Friday, July 6, 2018

Flashback Friday: Everything Is Broken, A Dylan Lament


"It's nice to be known as a legend, and people will pay to see one, but for most people, once is enough. You have to deliver the goods." ~ Bob Dylan, Chronicles

Maybe one reason some people like Dylan is simply because of the durability of his career. Like the Energizer Bunny he just keeps going. Like the Cinderella Man he keeps coming back.

Yesterday I noted that John Hinchey called John Wesley Harding "the comeback of comeback albums." Others have hailed Blood on the Tracks as Dylan's great comeback, and it certainly was an exceptional album after the early Seventies period that produced the critically dissed Self-Portrait, Dylan and Planet Waves. When Dylan released Time Out of Mind in 1997 it was yet another comeback level achievement, winning a Grammy and receiving flurries of critical acclaim. His Never Ending Tour had been on the road nearly ten years, but now people were beginning to notice.

I don't recall many people calling his Gospel Period a comeback, though Slow Train Coming is a superfine album for its production values, cohesiveness and earnestness. Songs like "Serve Somebody" and "Precious Angel" are written in the old Dylanesque style but with a new born-again sensibility. You don't fake the emotion he conveys in "I Believe In You."

The comeback I wanted to talk about this morning, though, occurred in 1989 with the release of Oh Mercy. Rolling Stone gave the album high marks and I remember wondering if that was only because they're so predisposed to liking Dylan. Still, I bought the vinyl and continue to listen to it to this day.

Oh Mercy was hailed as a comeback, not just because it had songs noticeably more meaningful than anything Bob Dylan had recently released, but because Daniel Lanois' production gave it cohesion. There was cohesion on Empire Burlesque, of course, but that cohesion was a little too slick, a little too commercial, whereas this record was filled with atmospheric, hazy production -- a sound as arty as most assumed the songs to be. And Dylan followed suit, giving Lanois significant songs -- palpably social works, love songs, and poems -- that seemed to connect with his past. And, at the time, this production made it seem like the equivalent of his '60s records, meaning that its artiness was cutting edge, not portentous. ~Stephen Thomas Erlewine

In Dylan's Chronicle: Volume One, he devotes an entire chapter to this period of new fertility when Oh Mercy was birthed. Keep in mind that the book is only five chapters, so that's 20% of the book. The events of this time were important enough to dive into at length. 1987 was a difficult year because he's injured his hand in a freak accident that winter, and was scheduled to do 100 concerts beginning in the spring. It was also a difficult time because Dylan himself was not sure who he was. "There was a missing person inside of myself and I needed to find him."

Dylan states that he had not been writing songs for a while, but then the muse returned. He'd be sitting at a table and twenty-some verses for "Political World" flowed out from his pen. He placed these in a drawer, and they were soon joined by verses for a song called "What Good Am I?" More songs followed and he would see what their relationship would be to one another.

The reason I found Oh Mercy to be such a meaningful album is that it became clear that his "Gospel Phase" had not just been a phase. The heart of his spiritual experiences now seemed integrated naturally into a world view that was less about preaching, but true to a vision of how things are.

Another feature of Oh Mercy is that it is primarily slow songs, reflective and thoughtful songs. It's a nice album to put on at the end of the day when you want to unwind. The only two fast-paced pieces here are the kickoff opener, "Political World" and "Everything Is Broken". "Political World" just lays it out there, an indictment of how things work in our modern age. "Everything Is Broken" gets more specific. It's a "list song" on a theme. It's a broken world, "you'd better get that in your head." Perhaps formulaic stylistically, it makes a point.

This is not a new theme. It hearkens back to Hard Rain. It hearkens back to the Fall and humanity's exile from Paradise. And it implores us to be realistic about what we expect next.

Several songs give direction on this point. Don't catch the disease of conceit. Don't neglect the needy, forgotten and disenfranchised among us. And keep ringing them bells.

Everything Is Broken

Broken lines, broken strings
Broken threads, broken springs
Broken idols, broken heads
People sleeping in broken beds
Ain’t no use jiving
Ain’t no use joking
Everything is broken

Broken bottles, broken plates
Broken switches, broken gates
Broken dishes, broken parts
Streets are filled with broken hearts
Broken words never meant to be spoken
Everything is broken

Seem like every time you stop and turn around
Something else just hit the ground

Broken cutters, broken saws
Broken buckles, broken laws
Broken bodies, broken bones
Broken voices on broken phones
Take a deep breath, feel like you’re chokin'
Everything is broken

Every time you leave and go off someplace
Things fall to pieces in my face

Broken hands on broken ploughs
Broken treaties, broken vows
Broken pipes, broken tools
People bending broken rules
Hound dog howling, bullfrog croaking
Everything is broken

Copyright © 1989 by Special Rider Music

I love the summation in those last two lines: "Hound dog howling, bullfrog croaking, Everything is broken." Meantime, life goes on... Maybe we'll see you around the bend. 

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