Dylan's new album of rough-and-ready love songs, Together Through This, is proof that he needs a little nudge back onto a darker path.
"There's a new Dylan album coming out," my father announced, at the end of our weekly conversation.
"Have you heard any of the songs?"
"No. It's supposedly an album of love songs."
For me, growing up amidst the '60s hangover of small town Northern California, Bob Dylan was always one of those artists whose work provided a bridge back to the lost Eden of the '60s. He never seemed to date himself or to become a novelty: his classic albums were always digressive and angry enough to keep their relevance and cool from one generation to the next.
Thus, when Dylan began his mighty comeback with Time Out of Mind, I bought it right alongside albums by Radiohead, Pavement, and Tori Amos. I've followed him fairly closely ever since, and, like parents and friends, I've taken an interest in the new Dylan books and films, including Chronicles, I'm Not There, and Scorsese's No Direction Home.
The single song that best defines Dylan's return didn't appear on any album: it is "Things Have Changed," a tough, despairing song about a civilization perilously close to the rocks. This song had many cousins, including tracks like "Not Dark Yet" and "Cold Irons Bound" on Time Out of Mind, as well as "High Water" on Love and Theft. All these songs, in truth, seemed like hoarse, ragged reflections in the vein Dylan first opened back on his Freewheelin' album, with "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall". It was as if Dylan, like Leonard Cohen before him, reappeared as a vengeful ghost to warn society of what was coming, at a period when it needed him most desperately.
In this role, naturally, there can be no question of whether Dylan is an "insincere" artist, a question that always hovers around his work because a lot of his jealous contemporaries didn't buy his Woody Guthrie routine. You can ask whether or not Conor Oberst or Jenny Lewis is sincere, perhaps, but to ask the same question of "Gates of Eden" is to court absurdity, because Dylan is not concerned with himself. (On "Things Have Changed," he says "I've been trying to get as far away from myself as I can.") It would be like calling Paul Newman "insincere" in his invention of Cool Hand Luke.
Instead, the first real instance of insincerity from Dylan was when, around the time of his '90s comeback, he announced that he'd always cared more for '50s rock 'n' roll than for political music. This claim is flatly contradicted by his actual recordings, but Dylan went with it, moving further backwards from '50s rock to swing, lush blues, and other pre-rock idioms on songs like "Moonlight".
Now, hard on the heels of a fascinating retrospective album (Tell Tale Signs), Dylan has unspooled an album about the enduring power of love, leaning on collaborator Robert Hunter, who likes to write lyrics like this: "Silvio / silver and gold / won't buy back the beat of a heart grown cold." I half expected a new Dylan song to float through the trailer of Ghosts of Girlfriends Past.
It's the classic case of an artist getting the wrong kind of encouragement for the wrong reasons. Taste makers like NPR were excited by Dylan's sidesteps into genres like swing. It felt impressively anthropological, as though we could count on Dylan to continue remembering pieces of our musical history for us. Dylan was transformed into some version of Alan Lomax, if Lomax had taken all those Smithsonian songs and re-recorded them himself.
Furthermore, writing love songs seems like a logical place to go after writing songs about the gathering dark: "come in, she said, I'll give ya / shelter from the storm." But Dylan's never been a lover. His most romantic songs, as well as his most piercing farewell notes, have been reserved for women who were only passing moments, and he is kindest to the people with whom love failed (as he is kind in "If You See Her, Say Hello"). His listeners, if they have any range at all, are puzzling over the real expressions of love in Ne-Yo's Year of the Gentleman, or in The-Dream's Love Vs. Money, or in all the songs by Karen Dreijer Andersson (Fever Ray, the Knife). We don't need Dylan to make sense of the home or the bedroom for us.
Instead, he is avoiding the real question, which is who he saw when he walked all those miles of bad road. Instead of confronting us with all those hungry eyes, he only has eyes for his pretty baby. She's the only love he's ever known. He just wants to make love to her. It's a dodge, and, finally, we his fans have to shrug our shoulders and ruefully admit that he's being insincere with us.
We don't need Bob Dylan to guide us through a museum of American music and the tropes of redemptive love. We need him in the here and now, in the bleak present. Something is happening here, and for the first time in over a decade, Dylan doesn't know what it is.