Sunday, May 8, 2016

Bob Dylan - Nashville Skyline (1969)

When Bob Dylan released his incomprehensible mishmash of bad performances, 1970's Self-Portrait album, Rolling Stone critic Greil Marcus famously asked, "What is this sh--?"  Nashville Skyline, Dylan's previous album from 1969, isn't a piece of sh--, but it must have left a lot fans wondering what the heck Dylan was up to.
Nashville Skyline is Dylan's' attempt at making a straight country record, which, on the surface, seems to make sense; as a performer who had come from the folk tradition, Dylan was already rooted in the rustic, acoustically based origins of rural American music, and it was the electrification of country and its cross-pollination with the blues that created the early rock and roll that Dylan grew up with in Minnesota.  But by the late sixties, country music - the Nashville version of it, anyway - had already become a polished, commercialized genre that appealed to a more mainstream pop audience, full of the glossy production and oversimplified songwriting Dylan had always seemed to be challenging in his own work.  Now here was Bob generating melodies as sweet and thick as honey, backed by a measured, smooth studio band, while singing about cuddly intimacy and broken hearts, succumbing to country's biggest weaknesses and not taking enough advantage of its strengths.
Oh yeah, and he changed his singing voice.  Not only were Dylan's new songs soft, he was enunciating them in a manly, romantic croon that had to have inspired Mac Davis, who in the seventies took that same style to a higher level of triteness.  On Nashville Skyline, sad songs like "I Threw It All Away" and "One More Night" flow like a lazy river, while songs of romantic contentment, "To Be Alone With You" and the slight "Peggy Day," are as comfortable as a warm pair of socks.  And don't get me started on "Country Pie," which is cutesy-country-pie as a Nashville ballad can get.
Okay, Nashville Skyline has its virtues.  Dylan is blessed with crack studio men backing him, including Charlie Daniels - yes, that Charlie Daniels - on guitar and bass, as well as pedal steel ace Pete Drake.  Also, there's the album's big hit, "Lay Lady Lay," with its sexual frankness and some of the old bite in Dylan's vocal, though with a little bit of corn on the side.  The two best cuts are the first one and the last one; Nashville Skyline opens with a wonderful re-interpretation of Bob's 1963 ballad "Girl From the North Country" as a duet with Johnny Cash, and it ends with "Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You," an earnest love song that outshines almost everything else on the album.  And overall, Nashville Skyline is as consistent and modest as its predecessor, John Wesley Harding, which means it delivers a pleasurable listen.  But while John Wesley Harding, with its light, sparse instrumentation, may be low-key, its songs still give listeners a lot to think about.  Nashville Skyline simply invites you to lie down on that big brass bed and smile.  Not a bad way to spend some time, but in the end you're left with the sense that Bob was parodying country music's most obvious clichés throughout the record, and that he was doing so unintentionally. 

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