The writing is so careless that it’s astonishing it took two people to come up with it and that neither said “Hang on a minute, we can do a whole lot better than this”, and the voice – the shot voice that was used so skilfully on “Love and Theft” – is mostly inexpressive, and where not, it mostly tries on sham or crudely cheap emoting. The music is plodding, the tunes dull and any sense of a need to communicate wholly absent.
It is undoubtedly the instinct of Dylan fans to over-praise an album; yet my own initial response to the new record was lukewarm. Then I began to think it was really quite good. Now I’m pitched somewhere between those two poles, though still tending towards the latter. I’d be inclined to take Gray to task anyway, then – but I can’t help but think that, even if I agreed with him, I wouldn’t like his argument. For starters, the baby boomer calling anyone who enjoys a modern Dylan concern “an idiot” sits badly with me; and his refutation of the gathering Together Through Life = Nashville Skyline consensus is particularly hopeless.
I don’t buy that trying to rank Dylan albums in order of ‘importance’ is something worth doing to start with, but if Gray wants us to believe that Nashville Skyline is “radiant” where Together Through Life is “sludge” – if, that is, he wants to beat today’s Dylan with the big bad stick of all his Dylan yesterdays, it’s worth pausing to play the game. For starters, in his own Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, Gray makes much of that 1969 record’s conception of itself as the voice of “an ordinary man coping with love” – that is, he lauds the way Nashville Skyline utilises cliché to express truths deeper than the phrases used to express them. For a man who hates Modern Times, an album which features perhaps Dylan’s finest and most extended use of this technique (‘Spirit on the Water’), this feels like misty-eyed special pleading.
Not that Gray thinks in the BDE that Nashville Skyline is that great: it “is a lovely album but not a heavyweight contender.” Obviously this is now seen as a way to damn Together Through Life by comparison with an album which is itself less than Dylan’s best; but why does Nashville Skyline not make the grade? In this year’s Revolution in the Air, Clinton Heylin suggests that “only two songs on Nashville Skyline [... demonstrate] enough attention to lyrical detail to suggest that he had lived with it for more than a week.” Christopher Ricks has shown that ‘Lay Lady Lay’ holds up to prolonged textual analysis (“a comedy of command and demand”); less so did his approach to, er, ‘Country Pie’ (“strawberry, raspberry, pumpkin and plum – call me for dinner, baby, I’ll be there”) reveal much in the way of hidden depths (“Pie-eyed?”). And the tossed off ‘One More Night’, of which Ricks writes nothing? Heylin says it best: “the vocal utterly fails to convince us that there is even the slightest heartache underlying the singer’s claims.”
I’m rather fond of Nashville Skyline for what it is, but to ascribe “shining clarity” to ‘Peggy Day’ as Gray does is deliberately to set past Dylan easy hurdles for jumping. Nina at Gardener is Gone has gone some way to describing just how engaged Together Through Life is in its communication of ideas; by comparison, Nashville Skyline is one dimensional. If it had a line like “from a cheerless room, in a curtained gloom / I saw a star from Heaven fall”, as Together Through Life boasts, Gray might have a point. But what he’s missing is simply youthful exuberance, the snickering innuendo of ‘once I held mountains in the palm of my hand’. At that point, Gray’s take on 21st century Dylan becomes fine for him but less than useful for anyone not hankering for 1969.