Bob Dylan's first album in two years, "Down in the Groove" (olumbia), hit the stands Wednesday. It comes with a promotional sticker that declares he has "once again delivered a set of songs and ideas worthy of The Dylan Legacy."
The Dylan Legacy?At this point, one might calmly ask, "Which legacy?" There are so many legacies surrounding Dylan. Is it the legacy of hippie minstrel? Political firebrand? Stoned babbler? Born-again Christian? Jewish icon? Bohemian poet?
Actually, his likable new album is more like an anti-legacy effort. Dylan steps back from the hype and confusion, singing a simple set of songs that reflect his love of Southern blues and traditional music. Any philosophizing is kept to a minimum. He is carefree, not caustic, while delivering an album that is much better than his last, rather sloppy LP, "Knocked Out Loaded," which sank without a trace despite help on several songs from Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers.
The new album features another starry backing cast - Eric Clapton, Ron Wood, the Grateful Dead and Mark Knopfler to name a few. But the spirit of the album comes from the infusion of younger talent like bassist Paul Simonon of the Clash, guitarist Steve Jones from the Sex Pistols and keyboardist Alan Clark of Dire Straits. The chemistry jells - and the listener is rewarded with one of the finer Dylan albums of the past decade.
The showpiece is probably "Silvio," a picaresque song with a deep-fried Southern sound and vocal harmonies from the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir and Brent Mydland. Cowritten by the Dead's lyricist Robert Hunter, the song churns along with Dylan in his breeziest anti-hero mode:
One of these days and it won't be long
Goin' down in a valley and sing my song
Gonna sing it loud, sing it stoned
And let the echo decide if I am right or wrong.
The lighter side of Dylan is seen repeatedly. Another Dylan/Hunter collaboration, "Ugliest Girl in the World," finds Dylan at his raspy best, skipping through verses about a woman who may not win any beauty contest "but if I lose her, I'll go insane." It has the mock-macho feel of Joe Tex's '60s hit, "Skinny Legs. ' Dylan sounds positively affectionate in pulling it off.
The best of the lot, though, is another new Dylan song, "Death is Not the End," the album's most serious track. Suddenly, we have a glimpse of Dylan as social protester (`when the cities are on fire with the burning flesh of men, just remember death is not the end") and Dylan as spiritual seeker (`when all that is sacred falls down and does not mend, just remember death is not the end"). It stands somewhat alone on this album, but shows that Dylan can still startle with insight even on an album whose prime motive is entertainment.