Bob Dylan, who often waxes a first or second take and reacts to recording studios by largely ignoring their contents, has previously sometimes sacrificed musical prowess for the sake of spontaneity. On his new Desire, however, a pervasively informal mood enhances the material’s potency. Don DeVito’s passive production, Howie Wyeth’s casual drumming, and the frequently out-of-sync vocals by Dylan and Emmylou Harris lend an intriguing ambiance to the proceedings that extra hours in the studio and a penchant for dial-twisting might well have destroyed.
The material, which proves as fascinating as Dylan’s idiosyncratic approach to recording, further benefits from the singer’s close collaboration with both his new band and theatrical director Jacques Levy (best known in rock circles for his work with Roger McGuinn on songs like “Chestnut Mare”).
The group, which in addition to Harris and Wyeth includes bassist Rob Stoner and violinist Scarlet Rivera, constitutes the most spirited, sympathetic Dylan backup crew this side of the Band. And Levy, who co-wrote seven of the nine tunes here, contributed much to their narrative strength while never tampering with Dylan’s trademark style.
“Hurricane,” the singer’s impassioned defense of imprisoned boxer Rubin (Hurricane) Carter, opens the album on an effusive, high-powered note. The song evidences the same sort of moral indignation that fueled “Idiot Wind,” “Masters of War,” “George Jackson,” and the unreleased “Who Killed Davey Moore?” From another artist, such self-righteousness might be inexcusable; but Dylan, whose outrage is as much the point here as the Carter case itself, scores an unqualified success.
Desire‘s equally satisfying second track, “Isis,” constitutes the most cryptic of the album’s three odes to women. Replete with layers of captivating parables, the song describes a protagonist who searches for “the world’s biggest necklace” and tells his lover that “what drives me to you, drives me insane.”
Though the funereal “One More Cup of Coffee” certainly has its moments, that tune and “Mozambique,” a relatively vacuous travelogue, let down the listener who has been entranced by “Hurricane” and “Isis.” But “Oh, Sister,” a prayer-like plea for a lover’s understanding, provides the side with an extremely emotive conclusion.
“Joey,” the haunting song that opens side two, can be classified as an outlaw epic, but there ends the similarity between “Hurricane” and that number. While the former tune remains faithful to the facts that inspired it and makes an earnest cast for Rubin Carter, “Joey” only ostensibly concerns mobster Gallo. Conveniently eschewing mention of the crime figure’s less-likable activities (e.g., his alleged involvement in the public execution of Joe Colombo), Dylan lauds the man’s sensitivity and paints a wholly sympathetic portrait.
“Joey,” the haunting song that opens side two, can be classified as an outlaw epic, but there ends the similarity between “Hurricane” and that number.
That Gallo’s well-known exploits do not mirror Dylan’s tale dampens “Joey”‘s effectiveness; and had the singer formed the song around a more obscure figure, its brilliant lyrics and arresting chorus would probably have been palatable to a larger audience. Nevertheless, because the object of the canonization turns out to be not Gallo but a clear product of mythmaker Dylan’s fertile imagination, those critics who dismiss the tune on factual grounds seem to me to be missing the singer’s intentions.
Consider, for a moment, “John Wesley Harding,” which presented that outlaw as a “friend to the poor” who “was never known to make a foolish move” and “was never known to hurt an honest man.” In fact, Hardin (Dylan added the “g”) killed a black man at age 15, committed other not-so-nice crimes over the next 11 years, and, foolish move or not, wound up spending 16 years in the can.
Choosing Hardin’s story for raw material because the name “fits right in tempo . . . just what I had at hand,” Dylan consciously mingled fact with fiction to create the mythical character he wanted to evoke. And I suspect he did the same with “Joey.”
“Romance in Durango,” the next track, continues the fascination with outlaws. Though only a minor success, it interestingly recalls Dylan’s 1973 role in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and forms a neat segue to the first-rate “Black Diamond Bay.”
That rocker, a bizarre mystery with a surprise ending, might be thought of as this album’s “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts.” Set in a Caribbean hotel, it introduces a series of crazed, furtive characters who meet their ends when a volcano explodes and the island sinks into the sea. Next thing you know, Dylan himself has entered the story: at home in L.A., he is drinking a beer, watching Walter Cronkite and . . . well, you’ll hear the rest.
To close this remarkable, hour-long album, Dylan serves up an appropriately remarkable song. “Sara,” for the singer’s wife, might be his most beautiful love tune yet; containing references to their children and the line “writing ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ for you,” it certainly constitutes his most openly confessional number to date.
The first time I heard Desire, I shook my head, more than a bit amazed, and muttered, “He’s done it again.” I still feel that way. And I hope he keeps doing it.