Again” as a symbol of restraint.

Ultimately, it made the cut, as the ‘centre point’ of side A. Two seven-minute monstrosities back to back might seem silly, but this song is so different in tone to “Visions of Johanna” that ultimately length is all they have in common, and the contrast is nice. 

Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat: lose

Why are all the twelve-bars on this album so damned weedy? And after the horrible harmonica on “Pledging My Time”, why the horrible guitar here? Yes yes, Robbie Robertson is the genius everyone sees him as. But the guitar here hurts my teeth. This was a single too, and it has many people who praise it. But I get bored before this song even ends. It sounds like any old improvised blues song, has nothing to say, and outwears its welcome even at less than four minutes. Maybe I just don’t like electric blues…

Just Like a Woman: keep (side two, track two)

First of all… Okay, yes, this song does seem to stereotype women in a less than flattering light. It is, in other words, sexist. For an awful lot of people, that alone is enough to dismiss this song.
However, there is a lot of ‘however’ here. First of all, this is probably the most classically gorgeous composition Dylan has ever made. For someone as guilty as Dylan is of ignoring structure for feeling and for borrowing folk melodies instead of writing his own, this song is a particular gem. No one can listen to this song and say Dylan is not a first-class composer. The feel of this song is amazing: gentle, lyrical, graceful. Dylan sings it beautifully, and it is that rare song whose middle eight actually increases the value of the song. In fact, the stretch from middle eight through final verse through conclusion is completely fabulous: emotionally devastating, gorgeous, entirely beautiful. It’s a real pity that the platitude ‘just like a woman’ has rendered this song of questionable political correctness and, thus, prevented it from achieving the fame it deserves.

I’m not sure that the penultimate position is necessarily the best place for this song. But I think it works well in the company it keeps: Dylan let it conclude the first record, but required it to follow the terrible “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat”. Here, I think it’d like its bedfellows better.

Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine: keep (side one, track two)

Oh my. Side three. My biggest case against Blonde on Blonde’s mythical status is the fact that fully one-quarter of the disc is filled with middling songs that no-one’s ever heard and no-one feels too strongly one way or another about. Honestly, has anyone ever gone to a Dylan concert hoping he’ll break out “Obviously 5 Believers”? Side 3 is always a danger with double-albums, and this one is certainly no exception. But this overly-long-titled song has more going for it than the rest of the side. One of the better twelve-bars here, it is much that “Rainy Day Women” isn’t. Brass instruments show up in a fun but non-intrusive way, the whole song rides a good groove, and it has great drumming. It’s great fun and simple without being simplistic. Plus it’s one of the few songs on Blonde on Blonde that are relatively unknown but deserve to be known better.

I think it’s the brass that makes me see this as kin to “Rainy Day Women”, and I think that’s why I want to front-load the song. After “I Want You”, I think it makes a great one-two punch of high-energy pop.

Temporary Like Achilles: lose

See, I really don’t have a natural antipathy toward all twelve-bars. I actually like this song, in a passing, nondescript forgettable way. Try singing it from memory, I dare you. There is so little that makes it stand out that you’ll be left with “which song was that?” Best to remember it as ‘That one that sounds exactly like “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry”’. If I could have fit one more song onto my single album, it would be this one. Still, no huge loss.

Absolutely Sweet Marie: lose

Side three writ large: not bad, not memorable either. Exactly the kind of song that makes singles into doubles. Good organ, good energy. Little else. A lot of people like this song, including George Harrison, who performed it at BobFest (where John Mellencamp, incidentally, did “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat”). But it’s ultimately an empty experience, I’d say.

Fourth Time Around: lose

In my opinion, the single best case against deifying Blonde on Blonde. Famously, this song is a parody of the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” (apparently this has never actually been verified, but it couldn’t be more obvious, I think). As parodies go, it’s relatively deft, evoking the song without copying it and using absurdity to send up the original’s perhaps overwrought ‘poetic’ lyrics. But a parody is ultimately an empty experience, seems a bit like sour grapes (“Norwegian Wood” is a very good song), and outlasts its welcome. Okay, so Dylan didn’t like that Beatles song much, and took it as a copy of Dylan’s style. Does it take four and a half minutes to say that?

