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Tennessee, the mystic garden, and the last outback

Thunder on the Mountain /Modern Times / 2006

I was thinkin' 'bout Alicia Keys, couldn't keep from crying When she was born in Hell's Kitchen, I was living down the line I'm wondering where in the world Alicia Keys could be I been looking for her even clear through Tennessee

On his two 21st century albums various epochs of Dylan's life and fantasies seem to be 'dusted off' or just return to him while he is fiddling with the blues. The band and Dylan takes turns in swing and sob and uncover, or reverse to, girls from all corners of his past life and imagination. People and times seem to flock his rhyming excursions like the 'crowd' gathering in the cabin in that famous Marx Brothers film. The morbid as well the merry inhabit his beautiful weasel honky-cough-crooner swing. His mood gets around places with a childlike quality of sudden change - Chaplinesque, in its wearyness combined with sudden pulsations of wit and humour.

At some point he is with "a brand new suit and a brand new wife", in another song he sobs about "that gal I left behind". While Samantha Brown lived in his house for 4 or 5 months on Love and Theft (and he didn't sleep with her once) - in the same song where he also wishes his mother was still alive - he is now singing about Nettie Moore and Alicia Keys, to mention a few. The young and bright star Alicia seems to have put a spell on him or just been a muse for the moment.

It is in Thunder on the Mountain - the first song on Modern Times - he is looking for her. Bob on Child rob? Or just, as usual, coughing up, literally, names and gals and pals and places. In the beginning of the song Bob proclaims youthfully to pick up his trombone and blow (God forbid it) - and then he "was thinking about Alicia Keys". He claims she was "born in hells kitchen" while he was living "somewhere down the line". He wonders "where in the world Alicia Keys could be", been looking "from here (clear?) to Tennessee", and then his mind seem to let go of Alicia and the band kicks him in other directions (Another Atlas writer helps me with the note that Hell's kitchen is a place in New York where she in fact was born).

On this album Bob's mind seem to travel times more than spaces (a thought I liked to bring along in a site with the name Dylan Atlas). We do not really smell the mud much on the album, before the last song grounds Dylan and the listener. There is a "thunder on the mountain", "a spirit of the water", someone he found "beyond the horizon", "a levee's gonna break", before he takes us for a stroll in "the mystic garden". These places seem far away or not easily graspable. Like Dylan is living a bit away from things. He utters about blue skies and crimson skies. Places and earthy phenomenon's are used as metaphors. The "rivers on a rise" when a woman is gone in one song (Nettie Moore), and that levee is going to bridge, in the song where he also sings of "bridges and salvation". Three songs centre around water - one cannot help thinking about last years flood in New Orleans. "Some of these people do not know which road to take", as he sings.

So we may say that Dylan's mind cruises places and overviews life from the tour plane or buss? "The world has gone berserk, too much paper work", he moans. Songs where Bob relax and takes us for a more grounded journey impress me most. I am thinking of Highlands, Sugar Baby and now Ain't Talkin', Just Walkin', the three end-songs on the last three albums. Among the longer, calmer and more hypnotic songs.

In the latter Dylan takes himself and us for a walk through a "mystic garden", along wounded flowers and through a hot summer lawn. As we are carried gently along I came to think of passing the gates of Eden, but it is an 'Eden' "where the gardener has gone", an empty haven or heaven - a godless place? The parallel to the highlands song on Time out of Mind is striking. Dylan has a "toothache in his heel". This wonderful image captures the walker's pain or a full life where suffering has piled up. Here Dylan walks the "last outback of the world's end" (the last words on the record), somehow out of place. Lost? While Dylan's mood often involves sudden 'jump cut' change in his rhyming fabula, here it is subtle. As the album moves from trombone blow to outback walking, the song uplifts itself on the last chord of the album with a change from the minor key to a single major chord like a light at the end of a tunnel.

Anders Høg Hansen andershog at 4 september 2006

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