Posts Tagged ‘Neil Young’

Pop music odyssey: the finale

April 20, 2016

At long last, about two years and 235 albums after it began, my pop music odyssey has come to an end. Rejoice!

This leg of the journey was the longest, covering the years from 2000-2016, and it consisted of 13 albums by Neil Young, 10 by Van Morrison, 6 each by Bob Dylan and Tom Waits, and 4 by Leonard Cohen.

During the 2000s (the actual 2000s, not this rehearsal of them) my interests had migrated away from popular music toward classical, and in consequence many of the records I’ve been listening to over these past few months have been new to me. There have been some really nice discoveries, Tom Waits’ Real Gone especially.

Having said that, it is also fair to say that the level of inspiration among my chosen few has been ebbing away during these years. There were few outright bad records, but there were quite an armful of mediocre ones, and it has been rather difficult to come up with a list of ten favourite albums.

Nonetheless, a tradition is a tradition, so let me propose the following list, arranged more or less in descending order:

Leonard Cohen – Ten New Songs (2001)
Van Morrison – Down the Road (2002)
Leonard Cohen – Old Ideas (2012)
Tom Waits – Orphans (2006)
Tom Waits – Alice (2002)
Tom Waits – Real Gone (2004)
Bob Dylan – Tell Tale Signs (2008)
Bob Dylan – Modern Times (2006)
Bob Dylan – Love and Theft (2001)
Van Morrison – Pay the Devil (2006)

Ten New Songs I consider to be one of Leonard Cohen’s best records, and maybe the only downright masterpiece on this list. Sonically it is quite spectacular, especially by his rather lacklustre standards, and the songwriting is consistently excellent. Van Morrison’s Down the Road is uneven, but it has a few real corkers on it and I love to put it on. Orphans was a 3-disc set of unreleased songs, fragments, and experiments, and it too is uneven, but gloriously so. Waits had all these songs lying around, and he went back into the studio to record them all afresh in his late, Cerberusian style, so there is a sonic consistency throughout even though the songs were written over the course of decades. It’s fun to try to guess which period each dates from. Dylan’s records in this period have been critically lauded, but for me they lean too much on the blues, and I’ve put them onto the list more or less in order to fill it up. I hate to say that, but it’s true.

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It’s easier to come up with a list of ten favourite songs, and even to put them in rough descending order:

Dylan — “Ain’t Talkin'” (Modern Times)
Cohen — “Alexandra Leaving” (Ten New Songs)
Morrison — “The Beauty of the Days Gone By” (Down the Road)
Cohen — “Come Healing” (Old Ideas)
Waits — “Down There By The Train” (Orphans)
Cohen — “You Got Me Singing” (Popular Problems)
Morrison — “Once a Day” (Pay the Devil)
Waits — “Alice” (Alice)
Cohen — “In My Secret Life” (Ten New Songs)
Dylan — “Cross the Green Mountain” (Tell Tale Signs)

Dylan’s lawyers prevent me linking to his songs, which is a pity.

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Odyssey MVP

At the outset I assumed that the MVP would be Bob Dylan. He’s my pop music pole star, and I built the odyssey around his music. But, here at the finish line, I’m inclined to give the palm to Van Morrison. He never reached the colossal heights that Dylan reached in the mid-1960s, but, then again, neither did anybody else, including Dylan over the subsequent decades. And Van Morrison never really had a bad patch; he’s been consistently good-to-great for decades.

And, by the phonebook test (“Who would you most want to hear sing the phonebook?”), it’s Van Morrison by a country mile.

I hereby name him the Odyssey MVP.

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As a way of wrapping things up, let me point out a few examples of cross-referencing: instances in which one subject of the odyssey makes reference to another. There weren’t many that I noticed, but there were a few.

  • On A Letter Home, Neil Young covers Dylan’s “Girl From the North Country”.
  • In the song “Twisted Road” (from Psychedelic Pill) Neil Young sings about hearing Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”.
  • On “Highlands” (from Time Out of Mind) Bob Dylan sings about “listening to Neil Young” (and everybody shouts at him to “turn it down”).
  • Bob Dylan and Van Morrison recorded a session of duets together.

So it would seem that it’s been mostly Young and Dylan trading cards.

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This has a been a really rewarding project, and in a sense I’m sad to see it end. In another sense I’m glad, because I’m ready to move on to something else.

I’ve been mulling over a few other possible projects that I might start: Mahler symphonies (again), Schubert lieder (actually, I’m already doing this one), fifteenth-century music, Mozart’s operas, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams. Any suggestions?

Pop music odyssey: the 1990s

October 27, 2015

It’s time for another checkpoint on my pop music odyssey. It has taken quite a few months for me to navigate this stretch, but here I am, safe and sound. This portion of the odyssey has included 12 records from Van Morrison, 8 from Neil Young, 6 from Bob Dylan, 5 from Tom Waits, 3 from Mark Heard, and just 1 (but a good one!) from Leonard Cohen. I also threw in a sampling of 3 records by Nick Cave (Let Love In, Murder Ballads, and The Boatman’s Call).

