Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Dylan Back: World Goes On

Last year Spy did an amusing item graphing "Dylan is back" claims, often in precisely those terms, all the way to 1968. The same fiddle-faddle greeted not only 1970's winsome New Morning and 1975's well-remembered Blood on the Tracks and 1989's widely heralded Oh Mercy, but many tours and just about every other album the man put some effort into. So naturally the news that Under the Red Sky would feature such sidemen as Al Kooper and Stevie Ray Vaughan got the treatment as well--until the rumormongers heard the actual record, which met with the mixed-to-contemptuous response I keep at the ready for all Dylan projects. Only this time a dis won't cut it for me. To my astonishment, I think Under the Red Sky is Dylan's best album in 15 years, a record that may even signal a ridiculously belated if not totally meaningless return to form. Oh Lordy--Dylan is back.

Can't be, of course--there's nowhere for him to come back to. Although he's not as far gone as John Lennon, his moment is, and that's the fantasy beneath the fiddle-faddle--the rock star as cultural hero, the weathervane to tell "us" which way the wind blows, the messenger who can change the world. Dylan's iconic clout has proven more durable than I would have guessed: watching a house full of scruffy white professionals cheer the October 15 opening of his five-night stand at the Beacon, I was reminded of none other than the universal icon, Elvis Presley himself. But that cuts both ways. Like Elvis, Dylan is faced with the insuperable problem of living up to the memory of a time when, for reasons of history mistakenly attributed to mere genius, he embodied the dreams of a "generation." Always preternaturally media-hip, he's ridden this dilemma with more creative grace than Elvis, keeping at it for close to three decades now where Elvis barely lasted two. But for 15 years he's been a bad joke more often than not--Renaldo and Clara, the religious conversions, the crank politics, horrendous product like Street-Legal and Down in the Groove.

Live, he's stuck to the same strategy ever since the 1974 rebirth commemorated on Before the Flood, performing a motley assortment of classics and not-classics with lyrics intact and music damaged, and ever since 1975's ramshackle Rolling Thunder Revue the reinterpretations have been miss-or-hit. I say this as someone who stopped going to his concerts after Street-Legal, three live albums ago now, and never gave the decision a second thought. For five minutes at the Beacon--the fanfare cum antiwar dig of a three-guitar "Marine's Hymn" intro leading into a hard, tight "Rainy Day Women"--I wondered if maybe I'd been missing something, but I got over it after the second song, when I turned to one of the three Rolling Stone critics nearby and shouted, "What was that?" "`Masters of War,'" he grinned. Darn it, I'd almost guessed--the refrain had the right cadence. Unfortunately, the arrangement had steamrollered the not-so-intact lyrics as well as the melody, and for anyone who doesn't have 100 best-loved Dylan songs on instant recall, it was unrecognizable. No wonder the West Pointers he'd regaled with it the night before had just sat there.

And so it went. A band featuring Saturday Night Live's G. E. Smith and anchored by veteran East Coast session drummer Christopher Parker played hippie songs at postpunk tempos, often yoking them to immemorial rock-r&b readymades. "Shelter From the Storm" mounted "Bristol Stomp," "Watching the River Flow" was tailed by "Dust My Broom," and neither benefited from the comparison. After an acoustic set that topped an overwrought "Don't Think Twice" with its loud-mouthed big brother "It Ain't Me Babe"--both of them still women songs, not audience songs--the lyrics got clearer. But the big cheers came after the titles, when everybody figured out what they were hearing. Although a raving postmodernist might crow about deconstructive revitalization or some such, it's my middlebrow conclusion that Dylan's anti-iconic compulsion to throw melodies out the window creates a musically meaningless ritual--that far from teaching his loyal over-30s a lesson about change, it panders to a nostalgia of brute physical proximity, no better in the end than choked-up reminiscence or middle-aged longing. Dylan has written a shitload of great songs, and he'll never ruin them all. Good. I'm more impressed with the Stones' hyperprofessionalism anyway.

Live, that is--for both acts, the studio is now a separate realm. No longer will some sparely postfolk John Wesley Harding parry a baroque Sgt. Pepper (and take Their Satanic Majesties Request) for a subculture that has never seen its hero make a foolish move. Their records are prestige product, not cultural (or commercial) bellwethers, and while the Stones promote theirs, Dylan treats his recording career with the same fine disregard as the rest of his music. At the Beacon, the only teaser from his new album was the title tune, which was a highlight, and not merely because--like the other '80s selections, almost every one (even Down in the Groove's "Silvio") a pleasant surprise--it still had the tune it was born with. It was a highlight because out of nowhere Dylan has started making good records again. I remain suspicious of the hushed emotion, weary wisdom, and new-age "maturity" of the Daniel Lanois-produced Oh Mercy. But it gives up a lot of beautiful songs, and there's no point denying the commitment signified by its intensity of craft. And then there are the Traveling Wilburys, a superstar joke almost as liberating as they wanted to be, whose first album had Dylan's spontaneous wit and is-it-rolling-Bob? serendipity all over it. On the brand new Vol. 3, they sound more like a band; Jeff Lynne and George Harrison make contributions every bit as welcome and unlikely as "Inside Out," a casual jeremiad about things turning yellow that bears Dylan's oddball mark. Still, that's three memorable albums since late '88. And I contend that the Was Bros.-produced Under the Red Sky tops any of them.

