Mute as a stone, ambiguous as Tierasian, way out of focus, Bob Dylan unfolds like a playmets from Blonde on Blonde, his Opus 7. It is a double album, four sides, fourteen new songs. Sadly, a single disc could have distilled the four or five strong cuts scattered here, though the finest, "Sad Eyed Lady of the Low-lands," commands a full side to itself. The prophet has mined much slag this trip. This is not an entirely gratifying reward for Dylan devotees who have waited out his silence faithfully, the near year since last September's release of Highway 61 Revisited, Opus 6.
The full disappointment this record brings cannot be blamed on its uneven quality; Dylan has edited badly before, notably on Times Are A-Changin', Optis 3. What is troubling now is a studied inarticulacy--a consistent deverbalization--which marks good and bad songs alike on Blonde on Blonde. Emblematic of the present wordlessness stands the cardboard jacket, filled with snapshots where past albums abounded in liner notes (often awkward but sometimes incisive). The songs themselves, by profuse blues repetitions and by overlong choruses, generally blunt the listener's attention to the language of the songs.
Let us assume one thing: It is for his language that Bob Dylan is of interest to us, not for his melodies, not for his ideology. It may be hasty to speak of his language as "poetry." So far little that he has produced can stand by itself in print (except for intoned pieces like Opus 2's "Hard Rain), but needs his performance to make clear the stresses and quantities he intends. Only with these heard can one get a "poetic" sense of language opening through his songs, the exhilarating view of sound and sense stationed in strange surroundings. This is a trivial problem. Dylan's imagination can create new contexts for given words; all he really Jacks is a system of notation. We can compensate here with hyphens, dashes, and capitals to indicate compressions, prolongations, and eccentric stresses. Dylan will not be a poet, of course, until he can choose words which announce such rhythms by themselves, without abnormal punctuation.
Blonde on Blonde, taken as a whole, marks a retreat from experiment with language. The great successes it contains gain their power from hypnotic heavy rhythms against which any words would have to struggle, in a sort of "counterpoint," not from rhythmic or imagistic interest inherent in the word-phrases themselves. Thus the chorus of "Sad Eyed Lady" has
My--wAre--hOuse--Eyes,--mY arA--bian drUme
gaining its interest from a doubling of the natural number of stresses those words demand. Earlier, in Opus 6's "Desolation Row," a typical fine lyric operated within the confines of natural speech rhythm and normal stress:
They're sElling postcArds--of the hAnging. They're pAinting--the pAsspOrts brOwn. The bEauty pArior is filled with sAllors. The Circus is-in TOwn
Nine-fourteenths of these songs have no merit, gain no successes by any means. The "hit" cuts released on 45's represent the worst of the garbage. "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35" enumerates ad nauseam all the situations in which "They'll Stone you..." and its triple rimes get maddeningly predictable, e.g. "when you're walking on the street," and "when you're trying to keep your feet." "I Want You," after two passable stanzas, degenerates into similar rime-tagging; it also suffers from the tedious triple chorus of its title. One half-decent stanza late in the song suggests the deficiencies of the rest:
I did it because you lied, Because he took you for a rided Because time was on his side, Because I want you....
The allusion in the third line promotes an aspect of compression rare in both the song and the album as a whole.
Side 3 of Blonde on Blonde bears a mother lode of vacuity, 4 of its 5 songs. "Temporary Like Achilles" adds some new verses to the great flop from Opus 6, "It Takes a Train to Cry," but it cuts out the yodel-like chorus that almost saved that earlier piece.
"Absolutely Sweet Marie" abounds with line-filler dilutions of meaning, like "well," "you see," "aw, now," and repetitions of line-fragments. It sounds improvised. It is also a coyer baring of private symbols than we've had to take in some time: here (and in "Memphis Blues Again") we get no clue to the significance of railroads though lyrics involve them obsessively. And Dylan's paranoia about petty law enforcement regresses here to the awkwardness of "Walls of Red Wing" (pre-Opus 1). What he integrated into the panoramic lists in "Chimes of Freedom," (Opus 4),
The mistreated, mateless mother, the mistitied prestitute, And the miedemeaner outler, chained and cheated by pursuit,
and tossed off facetiously in "Subterranean Homesick Blues," (Opus 5),