Lord knows that Blood on the Tracks is a difficult act to follow, if not the most difficult ever! With 15 plus albums in 14 years under his belt, a few hills and valleys in popularity, and already considered a legend in his own time, Dylan (or `Zimmy’ as the snobs call him) had to come up with a follow-up to his most personal album to date, an album that will forever be in debate as to whether it is his best album ever. So, Dylan threw himself into the work, collaborating with lyrical specialist Jacques Levy, fresh off helping Roger McGuinn. An all-night tequila fueled recording session ensued creating not only one of Dylan’s most singularly different albums to date in what was to be Desire, but also some of his most original songs.
Save for one song, Desire is vastly different from the personal tragedies of Blood on the Tracks. The most famous song from the album is opener “Hurricane,” an epic poem/story written about Ruben Carter, the boxer falsely accused of murder. Dylan visited the boxer in jail and was inspired by his supporters to write a song about the injustice. The story has since been put into numerous books, including one by Carter himself, and a film based on the boxer’s life. The song, except for the storytelling style, is unlike most of Dylan’s work. The addition of violins and congas lend a worldly feel as opposed to the Americana folk of past work.
“Isis” is based in the rhythms of the piano and bass and dotted with the flourishes of the violin as opposed to most of Dylan’s acoustic and electric guitar work. Aside from being another great story, it is also the one song which really hearkens back to Dylan’s old style of singing with the nasally highs and droning lows that are his trademark. Otherwise, some of the songs on Desire show a marked difference in Dylan’s voice as it sounds more tempered and serious. “Mozambique,” with background vocals by Emmylou Harris, sounds like a song by an artist that Dylan admired, Joni Mitchell. Even his voice is metered in the same way. “One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below)” is a haunting gyspy spiritual. When he and Emmylou sing “…to the valley below,” it can send shivers down your spine.
“Oh, Sister” can easily be traced to work with Robbie Robertson and the Band. The song even at times sounds like their big hit “The Weight.” At certain points in the song you could even start singing, “Went down to Nazareth…” and it would fit perfectly. “Joey” was the second song from the album to create controversy in that it portrays title character, real life gangster Joey Gallo, as a sympathetic hero. Then again, so too did Milton’s Paradise Lost portray the devil as the hero. I, for one, have no problem with either scenario. It’s simply good writing, people. Although no one has covered it, theoretically because of its subject matter, or possibly because it’s over eleven minutes long, with the resurgence in popularity of the gangster, such as the Godfather films and the Sopranos series, it’s probably due for a revival.
The true star of the album is the last song, the only one that could have been a holdover from Blood on the Tracks, that being “Sara.” The story goes that after the night of drinking and recording, Dylan started playing this song, which no one in the band had heard before. The subject of the song, his wife Sara, was sitting in the booth watching as he poured out his heart about their crumbling marriage. It was also the first time she had ever heard the song. They used the first take. Dylan recalls their past, telling stories including the writing of “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” and finally saying that “loving you is one thing I will never regret.” He pleads with her “don’t ever leave me, don’t ever go,” but somehow we know, as he does, that it’s over. “Sara” contains not only some of Dylan’s most heartbreaking lyrics, but it also showcases one of Dylan’s best vocal performances. It’s an awfully sad way to end an album, but then again `Zimmy’ always knew how to shoot from the hip and hit us right in the heart.
Similar Albums/Albums Influenced:
Joni Mitchell- For the Roses
Neil Young- Zuma
The Band- The Last Waltz