The Expansive Writing of Bob Dylan

Lately I have been trying to discern what in particular gives Dylan’s writing a unique power. Entire books have been written on the topic, entire semesters have been taught.  I am not going to solve the conundrum here. 

However, as someone that has spent more time than is healthy studying song lyrics, there is something I notice time and time again.  Dylan has not only been prolific for most of his career, but his words also often gain power through sheer volume.  I am a huge fan of Morrissey.  Although he has written expansive songs like The Queen is Dead, he often writes couplets that are powerful statements in and of themselves.  Leonard Cohen, someone by whose own admission is not prolific, yet is closer to Dylan in style, spends a lot of time finely crafting certain lines. 

If you take many Dylan couplets, although with his huge catalog he has written brilliant couplets as well, they are not always powerful in and of themselves.  But by the time you get to the 7th couplet in 4th verse of a Dylan song (hypothetically), Dylan songs are often astounding for the sheer amount of language he packs in them, they begin to take on a cumulative poetic power. 

Where some writers get their power from cutting back until what lies before them is a finally crafted sculpture, Dylan almost seems to stand out of the way and let his subconscious pour forth.  Line after line, image after image, floats past until the amount of imagery leaves the listener overwhelmed and breathless. 

Sure, that is not all he is doing.  There is a difference in power between Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone and Springsteen’s similar wordy Blinded by the Light.  (I love Dylan and Springsteen, but I would be lying if I said the latter contained the poetic force of the former.)  Dylan performs alchemy.   He does get that missing piece of the puzzle that many others cannot find no matter how talented they are. 

This is not to say that Dylan cannot write shorter more traditional songs.   He can of course.  Again this is also not to say that Dylan cannot write great one liners and couplets, as he has done that as well.  There are also many other elements at play to make a song powerful.  However, I think,  if you are interested in what Dylan does, this is a good facet of his writing to examine. 

In My Secret Life, Leonard Cohen, and Songwriting

In My Secret Life by Leonard Cohen.

In my secret life
In my secret life
In my secret life
In my secret life

I saw you this mornin’
You were movin’ so fast
Cant seem to loosen my grip
On the past

And I miss you so much
Theres no one in sight
And were still makin’ love

In my secret life
In my secret life

I smile when Im angry
I cheat and I lie
I do what I have to do
To get by

But I know what is wrong
And I know what is right
And Id die for the truth

In my secret life
In my secret life

Hold on, hold on, my brother
My sister, hold on tight
I finally got my orders
Ill be marching through the mornin’
Marchin’ through the night
Movin ‘cross the borders of my secret life

Looked through the paper
Makes you want to cry
Nobody cares if the people
Live or die
And the dealer wants you thinkin’
That its either black or white
Thank God its not that simple
In my secret life

I bite my lip
I buy what Im told
From the latest hit
To the wisdom of old

But Im always alone
And my heart is like ice
And its crowded and cold

In my secret life
In my secret life
In my secret life
In my secret life

This song has always meant a great deal to me.  The lyrics as usual, for Leonard Cohen, are masterful.  If you take a line or a couplet out of the song, there are a couple good ones, but they are fairly simple.  However, the way he builds imagery throughout the track means that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.  Also those last verse lines leave the song with a sense that the narrator hasn’t resolved any his conflicts, other than to possibly live with his contradictions:

But I’m always alone
And my heart is like ice
And it’s crowded and cold

In my secret life

One will notice that a lot of great songwriters leave one with a sense of mystery, they leave things unresolved.  This allows a song to keep going, even once you are done listening.  It starts the imaginative process, but doesn’t fill in every blank, making the song yours as much as theirs.  It becomes something you can take out into your life with you.  Now there is a difference between performing that trick, and just being vague to the point of meaningless.  The best writers know how to give you enough to pull you in, but leave enough space for the imagination of the listener so that a song will register on a personal level.

Lou Reed Animated

Lou Reed interviews have been animated for part of the PBS series Blank on Blank.  It is equal parts interesting, inspiring, hilarious, and bitchy, much like Reed’s career itself.  I am one that will be eternally thankful for Reed’s contribution to rock and pop music.  I might not agree with everything Lou Reed says in the above clip, but there is no doubt in my mind that he did elevate pop music, that he did infuse it with a literary quality that few have ever matched.  From the first Velvet Underground album to his last album with Metallica, he never quit pushing the limits of what was possible in rock music.  In between those two book ends he did everything from straight ahead pop music to avant-garde noise.  A true one of a kind.

