Dylan, Young, Simon…who’s the odd man here?
When Bob Dylan released his 2009 album, Together Through Life, an album on which all but one of the songs were co-written by Robert Hunter, I raved about it in this very column. I was biased, of course. I have a tender spot for Hunter, a long-time collaborator of the late Jerry Garcia and really an invisible member of the erstwhile Grateful Dead, the band that lived and died with Garcia. Even today, much of the repertoire of the remaining members of the Grateful Dead comprises songs that were written jointly by Hunter and Garcia.
So when Together Through Life came out, I went out and bought it and even seemed to like it. But that album has been languishing on my CD shelves after the first couple of spins and it is unlikely that I’ll reach for it again. The thing about Dylan is that whatever he releases, I go out and buy, in anticipation that one of the greatest musicians of our times will come out with yet another gem. It hasn’t really happened in the past 10-12 years. I mean I liked Love and Theft (which came out, if you remember, on September 11, 2001, a fateful day); Modern Times (2006) was also not too bad; and last year’s Together Through Life I have already mentioned. The thing is that I have never really gone back to any of these albums. If I want to listen to Dylan, I choose Blonde on Blonde or The Basement Tapes or Blood on the Tracks or even the really early ones like Highway 61 Revisited or John Wesley Harding. Not the ones he’s been releasing in the 1990s or the 2000s.
In fact, I watched and heard a very recent live performance by the big man on the internet the other day and was left disappointed and sad. Dylan will turn 70 next May. Perhaps he should call it a day now. Few pop musicians have had a run such as his. His lyrics are part of academic study; his influence has touched writers, musicians and countless people’s lives. I can’t think of anyone in the field of popular music who has achieved anything remotely comparable to what he has. And I’d gladly listen to his older work (Volume 9 of his Bootleg Series of early recordings was out this October).
But if Dylan in his old age has left me wanting, Neil Young has pleasantly surprised me. Young’s latest album, Le Noise, produced by Daniel Lanois (the title of the album seems to be a pun on the famous producer’s name), is a gem. Eight songs; a total duration of just under 38 minutes; but what an album! Young turned 65 earlier this month and going by his work in Le Noise, he’s in better shape than he probably was 10 or even 15 years back. On Le Noise, Young has no band. Just a rigged-up acoustic guitar (bass and treble notes channelled separately) and some sonics courtesy Lanois (who is a genius in his own right having produced albums for not just Young but Peter Gabriel, Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson and U2. Remember Joshua Tree? Lanois produced it).
I tried to analyse why I like Le Noise so much—I keep going back to the album and it keeps lifting my mood and renewing my faith in musicians I grew up listening to—and realised that it was a simple thing: Young’s voice. It is as garage-y and endearing as it was 30 years ago. You liked Rust Never Sleeps (1979)? Comes A Time (1978)? You’ll love Le Noise and marvel at how young Young sounds and how spirited his music still is.
I suppose it’s like that. Some musicians are like good wine. They get better and better with age. Which brings me to Paul Simon. When was the last time you checked on what that living legend has been up to? I mean, of course, you heard Graceland but that was back in 1986. And Still Crazy After All These Years, which was even earlier (1975). But here’s the thing—Paul Simon has a new album coming out early 2011 called So Beautiful or So What (I love that title) and I just heard one track from it. The song’s called Getting Ready For Christmas Day and I almost fell out of my chair when it came on. Simon will turn 70 soon but if you listen to his voice, you’d never guess it. And he still experiments (remember the African beats in Graceland). On this solitary sneak previewed single, Simon has taken a recording of a 1940s American gospel singer and fused it with a very contemporary song that he’s written. But what’s most striking are Simon’s vocals on the song. He sounds as good, perhaps, even better, than he ever did. No mean feat that for an about-to-be septuagenarian.
It’s incredible how some musicians defy age and produce work that critics compare with what they did when they were at the peak of their career. But then they are the exceptions. I mean the Rolling Stones have been around since the early 1960s but, admit it; they’ve been a bit of a joke for the past decade or more. And, as I mentioned, there’s Dylan. Some musicians should just hang up their microphones and let their back catalogues do the singing. Not Young and Simon, though. Those two old men are rocking!