Rush hour in the subway. Trains packed to the gills. The city’s young professionals huffing over backups due to power failures down the line. How the hell did I get here? I don’t have no day job. The baritone drums of “Hurricane” pound through the cement floor, beat off the faces glaring and yawning and zoning out in the train windows.
I shuffle on a B-Line train and “Isis” reminds all of us bumping and rubbing elbows that this ain’t no commute. “There were no jewels, no nothin’ / I felt I’d been had / When I saw that my partner was just bein’ friendly / When I took up his offer, I must’ve been mad.” This is a tomb raid, condemned by the mummy’s ghost. “Mozambique” stands in for Kenmore, for a moment. The unmistakable odor of human oils on metal hand rails pegs us back to the city until “One more cup of coffee fore I go / To the valley below” fills the air with roasted coffee beans and a sense of foreboding.
This album contains perhaps my favorite set of lyrics: “Joey.” It’s a bio-song tracing a mob boss through his childhood on the streets of Brooklyn to his status as a crime lord, his time Attica and eventual murder. Just check out this verse:
One day they blew him down in a clam bar in New York
He could see it coming through the door as he lifted up his fork
He pushed the table over to protect his family
Then he staggered out into the streets of Little Italy.
The rhymes here–York and fork, family and Italy–are fresh and variable. The first is a perfect rhyme and highly emphatic, but gains variation in the nature of the two nouns, one a place name, the other a kitchen utensil. The second rhymes a place name in three syllables with a slight slant, merging an even more specific location with one of its famed values: the importance of family. All the while Joey is in action, eating clams, knocking over tables, falling dead in the streets. The poetic control here and throughout the song is masterful.
Here’s the thing about these lyrics: Dylan didn’t write them. He pitched ideas to Jacques Levy who crafted them into verse.* What does it say about my relationship with Dylan that my favorite set of lyrics weren’t even written by him? What does it say about our willingness to concede to him as the rock-and-roll bard, even while evidence of–what, writer’s block? self-doubt? laziness?–exists to the contrary.
In any case, I’d go so far as to say “Joey” is a better version of the single, “Hurricane” (also written by Levy), which suffers from too much polemics, too much adherence to actual events. “Doesn’t it make you feel ashamed / To live in a land where justice is a game?” they moralize in “Hurricane,” though the song does take advantage of a harrowing, poignant violin which, along with Emmylou Harris’s rich, expansive vocals, string this album-length journey together. The final tracks, “Black Diamond Bay” and “Sara,” evince a songwriting team flush with material and equipped with the talents to see it through.
Do I get this album? To me, Dylan and his crew have captured the essence of that country-western spirit he dabbled in post-Blonde on Blonde, and they’ve made it new again by trotting the globe. Do I need the earlier albums? For Hurricane, probably no; for the rest, yeah. Do I like it? I’ll say this before my stop: Desire is a high contender for best of the B-flight.
*In an earlier version of this piece, it was obvious I had no idea Dylan brought in a songwriting partner for this album. S/O to Emilio for the 411.