The Past is not Past: World Gone Wrong

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I spent the last week cycling 363 miles along the Erie Canalway bike trail. My buddy Todd and I hauled saddle bags and camping gear over trails paved and gravelled, through post-industrial communities of western and central New York, under interstates and along the Erie Canal, the Mohawk River, and finally, the Hudson. The Canal itself traces the roots of progress and expansion in America. First constructed in the early nineteenth century, the Canal immediately became an essential trading route between the Atlantic and the Great Lakes. The rise of the railroads over the following century spurred New York to widen the waterway in two installments. But finally, the interstate spelled its end. Now it’s three eras lay piecemeal through the countryside while the cities it stitches together struggle in our post-industrial economy.

Amid all that cycling, deep in the quiet woods, I played some music from my smart phone. The Band, Wilco, Counting Crows, and even one morning Bob Dylan’s World Gone Wrong. As with Good as I Been to You, here we have solo Dylan cataloging and preserving classic folk numbers. But right from the opening, title track, these songs take darker, deadlier turns.

“I got blood in my eyes for you baby,” Dylan sings with straightforward malice while his guitar strings rattle and hum. Two songs later, on “Delia,” the refrain, “All the friends I ever had are gone,” accompanies a first-person narrative from Delia’s killer’s point of view. The next track, “Stack a Lee,” pairs quick strumming with the story of Billie DeLyon, Stagger Lee, and the Stetson hat they wager in a card game–a story with as many versions and variations as there are trails through the woods. Dylan’s ends with Billie DeLyon haunting his killer, Stagger Lee, in Lee’s jail cell.

Each of these ten songs proceed with a gravity aided by the scratchy recording quality, the raggedness of Dylan’s voice, the fullness of his guitar playing, and the depth of time they occupy. Like the Erie Canal, World Gone Wrong carves a glimpse of a nation untouched by highways and airplanes, computers and televisions. It reminds us that the past is dark, muffled. When we rip it open, we find the hurts and horrors still ringing. We find humanity soaked in a solution of mortality.

This evocative album deserves a close listen in a quiet room. Dylan seems to be pivoting his persona to a world-weary soothsayer, an image aided by the black-suited, brim-hatted figure on the cover seated in some impressionistic cafe. Do I get this album? I get it in the shadowy corners of my soul. Do I need the previous albums to get it? Again, we get the impression here of a singer who never turned electric. Do I like it? At this style, Dylan is a master.

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