How Bob Dylan Sorta Returned to Form on ‘New Morning’
In retrospect, how could anyone have been expected to keep up the pace most artists were on in the mid-to-late '60s? It is, especially by today's standards, totally unthinkable. Between 1962 and 1969, Bob Dylan released nine albums that were total game-changers. So, by the turn of the decade, the man was trying not only to redefine himself, but to find his own footing in a very musical landscape.
Self Portrait, issued in June of 1970, was a baffling release to say the least. A two-record set full of other people's songs and odd takes on some of his own. On his name alone, it hit the Top 10, though ultimately it confused more fans than it won over at the time. But on New Morning, released only a few months later in October 1970, Dylan more clearly sets sail into the new chapter.
New Morning ambles in unassumingly with the countryish moves of "If Not for You," putting to bed any questions of Dylan's ability to still create great music. The simple and beautiful love song would also find life via a version by George Harrison on his first post Beatles outing, All Things Must Pass (released a month after New Morning) and would become a Top 25 hit as the debut single from Olivia Newton John in 1971. It's up for grabs as to which version is the definitive.
"Oh, the benches were stained with tears and perspiration / The birdies were flying from tree to tree / There was little to say, there was no conversation / As I stepped to the stage to pick up my degree," begins the wonderful "Day of the Locusts." The song was written about an experience Dylan had after being honored by Princeton University with an honorary degree in music.
During the ceremony, the university was overrun with cicadas, who made a tremendous amount of noise as he was attempting to accept the award. Some of the songs were recorded during the same sessions that produced the ramshackle Self Portrait. Those early versions would eventually see the light of day on 2013's The Bootleg Series Vol. 10: Another Self Portrait (1969–1971).
Lyrically and musically, New Morning is an interesting trip. From the simple country glow of "Winterlude," which casts a glance back to his Nashville Skyline style, to the more ragged stomp of "Went to See the Gypsy" – about his meeting with Elvis Presley – that wouldn't have been out of place on John Wesley Harding, or even the Basement Tapes sessions. The jazzy blues overtones of "If Dogs Run Free" sit side-by-side with the earthy swagger of the title track without blinking.
Throughout the album there is a sense of Dylan abandoning past, or future, preconceptions. Even the album cover is just him staring at you. No name, no title, nothing, just Dylan looking straight at you with no shadows being cast. He is joined by some old friend such as Al Kooper, David Bromberg and Harvey Brooks to create an album that is as ragged as it is right.
Critics and fans were pleased with the results as the album hit No. 7 in the U.S. chart and topped the U.K. charts shortly after its release. New Morning sounded like the great first step into a new phase for Dylan, but in some ways, it was more like the final chapter of his first decade of recording. The reality was, this would be Dylan's last album of all new material to be issued until 1974's Planet Waves, which found him reuniting with the Band.
In between would be a smattering of soundtracks, greatest hits and outtakes collections. In that time, he would sever ties with his long time home of Columbia Records for a brief stay on the Asylum label before triumphantly returning home in 1975 with the classic Blood on the Tracks.
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