Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Bob Dylan, the Lazy Rhyme, and the Sublime

Over at the Paste website, it's all Dylan, all day. The occasion is the release of Dylan's 33rd studio album, Together Through Life, which drops today. You'll find videos, a streaming version of the album, and scads of features, including a ranking of the 50 best Dylan covers. Here's my contribution to the festivities.


For the past seven hundred years, poets have been rhyming love with dove, moon with June, girl with curl, and boy with joy. Certain rhymes are so convenient and appropriate that their use had already become stale by the mid 1700s.
-- Stephen Fry, from The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within

That big fat moon is gonna shine like a spoon
We’re gonna let it
-- Bob Dylan, Poet of a Generation, “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight”

Sometimes Bob Dylan gets lazy. Or maybe he doesn’t. That’s the dilemma facing longtime Dylan fans as they cozy up to Together Through Life, the 33rd studio installment in the greatest, most confounding string of popular albums ever released. The Poet of a generation? More like three generations now, stretching back almost fifty years. This is a man who loves words, and whose words have inspired more words than any other songwriter. Academics write 500-page tomes on how the themes of sin and redemption have been reflected in his songs. Music critics pore over every cryptic reference, and dutifully note the allusions to Rimbaud and Blake. So what do we do with the fact that the greatest songwriter of the modern era actually farmed out most of the lyrics on his latest album to Grateful Dead scribe Robert Hunter? And what do we do with these, uh, less than poetic sentiments? Here’s Bob Dylan (and maybe Robert Hunter) on Together Through Life:

Shake, shake mama, shake it ‘til the break of day
I’m right here, baby, I’m not that far away.

Okay. We’ve been here before, and sure, twelve-bar blues aren’t exactly known for their literary heft. Still, there are all those song titles that portend a potential weightiness – “Life Is Hard,” “I Feel a Change Comin’ On,” “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’” – songs that seem to beg for the patented Dylan poetic approach, and which instead emerge with a seemingly all-too-clear meaning. Life sucks, but love makes it better. That’s all you’ve got, Bob?

But I’ve been here before, too; in that initial state of disappointment with a new Dylan release. Sometimes – as with Down in the Groove and Under the Red Sky – the disappointment never leaves. Dylan’s great, but he hasn’t been great every album. But other times I’ve simply had to wait. And that might be the case this time. I think about my initial reaction to “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” a song on John Wesley Harding in which the most gifted of wordsmiths had rhymed “moon” and “spoon.” It was a rhyme I had first encountered in the less-than-portentous work “Hey Diddle Diddle,” and I couldn’t believe Dylan had stooped so low. What sort of laziness was this? It wasn’t until years later that I bothered to listen to the following line – “we’re gonna let it” – and I began to understand. Let it all go, Dylan was saying. The important and the trivial, let it pass: I’ll be your baby tonight. And a line that had once seemed the epitome of the banal, the clich├ęd, took on a hint of the sublime.

And maybe that will happen again. After a few listens, Together Through Life sounds like a perfectly serviceable Dylan blues-rock album. Damn. Like everybody else, I had hoped for so much more. Still, I’m not ready to judge this one as a loss. Musically, it’s on par with the past few releases. Lyrically? It’s too soon to tell. Sometimes the moon shines brighter after you let the darkness settle in around you. I’m gonna let it.

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