By the end of the 1990s, my companions on this pop music odyssey were getting on in years: Dylan was in his late 50s, Van Morrison and Neil Young were both 55, Tom Waits had reached 50, and Leonard Cohen was in his mid-60s. One might think that their creativity and ambition would be in decline, rock and roll being a young man’s game, and in some cases that expectation is born out. But all of them released at least one pretty great album in the 1990s, and a few of them were doing work at least as good as what had come before.

In fact, the music these men made in the 1990s is particularly close to my heart. I myself was 15 years old in 1990, and it was during this decade that I discovered each of these singers for the first time. The years 1991-92, in particular, are a kind of golden dream in my personal history of music appreciation: it was in those years that Van Morrison made Hymns to the Silence, Mark Heard made Second Hand, Tom Waits made Bone Machine and Leonard Cohen made The Future, and beyond the borders of this odyssey they were the years of great records from U2, R.E.M., The Tragically Hip, Lyle Lovett, Sting, Crowded House, and Pearl Jam. For me all of these records have an aura of wonder around them. I know their nooks and crannies. I honestly can’t say if they are as good as I think they are; I can only hear them with my 17-year old ears, and they sound pretty darn terrific.

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Not that there wasn’t some dross in the mix. Dylan launched his first LP of the decade with a contender for his very worst song (viz. “Wiggle Wiggle”), and his subsequent two records, on which he sang folk standards, were critically well-received but have never done anything for me. It seemed possible that Oh Mercy, in 1989, was to be his last hurrah. But then in 1997 he released Time Out of Mind, which is to my mind his best record since Blood on the Tracks, and, as it turned out, a record which inaugurated a bona fide late-career renaissance that continues, arguably, to this very day. In any case, I’ve loved Time Out of Mind since I first heard Dylan croak out the first line of “Love Sick”: I’m walking through streets that are dead. We understand implicitly that it was his voice that killed everything. Daniel Lanois, for all that he has been criticized for making all the records he produced sound the same, at least managed to get Dylan to record songs with arrangements and texture, something that was too often missing from the blunt-force approach to production that he used through much of the 1970s and 1980s. And “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven” and “Not Dark Yet” rank with the very best of the Dylan songbook.

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Neil Young had ended the 1980s on a high note, with Freedom, and he opened the new decade with the same raucous noise (only more so). Later in the decade he would team up with Pearl Jam on some blistering rock and roll records. But my favourite records of the decade are the quiet ones: Harvest Moon in 1992 and Sleeps with Angels in 1994, the later being the mildest mannered Crazy Horse album on record, and one of the high points in Young’s discography, a record of rough-hewn beauty, even if it lacks any particularly great individual songs. As is often the case with Young, the sound is more entrancing than the substance.

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The mouths of the best poets
Speak but a few words
And then lay down, stone cold,
In forgotten fields.

Well, I doubt that one of the best poets would write about mouths laying down, but, still, these lines of his come to mind when I think about Mark Heard, who passed away suddenly in 1992, and who was, I’ll wager, the best songwriter you’ve never heard of. As I said last time, he made three truly outstanding records in the early 1990s, of which the second, called Second Hand, is his masterpiece, and one of my all-time favourite albums. It’s a sort of miracle and a sort of tragedy that an album this intimate and desperate and honest found its way into the world through the “contemporary Christian music” portal; a miracle because the piety of the record, though very real, is not expressed in comfortable or comforting ways, and a tragedy because it didn’t find the audience it deserved. The music is stripped down to a few acoustic instruments, and Heard’s ragged tenor was never captured in better form. Indispensable.

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Leonard Cohen released only one record in the 1990s: The Future. Despite its hokey instrumentation — it sounds as though it was made with one of those $50 electronic keyboards from Radio Shack — it contains some of his most ambitious songwriting, and he is in glorious sepultural voice. It is fair to say, I think, that it is the most political record he has made, for it contains two epic songs on broadly political and cultural themes (“The Future” and “Democracy”), and though I am normally averse to politics in song I don’t tire of these ones. “Closing Time”, his bouncy apocalyptic number, was a pretty big hit, and I have a very distinct memory of hearing these lines on the radio: “So we struggle and we stagger / Down the snakes and up the ladders / To the tower where the blessed hours chime”. Not much to look at when set down on paper, I suppose, but to my inexperienced teenaged ears, those lines convinced me that popular song could, in the right hands, aspire to be something like art. I don’t remember if I was already listening to Dylan and Waits at that point, but my encounter with Leonard Cohen’s The Future certainly catalyzed my interest in the craft of songwriting.

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If I’m not mistaken, Hymns to the Silence was the first Van Morrison record that I really got to know. I can still remember reading the review, by Brian Quincy Newcomb, and thinking that I needed to find a way to hear it. It was not at all a bad entry point into Van’s music. The gauzy veil that had hung over much of his music in the 1980s was blown away on this record; everything was crisp and clear, and he was firing on most cylinders. Of course, being a sprawling double album it does have its share of sub-standard material, but they are the exception not the rule, and there are a handful of outstanding numbers. There is even a flute on a few tracks. (It is strange but true that Van Morrison only puts a flute on his very best songs; this is a fool-proof crutch for critics.) And the record contains my favourite rendition of a hymn by a pop music singer: he sings “Be Thou My Vision”.

