Lost in a Dream: Bob Dylan, 1967-1974

If Bob Dylan was the folkie in the early 1960s, the slick rocker in the mid 1960's, then in the late 1960s into the early 1970s he was the country dad. Many of the songs Bob put out in this period exalted rural family life, and communicated a certain kind of carefreeness that lingers in the air on a spring day. Bob has said in his memoir, Chronicles, that the songs he wrote could "blow away in cigar smoke, and that suited me just fine".

During this time, Bob released John Wesley Harding, Nashville Skyline, Self Portrait, New Morning, and Planet Waves, five albums that you could easily listen to on a country drive, while tossing your line in the water, or when on a leisurely walk through pastoral fields.

I should that the two albums on the "edges" of this period, John Wesley Harding and Planet Waves, don't quite exemplify this rural carefreeness as much as the other three do, but still. . .

John Wesley Harding might be a bit less carefree than the other two, as it sounds as if it is meant for an English graduate student living in the Berkshires who's flipping through dusty pages and studying old Russian stories along with Thoreau. Planet Waves features a Bob a bit more ready to drink a few by the fire and explore a dark edge or two. Still, generally, all these albums are kin in some way.

Meanwhile, Nashville Skyline goes full-on country, while New Morning preaches rural tranquility and favors acoustic meandering and humming organs over rock n' roll. Self Portrait, originally dismissed, has been received more favorably over the years. A great cover of "Blue Moon" is on this record.

The sounds of familial ties and rural country & nature are best exemplified by the following songs, which are sequences in the order I thought they'd be best listened to in.

1. "New Morning"
This song takes the roadhouse blues sound of Howlin' Wolf, strips it down, lightens the load, and delivers an uplifting, spirit-rising song about the magic of new beginnings. Images of rural life abound, as roosters crow and motors turn while Bob drives home an impassioned yet laid-back vocal. In much of the song, we not only hear some tasteful acoustic picking, but a sweet sounding organ that mimics the hum of the forest. There's something about the way Bob sings "automobile come into style/ coming down the road for a country mile or two" that encapsulates the song nicely. He mean's it-what he's singing about is important to him, but he also knows he's not hitting any dark edges or exploring any deep woods.

2. "Time Passes Slowly"
You almost get the feeling that Bob wrote this song in a few minutes. It's incredibly carefree, as a piano meanders somewhere, an electric guitar throws out a few licks, and a melody finds it's way into the song like a steadily moving stream. Bob, vocally, hits a few highs here that are endearing: he tried, and he sings in such a way as to suggest that he's belting this out for better or for worse. Up front, and leaving no doubt, Bob tells us where he's at in his life on this one.

3. "Watching the River Flow"
This is one of the great tracks of this era, yet it never found proper release on an album, and for good reason. It's electric, plugged in sound doesn't really fit the vibe of any of Dylan's releases during this period. This song is straightforward country blues, perfectly textured down to the vocal nuances and inflections Bob is able to pull off, here.  At the start, we hear a nice guitar walk-up before the band locks into gear, and Bob sings "What's the matter with me?/ I don't have much to say" followed by a few pounds on the piano keys. Here, Bob's lines certainly seem to address the expectation that he be some kind of spokesperson.

4. "I Shall be Released"
A true Dylan classic that is also covered by the Band, but the version released on Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits Volume II is the real keeper. Under the guise of writing about a prisoner trapped in jail, Bob makes an argument for a sort of pessimistic optimism over a clear spread of acoustic guitars. It's sort of a wandering lullaby, a sing along song from the woods, as you wander around the corner and see that "light come shining".

5. "You Ain't Going Nowhere"
Much like "I Shall be Released", this song was composed with the Band and represents yet another great collaborative sing-along penned by Dylan. The song's title aptly describes the music, here, as it meanders slowly, never veering off track from its sweet melody. It's a lazy, content song, basking in the sunshine of the countryside. Dylan's lyric, "we'll climb that bridge after it's gone/ after we're way past it" (on the superior version of the song released on The Essential Bob Dylan) is about as metaphysical as it gets, presenting a nonlinear structure of time and a firm belief in the futility of progress as assessed by earthly standards.

6. "Father of Night"
Rumored to be a based off a Jewish prayer, "Father of Night" features Bob playing a repetitive piano, belting out a tune concerning, not surprisingly, nature. Here, it's almost as if Bob attempted to combine Wordsworth with theology. This song ultimately sees God as the action that propels time forward, thus Dylan elects to mention that God is the "father of minutes, father of days" at the end of the song. This song represents a much different form of spiritual reflection than Bob has had before or since.

7. "Tonight I'll be Staying Here With You"
Bob immediately implores us to toss our tickets out the window, and give it all to abandon over a groovy country riff. This song was often featured as the opening cut during 1975's Rolling Thunder Tour, so it's certainly one that can get the party started and is in many ways a cousin to "On a Night Like This". A bit of sparkling, bluesy piano tops this track off and sends it down the tracks.

8. "This Evening So Soon"
Traditionally done by Dave Von Ronk in the Greenwich Village folk scene, Bob put this one to take during his studio sessions for New Morning. The melody, especially as interpreted by Bob, is utterly engaging, as the lyrics weave together about a hard livin' husband who doesn't make it home for good. On this track from Another Self Portrait, it is exceedingly clear that Bob was still baptized in  the folk songs of his youth.

9. "Blue Moon"
I haven't heard many touch on this cover from Bob, but here is proof he can croon and swoon with the best of 'em. In many ways, Bob let us know he'd be covering Sinatra about a half century ahead of time. Here, you'll hear a perfectly executed classic from a dude you wouldn't mind singing at your wedding.

10. "When I Paint My Masterpiece"
The tune  kicks off with Bob's best New Morning sounding voice, a mix of his 60s raspy howl and his expressive singing of the 70s. Here, Bob is slapping on the piano, belting out a tune that gives the listener a very specific time and place: We're in Rome, sitting on the Spanish Stairs on a cold dark night. Let Bob take it from there-bumpy plane ride and existential yearning to boot.

11. "Down Along the Cove"
A jaunty, hip moving tune that is equal parts New Morning and Nashville Skyline (although it is actually on John Wesley Harding), "Down Along the Cove" emphasizes nature and love over a jumpy bass line and joyful piano chords. In many ways, it is a song about the unexpected, pleasant surprises that life can toss your way.

12. "If Not for You (alternate version)"
You might never hear a sweeter song from Bob-this one is a gem, and it speaks for itself. It sounds like this song could make it halfway across the ocean, change forms, and go through storms, and still retain it's sense of sweetness. We hear this sweetness in all three versions of the song that have been released, but the version featured on Another Self Portrait is the loveliest. Here, Bob is accompanied
on the violin, as he pushes the keys and belts out a true, beautiful classic.


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