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CLASSIC ’70s: Bob Dylan – ‘Desire’

Front cover of 'Desire'

Front cover of ‘Desire’

by Ed Biggs

Though Bob Dylan’s reputation and power is inextricably bound up with the 1960s, the middle of the next decade saw him briefly recapture his peak form with back-to-back classics. 1975’s Blood On The Tracks is regarded by more than a few Dylan fans as his very best album, but that record’s reputation often overshadows that of its successor. While neither as special nor as iconic as …Tracks, Desire is as distinctive and musically varied as anything else he’s made in his career, even during his golden age, and one of the few occasions he dropped his protective shield of cryptic songwriting and, to the extent that Dylan ever did so, bared his soul.

Recorded with the Rolling Thunder Revue, the live band that Dylan had performed with on the road to promote his previous record throughout 1975, Desire is most definitely an odd beast. Although it’s a return to the topic-based songwriting that had defined most of his ‘70s work, based around the twin epics ‘Hurricane’ and ‘Joey’, the figure of his estranged wife Sara undoubtedly looms large, meaning that it serves as a kind of thematic coda to Blood On The Tracks. As such, it’s a divided work, half personal and half cryptic, but that duality nevertheless gives it a distinctive character. Coupled with Scarlet Rivera’s violin that pierces through the mix, no other LP in Dylan’s vast and varied back catalogue sounds like Desire.

Opener ‘Hurricane’, a 9-minute electrified protest song about Rubin Carter, the black middleweight boxer wrongfully convicted of a triple homicide in 1967 and only released from prison in 1985. The scraped strings blow like the proverbial storm throughout the track, reflecting Dylan’s righteous ire at all-white juries and biased police investigations, making for one of his most memorable songs ever. The other character-based track, the 11-minute ‘Joey’, is rather more cumbersome, and split opinion at the time. Concerning the life of the deceased gangster Joey Gallo, critics lambasted Dylan for a one-sided portrait of the man that was apparently written in one night (almost entirely by writing partner Jacques Levy, according to Dylan) and omitted the (many) negative aspects of Gallo’s character. Quite aside from this, it’s a bit of a dirge and struggles to retain the listener’s attention, though rather pretty to listen to 30 seconds of.

Elsewhere, Dylan stays within his normal modus operandi on the symbolism-heavy travelogue ‘Isis’, another celebrated moment that serves as a metaphor for trust in relationships and which hinted at his own disintegrating marriage, with its protagonist running a fool’s errand until discovering the value of loyalty. ‘Black Diamond Bay’, telling the story of an island destroyed by an erupting volcano, and the mystical outlaw tale of ‘Romance In Durango’, are typical Dylan pieces of the mid ‘70s. ‘Mozambique’, which started as a simple rhyme game between himself and Levy, is the only really non-essential moment.

However, in a number of places Dylan uses his skills to tell us something about himself. On ‘Oh, Sister’, featuring the dulcet tones of Emmylou Harris in a duet, was the first time Dylan used the Christian God to woo a woman, according to critic Tim Riley. That unusual directness is seen again in ‘One More Cup Of Coffee (Valley Below)’, a heartbroken tale of a break-up thinly veiled as a tale of a family of drifters. It’s not until the final track ‘Sara’, an irresistibly sad and desperate lament for his wife featuring lyrics like “so easy to look at / so hard to define”, that we hear directly what these metaphors have all been about. He had been separated from Sara, the mother of his four children, for at least a year at the time of recording, and in the song he also recalls writing ‘Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands’, the epic closer of 1966’s Blonde On Blonde, for her. It’s unnerving to hear such an enigmatic songwriter being so uncharacteristically literal.

For its blemishes, Desire remains a distinctive and colourful record, and resonated with audiences at the time and 40 years later. Selling two million copies in the States and topping the Billboard charts, it would be Dylan’s last great album for more than two decades. Two years later, he entered his short-lived Christian phase in the late ‘70s with Slow Train Coming before enduring a nadir throughout the entire ‘80s. 1997’s Grammy Award-winning Time Out Of Mind would see him truly reconnect with his audience, but by this point Dylan had become more of a symbolic figurehead, a Statue of Liberty for every singer-songwriter wielding an acoustic guitar to doff their cap to while playing their trade. Desire, however, was the final echo of his original greatness, a reminder of the enduring relevance of his visionary music.

Influenced by: Blind Willie McTell, The Animals, Loretta Lynn, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Simon & Garfunkel

Influenced: Paul Simon, The White Stripes, Rufus Wainwright, George Ezra, Hozier

Listen to Desire here, and tell us what you think below!

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