A source in Dylan’s camp has said this album was not a throwaway; it’s a charity project (benefiting Feeding America, in the U.S.), and he wanted to actually bring in some dough. You hear that in the arrangements, where he’s done a terrific job of melding his live combo with the fifties easy-listening sound, even if the David Hidalgo–assisted “Must Be Santa” is the only time anyone rocks out. And he’s clearly aware of the incongruity between the rawness of his instrument and the effectiveness of everyone else’s. He milks it—not for kitschy juxtaposition but because the old-man’s-prerogative, take-’em-or-leave-’em vocals and the eager-to-please slickness of the backing tracks aren’t about ironic juxtaposition. Both represent honest impulses.
I get the betrayal some friends feel. With rock integrity ever waning, we want some bard to believe in, and moves like this are as if Yeats had indulged an inexplicable desire to write for The Saturday Evening Post. But what if the “integrity” old-school Dylan fans long for was just another phase—albeit a brilliant, culture-changing, and occasionally recurring one? As his “never-ending tour” of the past twenty years proves, Dylan really sees himself, first and foremost, as a roadhouse musician—one who happens to let collections of poetry slip through the cracks every few years.
The weirdest thing of all? The album feels … deeply felt. Dylan’s vocals, for all their constant playfulness, have never betrayed much emotion. But to assume he’s not feeling it makes an ass out of you and me. I recall an interview with Bill Flanagan in April in which Dylan claimed that when he visited cities, he liked to go stand in vacant lots. I thought, “Mmm-hmmm,” and tried to picture Bob telling his driver to pull over by that batch of weeds. You know the upshot of this story: Dylan was picked up by Long Branch, New Jersey, police in July for being a suspicious person roaming the neighborhood. So should any of us doubt that he might actually have his tour bus stop alongside a meadow so that he can build a snowman and pretend it’s Parson Brown? Stranger things have happened. Like, you know, that Victoria’s Secret commercial.