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It has been said that Tom Waits writes two kinds of songs: grand weepers and grim reapers. The two have never worked together to better effect than on Bone Machine, the record that I consider to be his masterpiece. The grand weepers, in “Who Are You?” and “Whistle Down the Wind”, are luxurious, and the grim reapers, in “Black Wings” and “Earth Died Screaming” and “Murder in the Red Barn” (and others! There are a lot of grim reapers on this record.), have never been more deliciously grim. And in “A Little Rain” he managed to combine the two kinds of song into one. It’s a terrific, terrific record — but too scary for the kids. (Still not as scary as Nick Cave’s Murder Ballads.)

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Favourite cover songs: Van Morrison singing Don Gibson’s “I Can’t Stop Loving You” (Hymns to the Silence); Dylan covering Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times” (Good As I Been To You).

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Scariest song I’ve ever heard: Nick Cave’s “Song of Joy” (Murder Ballads)

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It is easy to come up with a list of ten favourite records for this decade. In rough descending order, I choose as follows:

Mark Heard — Second Hand (1991)
Tom Waits — Bone Machine (1992)
Bob Dylan — Time Out of Mind (1997)
Van Morrison — Hymns to the Silence (1991)
Leonard Cohen — The Future (1992)
Mark Heard — Dry Bones Dance (1990)
Neil Young — Sleeps with Angels (1994)
Mark Heard — Satellite Sky (1992)
Van Morrison — Enlightenment (1990)
Neil Young — Harvest Moon (1992)

The bottom five on that list are good, solid records, but the first five are knock-outs.

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As for a list of ten favourite songs, it’s not at all easy to settle, and that because of an abundance of riches. My initial short list had 35 songs, so whittling it down to 10 has been no laughing matter. Nonetheless, here we are:

Van Morrison — “Avalon of the Heart” (Enlightenment)
Bob Dylan — “Not Dark Yet” (Time Out of Mind)
Mark Heard — “Treasure of the Broken Land” (Satellite Sky)
Mark Heard — “Look Over Your Shoulder” (Second Hand)
Tom Waits — “A Little Rain” (Bone Machine)
Bob Dylan — “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven” (Time Out of Mind)
Mark Heard — “Lonely Moon” (Second Hand)
Van Morrison — “Take Me Back” (Hymns to the Silence)
Leonard Cohen — “The Future” (The Future)
Mark Heard — “Worry Too Much” (Second Hand)

Oh, this is too cruel. Here are another ten:

Van Morrison — “Real Real Gone” (Enlightenment)
Tom Waits — “Whistle Down the Wind” (Bone Machine)
Van Morrison — “I Need Your Kind of Loving” (Hymns to the Silence)
Mark Heard — “Orphans of God” (Satellite Sky)
Bob Dylan — “Highlands” (Time Out of Mind)
Van Morrison — “High Summer” (Back on Top)
Van Morrison — “Hymns to the Silence” (Hymns to the Silence)
Tom Waits — “Murder in the Red Barn” (Bone Machine)
Mark Heard — “Nod Over Coffee” (Second Hand)
Leonard Cohen — “Closing Time” (The Future)

There; that’s better. But then there are these songs too:

Van Morrison — “Rough God Goes Riding” (The Healing Game)
Tom Waits — “Black Wings” (Bone Machine)
Leonard Cohen — “Waiting for the Miracle” (The Future)
Mark Heard — “House of Broken Dreams” (Dry Bones Dance)
Tom Waits — “House Where Nobody Lives” (Mule Variations)
Van Morrison — “Piper at the Gates of Dawn” (The Healing Game)
Neil Young — “Harvest Moon” (Harvest Moon)
Leonard Cohen — “Democracy” (The Future)
Mark Heard — “Dry Bones Dance” (Dry Bones Dance)
Van Morrison — “Carrying a Torch” (Hymns to the Silence)

Yes. Here is a YouTube playlist of all these songs.

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What was the worst of this portion of the odyssey? I can’t say for sure just how bad it is because I’ve never been able to listen to it through, but I’m going to go with Van Morrison’s “In the Days before Rock ‘n Roll” (Enlightenment). I think I’m going to be sick. The worst album has got to be Dylan’s Under the Red Sky (or, under the red sky, if you care about typographical niceties).

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I’ve not decided yet if I’ll take the remaining 15 years of the odyssey in one bite or two. Until next time…

Pop music odyssey: the 1980s

March 15, 2015

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Alright, enough of that.

I have completed another decade of my pop music odyssey, and I’m here to offer a few thoughts. The 1980s are, in my imagination, a kind of desolation for popular music, when the airwaves were ruled by — well, by nobody in this odyssey. Quite a few of the albums I listened to since my last report were new to me, so I have taken my time, listening to many of them numerous times in an effort to get a good sense of them.

This leg of the journey has been composed of 13 albums by Van Morrison (where, as usual, I count bootlegs and live recordings too), 12 by Dylan, 10 by Neil Young, 6 by Tom Waits, 5 by Mark Heard (about whom more below), and a pair each by Nick Cave and Leonard Cohen.

