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Dylan's Children, Without the Sanctimony Print-ready version

by Stephen Holden
New York Times
November 20, 1994

ONE OF THE MANY WEIRDO CHARACTERS on Lyle Lovett's new album, "I Love Everybody," is an eccentric misanthrope who natters on about a gold tooth his grandmother left him when she died. He also claims he is keeping his aged uncle locked in a closet. Addressing the world at large, he says with defensive pride, "Look around and you will see/ This world is full of creeps like me." The album's other quirky narrators include a man who identifies with fat babies because "they have no pride" and another who is obsessed with penguins because "they are so sensitive."

At the age of 37, Mr. Lovett is recognized as one of the most gifted inheritors of the singer-songwriter tradition that Bob Dylan virtually invented 30 years ago. But in the three decades that separate Mr. Dylan's reign as a pop-culture god and Mr. Lovett's ascendancy as an admired cult figure, the genre has undergone momentous shifts.

From a full-scale movement with its own pantheon of troubadours, the genre nearly died with the arrival of punk rock and the macho rock climate that regarded singer-songwriters as self-pitying wimps. Since then, it has struggled to reinvent itself. Today's younger singer-songwriters who have achieved a commercial foothold have done so largely without the support of rock radio and MTV. And they are generally more cautious and conservative than their utopian, barricade-storming forerunners.

The best of the second generation seem to have learned from the failures of their predecessors. The rampant solipsism that infused the music of the older generation is softer-edged and more qualified. Instead of using the imperious "I," which informed much of the best music of Mr. Dylan and his followers, younger songwriters often prefer to make their points through storytelling and dramatic monologues. The first person singular is more likely to be a fictional character who speaks ironically or through indirection.

Take Mr. Lovett. Although the fervent tenderness of his singing echoes that of the 1970's troubadour Jackson Browne, Mr. Lovett is neither a confessional romantic nor a liberal preacher. His narrators are not editorial alter egos but ordinary people observed with affectionate detachment. Mr. Lovett obviously cares about these self-described creeps, but he refuses to romanticize or judge them. His vignettes belong to a Southern storytelling tradition that has more in common with country yarn spinning than with urban folk broadsides. Still an Acolyte At Dylan's Altar

A comparison of "I Love Everybody" with "Turbulent Indigo," the 17th solo album by Joni Mitchell, illustrates the genre's shift away from 1970's-style solipsism. Ms. Mitchell, the most brilliant singer-songwriter to take up Mr. Dylan's bardic esthetic, was the queen of the stream-of-consciousness confession 20 years ago. Although she has largely abandoned blatant autobiography, she hasn't given up Dylanesque sermonizing.

"Sex Kills," one of the most ambitious songs on her new album, is a churning, apocalyptic mood piece whose lyric compiles a laundry list of global ills from gas leaks and oil spills to "the ulcerated ozone." The punch line, "And sex sells everything/ And sex kills," is delivered in a tone of towering sternness. With its rich and smoggy instrumental textures, the music is wonderfully atmospheric. But Ms. Mitchell's string of warnings is as original as a warmed-over television editorial.

Another Mitchell harangue, "Not to Blame," bluntly accuses an unidentified celebrity of beating up a girlfriend and driving another woman to suicide. "The Sire of Sorrow (Job's Sad Song)" is a pretentious quasi-biblical dialogue between the Old Testament character and a chorus of antagonists.

"Turbulent Indigo" is not all pontification. When Ms. Mitchell stops issuing warnings and pointing fingers, her lyrical genius still shines through. The album's best song, "Yvette in English," which she wrote with David Crosby, is a sparkling vignette about an American tourist's flirtation with a saucy Parisian in a Left Bank bistro. It has a sexy charm and deft, painterly imagery that recall Ms. Mitchell's best 1970's songs. Sweet Youth, How Fleeting Thou Art

Ms. Mitchell's evolution from confessional poet into pundit says a lot about the limitations of the 1970's singer-songwriter ethos that Mr. Dylan handed down to performers like her, Paul Simon, Jackson Browne, James Taylor, Carly Simon, Laura Nyro, Cat Stevens, John Denver, Janis Ian and Don McLean along with Neil Young, Van Morrison and Bruce Springsteen in their softer modes. That esthetic fused Beat literature, confessional poetry and folk-music broadsides into a new bardic tradition based on the supposedly infinite and inexhaustible self. Spontaneous self-revelation driven by moral fervor was assumed to have elevated songwriting from a craft into an art, transforming lyrics into poetry, commentary into prophecy.

