Alex Ross

Alex Ross

A weeklong electronic journal.
Oct. 3 1997 3:30 AM

Alex Ross

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       Today I listened to nothing but the new Bob Dylan album, which arrived in the morning. It is as good as they say it is, probably better. To take a phrase from Charlie Rose, Dylan is the greatest living ... what? Rock singer? Yes, except that never in his recorded career has he really sung rock as such. A lot of his power comes from his threshold position between genres, his ability to move a few inches and sidle into one zone or another. And at those thresholds, he has protected himself from the dust, the mold, the slow corrosive drip that has dilapidated so much of the pop culture and counterculture that he helped build up. The best praise for him is solipsistic: He has remained himself. He is a true musical personality, as opposed to a show-business personality--he has melodic, harmonic, and formal signatures that underscore his 37-year career just as heavily as his celebrated wordplay.
       To sustain a career in popular music, one must be a serial Christ, able to stage multiple resurrections. Dylan has metaphorically died and come back more often than anyone. This past year, of course, he pulled off a bigger coup. In the spring, he was reported to be almost literally dead--hospitalized with an infection near the heart. By the end of the summer, he was touring again with giddy assurance (I saw him last month in Philadelphia) and presiding with a wary smile over the critical success of his new record. His brush with death has given a convenient narrative peg to critics wishing to explain the splendid darkness of Time Out of Mind, even though the album preceded the illness. The heart problem will inevitably take its place with that other semimythical, musically irrelevant crisis in Dylan history, the motorcycle accident of 1966. People seem to like to fantasize Dylan's death; the premature obituaries last spring showed a chilling desire for the man to be out of the way so the myth could take over completely.
       The public generally likes its rock stars young and dead. Failing that, it favors those who become quick-change artists, trying on the styles of each short epoch. Those who grow old, like the Rolling Stones, are permitted to become genial parodies of themselves. Dylan has refused this condescension toward survivors. He has certainly tried different styles, but his choices have tended to be more contrarian than of-the-moment--notably, his shift to country music at the height of psychedelia. He confounded even his most devoted fans in the '80s, but also dropped clear hints of where he could logically end up. His best song of the decade was "Blind Willie McTell," recorded for and then unaccountably omitted from Infidels. There he was singing about the great old blues singer and also becoming in the process a dusty-voiced, wizened-handsome, back-porch truth-teller himself. It took Dylan more than a decade to fulfill the promise of that song. Time Out of Mind is the long-awaited kicker--the first great rock album of old age. It buries rock's adolescent thuggery deep underground; it says that only the good grow old.
       A few first impressions of the album: Dylan's lyrics are not as finely chiseled as they once were. Sometimes he resorts to poppish formulas that fall painfully on the ear. But other rhymes outwit expectations in the old way ("I'm crossing the street to avoid a mangy dog/Talking to myself in a monologue"), and the refrains always have the proper old-blues spookiness ("it's not dark yet but it's getting there"). Daniel Lanois' airy production leans on a ghostly organ. The last song, "Highlands," is 16 minutes long and so transfixingly eerie that it seems to go by in half that time. It looks back to Dylan's early talking-blues fantasy narratives, like "World War III Blues" and "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream," except the pace is slower, the tone sadder, and the fantasy gone. The singer reports a long, weird conversation with a waitress in an empty Boston restaurant that could have been transcribed word for word. There's also a picture of Dylan listening to Neil Young with the volume turned up. This convulsive shift into the starkly real, into Dylan real time, makes one realize how often in the past he had subdued and sublimated his daily self for the sake of the songs. He was famed early on for his arrogance; now it's his generosity that amazes most.

Alex Ross is the music critic of The New Yorker and also a regular contributor to SLATE.