Disappointing Albums, Music

51 disappointing albums: ‘Nashville Skyline’ by Bob Dylan

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What is this shit? Oh, sorry wrong album. Yes, the obvious candidate for a disappointing Dylan album is Self Portrait, the Grand Wizard of all Disappointing Records, an album so innately disappointing so as to become a genre unto itself i.e. “This is clearly Nicky Minaj’s Self Portrait”.

The problem is that Self Portrait isn’t disappointing at all. It’s just not a very good album. Nashville Skyline is, or at least once was, disappointing in a far more traditional way. But, you say, it’s a rock solid classic. What’s it doing on your damn list?

Think about this for a second. You are 18 years old in 1969. Three years earlier, you heard Blonde on Blonde on your best friend’s parents hi-fi while they were entertaining friends upstairs. Your mind was blown by it, shattered completely. You saw Bob when he came through town with the Hawks. Dorky kids in Pete Seeger caps booed when the band came out. You cheered. Fuck folk music, fuck politics. Dylan is bigger than all of it. He’s a poet with an electric guitar, a sonic beatnik. A little while later John Wesley Harding appeared. It doesn’t have quite the same effect but it was still a cool record filled with mysterious lyrics.

The lyrics are dull, cliched, and predictable. They work well enough in the context but if I was his English teacher, I’d say, “Bob is capable of better work”.

You get ink all over your fingers reading and rereading a new magazine called Rolling Stone that reports Bob is recording in Nashville again. Blonde on Blonde was recorded in Nashville. ‘Street Fighting Man’ is on the radio and something that looks like a revolution has gone down in Chicago the previous summer. You’ve been going to anti war rallies and you’re reading Che Guevara. The world that your parents grew up in is changing. Kids are marching all over the planet. This is revolution and all that’s left is for Dylan to put it all down in an album that will blow everything the Stones, The Beatles, and everyone else has ever done. Blonde on Blonde was a warning shot, this is going to be big one.

But it isn’t. It sounds like that Charlie Rich album that your dad bought the same day and, lo and behold, it has the same musicians listed on the back of the album. You want Bob to explain the revolution. Instead you get a duet with Johnny Cash of all people and a lush sex song called ‘Lay Lady Lay’. It’s 28 minutes of bullshit. You put it away, forget about Dylan completely until your kids give you a CD of his ‘comeback’ album Oh Mercy for Christmas 20 years later, and you play it to death in the Audi on the way to the office every morning.

Did this happen? Who knows, but it isn’t hard to imagine. I wouldn’t have thanked The Clash for a synth driven dance album in 1981 and today’s King Gizzard fans would probably be surprised if the band did a thrash metal album. Wait a minute…

There are many different sorts of Dylan freaks. I’m part of a fairly standard group that can’t get past Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde. I have all of his other albums and I love some of them dearly but, for me, there is nothing like those three in rock and roll. They are mystical records, there’s no other word. Nashville Skyline isn’t mystical at all and is thus slightly disappointing.

Dylan’s journey from the great motorcycle crash of ’66 to Studio One is an old story that I won’t repeat here. We’ve all heard it a million times. He’s a restless artist who wasn’t comfortable with the “voice of a generation” label etc. He always loved country music. Yeah, sure, who didn’t? I guess I just wonder where all of that imaginative energy that produced something like ‘Visions of Johanna’ went.

Is anyone else struck by the title of the fourth track on Nashville Skyline? ‘I Threw It All Away’. It’s a song he probably hoped Elvis would record or something, but it’s an intriguing title all the same.

Why is it disappointing?

The lyrics are dull, cliched, and predictable. They work well enough in the context but if I was his English teacher, I’d say, “Bob is capable of better work”. There’s no depth to any of the songs. I can hear you howling in protest that ‘Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You’ is a masterpiece. Sure, if you’re Jimmy Webb, but this is the guy who wrote ‘Desolation Row’. His “new” voice is often commented on. It sounds a bit hokey in retrospect and doesn’t convince me. If it was his new voice, it became his old voice pretty quickly and I don’t much like gimmicks.

