Bob Dylan, Desire

Douglas Wolk

By Douglas Wolk

on 04.22.11 in Reviews


Bob Dylan

Back on top of his game after Blood on the Tracks became a hit, Dylan made a very different kind of record. Co-written with theatrical director Jacques Levy, Desire is a series of dramatic scenarios and narratives, some about real people ("Hurricane," which became a radio hit, and "Joey" respectively concern jailed boxer Rubin Carter and gangster Joey Gallo), others fantastical fiction, almost all of them mentioning or set in faraway climes. Finally, Dylan drops all the masks for "Sara," a desperate plea of devotion addressed directly to his wife, with whom his relationship had lately been turbulent; on stage, he also introduced "Isis" as "a song about marriage."

It's an expansive album, whose nine songs average over six minutes long. At a moment when pop music was speeding up and glittering up, Dylan perversely slowed his tempos to a crawl, lingering over every phrase. (Emmylou Harris's backup vocals sweeten his nasal croak on a few songs, especially the mystical Isis-and-Osiris fantasy "Oh, Sister.") He also constructed his arrangements with greater care than usual — the album's most distinctive instrumental voice belongs to violinist Scarlet Rivera, who Dylan had literally picked up off the street. In any case, his precision and contrarianism paid off: Desire became one of Dylan's best-selling studio albums, supported by the Rolling Thunder Revue tour of 1975 and 1976.