Thursday, April 30, 2009

Tom Waits and Bob Dylan: Immersive Listening

In the past my album listening went something like this: listen to the song(s) I really liked over and over (mostly the popular ones), listen to the first few seconds of other songs to see if the song "grabbed" me, and ignore the songs that didn't. This practice could brand me as shallow but many of the albums I bought when I was younger had only a couple of good songs so it's not surprising that I adopted this technique.

There were a few albums where I didn't follow this practice: "Pink Floyd The Wall" and "Stop Making Sense" by the Talking Heads are two that come to mind. Between junior high school when I bought "The Wall" through the end of high school when I bought "Stop Making Sense" I didn't buy any albums at all. Sure, I would have been perfectly happy with "Diary of a Madman" (Ozzie Osborne) and "The B-52s" but I just never plunked down the cash for them.

My album listening technique changed when I started getting into Tom Waits. I started out with his second album "Heart of Saturday Night" and it's a wonder to behold in its entirety. After that, I bought his first album "Closing Time," another wonder, then I bought "Mule Variations."

"Mule Variations" came out in 1999 and was completely different from his early work, even his voice was different with its growling rasp. The first time I heard the album my thought was "What is this shit?" I immediately put the CD away and didn't listen to it for months afterwards. However, and this is a testament to Tom's songwriting and performing, certain phrases and melodies kept floating through my mind. Eventually I gave it another listen and it now remains as one of my favorite Waits albums.

All of this prepared me for Bob Dylan, and I'm finding songs that didn't grab me right away on his albums tend to latch on later. This is why I believe complete immersion in his albums is mandatory for me. I listened to "Highway 61 Revisited" for at least a month before I moved on to "Blonde on Blonde" then I listened to both albums for two more months before moving onto "Bringing It All Back Home."

On "Highway 61" the songs "From a Buick 6," "Queen Jane Approximately," and "Highway 61 Revisited" didn't grab me right away. "From a Buick 6" had a smeared out, diluted sound to me that I didn't like, I didn't know what to make of "Queen Jane" as Bob seemed pushed his vocal capabilities to their limits, and "Highway 61 Revisited" had a jarring quality with a whistle that punctuates parts of the song.

I love all these songs now and the entire album competes with "Blonde on Blonde" as my favorite album of all time knocking "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" off its pedestal where it had been since I was a child. None of this appreciation would have been possible had I not first heard "Mule Variations" and changed my ideas about the necessity of immersing myself in new albums.

It helps, of course, that both Tom and Bob are noted for their superior songwriting capabilities. Sometimes I think both men appeal to me so much because they are storytellers. Many of their songs have characters who move through a story even if it's a very short one. I also think that I love the surreal lyrics to some of Bob's songs because I enjoy writing my own "surreal" blog posts.

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