Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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"Waves" of Uncomfy Convictions

It must please Bob Dylan, an artist uncommonly perplexed by the paradoxes of success, that although his prestige has not waned in the eight years since it peaked with Blonde on Blonde and the fateful motorcycle accident, his mystique has. For Dylan does not like to be mystified. He has always worked for fame, but he has never accepted the way the mass audience puts the individual artist out of perspective. Always sensitive to criticism, he soon felt threatened by adulation as well--he just wanted to be himself. On Self Portrait, the album that convinced almost everyone he was only human, although not in the way he intended, he asserted this intrinsically personal need in the words of another songwriter: "Take me as I am or let me go."

If only for their own peace of mind, most of those who care about Dylan would like to honor this request. In practice, however, that is impossible, because Dylan never makes clear who he really am. The compromise solution is to increase one's chances of accuracy by assuming a more moderate stance. Dylan's admirers no longer consider him an inviolable hero whose genius transcends criticism and even doubt. And his detractors no longer consider him a vulgar poseur whose verbal pretensions mask his musical ineptitude. This is easier on everyone, Dylan included. But the old distortions, pro and con, survive. Battle lines on Planet Waves, the first album of new Dylan songs in more than three years, are being drawn right now.

The pro-Dylan camp comprises a great many old Dylan loyalists plus the new converts, mostly quite young, that an artist of Dylan's preeminence continually picks up. After resisting it for a while, the old loyalists have settled into a Dylan myth that everyone more or less accepts. He is the culture hero grown older, the mellow provocateur. The music since Nashville Skyline, four years ago now, is said to represent a more mature and realistic view of the world--not without anger, but steeped in an acceptance of family life.

Because Dylan is no longer impossible to ignore, the anti-Dylan camp is not large, but it is vocal. It includes veteran nitpickers, disillusioned boosters, and some mild-mannered hypocrites who never had the guts to criticize Dylan when he was a demigod. The anti-Dylanites turn the new myth around. If Dylan ever had anything to say, the nitpickers can claim, he has lost interest, and his music (harrumph, harrumph) reflects this boredom. Toning it down a little and deleting the "if" clause, the others say more or less the same thing.

Most myths contain truth. The advantage of extreme myths is that their truth is of obvious interest. It is more interesting, for example, to argue that in his early work Dylan was both an inviolable genius and a vulgar provocateur than to admit that the new Dylan is both mature and a little boring. So allow me to offer a more intriguing possibility.

To equate five-kids-and-nine-years-of-marriage Dylan--who from all reports is a perfectly real person--with Bob Dylan the singer-songwriter is to fall into the as-I-am trap that Bob Dylan sets so cunningly and then warns us against. Whatever the truth of his life, his artistic vision of domestic bliss has become steadily less tranquil ever since Nashville Skyline, which at least sounded sweet and comfy even though (like the country music to which it referred) it suggested troubles underneath.

Not counting the Pat Garret soundtrack and the unauthorized Dylan collection, there have been three albums between Nashville Skyline and Planet Waves. The most recent, frequently overlooked, was Greatest Hits Volume II, a retrospective programmed by Dylan himself that included six new songs. That album began with Dylan "watching the river flow" and ended "down in the flood" in one of his strongest end-of-relationship songs: "Oh mama, ain't you gonna miss your best friend now?/Yes, you're gonna have to find yourself/Another best friend somehow."

Although his more fanatic followers have always delighted in tracing mad metaphoric connections between his songs, Dylan has never been consistent enough to make the going easy. It's interesting, therefore, that the final and most powerful track on Planet Waves includes the following: "What's lost is lost, we can't regain/What went down in the flood/But happiness to me is you/And I love you more than blood." The third line is an example of the way Dylan encourages his fans to think of him a simp; the rest indicates why they shouldn't. Not only does he invoke previous work to suggest a major domestic interruption, he then reaffirms his domesticity in a metaphor that seems banal and yet succeeds at being violent at the same time.

That quatrain is crude, but effective; in fact, it is effective because it is crude. So is Planet Waves. All of today's most prestigious music, even what passes for funk, is slicked down with a delicate coat of silicone grease, and Dylan is telling us to take that grease and jam it. This is not a comfy album. It was recorded in three days. The Band, which provided the backing, has switched from the rollicking full-bodied boogie of Moondog Matinee to stray cat music--scrawny, cocky, and yowling up the stairs. There were no overdubs. Even Dylan's voice was recorded on the same take as the rest of the music.

As always, that voice is a new voice. It is rough, sometimes recalling his folkiest tunelessness, but it is also mature and well-rounded. It's not pretty, like Nashville Skyline, nor rocking, like New Morning. It avoids the sharp edge of detachment that undercut the anger of his middle period vocals. What it communicates is conviction.

Conviction requires convictions, and, contrary to reports, Dylan has plenty of those. Not that they're necessarily new--just the old stuff about love and pain and struggle. Dylan's vision of marriage is far from comfy. This record contains a lot of hate as well as a lot of love, and there's no definitive reason to believe it isn't all directed at the same person in different moods. On the other hand, the love is passionate. Desire and excitement recur again and again. So do memories of the past. But unlike too many of his contemporaries, Dylan isn't stuck there. On one of the other strong songs on this album, he bids his children remain "forever young." He seems to be doing a moderately good job of that himself.

N'day, Jan. 27, 1974