Let Him Have My Seat

Nashville Skyline by Bob Dylan, 1969

Without looking it up, I’d guess that Bob Dylan is the most written about rock musician who ever lived. There’s nothing at all that I can add to the conversation about Bob Dylan–50,000,000 people smarter and more informed than I am have already shaped the consensus around Dylan’s life’s work.

Dylan is my favorite musician of all-time, though, and I think the consensus’ reaction to Nashville Skyline–and album I like a whole lot–is very, very wrong. And I think it’s wrong for the same reason I think consensus on a lot of other albums is wrong.

The Consensus

The consensus is that Dylan was at the peak of his artistic creativity from around 1964-1966, then changed styles in 1967 with John Wesley Harding, and by 1969, with Nashville Skyline’s release, he had lost the magic.

What’s the main issue with Nashville Skyline, according to critics? Too happy. The albums is full of short country tunes about quiet life, and the critics weren’t having it. I was looking at the album’s Wikipedia page a couple days ago and saw two quotes which captures the consensus pretty well. The first is from a guy named Tim Souster from the BBC, who said “one can’t help feeling something is missing. Isn’t this idyllic country landscape too good to be true?” The second is from Ed Ochs at Billboard, who said “the satisfied man speaks in cliches, and blushes as if every day were Valentine’s Day.”

The bizarre thing is that, from what I can tell, people had no issue with how the album actually sounded. It was just too optimistic for someone like the sarcastic, energetic, confrontational Dylan to write. I think Nashville Skyline sums up one of my least favorite parts about rock criticism: rock critics absolutely love it when supposed “ambitious” musicians are miserable, and they don’t know what to do with themselves when the artist presents them with something that isn’t miserable.

The Tunes

It’s a shame, too, because if people just took Dylan at face value, they’d have a way better time. The songs sound really good! Dylan’s slow duet with Johnny Cash on “Girl From the North Country” is way better than the faster, finger-picked version Dylan recorded six years earlier. The way the piano and guitar play off each other on “To Be Alone With You” is really fun, and the organ in the background of “I Threw It All Away” is a genius production move. “Lay, Lady, Lay” is one of Dylan’s more famous songs, and it definitely deserves to be. It’s one of his best vocal performances, and whatever kind of percussion is going on during the verses is so strange and cool. “Tell Me That It Isn’t True” has a catchy organ riff that leads most of the song, and then ends with a descending piano riff that’s completely addicting. Every time I listen to the song, I listen to the last 20 seconds three or four times at least.

The last song on the album is the most obvious statement on Dylan’s happiness. “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” has lyrics like “throw my troubles out the door/I don’t need them anymore” and “if there’s a poor boy on the street/then let him have my seat/’cause tonight I’ll be staying here with you.” I’m sure this is the kind of song Souster had in mind when he assumed the “idyllic country landscape” Dylan had created was “too good to be true.” It was 1969. There was a lot of horrible shit going on! Dylan can’t possibly be happy about the state of the world! I’m willing to accept the premise that Dylan actually wasn’t happy around this period of his life, because how the fuck am I supposed to know what he actually feels inside? So, sure, assume the whole album is a facade for Dylan’s crippling sadness and anger. How does that make the music any different? Why should I be dissatisfied with the album because Dylan is lying? He’s the most notorious liar in the history of modern music. It’s like 40 percent of the reason I like listening to his music so much. The obvious conclusion is critics didn’t like the happy Dylan, whether it was the real thing or not.

But Who Cares?

I think expecting “high art” to be miserable is a horrible way to listen to music, and unfortunately that type of thinking has survived to this day. Take Rob Mitchum’s notoriously terrible review for the album Sky Blue Sky by another one of my favorite bands, Wilco. Sky Blue Sky came out after two of Wilco’s most experimental albums, and its sound was much more straightforward than the older stuff. It’s also far less dark than the previous two Wilco albums–Wilco’s frontman Jeff Tweedy had gone to rehab and become more invested in his family life at the time of the album, and the lyrics reflected that. I think Sky Blue Sky is great. Mitchum called it “an album that exposes the dad-rock gene the band has always carried but attempted to disguise–the stylistic equivalent of a wardrobe change into sweatpants and a tank top.” The message is pretty clear. Dark and experimental, at any cost, is better and more important when it comes to art.

Sky Blue Sky by Wilco, 2007

I think the easiest way for critics to stop being so baffled by stylistic choices like Nashville Skyline or Sky Blue Sky is to stop having such ridiculous expectations for the way musicians feel at any given moment. Critics went into a panic when Dylan put out three albums worth of Christian-inspired music in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and then panic turned into even more confusion when by 1983 Dylan was hanging out with Chasidic rabbis. Critics’ attempts to decipher Dylan’s life based on what was being said in his lyrics and in his interviews distracted them from four years of really good music. Dylan put it pretty plainly in 1997, in an interview with Newsweek. “Here’s the thing with me and the religious thing…this is the flat out truth. I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music. I don’t find it anywhere else.”

