Wednesday, June 11, 2008

1001 Albums: Number God Knows What

The Freewheelin' – Bob Dylan

So I am still digging through this '1001 albums you must listen to before you die' list. At the current rate it will take me about twenty years to get through them all, so who knows if I'll ever actually listen to all 1001, but at least to this point (from the mid 1950s to 1963) it has been for the most part an interesting and educating project.

Since I last posted here this list has exposed me to some truly dire music. Marty Robbins' schmaltzy Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs was by far the worst. I can handle cringeworthy lyrics and themes as long as there's good music for it to hide behind, but straightup cornball country will do little to mask or forgive the inanity of old west clichés and nauseatingly sincere Christian morality tales. Jimmy Smith's Back at the Chicken Shack and Booker T. and the M.G.s' Green Onions both make strange and misguided attempts to fill out half an hour of instrumental organ led jazz. Don't get me wrong, the organ is a fine instrument, but its use in this context evokes the very worst kind of cheesy Seventies muzak and I have a hard time imagining why people who appear to be talented musicians seem so enthused by it.

Fortunately there have been some good discoveries as well. Muddy Waters Live at Newport is fantastic and I actually sat down and listened to a Beatles album (the very early With the Beatles) from beginning to end for the first time in my life and found it not disappointing. But the highlight so far has to be Ray Price's Night Life, which provides country music with a redemptive counterbalance to the godawful Marty Robbins (perhaps aided by the more engaging subject matter of getting trashed in seedy bars and cavorting with loose women).

But anyway, on to the ostensible subject of this post. The most recent album in this list I listened to is The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, which contains many of the famous folk singer's most notable songs, opening with the legendary 'Blowin' in the Wind'. Folk is a new genre to me, but the iconic image of one dude with a guitar and a harmonica railing against the man has its romantic appeal and Dylan is more strongly associated with this image than anyone else. However I found that, on this album at least, Dylan's more didactic songs were pretty grating. Not in a musical way but just because of the subtly unpleasant aroma of self-rightous Sixties hippydom. Sure, on 'Masters of War'
You fasten the triggers
For the others to fire
Then you set back and watch
When the death count gets higher
You hide in your mansion
As young people's blood
Flows out of their bodies
And is buried in the mud
I might agree with Dylan's sentiments, and I may nod along in a pleased manner when Jim Morrison sings almost exactly the same thing on 'Dead Cats, Dead Rats', but this particular song, and others like it, radiate a particular smugness and arrogance that belie the message of the song and cause me to grind my teeth and roll my eyes ever so slightly.

I like Dylan a lot more when he's only half serious. You can read whatever meaning you like into 'Blowin' in the Wind', but taken at face value at least the lyrics are little more than romantic nonsense. It's Dylan's knowing, assured performance that infuses the song with weighty meaning and has rendered it a classic, and I like this persona of his much better. I also really liked 'Talkin' World War III Blues', where Dylan affects a rambling mumble and injects a healthy dose of humour, while still maintaining a political slant as implied by the title.

There's shitloads more Bob Dylan coming up on this list, so we'll see whether I grow fonder of his pompous hippy side or if generation Y cynicism will cause me to grow weary and dismiss him as an outdated, overly earnest faded Boomer icon.

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