Obviously 5 Believers: lose

I defy anyone to find anything at all to say about this song. Okay, I’ll give it a try: neat little harmonica riff. That’s all. Coming at the end of a string of nondescript songs and with one of those “bet you forget which is which” obscure titles Dylan fancied at the time (Hey! An adverb!), it is classic “I need a few more songs to make this a double!” material.

Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands: keep (side two, track three)

Wow, with the ‘side three of underwhelming songs’ and the ‘really long song taking up all of side four’, Dylan had a grip on the dynamics of the double album before it had even really been invented. Minds were apparently blown in 1966 by the idea of a side-long song: minds who perhaps did not have stopwatches, since “Sad-Eyed Lady” is not actually a huge monster of a song: the previous album, Highway 61 Revisited, had a song of equal length sharing a space with three other songs on its side two. Really it’s just an excessively short side (making the whole second disc barely 33 minutes and only a few minutes longer than a single side of Desire). But whatever. It’s beautiful. Way too long, of course, but it sets a mood and just rides that mood. It’s another set-piece. All that matters, really, is “this is a love-song to my new wife”, and Dylan’s love songs are better when mysterious than when sardonic. It goes on and on and on, but the added time just gives more of a chance to soak in the atmosphere (even with the shameful hatchet job most Columbia CDs gave it, cutting off the better part of a minute).

No surprise where I put this song. It couldn’t be anything but an album-closer. As it is on the double, so it is on the single.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

History of the Double Album

The very word ‘album’ goes back to the early days of vinyl, when 78 rpm records were capable of holding little more than about four minutes per side and so, when documenting longer musical productions, had to be collected as groups of four or more records inserted in a book-like package that resembled, say, a photograph album. Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads is one of the more well-known examples of this kind of release.

The ‘album’ itself, then, has its origins with multi-disc sets. But by the 1960s, when the album started to be appreciated within the rock world as a medium of its own as opposed to a collection of singles, an album was very clearly a single 12” record running at 33 and a third revolutions per minute, clocking in at somewhere between thirty and forty-five minutes and containing 12-14 songs in the UK, 10-12 songs in the US. That was the medium that came to dominate rock music toward the middle of the decade: the medium on which an artist could expand his creativity as far as it could take him. By the end of the 60s, thanks to Frank Zappa and Bob Dylan, even that was not enough, as artists took to proclaiming the depths of their muses by doubling the length of their statements of creativity. Thus the birth of that most magnificent and most heinous of things: the double album.

The 1970s were, among other things, a decade of excesses. As rock became a big business, concerts filled stadiums, tours travelled continents, and the largeness of the spectacle simply had to be documented on vinyl. The glut of multi-disc sets in the 1970s was in many cases merely records of so-and-so’s latest crowd-filled live sets: documents of hubris. What interests us, the studio double, also existed, much the way that those initial releases at the end of the sixties did: as a display of the artist’s uncontrollable, unstoppable creative flow.

The 1980s saw the birth of the Compact Disc, a medium whose maximum length of 74 minutes (slowly, somehow, expanded to 80 minutes over the following decade) was allegedly decided in order to accommodate Beethoven’s 9th symphony but also served the purpose of approximating the typical length of a double-album (give or take a few minutes: some early 2LP, 1CD combos had songs shortened or removed to squeeze onto the single CD). Somewhere around 1990 or so, the CD’s playing time became the industry’s norm, so that 75 or so minutes, once a rare expression of an artist’s creativity, became de rigueur album length. This lead, of course, to the monstrosity of the double CD, an unparalleled exercise in hubris that would run two and a half hours or so. By the end of the 1990s, the rap world in particular was swamped with these padded monstrosities.

By now, of course, the ‘album’ as a whole is really dying, and as we enter the world of non-physical media, it’s tough to know just what, if anything, a ‘double album’ would represent (unless it’s something like the very strange album I am… Sasha Fierce by BeyoncĂ©, which puts a single album’s worth of material onto two CDs for no reason I can comprehend). Thus, most of the releases we’ll be looking at will be, how do you say, old. What can I do? I discuss a dying medium…