French version: http://humeursurmusiquemoderne.blogspot.com/2011/04/bob-dylan-nashville-skyline-ou-comment.html
In a way, this Dylan album is one of those which define the best and the worse the skinny troubadour’s carrier. Full of contradictions, affronts, diverse oppositions, what comes out of this mess is a surprising and yet reassuring record that represents a new turn in Bob Dylan’s carrier, turn already initiated by the previous John Wesley Harding. For me, what is the most remarkable in these 27 minutes remains that color, this crepuscular autumn light, warm and comfy which seems to glow all along the tracks of the album. But let’s talk about the music…
What shocks me in the opus released at a turning point in the history of the USA, in 1969, shortly after Father Luther King and Brother Kennedy died, the burger eaters then in gastronomic conflict with nems lovers, and Dylan then considered and expected as the Savior, remember at this time, people and even Americans didn’t have access to the internet and then still felt a bit concerned by what was happening there, at their door… Anyway, what shocks me, was I saying, is that it’s in this background pretty turbulent that Bob chooses again to surprise everybody as he’s used to but never as he’s expected to. That’s when tension is at its climax, when his past anthems are the most meaningful that Zimmerman delivers what is probably one of his most personal and simple work. Here, neither rebellion nor unifying hopeful songs, no anthem to a possible revolution, Bobby beautifully shows us what he has been repeating over and over again: he is only a songwriter doing his job writing song in order to entertain his audience. And as if he wanted to underline that statement, Dylan sings…yes… he sings! The jeers and uncontrolled bleating are over. Dylan takes here a sweet and moving voice even if a bit hazardous sometimes; we do not change a man. To justify and pretend once again he has no control over the situation, he will explain the voice appeared because of his cigarette diet at that time. Moreover, this voice comes along with some country arrangements pretty much as sweet and unexpected which charm and intoxicate us. Dylan proves here he is one of the best if not the very best of his generation by moving on warm and simple ballads, aimless songs that don’t make you fell sickly or shameful.
The record begins by a cover of “Girl From The North Country” of Bobby’s Freewheelin’ possibly to indicate us to relax and let us go. As far as I’m concerned, I have always liked the original version, however I find this version duet with the man in black, Johnny Cash, aka Prisoner Joe, who was in the neighborhood in the last days of February 69, while the last recording sessions of the album, well I find that version touching even if it stays frankly wobbly. Moreover, it will be the only track kept by the two men after several tries judged unsuccessful on different songs such as Cash’s “Ring Of Fire” or “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” of the same Bob Dylan’s Freewheelin’.
We could then expect a sugary-romantic record but we are quickly disillusioned by the following country instrumental “Nashville Skyline Rag” and its mocking harmonica. Here, the musicians are clearly having fun. Each one of them does his little solo and History will probably not remember this track. However, it confirms that Dylan has no intention of satisfying anybody else but himself. That places us right in the middle of the typical couldn’t-care-less attitude of the pale skin troubadour that he also enjoys showing us during his live performances. Moreover, the only instruction he gave the session’s musicians was to “just sort of fill in behind” the songs what he had already pretty much always done so far. But the consequences of this are the recording sessions are quite relaxed and have no real ambition and that will get the magic to do its work.
“Lay Lady Lay” is probably the most popular and successful track of this record. As far as I’m concerned, I attach a special affection to “Tell Me That It Isn’t True”, confession of weakness of a man facing his wife and the rumors she attracts, or to the bluesy “Peggy Day” and the dylanian finish that is “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here”. This opus is nevertheless to be listened to unrestrained and whole which is for me the sign of great records: the fact it is hard to consider them other than utterly.
Let it be said, this Nashville Skyline and its cover, a cowboy Dylan (or rabbi, you decide) who measures us of top with a large smile on his face, enlighten us on what is waiting for us here: simple pleasure without any fuss, maybe a message of someone who is always one step ahead on other people to his audience of that time. The man knows he just released a new work of which people are going to talk about for a while and he looks quite happy about that. While listening, you might understand… it’s all I wish you.