Saturday, December 17, 2011

Jam of the day, songs that make you cry, and the devolution of liner notes: "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall"

Artist: Bob Dylan
Album: The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan
Song: "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall"
Released: 1963
Label: Columbia Records

I was hanging out with a friend at my place last weekend and he revealed that he had never sat and listened to a Bob Dylan album straight through. So, of course, I made him sit there as we played Freewheelin' and then Blonde on Blonde and then … well, then it got late. We laughed out loud at some lyrics, marveled at the ingenuity, and generally enjoyed the tunes, but I made a particular point to stop doing whatever we were doing and really pay attention when "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" came on. Something about it hits me hard, and I find myself unable to not pay attention to it. I remember just crying to myself in the car while driving down an empy highway and listening to it. I still don't know exactly why, but it's just that powerful.


I also sat there and read the liner notes on this old vinyl copy of Freewheelin' I have, marvelling at the detailed, enthusiastic deconstruction of Dylan's songs and what they meant to the culture at the time of release. Why don't we have these notes anymore? Do we despise that much the idea of someone telling us what art is that, even if they're right, we won't pay attention, so no one bothers? Just read this particular passage, on this specific song, and tell me it isn't helpful, a true aid in listening to, understanding, and enjoying the music it describes. [Original punctuation/emphasis style preserved.]
A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall represents to Dylan a maturation of his feelings on this subject since the earlier and almost as powerful Let Me Die in My Footsteps, which is not included here but which was released as a single record by Columbia. Unlike most of his song-writing contemporaries among the city singers, Dylan doesn't simply make a polemical point in his compositions. As in this song about the psychopathology of peace-through-balance-of-terror, Dylan's images are multiply (and sometimes horrifyingly) evocative. As a result, by transmuting his fierce convictions into what can only be called art, Dylan reaches basic emotions which few political statements or extrapolations of statistics have so far been able to touch. Whether a song or a singer can then convert others is something else again.

"Hard Rain," adds Dylan, "is a desparate kind of song." It was written during the Cuban missile crisis of October, 1962 when those who allowed themselves to think of the possible results of the Kennedy-Khrushchev confrontation were chilled by the imminence of oblivion. "Every line in it", says Dylan, "is actually the start of a whole song. But when I wrote it, I thought I wouldn't have enough time alive to write all those songs so I put all I could into this one."

And that's just about this song! The entire back cover is filled with paragraphs like these about every song on the album, and some others, setting the record in historical and cultural context, describing its ingenuities and influences alike. It's obviously written by a fan, but not a fanboy. This Mr. Nat Hentoff (who is, as the notes say, "a frequent contributor to such periodicals as 'The Reporter,' 'The New Yorker,' 'Playboy,' 'Commonweal' and 'The Village Voice'") has a lot of positive things to say about Mr. Dylan, but he does so intelligently and interestingly. Record reviews are one thing, but having this kind of critical analysis contained within an album's packaging is an interesting and helpful idea, and I really wonder why it has disappeared. Would some major labels ever consider bringing this back? Thoughts?

On a related note, here's a great blog essay about music criticism and how/why we read it: what i think makes a record review great after reading a couple thousand, and my favorite pitchfork review of all time from Pitchfork Reviews Reviews.

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