50 Years Later: Revisiting Bob Dylan’s Rebound LP ‘New Morning’

Much of Bob Dylan’s work has been subjected to extreme revisionism over the years, perhaps none more so than New Morning. Released in the fall of 1970 (10/19/70), a mere four months or so after the near-debacle that was Self-Portrait, the future Nobel Laureate’s eleventh studio album was hailed as a return to form, at least of sorts, by many of the same fans and pundits who were ready to write him off after the double-album fiasco from early in the summer. 

Yet as The Bootleg Series, Vol. 10: Another Self Portrait (1969-1971) reveals, both records were, in fact, part of an expedition into roots and style that included Dylan’s 1967 work with The Band on The Basement Tapes and also encompassed the spartan cryptic likes of John Wesley Harding released at the end of the next year. And even after all this deceptively purposeful dabbling, Bob went on to turn heads and open ears yet again with the emphatic embrace of country music on Nashville Skyline the next summer (that initiative based on his relationship with icon of the genre, Johnny Cash.

Practically square in the middle of that wide-ranging exploration is a record that reflected Dylan’s openly eclectic research. Seemingly symbolic lyric imagery placed in great relief against its  musical simplicity caused the veteran music journalist Ralph J. Gleason to gush and Rolling Stone Magazine to headline its similarly effusive review (by Ed Ward) “WE’VE GOT DYLAN BACK AGAIN.” With the retrospect of a half-century, however, it’s difficult to discern how, except perhaps via wishful thinking, this unassuming record was likely to reaffirm Bob’s status as ‘the voice of a generation’ or compare favorably to the now legendary triptych from the prior decade, Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde.

  But with the down-to-earth likes of New Morning, Bob Dylan was hardly looking for such cultural adoration (an impression Dylan subsequently reaffirmed in  writing about the period in his autobiography Chronicles, Vol. )1. Still, contrary to the seemingly disparate approach of the era as well as Al Kooper’s recollections of his collaborative work on the project, both the material and the arrangements boasted a discernible continuity, if not a readily apparent one with decades of hindsight. The sparse stripped down versions of “Went to See the Gypsy” illustrates the earthy, tuneful atmosphere at the heart of the record, and further clear evidence appears in the form of a piano/vocal version of “If Not For You” wholly shorn of sentimentality and positively haunting for that very trait.  

Along those lines, too, a demo of “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” included in the aforementioned archive set, unfolds in the form of an absolutely guileless solo piano piece. As such, it is not wholly altogether removed from “Father of Night,” the emphasis on the ivories as the dominant instrument on the album also allowing for its use on such varied compositions as the devil-may-care waltz of “Winterlude” and the out-and-out jazz number “If Dogs Run Free.” For the purposes of the latter, the author evinces an ever-so-slightly camouflaged tongue-in-cheek attitude, suggesting that, even apart from the jaunty blues of “One More Weekend,” Bob clearly had some fun making this album at least some of the time. Along those casual lines–and most appropriately–the esteemed company of George Harrison graces “Working on a Guru.” 

The near mythic sessions from Big Pink and elsewhere in the Catskill community eventually got its deserved (and exhaustive) archive presentation in the form of The Basement Tapes Complete. And The Bootleg Series Vol. 11, like its predecessor, depicts how those two projects were part of a wider overall initiative that also resulted in varied self-penned material from Dylan, some of it intended for the stage in conjunction with playwright Archibald MacLeish.  One such number turns absolutely exultant, namely this titlesong, its horn section clearly bearing the imprint of co-producer Kooper: the man who played the signal organ lines of “Like A Rolling Stone” had gone on from there to form Blood Sweat and Tears, arguably the first band to so prominently feature woodwinds and brasswinds. Besides depicting the adventurous approach Dylan brought to bear in preparing the album, the spare strings that adorn an outtake of “Sign On The Window” also echoes the ambitious debut album of that group. 

The various products of this era, official and otherwise, would appear to have set the course for the balance of Bob’s recording career from that point. It might’ve been an excruciatingly slow process from here to the previously-unreleased and ‘new’ recordings on Greatest Hits Vol. II and studio sessions with Leon Russell that produced multiple versions of “George Jackson;” yet as something of a return to political activism for Dylan, the ode to the Black Panther, issued around the same time as the aforementioned anthology late in 1971, was no less notable or surprising than Dylan’s appearance at the Concert For Bangla Desh the previous August, his only other live presentation since 1966 besides showing up at the Isle of Wight in 1969 and a tribute to Woody Guthrie the year prior (both times with The Band in tow). 

Still, all the varied the output  has been worth waiting for, more or less, spanning as it does brilliant original work like 1974’s Blood On The Tracks, to be followed a little over twelve months later with Desire, two decades hence a Daniel Lanois-produced album drenched in noir, Time Out Of Mind, and, beginning in the new millennium, the eclectic likes of Love And Theft,’ Tempest, and Rough And Rowdy Ways, Like the various exhumations issued along this same timeline, including the 2009 remaster of New Morning –its deeper, punchier sonics rendering extra photos almost superfluous—these efforts are all testaments to the restless creative spirit of Bob Dylan.

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4 Responses

  1. Have you considered, or researched the possibility or suggestion that “Went To See The Gypsy” is about the relationship/ non- relationship between Dylan and Elvis?

  2. I think Collette’s succinct analysis cuts through a lot of confusing cross references and unnecessary marginalia to provide the true secret to Bob Dylan’s enduring flame: A functioning microphone.

  3. I think a lot of the stuff said about New Morning definitely concentrates too much on its comparisons to other Dylan albums of the same decade rather than viewing it as a precursor to other albums so well done on that part. How about looking at how Dylan’s vocals had evolved from Nashville Skyline to New Morning with them only being a year apart and yet sounding incredibly different.

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