Dylan is history’s most indecipherable musician. Ultimately, I think people would be better served if they just stopped trying to decipher him. You are not his friend. You will never know him. But you can do the same thing Dylan does really easily. You can find the religiosity and the philosophy in his music, and you can find it there and only there.

All I Know is All I Know

“Bandwagonesque” by Teenage Fanclub, 1991


Someone please let Bandwagonesque stand on its own merits.

This album is unfortunately doomed to be compared to other albums. The first album mentioned in connection with Bandwagonesque is Nirvana’s Nevermind. SPIN Magazine named Bandwagonesque its “Best Album of 1991” ahead of Nevermind, and the world seemingly never let the poor magazine hear the end of it. Is it Teenage Fanclub’s fault that SPIN preferred the Scots over the Seattleites? Not really, so let’s go ahead and make this the last mention of Nirvana for now.

The second album mentioned in connection with Bandwagonesque is Big Star’s Third. Bandwagonesque is purportedly so similar in sound to the Memphis band that critics labeled it “Big Star’s Fourth.” To be clear, Teenage Fanclub are outspoken Big Star fans, and would never deny being influenced by the band if asked about it. But, again, is it fair to Norman Blake, Gerard Love, Raymond Mcginley, and Brendan O’Hare that rock media is obsessed with discussing influences? Not really. I’ll be done with the words Big Star for now, as well.

The truth is Bandwagonesque is a noisy, melodic, beautifully sloppy set of songs that deserves to be mentioned by itself, in its own catchy and clever universe.

The Tunes

A debate I’ve had many times with a friend: what’s the best opening track on an album? For me, the answer could very well be “The Concept.” It’s such a complete statement on what Teenage Fanclub is all about that you almost don’t need to listen to the rest of the album. Some heavy feedback leads to some funny lyrics about The Pill and the 60s band Status Quo and then the chorus provides some awesome harmonies. Around the 2-minute mark, there is a guitar solo for the ages, one more chorus, and a lesser band would have just stopped there. Instead, Teenage Fanclub breaks out a three-minute outro filled with harmonies, chiming guitars, and a slow but powerful bassline. It’s evident the band knows “The Concept” is transcendent–they go so far as to give listeners a quick cool down with the 1-minute noisy interlude “Satan” before returning to the rest of the record.

The rest of the album proves that Teenage Fanclub are masters of songwriting conventions. “December” makes great use of a violin in the chorus which plays nicely off a bright guitar riff. “What You Do To Me” is two-minutes flat and contains only twenty words, but the drum fills and the stop-and-start nature of verses and choruses makes it one of the catchiest songs on the whole album. It’s the little things with these guys.

“Metal Baby” is about a guy who takes a girl to a metal concert, and she promptly ditches him and takes off to a new city with members of the band after the show. Is she at fault here, or is he truly that boring? He is, after all, “not ready to be party to her plan.” It’s a tough call, but I think she might be in the right on this one.

As “The Concept” already proved, Teenage Fanclub are masters at the outro. It’s sort of a classic rock idea, the outro. But Teenage Fanclub make it their own, and “Pet Rock” and “Alcoholiday” are better as a result. “Pet Rock” spends most of its runtime on an outro that adds horns into the mix. All the song needs is one verse and an outro. There really is no chorus required when you can make guitars and drums sound as catchy as Teenage Fanclub can. “Alocholiday” is similar in structure to “The Concept,” but instead of the “oohs” of “The Concept,” this outro provides the band’s best lyrics of the whole album. “All I know is all I know/what I’ve done I leave behind me/I don’t want my soul to find me.” Great stuff.

“Is This Music?” is an instrumental that closes the album, and has an ’80s style guitar sound that contrasts really well with the rest of the record. The effect placed on the guitar adds the perfect amount of melancholy to bookend everything.

But Who Cares?

Here’s a dumb generalization: the 1980s and 1990s indie music scene worked to deny the things they thought had hampered the rock industry for the previous two decades. They hated guitar solos, they hated groupies, they hated unnecessarily long tracks, they hated it all.

For me, though, the best bands of the indie scene, the ones that are still talked about with reverence, managed to alter the rock landscape and play outside the lines without a condescending disdain about them. Teenage Fanclub were among the least condescending bands of the era because they understood it was the sound, not the scene, that would have staying power. They loved guitar solos. There’s a solo on most of the tracks on this album. Whatever their personal relationship to the “groupie” concept was, they still wrote a funny and potentially self-deprecating song about one. They loved unnecessarily long tracks. They knew the truth about them, which is it’s not unnecessary if it’s really catchy. Teenage Fanclub took the good things about rock music and made them their own, which is all that any band could ever hope to strive for.

So does Bandwagonesque deserve to be called 1991’s best album instead of Nevermind? I’m not sure. I’m not a rock critic. What I will say definitively about Bandwagonesque’s relationship to Nevermind is the former has no business serving as a footnote to discuss the latter’s place in music history. It’s all good music. Teenage Fanclub knew that better than anyone.