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In my notes on the 1970s I deftly skirted the matter of Dylan’s gospel records, but I suppose I should say something here. The gospel period began with 1978’s Slow Train Coming and continued up through … well, it’s not entirely clear. There is no doubt that Saved and Shot of Love belong in this group, and I think it is pretty clear that 1983’s Infidels also belongs, but things get a little hazier when we come to Empire Burlesque a year later. A case could even be made for Oh Mercy — indeed, a case could be made for every album he’s made since.

If we stick just with the least ambiguous cases, it is fair to say that I don’t greatly care for Dylan’s gospel records. Too often angry, too often hectoring, too often downright paranoid — I find little to like. I want to honour the sincerity of Dylan’s religious convictions, which burned up in short order the goodwill he had storehoused with critics and the left-leaning social elites who had cherished him in the 1960s. Songs like “I Believe in You” and “Pressing On” are obviously the work of a man who has turned to God with his whole heart. But I cannot help thinking it a pity that the Christianity into which he converted was in the Hal-Lindsay-laced apocalyptic style, suspicious and rather shallow. Perhaps it was fitting that this most iconic of American talents should adopt a characteristically American branch of religion, I don’t know. But I wonder sometimes, late at night, what might have come if that seed had fallen into richer, more balanced, more nourishing soil. We’ll never know.

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Dylan has never been scrupulous about putting his best music onto his records, but the 1980s were an especially unscrupulous period for him. You can count on the fingers of one hand the truly great songs he put on his records during these years: “Every Grain of Sand”, “I and I”, and a few from Oh Mercy. One could make a case for a few others: “Sweetheart Like You”, “Brownsville Girl”, depending on how generous one feels.

But then consider the songs he wrote and left off his records: “Angelina”, “Caribbean Wind”, “Blind Willie McTell”, “Born in Time”, “Dignity”, “Series of Dreams”, “Foot of Pride” — all of them pure gold. That, in a nutshell, is what makes Dylan in the 1980s such a frustrating listen.

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Favourite anecdote:

Dylan: “How long did it take you to write “Hallelujah”?

Cohen: “About two years. How long did it take you to write “Isis”?”

Dylan: “About fifteen minutes.”

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The plan all along was for this odyssey to focus on a core group of artists, but to pull in others as my fancy led. Thus a few Nick Cave records were included during this leg of the journey, but I also decided to fold in the music — more or less all of it — of Mark Heard. Heard was a songwriter and singer who toiled without much recognition in the “contemporary Christian music” world until his early and unexpected death in 1992. I wanted to include him because most of his early work (beginning in 1975) was unknown to me, and because in the early 1990s he made three truly outstanding records that can stand toe-to-toe with anything else in this odyssey. Maybe I just wanted to hear those records again, in context.

Anyway, I did backtrack to 1975 and listened all the way up through Mosaics, from 1985. (I wasn’t able to find his side-project record, Ideola, from 1987.) I admit I was disappointed. Heard started out as a kind of James Taylor character, plucking his guitar and singing in a sweet tenor. Production values on those early records are poor — the sound is generally thin and flat — and, what surprised me more, the songwriting is pedestrian. In his last years Heard became one of the most incisive and personal songwriters that I’ve ever encountered, but in the beginning he was, it seems, not that. Those early songs are mostly one-dimensional, overtly and rather carefully pious, sometimes hokey, and generally forgettable. But there were signs here and there of things to come: an evocative little song called “All the Sleepless Dreamers” popped up on Fingerprint (1980), and as the years passed his sound became rougher around the edges, the voice more ragged, and the songwriting more thoughtful and probing, until I could hear the whole Mosaics (1985) record as a bridge to his first masterpiece, Dry Bones Dance (1990). It was an interesting and rewarding side-journey, even if it didn’t turn up as much gold as I’d hoped it would.

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Most With Least Award: Van Morrison, “Daring Night” (from Avalon Sunset). There can’t be more than 3 or 4 lines in this song, but Van spins from them a pretty terrific 6 minutes of music.

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Neil Young in the 1970s was great; Neil Young in the 1980s was the opposite. Was he ever. Starting with 1980’s Hawks and Doves and continuing up through 1988’s This Note’s for You he released a string of 8 albums that could only be described as mediocre by an unusually generous listener. He seems to have temporarily mislaid his artistic identity, experimenting with whole records devoted to computer music (the execrable Trans (1983)), rockabilly (the likable but weird Everybody’s Rockin’ (1984)), and flipping from country to jazz to ill-judged synth-pop. A mess. And the songs were no good either, for the most part.

Now, it seems that at least part of the reason his music suffered so badly in this period was because, though he had a contractual obligation to release one record each year, his time and energy were absorbed in caring for his son, who had been born with a disability. In this sense his artistic declension was an honourable one, and I do not hesitate to praise his priorities, but honour and praise do not make the declension any less real.

He rallied, however, at the end of the decade, with Freedom, which saw him return to an even-more-crazed-than-usual Crazy-Horse style of fuzz-drenched rock. I’m not enamoured of the songs for the most part, but the sound of that record is outstanding: once again he is vital and passionate and really, really loud, and it suits him. “Rockin’ in the Free World” became a hit, making it perhaps the bitterest, most ironic stadium anthem ever written.