Why should you hear it?

Well, it is Nashville Skyline after all, a key album of the late sixties and probably the riskiest choice I have made in this list. Listen to the sheer analogue glory of the sound. It’s a beautiful recording that features the cream of “Nashville cats”. The producer, Bob Johnston, layers the acoustic and gently electric instruments under Dylan’s note perfect delivery of each song. It could have been a disaster. If it really had been a country record of the time, there would have been strings and lots of ‘em. This is country rock in its purest form and a record that will never get old. ‘Tell Me That It isn’t True’ in particular is wonderful song, with an Augie Meyers-style organ sound and lovely changes.

Okay, okay, it’s not disappointing. Well, not entirely anyway.

For the rest of this series, click here.

8 responses to “51 disappointing albums: ‘Nashville Skyline’ by Bob Dylan

  1. Brave fellow. Nashville Skyline is disappointing? Okay. But are you sure it was such a shock for his fans? Teenage rockers would have been confused only if they hadn’t been paying attention. By 1969, plenty of bands had experimented with country music. The Beatles recorded a Buck Owens cover before Bob had even gone electric! The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo was at least a year old by the time NS appeared and The Band, while not country, as such, certainly seemed they could be. Poco’s first album came out about the same time. The Stones’ interest in country was clear on Beggar’s Banquet and Honky Tonk Woman appeared in 1969. I could go on and on but I seriously dispute the idea that Nashville Skyline was disappointing because it was country. I agree that lyrically it’s not as satisfying as Blonde on Blonde but Bob will be Bob as we have learned over and over.

    1. Your point is a good one and very well supported! However, I would argue that there is a difference between The Byrds/Burritos style of ‘cosmic American music’ and what Bob is up to on NS. It’s not Americana, it’s an attempt at straight up Nashville countrypolitan. In retrospect, it might seem like splitting hairs but I don’t think it would have been at the time. I can’t see anyone making the connection with bluesy sleaze of Honky Tonk Woman either but I might be wrong. In any case, your contention that rock and roll and country were hardly strangers is dead on. It is likely that Dylan’s interest in the music probably stemmed from listening to rockabilly in the first place. Thanks for your comment!

  2. When compared with so many other Dylan albums, Nashville Skyline is certainly disappointing. Had it somehow been Dylan’s only album, I think it’d be looked upon much more favourably.

    1. It is the case with so many of the albums in this series. If an unknown artist called Bob Dylan had released Nashville Skyline in 1969, there is no way it would be on my list. It would instead be a cult classic or something along those lines. And that raises a lot of interesting questions! Thanks for your comment.

  3. I was there, in the U.S. and 19 years old, an absolute fan of Dylan ever since “Freewheelin'” and when that album came out, I thought WTF. No amount of dope or other drugs could help me make sense of that crap.” Moon, shine like a spoon” – 2nd grade or third? I bought the album when it came out, but tossed it about a week later. I would toss it again, and again. No matter how hard one tries, there was and is no way to add any intellectual substance to it, and one didn’t need that fluff then and has needed it even less as time has passed. The only episode in his back trail with less heft is/was his bought of Christianity. That put me off him almost permanently.

  4. Being all of 17 and living in regional NSW, it didn’t shock or disappoint at all. I had only just got into Freewheelin’, years late, I know, and only knew contemporary Bob Dylan by Rainy Day Women, and I Want You. Both songs were minor hits on 2LF Young.
    A potential girlfriend and I sat down to listen to her latest purchase, Nashville Skyline. It just sounded like the Dylan songs played on the radio, and not that dissimilar to a lot of other current tunes by artists such as Joe South, etc who used the same musicians.
    Sometimes the disappointment is not the album but the expectation.

  5. John Wesley Harding was and is one of my favourites and no more like that was the disappointment for me, not NS itself. There were a few disappointments from Dylan to come, none more so than Under the red sky and slow train. Whatever, he’s always got my ear.

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