Album Review: Bob Dylan – Desire (1976)

“Your loyalty is not to me, but to the stars above”

bdylan-desire_08

Rating: 8/10

Often cited as his last great album in a long, long time, ‘Desire’ represents yet another interesting and unique chapter in Bob Dylan’s musical journey. Two major things were going on for him at the time: first, last year’s Blood On The Tracks proved to be a commercial and critical success, and second, his separation from Sara Dylan was still ongoing, only to result in a divorce one year later. So, ‘Desire’ can be interpreted as a world-wide, soul-searching journey from a man who is, emotionally, at the end of his rope. A short, refreshing break of self-analysis in favour of an outer experience, only to come back at the end and discover that it’s still ‘Sara’ that’s on his mind.

This said journey is accompanied not only by sidemen (session musicians), but also by two contributors that have the power to directly influence the course of events: Jacques Levy, who writes the lyrics to all songs except two, and Scarlet Rivera, whose violin playing adds a very unique and never-met-before sound to Dylan’s compositions. Unfortunately, the former makes the journey a bit spotty for me. Jacques’ lyrics are at best decent, and at worst, sound like somebody doing a cheap Dylan imitation. ‘Isis’, for example, has always struck me as him deliberately trying to re-create the poetical ambiguity of Bob’s previous epic-like stories. And miserably failing. There’s no substance to build the ambiguity on – the action itself is way too simple to be interpreted in any way other than what it already is. And that’s a shame, since musically, ‘Isis’ is great – with a memorable piano melody and a great vocal performance. Then there’s ‘Hurricane’ and ‘Joey’, the two well-known biographical tunes, the first dealing with Rubin Carter – an innocent boxer sentenced to prison, and the second with Joey Gallo – a New York gangster. It’s the messages that I have problems with here – the second does nothing less than glorifying a murderer, while the first presents a very narrow-minded view on Rubin’s case, ignoring some rather important facts and trying too hard to turn it into a racial show. Plus, it features the single most cringe-worthy moment on the album, lyrics-wise: “But then they took him to the jailhouse/Where they try to turn a man into a mouse.” Really?!

Musically though, is where the album becomes a big-time winner. It’s way more ambitious and eclectic than ‘Blood on the Tracks’ – offering a wide palette of captivating moods that rarely get boring, despite the album’s somewhat alarming length. Except for the kinda uninteresting “holiday-brochurres” that are ‘Mozambique’ and ‘Romance in Durango’, every song here has something to offer, musically speaking. Scarlet Rivera’s violin is nothing less than exquisite, always accentuating the desired mood – whether it’s the captivating tension of ‘Hurricane’, the restlessness venturing of ‘Black Diamond Bay’, or the heart-aching sorrow of ‘Sara’. A big favourite of mine that I want to draw attention to is ‘One More Cup of Coffee’, featuring a unique vocal delivery from Dylan (always stretching words – “Your daddy he’s an outla-a-a-w”) and a strangely emotional chorus that’s performed in duet by him and Scarlet.

All in all, I consider this to be a definite must-have for every Bob Dylan fan, if only for the fact that it’s yet another record that sounds like nothing before. It’s an entertaining, diverse and eventful journey that proves Dylan to still be capable of surprising his audience in a mostly positive way. Just don’t expect it to be on par with his late 60’s albums, because the flaws are certainly there.

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9 replies

  1. Great point in the last paragraph about him yet again finding a new sound – not sure how he kept doing it!

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    • Yeah, he was pretty incredible in that regard – reinventing himself and his image so often that it makes you stop and wonder “Who is he really? Some of those? All of those? None of those?”. Another artist that fits this description is Lou Reed.

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  2. I like Emmylou Harris’ contributions to this album too. Not too many can sing along with Bob.

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  3. Of course this is not his last great album, there is Oh, Mercy, Slow train, Time out of mind and even Street legal.

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    • Modern Times and Love & Theft are both better than Street Legal, Oh Mercy, and Slow Train IMO (thought I do really like slow train)

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      • Of course, when it comes to taste, everybody is allowed to have favorites, so I can’t actually argue with you. I, just find Oh, Mercy compositions exceptional, with the added bonus of being so radically different in sound, in the Dylan canon, that it sticks out. Street legal is mentioned for much the same reason, however its muddy production makes it harder to penetrate (the sound was actually a leap for Dylan back then, and it can be heard better in the Dylan at Budokan. Of course, many people like this Dylan period) , while Slow train coming is so full of passion, that even without the really good songs and the exceptional production and the guest guitarist, would stand out. A feature not accomplished with its sibling album Saved, (despite the same producing team, the fine musicians and decent songs) probably because the initial enthusiasm has somehow faded. The reason I didn’t mention Modern times and Love and theft is because I have a difficulty listening to them repeatedly, (especially Modern times), despite the fact that I can recognize the qualities that other Dylan aficionados usually state. Maybe it has more to do with the fact that the first Dylan records I ever listened to, were Oh Mercy at the time of release, (together with Blonde on Blonde and the freewhellin’-my first Dylan encounter- and Street legal and Slow train 1 year after. So it has to do with memories. Oh, and lately I really can’t stand Dylan’s singing, especially his live.

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  4. ps Scarlet Rivera’s violin on ‘Hurricane’ is worth the album.

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