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Literary figures named in Van Morrison’s songs of the 1980s: Blake, Wordsworth, Rimbaud, Lawrence, Eliot, Whitman, Yeats, Donne, Coleridge, Gibran. That’s off the top of my head. Does Gibran count as a literary figure?

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The 1980s were an exciting time for Tom Waits. It was, arguably, the decade in which he did his best work, and in which he reinvented his sound. The down-and-out lounge poet was replaced by some kind of maniac wielding a monkey wrench and milk bucket and gargling razor blades. The transition was especially sharp between 1982’s Night on Earth soundtrack, with its orchestral score and gravelly love duets, and 1983’s Swordfishtrombones, with its bagpipes, bang-on-a-can percussion, and phalanx of (yes) trombones. It was a tremendously good move for Waits; it opened up a whole new world of sound and songwriting that he has explored for the rest of his career. And yet, as I listened through the records, the sharp lines between this and that began to blur a little. Swordfishtrombones was indeed a radical record, but Rain Dogs, from 1985, seemed to backpeddle a little and it is not too hard to hear continuity with 1980’s Heartattack and Vine, especially on the more “conventional” numbers like “Hang Down Your Head” and “Downtown Train”. Rain Dogs set a template for his future work, in which hallucinogenic croakings often sit comfortably cheek-by-jowel with endearingly downtrodden sentimental numbers. It’s a winning combination, and one unique to Waits.

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I am convinced that three songs on Dylan’s Oh Mercy are masterpieces, but which three varies day to day.

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As much as I count myself an admirer of Van Morrison, his records from the 1980s I have tended to neglect. Part of the fun of this odyssey is that I have opportunity to revisit and revise my thoughts, and I have been favourably impressed by these records.

I think it is fair to say that his mid-decade albums — from 1982’s Beautiful Vision up through 1987’s Poetic Champions Compose — suffer, if that is the right word, from a certain homogeneity. It is not always quite evident where one record ends and the next begins. Roughly speaking, the production values are slightly gauzy and there is a proliferation of mid-tempo musings. But if you can get past that the truth is that there are quite a few excellent songs to be discovered, and, more than that, there is a compelling through-line that makes of these records a unity greater than that afforded by mere musical similarities. He is stalking the holy. He is a dweller on the threshold of the transcendent. So many of these songs are about trying to grasp the ineffable, to behold a primordial beauty, to put himself in the way of ecstatic delight. “I’m a soul in wonder!” In these records — and it is a unifying thread through his whole catalogue, not just here — he is on an inner odyssey. And while it is true that he seems to be at heart beholden to the Romantic tradition of seeking a non-dogmatic transcendence (mediated most intensely through literature and art and nature), in his murky wanderings he does occasionally butt up against the solidity of religion. It’s a fascinating body of work, and I am thoroughly enjoying the time I am spending exploring it.

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I’ll close with some lists. First, my favourite odyssey-albums from the 1980s, in rough descending order:

Tom Waits — Rain Dogs (1985)
Bob Dylan — Oh Mercy (1989)
Tom Waits — Swordfishtrombones (1983)
Van Morrison — Avalon Sunset (1989)
Bob Dylan — Infidels (1983)
Van Morrison — No Guru, No Method, No Teacher (1986)
Leonard Cohen — I’m Your Man (1988)
Van Morrison — Beautiful Vision (1982)
Neil Young — Freedom (1989)
Van Morrison — Common One (1980)

The first four I consider essential. Not perfect, and not as masterful masterpieces as the same singers produced at other times, but they are records that I can, and do, listen to again and again, and they bear the scrutiny.

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Choosing a list of just ten favourite songs is tough, but since I am forced to do so by arbitrary convention, here I go:

Leonard Cohen — “If It Be Your Will” (Various Positions)
Bob Dylan — “Blind Willie McTell” (Infidels sessions)
Tom Waits — “Johnsburg, IL” (Swordfishtrombones)
Bob Dylan — “Foot of Pride” (Infidels sessions)
Bob Dylan — “Shooting Star” (Oh Mercy)
Bob Dylan — “I and I” (Infidels)
Van Morrison — “Summertime in England” (Common One)
Van Morrison — “When Will I Ever Learn to Live in God?” (AS)
Tom Waits — “Jersey Girl” (Heartattack and Vine)
Van Morrison — “In the Garden” (No Guru)

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What was the worst album in this leg of the odyssey? Going in I expected it to be Dylan & The Dead, the concert album that Dylan recorded with the Grateful Dead in 1987. I’d never heard it, but its noxious reputation has achieved canonical status. To my surprise, I found it not all that bad! Bad, yes, but not greatly worse than many of his other live albums, and — more to the point — nowhere near as bad as Neil Young’s Trans, as ill-conceived and unlistenable a record as I have ever heard. It takes the broken palm.

As for worst song, I’m going to stick with Neil Young again. So many candidates! How about “T-Bone”, from Re-ac-tor (1981)? There is just one line in the song: “Got mashed potatoes, ain’t got no T-bone”, repeated ad nauseum. The song is over nine minutes long.

