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 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.
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.
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.