Particularly intense activity was noted at the Mount Rushmore of American rock (American-Canadian, to be exact) over the weekend, with Bob Dylan and Neil Young both releasing new albums.
It triggered an amusing dilemma: who to listen to first? It was a bit like choosing between two dads. Due to Dylan’s seniority (he’s 79 against Young’s 74) and since his album, “Rough and Rowdy Ways,” had elicited more media buzz than Young’s “Homegrown,” I decided to start with the former. The plan was to then switch between the two over the weekend and see how things would develop.
Toward the end of the weekend, it was apparent there was a significant difference in the emotions being generated by the albums. So, instead of flipping between them, I opted instead to listen to selected parts of Dylan’s album before playing Young’s album in its entirety, twice, then going back to selected parts of the Dylan, and then back to double Young. That’s the difference between an album you admire (that lasts for 70, long minutes) and an album you absolutely love (that sticks to a compact 35 minutes).
The biggest problem with Dylan’s album became clear while listening to a Young song, albeit one not found on his new album (which is, by the way, an “old-new” album: it was recorded in the mid-1970s, shelved, and is only now being released 45 years on). At the end of one of the “Homegrown” listening slots, as the final track faded away, the Spotify algorithm started playing “Cortez the Killer” from his “Zuma” album, which Young released with Crazy Horse in 1975 after mothballing “Homegrown.”
“Cortez the Killer” is a musical-historical epic that explores the conquest of Mexico by the Spanish some 500 years before. More accurately, it’s a musical-historical lament, with Young’s electric guitar its main source of expression. More than the lyrics, more than the vocals, it’s the guitar that tells the story, expressing the deep emotions of the song while mourning the Aztecs’ submission and annihilation.
The unexpected appearance of “Cortez the Killer” made me think of Dylan’s album, since that is also obsessed with history. Dylan, who regards American folk and blues songs as holy scripture, always had a keen sense of history. Yet as big and original as he was, he always knew where he came from and on whose shoulders he was standing.
On “Rough and Rowdy Ways,” it seems his obsession with history is bigger than on any of his previous albums. He appears to view himself as a sort of poet-historian, and you get the sense that he thinks overly highly of his new self-designated position.
That historical approach was first evident on “Murder Most Foul,” the lengthy, near-17-minute single Dylan released in March that revisited the Kennedy assassination. It’s present on almost all the songs here, with Dylan going as far as to sing “I can see the history of the whole human race” on “My Own Version of You.”
The problem is that as a poet-historian, as opposed to a poet-singer, Dylan is far from brilliant. In fact, he’s amateurish. As all of the history floods over him, he can’t seem to organize it into an artistic template, filtering and weeding out in order to weave it into a riveting narrative. This problem was apparent on “Murder Most Foul” with its endless namedropping. But in that song, there was at least a constructed narrative and distillation of emotions, which prevented the song from having no direction home.
A few tracks on the new album lack the saving grace of narrative and insight, and these songs drown in a swell of names and events. There’s no story through the history. In “Mother of Muses,” he lists a series of generals from American and world history – Sherman, Montgomery, Patton, Zhukov – who “cleared the path for Elvis to sing / Who carved the path for Martin Luther King.” Not exactly a brilliant historiographical analysis, never mind the poetic quality. A similar embarrassment comes with album opener “I Contain Multitudes,” a delicate and musically beautiful song in the middle of which Dylan suddenly spews out: “I’m just like Anne Frank, like Indiana Jones / And them British bad boys, the Rolling Stones.”
This flood of names, events, locations, periods and half-baked metaphors is part of a more general inundation – one of prolixity. This is not new. Dylan is known for his verbosity. But because at his best he’s also a tremendous musician, brilliantly in control of rhythms, timing and intonation, and since his best lyrics create a dizzying poetic momentum, his greatest songs in the ’60s and ’70s were a sublime fusion of melody, words and emotion. That success rate has fallen considerably in recent decades, with the chances of songs becoming sweeping classics greatly diminished. It doesn’t happen on his new album, either.
Yet there are a few beautiful things there, and it’s no coincidence that they’re on the songs least obsessed with history. In fact, within the album’s not unrewarding but nevertheless exhausting 70-minute running time, there’s a wonderful 15-minute sequence that constitutes the musical and emotional anchor of the entire album, at least for me.
It starts with “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You,” in which a male chorus softly hums a melody that might be drawing on Offenbach’s “The Tales of Hoffman,” with Dylan singing another tune over it – one that slowly unfolds, with much beauty. The thrilling sense that, at the age of 79, Dylan can still evoke beauty of a kind we’ve not heard before adds to and strengthens the next number, “Black Rider,” which is an appeal to death from both a confusing yet fascinating position of strength and weakness. This is based on wonderful musical harmonies that are distinctly un-Dylanesque. Where did he find these chords with their mysterious Spanish flavor? Maybe in a dream he had of 18th-century New Orleans?
