New Morning (1970)
Dylan goes jazz-country! That’s how this album seems to me, and while that sounds like a horrible idea on paper, it works. This may be my favorite Dylan album. It’s not terribly deep or anything like that, but its happy and fun and sunshiny without being sappy. The optimist in me doesn’t come out all the time, but it is always there. That optimists loves this album. Also, it was the first album to really showcase Dylan’s piano, which I have always thought was his best instrument. The playing on this album by everyone involved is superb. It is also among Dylan’s most stylistically varied albums, and all the better for it. Supposedly this was originally intended as a hodge-podge of covers and songs Archibald MacLeish, a poet mostly known today for “Ars Poetica,” requested and then rejected for a play he was working on called Scratch. Luckily for us, Dylan had some more songs up his sleeve, and musically they are killer and feature his best lyrics since John Wesley Harding (I realize the time difference is only two and a half years, but still…).
Best song: Sign On the Window – There are so many options – good, legitimate options – for best song. “Day of the Locusts” (named after a Nathaniel West novel, but conflating the plagues in Exodus with Dylan collecting his honorary doctorate from Princeton with a paranoid David Crosby in tow), “New Morning” (among the best unironically happy tracks ever), and “Went to See the Gypsy” (about just missing out on a chance to chill with Elvis) are all strong contenders. In the end, though, I’m going with “Sign On the Window.” The piano playing is moving, the backup singers never overpower the song like they do on some of his other material, and the vocal textures are amazing. Just listen to the way he stretches the long e on “sleet.” It goes out and bumps briefly; it sounds like a sheet of untouched snow looks, and the slight crack is seeing just a touch of sleet, unsure of what it is or even if you saw it. The voice captures the idea of sleet perfectly.
Worst song: Winterlude – A pleasant enough country waltz, but it never really moves.
Best outtake: If Not For You – Although Harrison played quite a bit on various sessions for New Morning – including a session that yielded versions of both “Yesterday” and “Da Doo Ron Ron” – due to contractual restrictions, most of his work doesn’t show up on the album. This is the version of “If Not For You” he played on, perhaps to warm up for his concurrent sessions for All Things Must Pass, an album that included both this song and “I’d Have You Anytime,” the first song Dylan co-wrote with Harrison. The version that did make it to the album is the most well-known song on the album and has been a hit for many artists, including Olivia Newton-John’s breakthrough single.
Notable live version: On record, “If Dogs Run Free” is a fantastic flight of fancy, a whimsical blend of free form jazz and poetry. It should be cheesy, but isn’t. It sounds like it would be a train wreck in concert. It’s not. Dylan waited until 2000 to debut it, and retired it less than a year later. I caught him performing it in Topeka, one of its last performances, in early 2001. If someone in Dylan’s band could scat it would be every bit as engaging as the original.
Rhymes: perspiration/conversation; diploma/Dakota (1-2 from “Day of the Locusts”); California/warn ya; rain/Main Street/sleet (3-4 from “Sign On the Window”); deck/suspect (“One More Weekend”)
Images: “the benches were stained with tears and perspiration” (“Day of the Locusts”); “river of tears” (“Went to See the Gypsy”); “a symphony of two mules, trains and rain” (“If Dogs Run Free”); “groundhog runnin’ by the country stream” (“New Morning”); “concrete world full of souls” (“Three Angels”)
Axioms: “Time passes slowly when you’re lost in a dream” (“Time Passes Slowly”); “True love needs no company” (“If Dogs Run Free”); “Have a bunch of kids who call me Pa… that must be what it’s all about.” (“Sign On the Window”); “The man in me will hide sometimes to keep from being seen, but that’s just because he doesn’t want to turn into some machine” (“Man In Me”); “Does anyone even try?” (“Three Angels”)