Early 90’s Springsteen and the Duality of Human Nature

The cold wet air could best be described as a “shitmist”.  On the way from Oklahoma City to Dallas.   In the back of the van trying to unlock why, even in the midst of his supposed slump, the early 90’s,  Bruce Springsteen was still able to create works that have staying power.  Strip him of his band, bring in a bunch of session players that lack any discernable personality, record things in a way that is somewhat stiff, and there is still something there if you pay attention. 

With every wish there comes a curse

Listen to the song With Every Wish from his Human Touch album.  It has a dark seductive power to it as it examines someone whose dreams fall short.  In fact I think it is because Springsteen never shies away from the hard truths of reality that his songs are more than one dimensional.  

Any life when viewed from the inside, is simply a series of defeats.
     –  George Orwell

In the midst of life we are in death, etc.
     - Morrissey

This is not to say Springsteen’s music lacks hope or love or joy.  In fact his music is often quite life affirming despite how often darkly realistic his lyrics can be.  They often deal with a loss of innocence as someone grows older and comes to terms with the harsh realities of the world.  But even in spite of this, his characters often carry on.  Although there are characters of his that are on the long slide to oblivion, many also often find love or are determined to bear hardship. 

Springsteen is too smart to ignore complexity.  There are no easy fixes.  Love in and of itself will not solve all problems.  Things can be made better, but there is hard work to do if it is to be so.  Dreams can just as easily circle back to haunt you.  He never forgets the passion of the teenager, but he also never ignores the struggle of adulthood.  It is this duality that gives his work power. 

This duality, this complexity in outlook, means that even his lesser albums have moments that are worth recommending.   I think his most misunderstood album, Human Touch,  has many such moments.  Although it does suffer somewhat from the production and choice of musicians, and it is not a front to back masterpiece, there are a lot of songs where the writing is really sharp.  He also writes a lot of great melodies that bring the lyrics to life, whereas the slightly more critically accepted Lucky Town is slightly too sepia-toned for me, despite a couple great songs. 

I think if you are a fan of his, like I am, and you have ignored this period, it is worth revisiting.  There are also some stellar out takes from this period on the Tracks box set, especially Gave it a Name.  It is clear that Springsteen had read Flannery O’Connor by this point, as he adopts some of her haunted Biblical language to deal with these adulthood struggles. 

As one of our country’s greatest artists, Springsteen is often reduced to a caricature, like many larger than life figures.  (He did himself no favors in the propaganda films serving as music videos that accompanied Born in the U.S.A.)  But he has remained someone that constantly searches for meaning in a fallen world, always aware of the light and dark in our national character.  

Flirted With You All My Life by Vic Chesnutt

I have long been a Vic Chesnutt fan.  He was one of our most brilliant songwriters before he took his own life.  The above song, Flirted With You All My Life, is just about as powerful as songwriting gets.  It doesn’t flinch from the bleakness of human experience, yet their is something truly beautiful about it as well.  Normally I would post the lyrics, but I think it is best if they unravel while listening, as he plays with expectations during the first half of the song.  I love the creeping death cartoon music of the intro, followed by the transcendent almost African sounding music in parts of the proper song.  This song still gives me the chills when I listen to it, as I realize someone is tapping into the unexplainable and profound.  A true masterpiece.

Below is a live performance of this song recorded near the end of Chesnutt’s life.  It is almost hard to watch because of the emotions laid bare.

The Genius of Joni Mitchell

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While I have been at Steamboat MusicFest, I have been listening to a great deal of Joni Mitchell.  She is simply one of my favorite songwriters of all time.  Her music is so unique that I both understand and don’t understand why she isn’t more popular.  I understand that her music can be challenging in the way that so very few singer songwriters are, with serpentine melodies and completely unique chord progressions.  But I also don’t understand as she is a giant in terms of talent and so very few artists have ever come close to what she has accomplished.  I think she is haunted by the tag of FEMALE singer songwriter, as in my mind, she is the peer and equal of someone like Dylan, whom I also love and respect.  In fact she is probably more original and talented on a purely musical level than Dylan is.  While someone like Dylan or Neil Young, who is also from Canada like Mitchell, are regarded as almost founding fathers by this point, I feel like Mitchell is acknowledged in a much more limited way.

Although everyone should own what many consider her masterpiece, Blue, I would also recommend that everyone check out her 70’s trilogy of The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Hejira, and Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter.  This is not to say that this is the only work that she has worth hearing.  Although I don’t own every album she has ever made, I find something valuable in all the periods of her music.  Her last studio album, Shine, is simply fantastic, with a title song among the many that simply show she has never stopped being a master.  One of the hardest subjects to write about without coming across as cheesy is the environmental concerns of the day, but she does so on this album with a poetic depth that no one, outside of maybe Jackson Browne, has been able to do.

