The last song on Bob Dylan's new album, World Gone Wrong, is a spare, four-verse ballad, the story of a pilgrim who after a long, mysterious quest--"The cause of my master compelled me from home / No kindred or relatives now"--finds himself alone and at rest. The fact that Dylan himself is nearing the end of a journey makes this song an especially touching statement of isolation. "The Lone Pilgrim" is one of ten traditional folk-blues tunes here, ranging from the rather obscure to the very obscure, adorned on this record with nothing but a roughly recorded voice and guitar. In many ways Dylan is boring and irrelevant now; his indifference on his last dozen or so albums and the fact that this is actually his second offering in a row of old acoustic folk-blues numbers would suggest it's of little interest. But it's a lot different from the last sonically and thematically, and it's worth hearing.
The 30-plus-year journey that "The Lone Pilgrim" refers to can be looked at in two ways. The first is musically. In the liner notes to an album called The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, a very long time ago, Nat Hentoff quoted Dylan as saying, "I ain't that good yet. I don't carry myself yet the way that Big Joe Williams, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and Lightnin' Hopkins have carried themselves. I hope to be able to someday, but they're older people. I sometimes am able to do it, but it happens, when it happens, unconsciously." Dylan's versions of old blues songs on his first album are callow and a bit awkward: but his powerful sense of taste soon led him away from them to find his own voice; on Freewheelin', his second album and the home of songs like "Blowin' in the Wind" and the apocalyptic "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," he snapped his aesthetic and progenitive moorings and swept himself out into new territory.
What's considered to be Dylan's last burst of creative success--a trio of albums called Planet Waves, Blood on the Tracks, and Desire--came 20 years ago. Since then he seems to have been caught and buffeted in the eddies and rapids of all sorts of folderol: Christianity, unproductive collaborations, haphazard recordings. Most unfortunate, I think, is how his musical senses have deserted him: he's still a writer of some consequence (as the furious, dizzying liner notes to World Gone Wrong demonstrate) but he hardly ever produces memorable songs these days. World Gone Wrong solves the problem elegantly: Dylan simply turns to the only music that can express what he wants to say. And in stark contrast to the uncompelling vocals on his last record, Good as I Been to You, his singing here cracks with utter authority.
The other way to look at the journey is in terms of how it's affected Dylan personally. A true Dylanologist could probably tell us what the tableau that begins "The Lone Pilgrim" really signifies:
I came to the place where the lone pilgrim lay
And then simply stood by his tomb
When in a low whisper I heard something say
"How sweetly I sleep here alone"
The expert could tell us that literature and Dylan's own corpus teems with stories of journeys taken that find the traveler back where he started, spent and alone; about Dylan's fascination with the personal "double" and how in this scene he's probably talking to himself; and about how the song's concluding apostrophe manages to equate himself, his music, and his god. All I know is that through this wholly mindfucking song cycle of sanguinary romances, perverse true crime ballads, faded soldiers' tales, and psychotic fabulism I hear the howls of a man with some problems: "I can't be good no more / Honey, because the world's gone wrong," "All the friends I ever had are gone." In "Love Henry," a woman throws her unfaithful lover down a well, but the song ends in an absurdist, bloody dialogue between the woman and her parrot: "A girl who would murder her own true love / Would kill a little bird like me," concludes the parrot, sensibly. World Gone Wrong is a chamber of horrors with garish and threatening punch lines:
Woke up this morning feelin' blue
Seen a good looking girl--can I make love to you
Hey hey babe I got blood in my eyes for you
The trouble with most people playing the blues these days, it has always seemed to me, is that their approach to the music is distorted: appreciative and respectful when it should be natural and opportunistic. The blues isn't the blues if it's not taken for granted. There's a whole genre of rock artists who function as musical anthropologists, digging up important relics from the past and brandishing them proudly; Dylan, thankfully, is no anthropologist (at this point, he's practically Ishi), and he doesn't think he's done us a favor by finding these songs or singing them. It's what he does. He's still a crank, of course, and not a very attractive one. (Don't think that because World Gone Wrong's an acoustic album it's going to be pleasant and lulling.) Fame, Dylan concludes in the album's notes, is a trick. He's the ragged detritus left in the wake of a lot of things--a cultural thunderclap whose sound we've forgotten, a Faustian bargain he never even signed--and he has a right to sing the blues.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Ken Regan.