Of Bob Dylan 's entire catalog of studio releases, one of the most notable, yet largely overlooked albums has always been his 11th album, 1970's New Morning. Following a flash flurry of rave reviews after its October 19 release, however, the album soon slipped into obscurity, overshadowed by Dylan's 1974 masterpiece, Blood on the Tracks. Now four decades later, the album is beginning to enjoy a slight renaissance as next-generation fans continue to unearth more and more of Dylan's underplayed treasures
Following the late '60s releases of John Wesley Harding (compare prices) and Nashville Skyline (compare prices), Bob Dylan found himself stuck in songwriting limbo, as if the 60s had wrung any remaining songwriting juice out of him. Sliding into the first of several slumps in 1970, struggling to reconnect with his muse, Dylan released the ill-received Self Portrait, a double-album of archaic and contemporary folk cover songs ranging from “Copper Kettle” to Paul Simon's “The Boxer,” and even a reworking of “Like a Rolling Stone.” The problem was simple; the album was session residue scraped up from the cutting-room floor.
The critics shredded it unanimously and shamelessly. There were cries of Dylan being washed up, a has-been, artistically finished. But according to Dylan, this was actually the desired result. Frustrated with being flogged by fans and the media 24/7, and sick of the commercial overkill, if the 29-year-old songwriter was trying to foul the nest and squash the hype, he certainly succeeded.
What nobody knew, however, is that at the time of its release, Dylan had already worked up a batch of original songs, culled from the margins. While everyone speculated that New Morning was rush-produced for damage control (and it sure looked that way), Dylan denied it outright: “I didn't say 'Oh my God, they don't like [Self Portrait], let me do another one.' It wasn't like that. It just happened coincidentally that one came out and then another one did as soon as it did... We were working on New Morning when the Self Portrait album got put together.”
New Morning, Long Afternoon
That Self Portrait, Dylan's first album of 1970, was a collection of covers is no shocker. One of the habits Dylan picked up in the 1967 Basement Tapes days was to scour for ideas by warming up with cover tunes. Not knowing what he was looking for in 1970, vacant of ideas, Dylan's only method for finding new material was jamming, in hopes that a few crumbs might fall from the inspiration tree.
Although the bulk of the album came this way, the initial seed for New Morning came from an entirely unrelated project. Sometime in 1969, playwright Archibald MacLeish proposed that Dylan write some songs for a musical he was composing based on the play The Devil and Daniel Webster. Toiling with writer's block, MacLeish's invitation seemed like the perfect cure for Dylan, but ultimately he would opt out. In an October letter to his publisher, after the play had been produced without Dylan's music, MacLeish wrote that the songwriter “proved simply incapable of producing new songs.”
According to Dylan in the liner notes for the 1985 Biograph box-set, participating in MacLeish's play “seemed like an interesting idea, so I recorded 'New Morning,' 'Time Passes Slowly' and 'Father of Night' (purchase/download). So I went up to see Archibald MacLeish... Played him the songs, and he liked them all. He thought they would fit perfectly until we got to 'Father of Night.' We didn't see eye to eye on that so I backed out of the production... It was nothing really, kind of like a misunderstanding I suppose. Anyway I took those songs and some others and recorded New Morning.”
New Morning's four sessions sprawled across the year 1970, beginning with March 3-5, when Dylan and a studio ensemble laid down the templates for “Went to See the Gypsy” (purchase/download) and “Time Passes Slowly” (purchase/download). Next the legendary “Dylan/Harrison” session occurred on May 1, when ex-Beatle George Harrison joined Dylan in the studio, recording some 20 cover songs along with several originals.
But the most productive sessions took place with Al Kooper between June 2-6. Producer Bob Johnston initially pulled together a band including Ron Cornelius on guitar, Charlie Daniels on bass, and Russ Kunkel on drums. But Johnston soon quit attending the already aimless sessions, and production duties fell to Kooper.
In Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards, Kooper wrote “I called some more musicians in, rearranged some songs, and even had one sweetening session with horns and strings (never released). I brought in Buzzy Feiten and David Bromberg on guitars, Harvey Brooks on bass, and Billy Mundi on drums. I also hired my usual female backup singers, this being perhaps Bob's first recording using this type of accompaniment.”
In those four days, Dylan laid down nine of the album's 13 tracks. Kooper continued, “When we had recorded everything, Bob pulled out some random tracks he had cut in the last year and added those to the oversupply we already had from the current sessions. Then we began to select and sequence. [But] he changed his mind daily and the weeks began to drag on. This drove me nuts.” As a result, Kooper bailed.
During the final August 12 session, Dylan recorded “Day of the Locusts” (a new song about receiving an honorary PhD from Princeton), as well as re-recording “Time Passes Slowly,” and “If Not For You” (purchase/download) (after he decided to dump the version cut with Harrison - later salvaged for 1991's The Bootleg Series Vols. 1-3).
Not surprisingly, considering the failure of Self Portrait, upon its October 19 release New Morning received critical acclaim. Fans, critics, everyone was relieved, and Ralph Gleason spelled out this shared joy in his Rolling Stone review: “It came on the radio in the afternoon, and from the first note it was right.”
In retrospect, although he holds that the album “seemed a bit written-to-order” for commercial viability, Michael Gray mused in The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia that, “This is a quirky album, from a Dylan not pointing a way for anyone, but from a great artist remaining at his work knowingly in the face of not being creatively on top form in the phenomenal way he had been in the period 1964–68.Warm and abiding, it sounds better and better as the years go by.”
Today's growing ranks of younger fans couldn't agree more as they reexamine Dylan's '70s catalog with a fresh set of ears. After falling into obscurity shortly after its release, this latent gem would resurface two decades later in the 1998 film The Big Lebowski, whose soundtrack featured “The Man in Me.” Now a cult classic, the film continues to grab the attention of next-generation initiates who quickly throw New Morning high on the playlist.