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Next time: the 1990s.

Pop music odyssey: the 1970s

December 11, 2014

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Another leg of my pop music odyssey has been completed, and I offer a few quick notes. This stage of the journey included sixteen records by Bob Dylan (including some live albums and bootlegs), fourteen by Neil Young, twelve by Van Morrison, ten by Tom Waits, seven by Leonard Cohen, and just one by the Beatles (to whom we now bid farewell). It has been a long road, and I’ve had to watch my step.

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When I listen through Dylan’s records from the early 1970s — and here I am thinking of Self Portrait, New Morning, and Planet Waves, principally — I cannot but be curious about the precipitous decline in his standards. His albums from the 1960s were among the greatest on record. In retrospect I would argue that 1969’s Nashville Skyline was an ill omen, the promise of which was to be so sadly realized in the records that followed. In truth these records are not quite so bad as their reputations would suggest, considered in themselves; they are dismal, but it is by way of comparison with what had come before that they appear so crushingly dismal.

If one goes rummaging about in the statements Dylan has made about this period a few possible reasons for this appalling state of affairs can be discerned. One possibility is that Dylan had decided to make bad records; this might be thought a fancy concocted by his fans to save his face, but in fact there may be a real kernel of truth in it. This was the period of Woodstock, when Dylan was still being lauded as “the voice of his generation”. He famously declined to appear at Woodstock, and he has said that he simply wanted to record songs that would disappoint all those who had saddled him with a role he did not want for himself. He wanted them off his back, so he decided to record songs to which they would be unable to relate. Framed in this way, as a joke born of a kind of existential crisis, these records can be seen as the work of a man of paradoxical courage who would destroy his reputation to save his life.

But there must be more to the story as well, for not only had he nearly stopped writing good songs, he nearly stopped writing altogether. It was his first extended period of writer’s block. His muse seems to have abandoned him.

And I think there was something else going on too, something which might have been related to the writer’s block, but was distinct from it. The songs he wrote during and after this period have a quality which was largely absent from his great songs of the 1960s, and that is a sincere concern with simple feelings and direct communication. For instance, one cannot imagine “Forever Young” appearing on one of his mid-to-late 1960s records; the sentiment is too honest and straightforward. Dylan has said that in this period he wanted to get out of the limelight, and to live a normal life with his wife and children. “I realized what I was missing,” he said. And I think it is possible that his efforts to deepen his own personal relationships, and to learn how to express those commonplace but no less genuine feelings, without resort to swirls of imagery or clever wordplay, may have simply taken some time. He was deepening his art, and he went slowly. Whether he ever fully succeeded, and whether his songwriting thereafter ever reached the heights that it had reached before, is arguable, but any case to the contrary will have to contend with the mighty Blood on the Tracks.

It should also be said that no appraisal of this particularly difficult section of Dylan’s discography, and especially no dismissal of it, can be credible if it fails to take into account the recently released Bootleg Series, Vol.10 — Another Self Portrait, which consists of outtakes from the Self Portrait and New Morning sessions. These previously unreleased versions of the songs are frequently greatly superior to the versions that Dylan originally released: they have more spark, more poise, better singing, and clearer arrangements. The contrast with what we thought we knew of those records rather tends to support the “intentionally bad” theory that I mentioned above.

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Tom Waits was the sole singer in this survey for whom all of his 1970s records were previously familiar to me. I have tended to divide Waits’ recording career into two or three phases: an early, somewhat anomalous, period in which he crooned at the piano (Closing Time and, to a lesser extent, The Heart of Saturday Night), a skid-row beat poet period (The Heart of Saturday Night up through Heartattack and Vine in 1980), followed by a sharp phase transition in the early 1980s when he ditched his piano and his jazz-trimming for a junkyard orchestra and a case of tuberculosis (starting with Swordfishtrombones). But this neat taxonomy has been upended by an encounter with a live bootleg recorded in Bremen in 1977. It’s a superb record, both sonically and for what it reveals about Waits’s development. It was astounding for me to hear an early song like “Depot, Depot”, which for me epitomizes his crooning period, rendered in such a way that it could fit comfortably next to a song like “Shore Leave” (from 1983). Many of the songs are like that. It was recorded with the same instrumental backing as on Small Change — to wit: piano, saxophone, upright bass, and drums — but it is so much more visceral and impolite and phlegm-laden than the studio albums of the same period that it is hard to believe it comes from 1977 and not a decade later. In any case, it’s a terrific concert recording, a very happy discovery for me, that illuminates Waits’ early career in a most satisfying way.

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In my summation of the 1960s leg of this odyssey, I noted that the Neil Young of the 1960s paled in comparison with the Neil Young of the 1970s, and it is true that he had a spectacularly good decade. He slipped rather easily into Dylan’s evacuated shoes with Harvest (1972), but his parallel work with Crazy Horse showed he could stomp around in big boots as well when the song called for it. Indeed, this is one of the most remarkable things about Young’s career: it’s bifurcation into a mellow, rootsy groove on one hand and a raucous, feedback-drenched noise on the other, not as phases in his “development” (as is often said of Dylan) but in tandem, and somehow the two sides don’t seem to be at odds with one another, and I think this is a testament to the strength and consistency of Young’s artistic vision. The perceived unity of his work is also due in part to that eerie, wavering voice, which always makes the song unmistakably his.

