New Morning

Bob Dylan

Columbia, 1970

http://www.bobdylan.com

REVIEW BY: Paul King

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 01/15/2008

New Morning was Bob Dylan’s eleventh studio album and his first to feature original material since 1969’s Nashville Skyline. Released hot on the heels of Dylan’s ill-conceived and universally derided album of cover versions, Self Portrait, this album was seen at the time as an indication of Dylan’s return as a creative force. Although it’s undoubtedly a step in the right direction, hindsight has shown that New Morning didn’t exactly herald a career renaissance as monumental as 1975’s Blood On The Tracks did. Still, on the surface of it, the album certainly sounds like a return of the Dylan of old. Gone is the soft country crooning style that he had adopted since Nashville Skyline, and in its place is the more familiar nasal whine that people either love or hate.

Perhaps the most obvious problem with this disc is its lack of any truly arresting songwriting moments. Even Nashville Skyline, bland as it was, contained the classic track “Lay Lady Lay,” which prevented it from being a truly mediocre Dylan album. Unfortunately, there’s nothing on here of that song’s calibre, let alone anything strong enough to rival the likes of “The Times They Are A-Changin’” or “Like A Rolling Stone.”

The fact is that Dylan was almost certainly undergoing something of a creative drought during the writing and recording of this album. Just prior to the start of recording sessions, Dylan had attempted to write songs for the poet Archibald MacLeish’s Broadway musical Scratch. However, the project was abandoned due to his inability to produce suitable material, leading MacLeish to comment in a note to his publisher that Dylan “proved simply incapable of producing new songs, and things looked desperate until we decided about a month ago to use old songs of Dylan’s.” At least three of the songs on this record (“New Morning,” “Time Passes Slowly” and the sinister album closer “Father Of Night”) date from this barren period.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The album starts off promisingly enough, though, with the jauntily good-humoured “If Not For You,” a love song as pure and straightforward as any Dylan has ever written. While it’s not a masterpiece, the song certainly has a catchy enough melody and is a pleasantly entertaining listen. This is something of a recurring problem with this album; superficially, it often sounds like a great Dylan record, but it never once grabs the listener like so much of his earlier work does. In fact, at times the record comes perilously close to being a rather boring listen.

It’s not all bad, though: “Day Of The Locusts” is a mildly rousing song with a memorable refrain that cynically recounts Dylan’s visit to Princeton University to pick up an honorary Doctorate in Music (an experience that Dylan didn’t altogether enjoy, judging from the lyrics of the song.)

For my money, the standout track on the album is the wistful, melancholy wonder that is “Sign On The Window.” This song is the only time on the album that Dylan really sounds like the words he’s singing are coming straight from the heart. I have absolutely no idea what the line “Brighton girls are like the moon” means, but Dylan sings it with such feeling and conviction that you just can’t help thinking enthusiastically, “Yeah… that’s right, Bob!”

Other tracks that rise above the prosaic mediocrity of this collection are “Went To See The Gypsy,” inspired by a visit to Las Vegas to see Elvis, and “Time Passes Slowly,” which paints a bucolic picture of rural life while darkly commenting on the inherent dullness and emotional stagnation that such an environment breeds. There are some moments of experimentation on the album, too: “If Dogs Run Free” is an excursion into jazz, complete with scatted backing vocals, but for the most part comes across as a flimsy misfire.

Ultimately, “patchy” is the word that most comes to mind when considering New Morning. At least half of the tracks can be considered filler, with “Winterlude” in particular being so utterly pointless a piece of music that it leaves the listener wondering if the song isn’t some kind of joke.

It would be nearly three years before Dylan would again release an album of original material and listening to the largely insubstantial content of this album, it’s hard not to conclude that Dylan’s muse had indeed deserted him for the time being.

Rating: D+

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