Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Peak: Fever in the funk house, Pt. 9 - Desire

Or: How I fill up 2 GB

(Being the continuing alphabetical series of the contents of my iPod)

Album: Desire
Artist: Bob Dylan
Released: 1976

Track listing:
1. Hurricane
2. Isis
3. Mozambique
4. One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below)
5. Oh, Sister
6. Joey
7. Romance in Durango
8. Black Diamond Bay
9. Sara review:
If Blood on the Tracks was an unapologetically intimate affair, Desire is unwieldy and messy, the deliberate work of a collective. And while Bob Dylan directly addresses his crumbling relationship with his wife, Sara, on the final track, Desire is hardly as personal as its predecessor, finding Dylan returning to topical songwriting and folk tales for the core of the record. It's all over the map, as far as songwriting goes, and so is it musically, capturing Dylan at the beginning of the Rolling Thunder Revue era, which was more notable for its chaos than its music. And, so it's only fitting that Desire fits that description as well, as it careens between surging folk-rock, Mideastern dirges, skipping pop, and epic narratives. It's little surprise that Desire doesn't quite gel, yet it retains its own character — really, there's no other place where Dylan tried as many different styles, as many weird detours, as he does here. And, there's something to be said for its rambling, sprawling character, which has a charm of its own. Even so, the record would have been assisted by a more consistent set of songs; there are some masterpieces here, though: "Hurricane" is the best-known, but the effervescent "Mozambique" is Dylan at his breeziest, "Sara" at his most nakedly emotional, and "Isis" is one of his very best songs of the '70s, a hypnotic, contemporized spin on a classic fable. This may not add up to a masterpiece, but it does result in one of his most fascinating records of the '70s and '80s — more intriguing, lyrically and musically, than most of his latter-day affairs.

The second Dylan album on my iPod is one of the more unique recordings by arguably the greatest songwriter of the 20th century, since seven of the record’s nine tracks were co-written with theater director/songwriter/clinical psychologist Jacques Levy. The result is a collection of perhaps the most literal songs Dylan ever released. You won’t find much in the way of “smoked my eyelid and punched my cigarette” on this album; instead you get a handful of straight-ahead story songs that tell you exactly what they think. There’s no mystery or surrealism in “Hurricane” or “Joey” and anyone with the reading comprehension of a fourth grader can understand those songs for precisely what they are. Only “One More Cup of Coffee” and “Sara” were penned by Dylan alone, but those two don’t deviate much from the straightforward-ness of the Dylan/Levy numbers.

The other unique element of Desire is Scarlet Rivera, whose violin brings a haunting tone to every song in the album and adds more depth to the tunes that one would think a single instrument was capable of. The instant the violin appears in each track, things become exponentially darker, livelier, and altogether more interesting.

“Hurricane” is probably the best-known track on the album, and for good reason: here is Dylan pulling no punches, going after the man in a way that only he can, with enough fire, vitriol, and pure anger to break down prison walls. At times, Dylan ever foregoes the notions of rhythm, verse, and rhyme to make his points, and the effect is even more powerful.

Naturally, such incendiary statements as were made in “Hurricane” drew public ire (which, really, is the only way to gauge effectiveness; if you write a song like “Hurricane” and it doesn’t piss people off, you’ve probably failed). But in reading about Desire, it seems that “Joey” caught a lot of flack, too, for its rather flattering portrayal of mobster Joey Gallo. You can read the wikipedia write-up on Desire for more details, but the short version is that in “Joey” Dylan romanticized a rather un-romantic/un-sympathetic figure. Far from the wrongly-accused Rubin Carter of “Hurricane,” Gallo was, by all accounts, a pretty bad person.

(The interesting sidenote is that Dylan seems to have concocted his notion of Gallo via conversations with actor Jerry Orbach, who was supposedly a friend of the mobster.)

For me, the highlight of Desire is “Isis.” With its driving piano (played by Dylan himself), the adventure-based tale of a man trying to find himself after probably marrying too early almost instantly became one of my favorite Dylan songs. Checking in at almost seven minutes (6:58 to be exact), “Isis” follows the narrator on a long journey that eventually leads him back to his bride; upon his return, the two have one of the greatest conversations ever set to music.

To wit:

She said ‘where you been?’
I said ‘no place special.’
She said ‘you look different.’
I said ‘well, I guess.’
She said ‘you’ve been gone.’
I said ‘that’s only natural.’
She said ‘you gonna stay?’
I said ‘if you want me to, yes.'

Good stuff. The video below is a live performance of “Isis,” but I recommend checking out the studio version as well for its steady, determined flow.

Really, as has been the case with pretty much every album I’ve included in this series so far, I highly recommend seeking out Desire. It’s a must-listen for Dylan fans, to be sure, and I think its appeal reaches even beyond that large segment of the population.

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