The 70’s trilogy that I mentioned is some of the most original music of all time.  It is expansive work, where each album seems like its own universe.  If one listens to pop music, like Nick Hornby suggests, until one can solve the puzzle of each song, I can’t imagine ever getting tired of these records.  They seem as if they were created by someone on another plain than most normal humans operate on.  This music is shape shifting as folk, jazz, pop, rock and occasional tribal music intertwine and emerge with a fluidity that very few could accomplish.  She holds her own with musicians such as Jaco Pastorius, and seems more than a capable leader of such talents.  In fact she takes someone like him, makes his work more accessible, and loses none of the musicality in the process.

Mitchell’s guitar playing is some of the most original in recorded history.  She uses a wide variety of tunings and creates chord structures that are simply one of a kind.  Rhythmically influenced by jazz at times, she has a style, combined with the tunings, that sounds unlike any other singer songwriter of her or any time period.  While most greats, like the above mentioned Dylan and Young, synthesize what came before them into their own style, Mitchell seems to use different elements of music as a launch pad to take off to her own unique stratosphere.

Her melodies are again a thing completely of their own.  Listen to one of her most popular albums, Court and Spark, and ask yourself how this album became so popular.  Not many humans could sing, let alone write those melodies.  While they eventually ingrain themselves into your subconscious, they are not the simple hooks of pop music.  That album alone makes me wonder if music audiences were more advanced in their tastes back then, then they are now.

Enough cannot also be said about her lyrics.  They are simply some of the most poetic ever recorded.  Listen to the wordplay, the intelligence, and the wit displayed throughout her career.  She is the equal of a Dylan, without copying him.  Sometimes it almost seems as if she came out of nowhere.  While Dylan built an entirely new language in pop music, it was definitely rooted in the traditions of the folk world.  Mitchell seems to create a language all of her own, especially once she got to the above mentioned trilogy, that is still relatable as often as it is complex.

Now there is no doubt that Dylan had a greater cultural impact.  I am also not trying to say that Mitchell is better than Dylan.  I am only trying to make the case that if you want to talk about truly originals in music, she is one of the few that should be put on equal footing with the all time greats.  And while better or greater mean something different than more original, I would argue that Mitchell is actually more original than most of the all time greats.  She has consistently turned out fantastic mind bending stuff.  I constantly put on her records and am left awestruck at the sheer mastery of each component of song craft and playing. If you are a real music fan, I am telling you to get this stuff.  If you can open yourself to what she is doing, and she definitely is an acquired taste at times, this is music that will open up entire worlds that no one else has explored.  We will not see the likes of her again.  She is a true one of a kind and should be realized as such.

My Favorite Albums of 2014

The following is a list of my favorite records of 2014.  I strangely enough felt that a lot of the best work was done by artists that are well into their career.  This was an incredible year for career artists.  Although I love a good fun pop song as much as anyone, my favorite artists are ones that have strong personalities that seem like they are trying to communicate their truth, and sometimes the truth of the times.  I feel like these are ten records that I will be going back to for years to come because of their musicality and the complexity of thought that is involved in them.  Too many newer artists seem to make albums that might be sonically magnificent, but are somewhat shallow on the ideas side of things.  The best albums, as far as I’m concerned, do both.

An album like The War on Drugs new album, Lost in the Dream, which has been featured on many best of lists, is musically truly something to behold and I love the blending of Roxy Music sonics with Tom Petty kind of American song craft.  It’s a great album, but lyrically the album is merely good and not great.  I can get lost in the album, and I do really like it.  However, it works best to me as background music, music that changes the mood in the room, but that I never engage with intellectually front to back.

I also wish more than anything that there was equivalent of something like a modern day Black Flag, a young band that was coming out full of sweat and fury, but I don’t feel like there has been anything new that I have discovered like that.  Too many of the visceral sounding rock records that I have heard seem like they are treading on past styles instead of adding any new ideas to the mix.

There are many albums that I wanted to add to this list, like the new AC/DC, but an album like that has several great songs, and then some stuff that is just filler.  I’m sure I’ll forget many records that have moved me this year.  I tried to go back and look at my record collection, but I’m sure something has evaded me.  Surprisingly, given the state of the music business, this has been a really strong year for music, especially career artists.  I worry that the fact that the way the business works economically, the fact that artists that can make enough off touring and catalog sales are the ones that are often making the best records, is a sign of things to come.  I hope not.  The older generation has been raising the stakes lately, and we need to meet their call.

