Dylan’s 1970 sort of did me in – two albums, one of them a double-album, was just a tad too much for me in what was, by far, the busiest week of my term at work. So before I flip the switch over to 1971, a mildly belated final word on New Morning, Dylan’s “come back” album from the Self Portrait (which my friend Rusty, in one of the comments, called “the first passive-agressive concept album”, a comment so good we need to move it to the front page for all the world to see).
New Morning is a whole order of magnitude better than Self Portrait. It might be fun to play the role of contrarian and make an elaborate argument that the received wisdom isn’t so, but I would find that disingenuous. New Morning really is a lot better. It’s far from perfect – indeed, it may have his worst song so far (“If Dogs Run Free”) – but it has really genuine highs.
New Morning actually begins incredibly strong. “If Not For You” is one of Dylan’s great romantic masterpieces, and this is a lovely version of it. “Day of the Locusts” is quite different – a cynical report of accepting an honorary degree in music from Princeton:
I put down my robe, picked up my diploma
Took hold of my sweetheart and away we did drive
Straight for the hills, the black hills of Dakota
Sure was glad to get out of there alive
This is one of the songs that I didn’t know well (it seems that Dylan has never performed it live), but that I really like. It’s got a feel that really anticipates albums like Desire, particularly a song like “Isis”, which is a period that I really enjoy. This one foreshadows a really great period for Dylan. This is then followed by “Went to See the Gypsy”, which is the best thing on the album. So everything is clicking along wonderfully.
And then we hit the brick wall, hard. “Winterlude” is, I suppose, meant to be funny. It’s just annoying rather than goofy. The closing lyrics:
Come out tonight, ev’rything will be tight
Winterlude, this dude thinks you’re grand
Are some of the worst of all time. And it’s still downhill – “If Dogs Run Free” ends the side. There is another version of this on Another Self Portrait, by the way, without the scatting, which is only not good, rather than actively awful. Still, this version is just terrible.
Side two opens with the title track, and it’s a pretty good one. I like the way Dylan sings this very slight but extremely happy little ditty. It’s probably my second favourite thing on the album.
“Sign on the Window” is the song from this album that I had the most difficulty getting a handle on. It’s not a song that sticks in my mind, so it sounds new to me every time I hear it. I don’t like the bridge at all – with the piano it sounds like something from Elton John or Billy Joel. “The Man in Me” I’ve already written about. It’s fine. Like side one, the second side sort of runs out of gas. “Three Angels” and “Father of Night” don’t have a ton to recommend them. “Three Angels” is actually a bit of a nothing. Recorded on June 1, 1970, it was produced on the same day as “If Dogs Run Free” and “Winterlude” (and “The Man in Me”), likely one of the least best days for Dylan in the studio ever.
So, overall there’s quite a bit to like on this album. It’s literally half good – I think that exactly half of the songs are really good, and half I’d jettison. Still, that’s a pretty good ratio, all things considered.