- by Kevin Orton Rating:10 Release Date:1969-04-09 Label: Columbia
Nashville Skyline is one of the most misunderstood albums in the Dylan canon. After his caustic, ‘Electric’ period, it playfully bucked any expectations with unassuming grace. If John Wesley Harding wasn’t a sign that Dylan was leaving the Thin Wild Mercury sound of Blonde On Blonde behind, 1969’s Nashville Skyline left no doubt. Instead of the angry young man armed with car horn blasts of harmonica, it is a congenial, smiling Dylan tipping his hat.
Tipping it either, “goodbye” or “hello” depending on one’s perspective. Even more shocking was the change in Dylan’s voice. Gone was the gritty whine that so defined him. In its place, a smooth baritone. It was an almost perverse move. As low key as it all seemed, Nashville is the sound of Dylan turning his back on it all. Even more disconcerting, Dylan went even more full-fledged Country with this one. I’m sure some fans were tempted to believe the conspiracy theory that Dylan actually died in that 1966 car accident, and that this was some kind of imposter. Some bad impersonator his management was foisting on the public in order to keep cashing in on Dylan's name.
If Dylan seems uncharacteristically warm and contented, give Nashville Skyline a deep listen and one can see that is furthest from the case. Nashville Skyline is one of the saddest and most melancholy albums of Dylan’s career. In his entire canon, there is no album quite like it. It might sound jaunty on the surface, but underneath one can hear troubled waters of doubt and heartache.
Dylan had to know crooning with Johnny Cash was likely to stump some fans as much as his jarring change in vocal style. Regardless, ‘Girl From The North County’ is an unforgettable beginning. Personally, one of my favorite Dylan cuts of all time. Just priceless. I’ll confess,'Girl' makes me yearn for a whole album of duets with the Man in Black. (Good news is, there’s a bootleg out there, you just have to search for it). Cash’s baritone lends a Gothic touch to this early Dylan song. For any good-natured camaraderie, there is a distinct, if wistful melancholy air to the song. One that permeates throughout the rest of the album.
The instrumental ‘Nashville Skyline Rag’ serves as filler intro to the seemingly slight, ‘To Be Alone With You’. Yet, there’s more than meets the eye here. This isn’t a feel-good-song. It’s a ballad of inexplicable longing wrapped up in a superficially chipper package. ‘I Threw It Away’, follows, and pretty as it is, its unmistakably a song of infinite regret. More than anything, what is revealed is a hitherto unexpressed ruefulness. Something Dylan’s ‘Electric’ period shunned. There was certainly loss and sorrow but what’s missing here is the caustic, biting bitterness that so characterized, ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ and ‘Just Like A Woman’. Another glaring difference is a newfound focus and an almost precocious maturity to the songwriting. These are no wild, passionate gushing screeds. These songs are delicate and over before you know it.
‘Peggy Day’ is a seemingly fluffy romp, yet possesses a nostalgia for someone who has come and gone. It's just that Dylan isn’t wearing his heart on his sleeve, so much as keeping it under the cuff. Of course, ‘Lay Lady Lay’ is the best-known song off Nashville. But this isn’t a song about having the girl so much as pining for her. It isn’t a request, it’s a plea. It’s also Dylan at his most seductive and romantic. And yet, that romance is not necessarily requited. The telling line, “Stay lady stay, stay with your man awhile.” A line that hints at guilt and regret. ‘One More Night’ continues in this vein. “Tonight, I’m as lonesome as can be,” he sings. “Tonight, no more light will shine on me.” An impossibly hopeless sentiment. Without exception, all these songs deal with remorse and loss. Musically, ‘One More Night’, may be a toe-tapper, but the lyrics are actually quite bleak and desperate. And its this contrast that makes Nashville Skyline more substantive than it appears.
‘Tell Me It Isn’t True,’ is a song about betrayal, not fidelity. Further proof, that all is not rosy beneath the surface. Dylan may be playing it tongue in cheek but there’s real heartbreak here. Even the goofy, ‘Country Pie’ is not exactly the nonsense it appears to be. It's more about the hollowness of a roving eye, than desert.
Nashville may come and go like a breeze but on ‘Tonight I’ll Be Staying With You,” he confesses he’ll be “throwing my troubles out the door”. And those troubles are what Nashville Skyline chronicles. There are no happy stories until we get to the conclusion and even then, it’s all a little too good to be true. While many like to write off Skyline as “Dylan lite”, its actually a healthy dose of melancholic lyricism. Where Dylan was excessively verbose, here, he’s suddenly a man of few words. While that brevity is easily mistaken for being breezy, it actually says a lot about Dylan’s state of mind at the time. Unlike John Wesley Hardin, he isn’t hiding behind the mask of enigma and symbolism. For the first time, he’s suspiciously plain spoken. If he’s hiding, it’s in plain sight beneath the veil of seeming contentment. More than anything, Nashville Skyline is an album about taking stock. What appears to be a lark, is actually a reckoning.
Great write-up Kevin! Been on a huge Dylan kick as of late. This album along with Planet Waves have really caught my ears in a whole new way for some reason. "Misunderstood" might be the key word there, as it took me decades to finally realize...
Great write-up Kevin! Been on a huge Dylan kick as of late. This album along with Planet Waves have really caught my ears in a whole new way for some reason. "Misunderstood" might be the key word there, as it took me decades to finally realize the genius here.