10.  Bruce Springsteen – High Hopes – Although I have liked all of the Boss’s recent releases, this seems to be the one in my opinion where he truly builds upon his legacy.  It is a collection of songs that didn’t make his last few records that have been newly recorded.  He is one of the few recording artists that can create transcendent rock n roll and speak truth to power on the same record.  Because of the patchwork nature of the songs, meaning that they were written at different point and differ thematically, this is probably the least complete record on the list.  Like all later period Boss records there is one or two songs that could have been stronger.  However, the record sounds great and the high points are truly exceptional.  He is definitely reaching on this album.  By having Tom Morello joining the usual E-Streeters he expands upon his sonic territory.  On Harry’s Place we get a dark cinematic character study that lyrically could almost be on a Lou Reed record.  That song, like several on the album, feature new sonic territory for Springsteen.  The political songs are fantastic, even if some of them have been in his set for years.  American Skin (41 Shots) and the new version of The Ghost of Tom Joad are visceral.  The understated The Wall may be the one that sticks with me for years.  It is a song about the Vietnam Memorial.  There is a seething anger just below the song’s calm surface.  The anger is directed at the “masters of war” that send young men to die in wars that should have never been fought:

Now the men that put you here eat with their families in rich dining halls
And apology and forgiveness got no place here at all, here at the wall

9.  Chuck D – The Black in Man – Chuck D has always delivered since his career began in Public Enemy.  Although there were one or two latter era Public Enemy records that I wasn’t extremely keen on the production, his voice and ideas have always remained an unbelievable force of power.  He has never stopped speaking truth to power and this album is no exception.  In an era when our justice system is finally being called into question in the mainstream, Chuck D appears to be what he always was, a prophet.  Like his other solo albums, this record is more soul influenced and melodic than Public Enemy.  Although I prefer the chaotic discord of the Enemy, this is only the slightest of steps down.  How can you complain when you got Mavis Staples laying it down in a chorus?  PIC I Hate Every Inch of You tackles our obscene Prison Industrial Complex with a vengeance.  This album makes you feel like you can do pushups in the rain, push the boulder up the mountain.  There are definitely some great James Brown like grooves being laid down as well, culminating in a new version of Say it Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud) that brings no shame to the original.  Chuck D is again laying shit down!

8.  Bryan Ferry – Avonmore – This is the one album that breaks many of the rules I have established for this list.  It’s not particularly deep.  Although it is sonically great, it is an artist doing what they do best and not necessarily adding anything new to their game.  However, what Ferry does here is to simply create an album as good from front to back as any album he has been a part of since Roxy Music’s Avalon.  I mentioned that The War On Drugs album was a great release this year, a record that was very influenced sonically by Roxy Music’s Avalon, but if you are going to draw on a record that pays tribute to that sound, you might as well go with the person that created it.  There is no fat here.  The grooves are deep, the album is cinematic, the musicianship is excellent, and Ferry sings in the seductive and sleazy style that is his signature voice.  The album ends with one of the greatest songs of his career, Johnny and Mary.  This is a song that could be a movie in and of itself.

7.  U2 – Songs of Innocence – U2 have finally made a complete album that plays to their many strengths for the first time since the 90’s.  While their last few albums all had great songs and great moments, this is their first album that musically, melodically, and thematically feels like a complete vision since that time.  It is personal music, at times political, in which song craft is paramount and that sounds like only a group of musicians that have played together for many years can.  Every song on this album is a winner and it is one of those few albums you can listen to front to back.  An extremely powerful moment is the song Iris, in which Bono examines the relationship with his deceased mother over a rock n roll band performing at the top of its game.  No matter how intelligent something is, music needs to be emotional, and this is emotional stuff.

6.  Sinead O’Connor - I’m Not Bossy I’m the Boss – Sinead O’Connor has long been one of the most fearless artists around.  She has spoken truth to power often to her own detriment.  (She was right about what was going on at the Catholic Church years before anyone wanted to believe it.)  She is fighting form on this new record that also features some of her best melodies.  Even when she is singing about love, like she often does on this record, there is a righteous power to her performances that make the songs seem expansive in their meaning.  If you were to read some of the lyrics they might come across as simple love songs, but when you hear them performed they are songs of the eternal love that speaks to the possibility and dreams of humankind.

5.  Marah – Marah Presents: Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania – Marah is one of the great American bands.  Unfortunately they are not known very well outside of their fan base.  They put out another exceptional record this year.  Marah is a band that has dabbled in different styles and feels through the course of their career, but there is always a rock n roll heart beating underneath.  Dave Bielanko is simply one of the best rock singers around.  On this album they took lyrics from an old book of unrecorded folk songs and and wrote new music to them.  The music combines all different kinds of American traditional music in new and interesting ways.  They also recorded this album with the townsfolk of their current home of Millheim, Pa.  When you listen to this record it feels as if you are discovering the present from the vantage point of the future.  The record often has a ghostly organic feel, but there is a tremendous amount of passion and love going on as well.  Folk music has long been a way to communicate the needs of the people through song.  This is a modern day folk record in the best sense.

