Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Dylan Album Project: Nashville Skyline

Nashville Skyline (1969)

For several albums in a row, Dylan had done nothing but grow as an artist. On Bringing It All Back Home, he went electric. On Highway 61 Revisited he shaped a hard-rock sound with a razor-sharp edge. On Blonde On Blonde he blurred that sound until its edges were soft fuzz and the vitriolic was suffused into strange riddles. In the basement with The Band he covered the Carter Family, wrote a slew of new stuff and laid the groundwork for Americana. With John Wesley Harding he made what he himself called the first Biblical rock album and what many critics called the first country rock album. With Nashville Skyline he just kind of took away the rock. After John Wesley Harding, many acts followed in Dylan’s footsteps – the Byrds released Sweetheart of the Rodeo just a few months later; Cash, whose career had been sidelined by drugs, had a hit with At Folsom Prison, which rocked for a country album – but Nashville Skyline rarely comes close to rocking. Lyrically, it is mostly filled with lovey-dovey sap. Dylan even cuts a verse from “Girl From the North Country,” sung here in a gorgeous duet with Cash, and sings it in a much brighter tone and in a major key, robbing it of the quality of heartache that so resonates in the version on Freewheelin’. A few of the songs are about love lost, and “I Threw It All Away” is my favorite song on the album most days because the vocal captures the sorrow, but the overdone country backing almost makes it too melodramatic. To me, this album is a pleasant enough listen, but it doesn’t hit me as particularly funny or smart or dramatic, which is how I want my Dylan to be. Just look at the rhymes, images and axioms. Nothing.

Best song: “I Threw It All Away” – Not sure what this one is about, but I am sure that it has one of Dylan’s prettiest vocals in conventional terms.

Worst song: “Peggy Day” – Silly. Just silly. And it takes the soul completely out of “out of sight.”

Best outtake: “Big River” – Charlie Daniels tears up the bass on this outtake from the Dylan/Cash session. The recorded enough to easily fill an album, but only two tracks saw the light of day: “Girl From the North Country” on Nashville Skyline and “One Too Many Mornings” on the Cash documentary A Man And His Music.

Notable live version: “Lay, Lady, Lay” – This song, written as the theme for Midnight Cowboy but finished too late to be included, is directed toward Dylan’s first wife, Sara, as a love song. It must have worked because people ate it up. It became the third most successful single of his career and his last top ten hit. By the time of this performance, taped for a TV special and corresponding live album called Hard Rain, their marriage had soured. It was their anniversary and she had shown up demanding that he sign divorce papers. As she stood fuming in the wings during a rainstorm, Dylan rewrote this song on the spot. The music’s gentleness is completely absent and the lyrics have being a monstrous ball of angst.

Rhymes: love/of (“To Be Alone With You”); mind/shine (“Lay, Lady, Lay”); heard/word (“Tell Me That It Isn’t True”); lime/plum (“Country Pie”); street/seat (“Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You”)

Images: “snowflakes storm” (“Girl from the North Country”); “big brass bed” (“Lay, Lady, Lay”); “dark and rolling sky” (“One More Night”); “the hogshead up on his toe” (“Country Pie”); “whistle blowin” (“Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You”)

Axioms: “Nighttime is the right time to be with the one you love” (“To Be Alone With You”); “His clothes are dirt’y but his hands are clean;” “You can have your cake and eat it too” (2-3 from “Lay, Lady, Lay”); Saddle me on a big white goose;” “Little Jack Horner’s got nothin’ on me” (4-5 from “Country Pie”)

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