“Features The Hit Single ‘If Not For You’”, so says the gold sticker of the single which didn’t chart anywhere apart from the Netherlands, though the album itself went to No. 1 in the UK and was Top 10 in America.
I’m no Dylanologist, but even I know that our lives hang in the balance of the smallest gestures. Had I not ventured, on a whim, into Chaser’s Wine Bar to crash a University of Exeter Gilbert & Sullivan Society party, I would likely have never met my future wife, never moved back to England, never had the children I do and, more’s the point, not be writing about a seersucker-suited Bob Dylan album to my legions of Thrifty Vinyl aficionados.
And so it is with New Morning, a minor release in the Dylan canon, but a keystone which has largely, though not completely, defined the man’s career from 1970 on. Until this point, Dylan had been on the offensive. Of course, I mean that in both senses: he aggressively asserted his art, pissing people off in the process. This is true of all his 60s releases; even his missteps, the mild Nashville Skyline (1969) and the vindictive Self Portrait (1970), were the acts of a man of intent. But it isn’t so here, no, on the still-charming New Morning (released just a few months after Self P) he’s just another romantic singer-songwriter in retreat and, in my mind at least, the fact that he’s largely relegated behind the piano confirms this view. There’s some obvious stuff on the record (the title track, for a start) and the blues songs aren’t surreal enough, but the side closers, “If Dogs Run Free” and “Father of Night”, are and confirm he’s still got some offhand magic left. It is the desire to somehow capture off-handedness which, as I said, defined Bob’s game plan from hereon out.
“I once said I’d buy an album of Dylan breathing heavily,” ran Greil Marcus’ famous dismissal of Self Portrait. “But not an album of Dylan breathing softly.” I would argue that nothing so spiteful could be accused of soft breathing; rather, it is New Morning, in which the gently exhaling Dylan, with a small gesture, points the way he had to go with modest, yet pivotal purpose.