Musicians across the pop spectrum were liberated from exercising traditional craftsmanly restraints. Song forms became open ended, and orderly meter and rhyme dispensable. Imagery could be abstract and private. The singer became his or her own definitive interpreter on records in which the voice, song and instrumentation merged into an artistic statement. Mr. Dylan, who was far and away the most convincing performer of his own tirades, set the riveting example of the songwriter as his own best interpreter, despite having a voice that was a crude, whining sneer.

As performers followed Mr. Dylan in releasing albums conceived and marketed as song cycles, it looked briefly as if Mr. Dylan had spawned a solo tradition that would dominate pop for decades to come. He and his followers were accepted by their baby-boomer peers as the successors to the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and Rodgers and Hammerstein. Instead of creating Broadway scores, this new pop elite created albums that everyone bought and talked about.

But their takeover of pop music largely fizzled. Performers who rode to glory on a surge of countercultural energy quickly used up a resource they had taken for granted -- their youth. And times changed. The personal experiences of sex, drugs, rebellion and political engagement that informed their lyrics were quickly absorbed by the culture and lost their novelty.

As they used up their fuel of personal experience, the singer-songwriters began to sound redundant and self-righteous. Their own pop stardom became an unbreachable barrier to the raw experience that might provide them with new material.

The cult of personality that had liberated pop from moon-June-spoon formulas now imprisoned those personalities. Following his 1975 masterpieces, "Blood on the Tracks" and "Desire," Mr. Dylan fell into confused self-parody. He was only 34. Ms. Mitchell's 1976 album, "Hejira," was the singer's final confessional statement before she retreated from anguished self-revelation into a more guarded stance. The Next Generation (An Eclectic Bunch)

Paul Simon, the only first-generation singer-songwriter to succeed completely in re-inventing himself, did so by immersing himself in world music and building a new, more intuitive songwriting voice around African and Brazilian rhythms.

One who has succeeded better than most in keeping up a lively personal chronicle is Carly Simon, whose new album, "Letters Never Sent," is the latest chapter in a musical journal that now spans 23 years. In the centerpiece of this album of epistolary messages to unidentified friends, relatives and lovers, the singer addresses her dead mother and imagines a reunion in the afterlife.

Ms. Simon doesn't really confide very much. But here, as in earlier albums, her blunt, folk-pop songs and open-voiced delivery evoke a self-portrait of a privileged woman afflicted with ungovernable passions and crippling anxieties, veering between extremes of self-confidence and excruciating vulnerability.

Ms. Simon, like her baby-boom peers, always expressed a genteel middle-class faith in better days and happy endings. It was a belief that the next generation of singer-songwriters didn't share. The punk and post-punk performers who injected a fresh shot of adrenaline into pop in the late 1970's and 80's harbored no lurking utopian assumptions. In the songs of Elvis Costello, the most influential and prolific post-punk singer-songwriter, sexual liberation and personal salvation were no longer synonymous. His knotty, densely packed narratives described a sexual climate ruled by fear and loathing.

Now and then, an occasional new voice emerged that promised to rejuvenate the Dylan tradition. Rickie Lee Jones, the neo-Beat goddess who appeared in 1979, fused Mr. Dylan's poetic assertiveness with Ms. Nyro's dreaminess, but her subsequent records were more eccentric. Nine years later, Tracy Chapman galvanized the pop world with "Fast Car," a dramatic monologue of inner-city life delivered in a dark grainy voice that conveyed the same moral authority as the young Dylan. It was a one-shot.

More recently Tori Amos and Jeff Buckley have ignited cult fires. But Ms. Amos's sex- and religion-charged lyrics are often incoherent, and Mr. Buckley's keening romantic vocals are more compelling than his still-developing songwriting skills.

In the last two years, the Canadian singer-songwriters, Ferron and Jane Siberry, have released masterpieces that carry Mr. Dylan's legacy in new directions. Confided in a soft, craggy voice, the epic folk-pop ballads on Ferron's album "Driver" describe the lesbian-feminist songwriter's cross-country ramblings, which end in happy domesticity in the Pacific Northwest. Ms. Siberry's album "When I Was a Boy" is a suite of mystical songs that reflect on love and death from the perspective of a soul departing from the earth. But rock radio's rejection of soft sounds excluded both records from significant airplay.

