CD Label: Columbia 2876 87606 2
This disc represents some sort of miracle. Red wine laid down for the right amount of time in a cool cellar yields the perfect vintage. Leave it past its due date and it turns sour. Dylan's last few albums Good As I Been To You (1992), Time Out Of Mind (1997) and Love And Theft (2001) have highlighted the declining fortunes of his vocal chords, and last year's concert in Toronto showed a pale shadow of the old Dylan, the words almost indecipherable. An excuse for all the old fans to sing along and for new ones to say "I was there."
Don't get me wrong as I enjoyed those albums too. This album has a lot in common with them. The difference is more one of degree than of kind. Mostly Dylan seems to have become much more engaged with his audience. His songs have more passion, funkier rhythms, sharper lyrics, and an altogether stronger vocal delivery. You can easily make out the words on every song and in fact his singing is now as stunning as it once was. Never a beautiful voice of course, and with a range of maybe an octave at best, he has always had amazing phrasing, like Louis Armstrong in his ability to stretch the musical line. The production is also the best I've heard on a Dylan album. He likes the claustrophobic sonics of the smoky nightclub, the phasey mic'ing, the rolled off top, but here producer Jack Frost (Dylan) has let in a little more air, and the instruments in Dylan's touring band leave more space for his new improved gravel voice to shine through. No complaints then, but you'll need a very good system to accommodate the deep bass energy embedded in the pits.
This is a back to the roots album. Here you'll find Dylan reinventing Hank Williams, Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Walters, and developing his own new styles based on these influences. There's lots of country, blues, R&B, and Dylan saves the best for last. Yes, the last three tracks are the standouts.
"Nettie Moore" is a song based musically on a simple heartbeat, a song about a life long love and the town that has changed. The lyrics put this song way at the very top of this genre. Try this for size – The world has gone black before my eyes. Nobody writes like Dylan, and he's in peak form here.
"The Levee's Gonna Break", a strong R&B number, is not so much about New Orleans as it is a love song, but again, the form is not as important and the incredible powerful lyrics and the passion and skill of the delivery. This track can stand against Dylan's all time greats.
"Ain't Talkin'" could only have been written by Dylan, or Leonard Cohen. This is the closest I've heard anyone else come to a Cohen composition and performance. It's a low pitched talkin' song, a confessional, the closest he comes to folk music on the whole album. Well, the phrasing is fabulous, the instrumentation relaxed and beautiful. This song is an instant classic, worth the price of admission and proof if proof is needed that Dylan ain't finished yet.
Other highlights include the slow number "Spirit On The Water", where his lyrics reach powerful heights. I particularly like - you got the key to my brain, you got a face that begs for love. "Rollin and Tumblin" is a fairly straight but strong performance of the old classic with some new verses penned by Dylan, who is credited as author on every song on the album. Finally, if you want to hear Dylan's singing at its very best, listen to "Someday Baby (You Ain't Gonna Work For Me Any More)". He does so much with the little range that's left to him they should be studying this at Julliard.
Wonderful how this old man keeps rollin' on, like a Rollin' Stone.