The song that concludes this glorious 15-minute segment is “Goodbye Jimmy Reed.” Reed was a blues singer and, as expected, the tribute to him is delivered in the vocal style Dylan has so loved to use in recent decades with that rasping voice of his.
There are three such songs on the new album. “Crossing the Rubicon” is the weakest, with Dylan unfortunately taking over seven minutes to navigate that river. “False Prophet” is better, but only in “Goodbye Jimmy Reed” does Dylan manage to get his raspy voice to prance around with such liberated joy. It’s a pleasure to listen to him. Toward the end of the song, his voice uncharacteristically fades away. “I’ll break open your grapes, I’ll suck out the juice,” he sings. Not exactly Nobel Prize for Literature material, but a luscious line that will remain in the memory long after the album’s historical steganograms have faded away.
One of the lines from Neil Young’s “Homegrown” that will stick in the mind for a totally different reason to the sexual juiciness of Dylan’s lyric is “My eyes are open / And my heart is pouring through,” from opening track “Separate Ways.” Open eyes and a pouring heart, that is the essence of “Homegrown” – the first album Young recorded after his separation from then-girlfriend, actress Carrie Snodgress. This was why he shelved the album in the mid-’70s. “It was a little too personal … it scared me,” he told Rolling Stone’s Cameron Crowe in 1975.
There is another version, more complementary than contradictory, for the way things happened before the album was put on hold. In 1973, Young recorded his album “Tonight’s the Night,” which was a direct and raw response to the fatal drug overdoses of two friends and collaborators, guitarist Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry. Young didn’t release the album right away. “Homegrown,” which was recorded in late 1974-early 1975, was similar in its raw, revelatory spirit, responding to another emotional trauma – in this case, separation from the woman who was the mother of his son. What may have deterred Young was the release of two emotionally wounded albums one after the other. He decided to give one of them up, and that was “Homegrown.”
“Tonight’s the Night,” released in June 1975, has acquired a reputation over the years for being one of Young’s greatest albums. “Homegrown,” now that he’s released it, is very similar not only in its rough and rugged form, but also its extremely high standard. When you think of top-level artists at the height of their powers, as Young was in the mid-’70s, you tend to focus on the great songs they wrote in that period. But another way of considering an artist at the peak of their creativity is to focus on their more “average” songs – these too can be wonderful, since during this golden period, the artist can’t help but produce songs that are really great, even if they feel scribbled and in draft form.
“Homegrown” is a wonderful example of this. There are no resounding songs here like “Cortez the Killer.” Almost all the songs on the album are miniature, seemingly incidental songs, short and unpolished. But this small, unobtrusive format hides, it turns out, a deep wellspring of emotion and musicality.
Intimacy is the key word here, not only of one form but several. There is the immediate intimacy Young creates with the listener when he sings and plays solo, with a guitar and harmonica, or a piano and harmonica. There is also the intimacy that Young creates with a musical collaborator, such as Emmylou Harris on the song “Star of Bethlehem”; with Robbie Robertson on “White Line”; and, especially, with Ben Keith, who plays lap steel guitar and regular electric guitar on most of the album’s tracks. The dialogue between him and Young can be exquisitely delicate or wild and furious. But in all its forms, you can feel that the two musicians are operating on the same wavelength.
“Homegrown” illuminates an aspect that other separation-associated albums tend not to dwell on: the children. Or more precisely, the guilt that parents feel due to the breakup of the family nest. Young, whose firstborn son was a toddler when he and Snodgress split up, does so not quite explicitly, using hints and enigmatic allusions. In “Florida,” he tells of a dark vision in which he sees a man on a glider crashing into a building, landing on top of a couple in the alley and killing them. The shocked Young rushes to them and sees a baby beside them, covered in a red blanket. He takes the baby to his car and then a woman runs up to him, claiming the baby his hers. It’s clear what emotions he’s talking about here, through this delusional vision.
Then there’s “Mexico,” a minor song drenched in emotion and a mere 90 seconds long. Young plays alone, with piano and harmonica, his voice blowing in the wind and with heartbreaking chords. “Oh, the feeling’s gone,” he sings, describing his impulse to move away. We think he’s talking about the woman he’s leaving, but then he sings the last sentence: “Daddy is a travelin’ man.” Delicately, he lays down the sentence, like you would a child in bed after it falls asleep on your shoulder. Young lays down the child-song, covers it, leaves the house and goes away. He has no clue when he’ll be back.
“Rough and Rowdy Ways” by Bob Dylan is released by Columbia; “Homegrown” by Neil Young is released by Reprise.