Another obstacle to the re-emergence of the confessional ballad is the usurpation by the rock and hip-hop mainstream of subject matter that was once largely the province of the 70's troubadours. Mope rock's cries of doom and gloom are exacerbated extensions of Mr. Dylan's accusatory rants. At the same time, the personal confessions that titillated 70's audiences have begun to seem quaint in their modesty.

Madonna, Liz Phair and today's riot grrrl bands are far more sexually frank than Ms. Mitchell, whose 1972 ballad "Woman of Heart and Mind" was one of the first pop songs to break the four-letter-word barrier. The language of today's street-warrior rappers far eclipses Mr. Dylan's direst warnings in fury and explicitness. And the music video has also co-opted the reflective pop lyric by merging the words of a song into the iconography of the flashy video montage. The Last Train To Nashville

Although plenty of pop music is still being made that cultivates a literary sensibility, it flourishes increasingly outside the worlds of mass-market radio and MTV. As far back as the early 1970's, when lesbian performers began setting up their own record companies and distribution networks, singer-songwriters who felt excluded from the mainstream began organizing and supporting one another. That movement has continued. For over a decade, The Fast Folk Musical Magazine, a New York newsletter with an accompanying record album, has showcased aspiring folk-pop singer-songwriters, including some, like Ms. Chapman and Suzanne Vega, who have become famous.

Christine Lavin, a talented folk-pop humorist with connections to the Fast Folk musicians, has also put together several singer-songwriter anthologies. Her newest project, "Follow That Road," is a 30-song collection of work performed last year at the second annual singer-songwriters' retreat on Martha's Vineyard. Participants range from the 1960's Greenwich Village folk singer Dave Van Ronk to Susan Werner, a promising young singer-songwriter from Iowa.

If there's an esthetic center of gravity for the movement, it has shifted from the coastal glamour capitals that nurtured the folk revival in the 1960's and 70's to somewhere between Nashville and Austin, Tex. During the 1980's, Nashville, the last bastion of the conventionally well-made song, became a mecca for singer-songwriters from New York and Los Angeles who had lost their recording contracts and needed a place to ply their trade.

Mr. Lovett and his fellow Texan Nanci Griffith belong to a western storytelling tradition that flowered largely unnoticed in the heartland during the 1970's. While the East and West Coast troubadours were writing confessional song cycles, lesser-known writers like Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt in Texas, and John Prine in Illinois wrote pungent vignettes that described a plainer, more hard-bitten view of life. Their albums have held up a lot better than many of their urban peers' trendier, more slickly produced recordings.

THE SECOND-GENERATION music that has found a commercial niche is generally more conservative and tightly crafted than that of the first. The formulas of Nashville and the western cowboy song tradition are palpable influences on the records of Mr. Lovett, Ms. Griffith and the pop-country star Mary Chapin Carpenter, a 36-year-old singer-songwriter from New Jersey.

For all the quirks of Mr. Lovett's characters, his songs adhere to a terse, plain-spoken diction that is opposite in tone from the effusive confessions of an earlier era. Ms. Griffith's newest album, "Flyer," includes lovelorn confessions and social commentary, but her songs don't burst at the seams in an effort to be grandly poetic. With their patterned verses and carefully prepared apercus, they remain within time-tested country and folk formats. And her homespun Texan twang of a voice underscores the songs' rural roots.

Ms. Carpenter has won a large audience in both the country and pop markets by carefully treading the line between the two genres. Her fifth album, "Stones in the Road," balances chugging jukebox-ready country-pop fare with deeper, quieter songs sung in a relaxed, natural contralto.

"Where Time Stands Still," the most impressive song on her new album, is a carefully distilled piano-based reflection on love and time whose lyrical insight is matched by impeccable craft:

Baby, where's that place where time stands still?
I still remember like a lover can
But I forget it like a leaver will
It's the first time that you held my hand
It's the small and the taste and the fear and the thrill
It's everything I understand
And all the things I never will.*

Twenty years ago, the quintessential singer-songwriter product was an emotional torrent that flooded the borders of the pop form in its race to grasp the world whole and say everything at once. Today it is much more likely to be a carefully wrought crystalline expression of a home truth.

*$; 1994 Why Walk Music.

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Added to Library on October 8, 2007. (1065)


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