Friday 13 December 2019

Ignore the cranks, Bob Dylan's bell still rings

Bob Dylan may be getting on, but no one does melancholy or loneliness quite like him, writes Barry Egan, after listening to his latest album

Bob Dylan playing Nowlan Park in Kilkenny. Photo: Dylan Vaughan.
Bob Dylan playing Nowlan Park in Kilkenny. Photo: Dylan Vaughan.
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

Asked in 1966 what his songs were about, Bob Dylan answered, "Some are about four minutes, some are about five, and some, believe it or not, are about 11 or 12."

In 2016, some of Dylan's songs are about two minutes (Young At Heart, Maybe You'll Be There), some are about three minutes (That Old Black Magic, It Had To Be You, Nevertheless) and very few, believe it or not, are longer than four (All The Way comes in at a mere second over the four-minute mark.) These are all from Bob Dylan's new album, his latest foray into the great American songbook, Fallen Angels - his 37th studio album, and a sequel to 2015's Shadows in the Night.

Depending on your own perspective on The Bard from north Minnesota, the Holden Caulfield of Hibbing, Bob Dylan is either: still at the top of his game doing unadorned, even whispery, even at times Tom Waits-y, versions of songs made famous by the Hoboken Canary himself, Frank Sinatra, or he has run out of ideas and is coasting on the wave of his glorious reputation.

Admittedly, the latter theory, sacrilege to many, is usually put forward by cranks who believe that Dylan's last great album was 1975's Blood On The Tracks. Putting that moany masterpiece in a kind of context recently, The Spectator's Christopher Caldwell theorised that Blood On The Tracks was "now closer to the reign of George V, 1910-1936, than to our day".

Be that as it may, a new Bob Dylan album is always an event in my house. My wife sees it as less so, however, viewing Mr Dylan as the perfect example of someone in the twilight of his career, whose singing is as bad as his wig. Memo to Aoife Mac Giolla Ri: in February 2015, when Robert Allen Zimmerman was honoured as the Recording Academy's MusiCares Person of the Year, he told the audience: "Sam Cooke said this when told he had a beautiful voice. He said, 'Well that's very kind of you, but voices ought not to be measured by how pretty they are. Instead they matter only if they convince you that they are telling the truth.'"

So when he sings with that cracked phrasing of his on On A Little Street In Singapore about being "beside a lotus-covered door/A veil of moonlight on her lonely face... My sails tonight are filled with perfume of Shalimar," you kind of believe you are back in 1939 in Asia with Dylan (and Sinatra). Or when he sings in Polka Dots and Moonbeams about being "in a cottage built of lilacs and laughter", you can smell the lilacs and still hear the laughter, 66 years after it was written by Johnny Burke.

No one quite does melancholy/resignation/acute, agonising loneliness like Dylan. Listen to The Night We Called It A Day or Maybe You'll Be There and tell me otherwise. At 75 years of age, Dylan has turned less into his heroes Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie than Chet Baker. Which is a relief, frankly, as Bob Dylan could have morphed into the male Barbra Streisand.

In a New York Times interview in March of this year, Babs revealed that in November 1978 Dylan sent her a hand-written postcard and suggested they do an album together. And then, years later in 1983 when Streisand's movie Yentl had just come out, Bob sent her another letter, suggesting: "Maybe you can direct me in one of mine." He also enclosed his then new album Infidels: "There are some songs on this album which I'm sure you would love to do". He added:"You are my favourite star."

He might occasionally get lost in sucky-up schmoozing, whatever about the material he chooses, but as Bob reminded the world on the 2015 album Tempest: "I ain't dead yet. My bell still rings, I keep my fingers crossed like the early Roman kings."

Long may he continue to bring it all back home. Just not to Barbra Streisand.

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