Young is probably the only singer under consideration in this odyssey whose music — the sheer sound he makes — is more interesting than the songs he writes. He has a gift for melody, and he has his moments as a songwriter, but for the most part I find his songs most attractive when I listen least attentively to what he is singing. I could not but be dismayed, for instance, when I discovered that when he sang that “A Man Needs a Maid,” he actually meant that a man needs a maid — you know, to clean his house. Even his best songs suffer a lyrical vacuousness: “You are like a hurricane / There’s calm in your eye / And I’m gettin’ blown away.” Thud. There’s a lot of that sort of thing in his catalogue. Where he is memorable, he is memorable principally for a musical hook, not a turn of phrase.

I think it is also worth noting the extent to which Young was, during this period (without necessarily implying a contrast with what came before or after), the conscience of rock and roll. His forays into political songwriting are mostly failures, but when he is personal he can be very incisive. He was particularly good at indicting the drug culture which took the lives of several of his friends and bandmates during the 1970s. “The Needle and the Damage Done” is probably the most famous instance of this, but there are others, and indeed whole records (Tonight’s the Night) devoted to exploring and exhibiting the personal cost and the terrible sadness of drug addiction. Given his times and his place, this was an honourable vocation.

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Allow me to present a list of my favourite odyssey-albums from the 1970s. I make no explicit claim that these are the “best” albums from this period, but such a claim might well be implicit. More or less in descending order:

Bob Dylan — Blood on the Tracks (1975)
Van Morrison — Veedon Fleece (1974)
Neil Young — Rust Never Sleeps (1979)
Van Morrison — Moondance (1970)
Van Morrison — It’s Too Late to Stop Now (1974)
Tom Waits — Nighthawks at the Diner (1975)
Neil Young — Harvest (1972)
Van Morrison — Into the Music (1979)
Tom Waits — Live in Bremen (1977)
Van Morrison — Saint Dominic’s Preview (1972)

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Likewise, here are my ten favourite songs from this period. This was a tough list to put together, there being many good candidates. The list I came up with is a rather personal one; most of these songs are close to my heart. Again, in rough descending order:

Leonard Cohen — “Famous Blue Raincoat” (Love and Hate)
Van Morrison — “Country Fair” (Veedon Fleece)
Van Morrison — “Contemplation Rose” (1972, unreleased)
Van Morrison — “Into the Mystic” (Moondance)
Bob Dylan — “Tangled Up in Blue” (Blood on the Tracks)
Bob Dylan — “Idiot Wind” (Blood on the Tracks)
Van Morrison — “Full Force Gale” (Into the Music)
Van Morrison — “You Don’t Pull No Punches…” (Veedon Fleece)
Neil Young — “Needle and the Damage Done” (Harvest)
Van Morrison — “Madame Joy” (1972, unreleased)

Bob Dylan dominated the list from the 1960s, but here it is Van Morrison who makes the strongest showing. I’m not surprised by this — he wrote so many great songs in the 70s — but I am surprised that not a single song by Tom Waits made my list. There are a lot of Waits songs that I like, but when I put them up against this rather stiff competition I found that they couldn’t crack the top ten.

Those two “unreleased” songs by Van Morrison did eventually see the light of day on his 1991 back catalogue showcase The Philosopher’s Stone. Technically, then, they were “unreleased” only during the period under consideration. They are great songs nonetheless; it is a mystery why he left them off his records at the time.

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There wasn’t much point of doing so in the 1960s, but here in the more uneven 1970s it might be enjoyable to poke fun at the worst of what my odyssey had to offer. Worst album? Dylan is in competition with himself and the competition is fierce, but I will go with Self Portrait, a record whose quality was well-summarized in the opening flourish of that famous Rolling Stone review. As for the worst song, the runner-up is “All the Tired Horses” (from Self Portrait) and the winner is “If Dogs Run Free” (from New Morning), a song so wretched that I feel physically ill when I hear it. No, don’t listen!

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And now it is time to swing around and peer into the future: we stand on the cusp of the 1980s. I have long maintained that there were only five great pop/rock records made in the 1980s, and sadly only one of those will be part of my odyssey. My prospects look dim.

But, then again, that might just be because I’m wearing these shades.

Odyssey notes: The 1960s

June 17, 2014

My pop music odyssey, structured, you may recall, around the discography of Bob Dylan, has been making slow but steady progress over the past few months. It began in 1962 with Dylan’s self-titled debut record, and, as time goes on, is widening to include the discographies of the Beatles, Van Morrison, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, and Tom Waits, along with a few other things thrown in from time to time.

I recently reached the end of the 1960s, which seems a good time to pause and offer a few thoughts. This leg of the odyssey has included 15 records by Bob Dylan (including a number of live and bootlegged recordings in addition to his studio albums), 12 by the Beatles (leaving only Let It Be, from 1970, still to come in their discography), 3 each by Neil Young and Van Morrison, and 2 by Leonard Cohen.