History being history, I don't expect or even hope to convince my "generation" of this, much less the world. In fact, I wouldn't swear Dylan agrees with me--supposedly, he hates The Basement Tapes, so what does he know? As has been charged, Under the Red Sky 's lyrics do seem somewhat more obscure and sloppy than Oh Mercy's. But Dylan has been obscure-and-sloppy since whenever--the anomaly is Oh Mercy's "focused" writing, to quote Stone quoting Lanois, who you can bet identifies with the bitterly ironic "Political World" and the fatally unironic "Disease of Conceit" (and understands "Man in the Long Black Coat" better than ordinary mortals). Under the Red Sky, on the other hand, aims frankly for the evocative. It's fabulistic, biblical--kind of like John Wesley Harding.

But in these postpunk times, one rarely loves a record on literary grounds. Let Dylan protect the words and fuck with the music--Don Was has his own program, and where with Bonnie Raitt and the B-52's his command of the megapop groove forced a respectful homogenization, with Dylan it produces an apotheosis. Though Dylan has known great rhythm sections (in Muscle Shoals and, especially, the Band), his seminal rock records were cut with Nashville cats on drums--Kenny Buttrey when he was lucky, nonentities when he wasn't. But setting the pace on Under the Red Sky is J.C. Mellencamp's secret weapon, Kenny Aronoff. Musically, this ain't John Wesley Harding, it's Highway 61 Revisited revisited, more on the power of its rock-r&b readymades than of Kooper's lonely "Like a Rolling Stone" rip. But the tempos are postpunk like it oughta be, with Aronoff's sprints and shuffles grooving ahead like '60s folk-rock never did. Gives the fables more oomph.

They're strengthened by the workout, and since I'm a realist as well as an oomph man, I also treasure their moments of overpowering literalness. When Dylan barks, "They said it was the land of of milk and honey/Now they say it's the land of money/Who'd ever thought they could make that stick?," I credit his outrage without forgetting his royalty statements. When he moans, "Takes too much skill/Takes too much will," I believe he's gritted his teeth through the bad patches of a long-term sexual relationship even though I suspect that for him the long term is still measured in months. And when he thanks his honey for that cup of tea, I melt. But in the end I value Under the Red Sky most for what it is--an album that works narrative metaphor as an adaptive mechanism, allowing Dylan to inhabit a "mature" pessimism he's figured out isn't the meaning of life.

When he's on top of his dilemma, Dylan insists that he's no prophet, so the unjudgmental equanimity of this record is a boon. It doesn't scold or complain--its sole foray into megapolitical cliche, "TV Talkin' Time," is put in the mouth of some other crank, a Hyde Park haranguer (and has been praised by reviewers for its outspoken criticism of modern media). Yet the lyrics are bleak even though they're also, as he phrased it in USA Today, "intentionally broad and short, so you can draw all kinds of conclusions." Dylan seems depressed above all about eco-collapse--about the disappearance of the landscape he grew up with. In "10,000 Men," it's a war out there; in "2 X 2," men and women march blindly into a stolen tomorrow; in "Cat's in the Well," "the world's being slaughtered" and "may the Lord have mercy on us all." The love songs are pained and gnomic--the gorgeous "Born in Time" wouldn't parse even if he'd relieved it of the sloppy-to-obscure "You married young just like your ma." The title track is a cyberpunk folk song in which getting baked in a pie surrenders its accrued nursery-rhyme innocence to the grisly realism it began with. Even "Wiggle Wiggle," Dylan's way of encouraging whoever's listening to show some life, winds up with the wiggler vomiting fire.

Through it all, though, the sweetness of Dylan's tone does him proud. Apocalyptic though that blood red sky may also be, he's crafted an affectionate elegy for a human race forced to live in a diminished world. Likely it's not a return to anything--Dylan is most representative of his "generation" in his compulsion to move on. But for a man who long ago announced that he couldn't change the world, it's an honorable place to stop off for a while.

Village Voice, Oct. 30, 1990