Bob Dylan's New Morning

Last updated 08:41 09/12/2011

New Morning is my favourite Bob Dylan album. This wasn't always the case - and it won't always be the case. (This is, after all, a blog that references a certain Dylan album, so there'll always be competition). I've always liked New Morning, right from when I first heard it some 20 years ago, but it's now my favourite.

Earlier this year I re-read Chronicles Volume One and Dylan offers plenty of thoughts (and information) about the recording of this album - but it wasn't the re-read that got me thinking about the album; at least not as far as I'm aware. At any rate it's one of the few Dylan albums I've always been able to listen to.

We all have our favourite albums that are also lesser-known in an artist's catalogue - and New Morning probably ticks that box. The only real hit was If Not for You (covered by George Harrison and Olivia Newton-John). There were a few covers of The Man in Me also - but its inclusion in the opening credits of The Big Lebowski is the key reason this song picked up any steam. Oh, that and the fact that it's a great song.

New MorningI first saw Dylan perform around the time of The Big Lebowski. He opened his set with The Man in Me - just as you could assume that it was because of the movie, you would also be wise to assume Dylan hadn't even heard of the film. Dylan's been doing his never-ending tour for nearly 25 years now. He carries on in spite of releasing new albums rather than because of that fact. And even as he reinvents his back-catalogue, often feeling like he's struggling to remember it himself - the audience only twigging when the grumbled chorus reveals something almost resembling a familiar note - New Morning remains untapped/forgotten in the scheme of Dylan's oeuvre. Apparently only four songs from New Morning have ever been performed live.

The album also falls right in the middle of a fascinating period for Dylan. So many people will tell you that after the early, vital folk and rock'n'roll melding, Dylan, post-motorcycle crash, was lost. The story is picked back up in the mid-1970s, there's a double shot of love (well, it's actually all about love lost) with Blood on the Tracks and Desire and from there the born-again phase has its defenders and then there's a gap again and then the string-tie shenanigans he's been phoning in for the last decade and a half.

Well, my favourite period of, erm, Dylanology, is the stretch between 1967-1974; the post-Blonde on Blonde albums (and pre-Blood on the Tracks ones) that start with John Wesley Harding (an alt-country template arriving 30 years early) and concludes with the superb Planet Waves. In between are the forgotten gems in his catalogue - the jumbled mess that is Self Portrait (one of his most honest albums), the country folly of Nashville Skyline and the sublime soundtrack to Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid. In the middle of all of this is New Morning; the hinge between Dylan-escaping-being-Dylan and Dylan-again-being-Dylan.

New Morning was positively reviewed at the time - but then it seemed to just disappear. It might seem to suffer from having nothing truly iconic - no huge performances, no weighty songs but that's what I like about it. It's Dylan having fun, sending up his image and being incredibly earnest. You listen carefully to this, you can hear him pondering his next move. And there are strong band performances.

Also, I think it's his finest album, vocally. Gone is that country-croon that he was faking at the end of the 1960s. The voice of Dylan is back - but there's a sweetness. Anyone who thinks this man cannot sing is not listening properly.

If Not For You kicks the album off and then Day of the Locusts is an odd, almost beguiling but deeply cynical song ("Yeah the locusts sang/And they was singing for me"). Then it's to Time Passes Slowly, an almost-blues song and Went To See the Gypsy.

Every song on the album tells a story - just what the story actually is isn't always clear. Another of the (main) reasons I like this album. You can consider it lightweight but it's opaque.

Winterlude is folly; the sort that only Dylan could have got away with at the time - come on, the chorus is "Winterlude, this dude thinks you're fine". Okay, so it's not quite "I am the table!" but it's up there in terms of revered lyricists stretching things...

Similarly, If Dogs Run Free is a juvenile send-up of beatnik ideals and performance.

If the album's feeling just a bit too slight, stick around for side two.

The title track is Dylan basking in his country life without needing to dress up in country attire to sell the image; here he's not concerned with image, here it's about expression, amusement, enjoyment. What a great groove the band strikes too.

Sign on the Window is one of the greatest songs in Dylan's catalogue. I'm sure of this. It's certainly the sound of him being born-again in a musical sense - about a decade before he had his religious turnaround. This is a song that exists in its own bubble, telling a story about everything and nothing - a mood, a world, all in three minutes.

The churning country/blues groove returns for One More Weekend and then it's The Man in Me - a classic that never quite was.

Three Angels and Father of Night are the closing tracks - they feel like a bizarre one-two; two song-slithers that almost become one whole together. They're perfect like this, serving to remind that this is an odd album - but one that's served with Dylan's usual poker-face.

I like New Morning because I find a new favourite each time - I think there are half a dozen classic tracks (at least). I like New Morning because you can actually listen to every track on YouTube, the original version - a rarity with Dylan. This means you can actually introduce new people to New Morning. And you can get a bite now and then instead of the whole meal. I like New Morning because I felt as though I discovered it away from any hype, all by myself. And it feels like that - still - every time I play it.