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Of these, it is of course Bob Dylan who reigns supreme: listening to those records from the middle years of the decade again — from Freewheelin’ in 1963 up through John Wesley Harding in 1967 — it is amazing to consider his achievement. His debut album hardly prepared us for the supple, evocative, and often hilarious songwriting that showed up on Freewheelin’, and he only went from strength to strength. Sometime in 1962 he wrote “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” a song whose ambition outstripped everything else he’d done, but in the years that followed it was outstripped in turn. He seemed to spiral upward, shedding one persona after another, his music changing along with him, as in a whirlwind. It is hard to imagine where he might have gone after Blonde on Blonde had a motorcycle accident not laid him low, out of sight, for an extended period in 1966-7. When he came back, he had jumped tracks again, singing with a simplicity and straightforwardness that was belied by the enigmatic songs he had written. It is a period of artistic creativity that I, at any rate, find endlessly fascinating and absorbing, and it has been a great pleasure to revisit it.

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What can it have been like to hear Astral Weeks for the first time? Van Morrison was not entirely unknown at the time: he had been the frontman for Them, and in the months leading up to Astral Weeks his record company had, without his consent, released a couple of records of solo material. But, even so, listeners could hardly have been ready for the ecstatic flights and spiritual longing of this, his official debut album. It is a kind of miracle, a one-off in a career by no means devoid of admirable achievements. Its whole spirit seems to have descended from on high, an exultation in song burst from the heart of the singer, who was, astoundingly, then just 23 years old. Despite the absence of anything resembling a single, and though it has long lingered in the shadow of the more accessible (and justly beloved) Moondance, there are few pieces of popular art that affect me more deeply and delight me more thoroughly than it does. Give me Astral Weeks, a steady rain, and the open road, and I’ll be the happiest man on earth.

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A few years ago, on a bit of a whim, I sat down and listened to the first four or five albums by Pink Floyd; Pink Floyd was a famous band whose work I did not know well, and I thought it would be instructive. I was surprised — flabbergasted, really — to find those albums almost unlistenable: the dull sonic experiments, the aimless meandering, the pretentious tedium…

Well, I had a similar sort of experience — though admittedly to a lesser degree — with Neil Young’s self-titled debut record. Though I am an admirer of Neil Young, this was an album that I had never heard, and it turns out I wasn’t missing much. My purpose right now is not to critique it, but simply to ask: how did a lacklustre record like that lead to anything else? How did it become a stepping stone to a great career, rather than a torpedo to it? What did people hear in it that they liked? Maybe I’m just spoiled by knowing the Young of the 1970s before knowing the Young of the 1960s.

Now that I think of it, I suppose much the same line of comment could be applied to Dylan’s debut record too. It barely hinted at what was to come, and that only in retrospect.

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This leg of my journey may well eventually prove to have been the most rewarding. In Rolling Stone’s list of the “Top 500 albums,” for instance, fully seven of the Top 10 are from the 1960s (and, of those, six have been part of my odyssey). Perhaps it’s all downhill from here. But I hope not.

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Meantime, here is a list of my ten favourite odyssey-albums from the 1960s, more or less in descending order:

Van Morrison — Astral Weeks (1968)
Bob Dylan — Blonde on Blonde (1966)
Bob Dylan — Bringing It All Back Home (1965)
Bob Dylan — Freewheelin’ (1963)
Bob Dylan — Live 1964 (1964)
Bob Dylan — John Wesley Harding (1967)
Beatles — Abbey Road (1969)
Bob Dylan — Another Side (1964)
Leonard Cohen — Songs (1967)
Beatles — Help! (1965)

Making a list of favourite odyssey-songs from the same period seems slightly pointless: it more or less amounts to making a list of favourite Dylan songs. But why not? It’s a cruel exercise, there being so many fine candidates, but I’ll give it a shot.

“Desolation Row” (Highway 61 Revisited)
“To Ramona” (Another Side)
“It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” (Bringing It All Back Home)
“Visions of Johanna” (Blonde on Blonde)
“All Along the Watchtower” (John Wesley Harding)
“Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” (Freewheelin’)
“I Want You” (Blonde on Blonde)
“One Too Many Mornings” (The Times They Are A-Changin’)
“Love Minus Zero / No Limit” (Bringing It All Back Home)
“Suzanne” — Leonard Cohen

Looking at that list, I realize it probably doesn’t overlap much with a standard list of Dylan’s “best songs”: no “Blowin’ in the Wind”, no “Like a Rolling Stone”, no “Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”. But there are not meant to be his best songs, by some indeterminate measure, but only my favourite songs, tried and true over many years of listening. And look! one non-Dylan song snuck onto the list in spite of all.

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And now, turning to face forward, and putting on my bell-bottoms, I see in the distance Dylan painting a Self-Portrait, Neil Young reaping a Harvest, Van Morrison breakfasting on Tupelo Honey, Leonard Cohen donning New Skin for an Old Ceremony, and Tom Waits, who until now has been warming up his crooning voice in the wings, I see serenading Nighthawks at the Diner. It’s the 1970s, and I’m cautious but resolute.