4.  Weezer – Everything Will Be Alright In the End – As with most Weezer records, the lyrics on this album deal with the personal state of lead singer songwriter Rivers Cuomo.  There are themes of forgiveness and familial ties, but some of the songs are just about rock n roll and girls.  However, this is the one record that is on the list just because it is pure rock n roll joy.  He has crafted his best set of songs and melodies since Weezer’s Pinkerton record.  The melodies are punk rock Brian Wilson and the production, by Rick Ocasek of Cars fame, makes each little guitar part its own small universe.  One’s spirits can’t help but be lifted when this album is put on.

3.  Marianne Faithfull – Give My Love to London – This album, celebrating her 50th year in show business, is one that I believe will be seen as a cornerstone of her career.  Although she has been making great music all along, I believe this is her best and most complete record since her pinnacle of Broken English.  She revisits many of the styles and themes she has touched upon during her long career and delivers every single time.  This record is a statement of purpose and not merely a rehashing of past virtues.  The production is varied, always interesting, and yet somehow the different styles all sit perfectly next to each other.  You have her tackling styles that remind one of her Brecht/Weill covers, pastoral English folk, rock blues, and beautiful ballads.  The lyrics touch upon everything from her own shortcomings and drug dependency to her disconcerted opinion of the state of the world.  This is raw vital music by an artist that isn’t afraid to leave it all hanging out.

2.  Jackson Browne – Standing in the Breach – An artist at the height of his powers.  Browne has made an album that sonically calls upon the best of his past, but lyrically could only have been written right now.  Browne is ever the seeker, always trying to understand the world that is around him.  He is one of the few that can be extremely poetic and topical at the same time.  And although he might be addressing matters of the moment he does so in a way that is timeless.  These songs will not rot as the political fortunes of the day change.  And as he sings and crafts such powerful lyrics along with expertly written melodies, the organic backing recalls his all time triumphs like Late for the Sky.  However, while many of his past masterpieces were personal in nature, this album looks out as much as it looks inward.  The group of musicians that surround him on this album are fantastic.  They play with subtlety and depth that highlight his every move as a songwriter.  This album is the thesis of a master.

1.  Morrissey – World Peace is None of Your Business – I know beyond any doubt that this is the album of 2014 that I will return to the most as the years progress.  This is another career artist that is turning out a high-water mark of an album, in a career that is full of them.  Morrissey is at his most combative.  What he does that so few other artists do, and that he quite frankly does better than anyone, is expand the form of what songs can be about.  He makes macho male behavior, that is often so destructive in our world, look unappealing and silly in his song I’m Not a Man.  In Mount Joy, he stretches back to Behan and uses the Irish prison as a metaphor for the often cruel way that people treat each other.  His singing makes every barb, joke, and confession sting with maximum impact.  The melodies are the kind that are built to last.  However, Morrissey is often pegged as being musically conservative, but this album is adventurous as anything released this year.  It is his testament to his road band, that has often been dismissed by critics, that they have created an album so varied and so interestingly musically.  Flamenco guitars blend with British sounding pop songs, there are moments of white noise, and the title song begins with tribal drums that open up eventually into a beautiful melodic arpeggio.  A song like Istanbul is a mini-movie that makes you feel as if you are witnessing the story that it tells.  Maybe no other album that he has released demonstrates that behind his caustic view of the world there is love and a hope that people can treat each other better.  And did I mention the album is funny?  Despite all of the genre blending, deep poetic insight, and strong political convictions, this album will more often than not bring a smile to my face.  This is what the best of music can do.  It can make one see the world in a new light, even when you are viewing the darkest recesses of human nature, and allow you to transcend and endure at the same time.  While you could have moved some of these albums around the list, and possibly slid one or two other albums in some of their places, this album is the undisputed number one in my book.

And I’m already remembering albums I failed to mention like Leonard Cohen’s Popular Problems.  Although I would put it somewhere near the middle of the pack concerning his output, even average for him is better than 99% of artists.  He is another musical giant that is still, at age 80, putting out thought provoking and incredible albums.  Popular Problems is one that I might substitute for one on this list if I thought about it deeply.  It is definitely worth checking out.  He is a true original that I am grateful is still making music.  

Here a song from each album:

Songs From My Favorite Albums of 2014