New Morning is one of my favourite Bob Dylan albums. This wasn’t always the case – and maybe it won’t always be the case but I can say I’ve always liked New Morning – right from when I first heard it (some 25 years ago). For right now though it’s pretty much my favourite.
Re-reading Chronicles Volume One where Dylan offers plenty of thoughts (and information) about the recording of this album helped, the Bootleg Series touching in on this helped too – but it wasn’t just those things that got me thinking about the album; at least not as far as I’m aware. At any rate it’s one of the few Dylan albums I’ve always been able to listen to.
We all have our favourite albums that are also lesser-known in an artist’s catalogue – and New Morning probably ticks that box. The only real hit was If Not For You (covered by George Harrison and Olivia Newton-John). There were a few covers of The Man In Me also – but its inclusion in the opening credits of The Big Lebowski is the key reason this song picked up any steam. Oh, that and the fact that it’s a great song.
I first saw Dylan perform around the time of The Big Lebowski. He opened his set with The Man In Me – just as you could assume that it was because of the movie, you would also be wise to assume Dylan hadn’t even heard of the film. Dylan’s been doing his never-ending tour for nearly 30 odd years now. He carries on in spite of releasing new albums rather than because of that fact. And even as he reinvents his back-catalogue, often feeling like he’s struggling to remember it himself – the audience only twigging when the grumbled chorus reveals something almost resembling a familiar note – New Morning remains untapped/forgotten in the scheme of Dylan’s oeuvre. Apparently only four songs from New Morning have ever been performed live.
The album also falls right in the middle of a fascinating period for Dylan. So many people will tell you that after the early, vital folk and rock’n’roll melding that Dylan, post-motorcycle crash was lost. The story is picked back up in the mid-1970s, there’s a double shot of love (well, it’s actually all about love lost) with Blood On The Tracks and Desire and from there the born-again phase has its defenders and then there’s a gap again and then the string-tie shenanigans he’s been peddling for the last decade and a half, which has taken a slight backseat to his Sinatra/standards fixation just now…
Well, my favourite period of, erm, Dylanology, is the stretch between 1967-1974; the post-Blonde On Blonde albums (and pre-Blood On The Tracks ones) that start with John Wesley Harding (an alt-country template arriving 30 years early) and concludes with the superb Planet Waves. In between are the forgotten gems in his catalogue – the jumbled mess that is Self Portrait (one of his most honest albums), the country folly of Nashville Skyline and the sublime soundtrack to Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid. In the middle of all of this is New Morning; the hinge between Dylan-escaping-being-Dylan and Dylan-again-being-Dylan.
New Morning was positively reviewed at the time – but then it seemed to just disappear. It might seem to suffer from having nothing truly iconic – no huge performances, no weighty songs but that’s what I like about it. It’s Dylan having fun, sending up his image and being incredibly earnest. You listen carefully to this you can hear him pondering his next move. And there are strong band performances.
Also, I think it’s his finest album, vocally. Gone is that country-croon that he was faking at the end of the 1960s. The voice of Dylan is back – but there’s a sweetness. Anyone that thinks this man cannot sing is not listening properly.
If Not For You kicks the album off and then Day Of The Locusts is an odd, almost beguiling but deeply cynical song (“Yeah the locusts sang/And they was singing for me”). Then it’s to Time Passes Slowly, an almost-blues song and Went To See The Gypsy – recalling his meeting with Elvis. Apparently.
Every song on the album tells a story – just what the story actually is isn’t always clear. Another of the (main) reasons I like this album. You can consider it lightweight but it’s opaque.
Winterlude is folly; the sort that only Dylan could have gotten away with at the time – come on, the chorus is “Winterlude, this dude thinks you’re fine”. Okay, so it’s not quite “I am the table!” but it’s up there in terms of revered lyricists stretching things…
Similarly, If Dogs Run Free is a juvenile send up of beatnik ideals and performance.
If the album’s feeling just a bit too slight stick around for side two.
The title track is Dylan basking in his country life without needing to dress up in country attire to sell the image; here he’s not concerned with image, here it’s about expression, amusement, enjoyment. What a great groove the band strikes too.
Sign On The Window is one of the greatest songs in Dylan’s catalogue. I’m sure of this. It’s certainly the sound of him being born-again in a musical sense – about a decade before he had his religious turnaround. This is a song that exists in its own bubble, telling a story about everything and nothing – a mood, a world, all in three minutes.
The churning country/blues groove returns for One More Weekend and then it’s The Man In Me – a classic that never quite was.
Three Angels and Father Of Night are the closing tracks – they feel like a bizarre one-two; two song-slivers that almost become one whole together. They’re perfect like this, serving to remind that this is an odd album – but one that’s served with Dylan’s usual poker-face.
I like New Morning because I find a new favourite each time – I think there are half a dozen classic tracks (at least). I like New Morning because you can actually listen to every track on YouTube, the original version – a rarity with Dylan. This means you can actually introduce new people to New Morning. And you can get a bite now and then instead of the whole meal. I like New Morning because I felt like I discovered it away from any hype, all by myself. And it feels like that – still – every time I play it.
I just wanted to share that with you; the fact that – for now at least – it’s my new favourite Dylan album. I might have mentioned this before, you might think I’m bonkers for giving this album the time (and for wasting yours by suggesting that you try it too) but it’s been on my mind (and on my turntable) again recently.