I just wanted to share that with you; the fact that - for now at least - it's my new favourite Dylan album. I might have mentioned this before, you might think I'm bonkers for giving this album the time (and for wasting yours by suggesting that you try it too) but it's been on my mind (and on my turntable) again recently.

Maybe you could share one album that you think deserves another listen - either from Dylan's catalogue or any other artist with plenty of albums. Pick one that you think is somewhat overlooked/forgotten and recommend it for us.

And are there any other New Morning fans out there? Or have you tried this album and you just don't think anything (much) of it?

Postscript: Earlier this year it was Bob Dylan's 7oth birthday - so I wrote this.

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Jambonz   #1   09:11 am Dec 09 2011

Simon, "Sign on the Window" is one of my favourite Dylan songs of all. It's delicate, precious, and very very moving. New Morning was a big, and pleasant, surprise for me - the best of his albums between the Blonde and the Blood. I also think it's one of his most "uppy", carefree albums - not too self-conscious - I love the levity and positivity of the title track. (I also think Street Legal grooves along in an un-self-conscious way.) Enjoyed reading your thoughts on New Morning. As a big Van Morrison fan, one of my favourites is the often overlooked "No Guru, No Method, No Teacher" from 1986 - every track is a gem.

Jonny   #2   09:13 am Dec 09 2011

I like New Morning a lot. But it never really feels like a Dylan album to me. Sign on the Window and Father of Night and Day of the Locusts... they're just not Dylan songs. The album is light and bucolic and autumnal and weird. I remember reading in the Clinton Heylin book about Dylan staying up late drinking peppermint tea with Arlo Guthrie around this time, talking religion. That kinda sums it up for me. Fun fact: If Dogs Run Free is Jonathan Donahue's favourite Dylan song.

m.s.p   #3   09:14 am Dec 09 2011

Great stuff. Yeah I love New Morning too. He sounds relaxed. It feels just right. You're dead right about his singing too - a revelation on this record.

I love 'The Man In Me'. I too heard it the first time in The Big Lebowski (I was thinking, this sounds like a classic! How have I never heard this anywhere before?) but it actually feel oddly out of place where it appears on New Morning - or is it just me?

Excellent blog. Thanks.

Stella   #4   09:18 am Dec 09 2011

New Morning isn’t my favourite Dylan album; that would be Infidels. In fact I prefer Modern Times and Together Through Life to New Morning. Vocally, however, New Morning is definitely one of Dylan’s career highlights.

Sarah   #5   09:34 am Dec 09 2011

"I like New Morning because you can actually listen to every track on YouTube, the original version - a rarity with Dylan. This means you can actually introduce new people to New Morning." MY BIGGEST PET PEEVE. I know Dylan is covered like crazy (and some are quite good) but I don't want to hear everyone and their dog singing along with Dylan in their lounge room.

'Empire Burlesque', 'Oh Mercy', 'Dylan 73' and 'Knocked Out Loaded' are among my favourite Dylan records and always seem to take others by surprise. I think all of his albums are underrated. People either love 'Blood on the tracks' or 'Blonde on Blonde' but then shy away from the records that got him to the point to create those albums. Also, Hipsters needs to stop referencing Blonde on Blonde or I'll start pulling my hair out.

Scott A   #6   10:06 am Dec 09 2011

Well, you've convinced me to track down and listen to this album - it's one of Dylans I don't own and haven't heard.

Right now, however, my favourite Dylan is the one-two of John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline; different sides of the same coin, knowing alt-country and foolish country-pop, the best and worst of Dylan which is all sort of part-and-parcel of the man. An artist you need to embrace his worst of because, in context, it tips over to the sublime. And this paragraph is about as meaningful as any Dylan lyric...

Barone   #7   10:07 am Dec 09 2011

All the people who complain about their perception that you write "unbalanced" reviews (even though this is a blog forum and not a review) and swell the comments section to over 100, will no doubt be silent because this blog happens to be is positive. Hypocrites.

Bobby   #8   10:35 am Dec 09 2011

Quite an interesting album to review and see on here because it definatly is a Dylan album not overly talked about or played. Very easy going tracks with the likes of Winterlude and One More Weekend, really chilled out. 1970, the same year of self portrait and 3 years before Pat Garrett. It's interesting how it seems he goes through ups and downs with his albums but i think he only lets himself down with street legal towards the end of the 1970's. Oh Mercy is another mentions of his book and is one that should be sought after by any Dylan fan. Good review Simon

Jyrone Denny   #9   10:45 am Dec 09 2011

I agree; New Morning is one of Dylan's lost gems and anyone who is a Dylan fan and has never heard it ought to do themselves a favor and add it to their collection. My two favorite songs on New Morning is Winterlude and Three Angels.

JBA   #10   11:12 am Dec 09 2011

I'm not quite sure what the point is of reviewing an album that has been available for over 40 years. Did Lester Bangs write about music from the 1930s and 1940s? I don't think so.

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