When was modesty considered an act of propaganda? Since when was being nonchalant about personal achievement perceived to the public eye as misinformation, or sham? Joseph Stalin was probably the most well known leader who took advantage of that. He rose to power using propaganda as means of instilling fear into citizens, and keeping them quiet to prevent revolution. Once again, using a Communist/ Fascist reference as an introduction into a Bob Dylan review, this is where I tell you that Bob Dylan was modest about his work. In 1975, Bob Dylan was experiencing personal turmoil with his (soon to be ex) wife, Sara, as he told his agonizing tale on his acclaimed Blood On The Tracks. The album was cynical, heartfelt, and morose, due to his pending divorce, and took up his spare time writing the songs in no rush. But in 1976, he was eager to release a more buoyant, less cynical album that did not just put the listener to tears weeping of his loss. Instead, Desire is a much more operatic release, sprawling epic suites along an hour long span, with bearing little conscience for song length, and implying much more conceptual aspects into individual songs rather than paying more attention to detail to the album as a whole. But on the topic of modesty, Bob Dylan could not have written Desire by himself, and credited himself with that burdensome confession. Instead, a handful of guest musicians and harmonizing vocalists helped Zimmerman create the record. And so, point in case, the album is very unique from anything Bob Dylan has ever done, musically, structurally and lyrically.
How Desire is so different in comparison to, say, anything Bob Dylan had wrote prior to it, is mostly due to his embracing of conceptual songwriting. Blood on the Tracks saw only one pure concept suite, Lily Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts. Instead of just a lone opera among much more conventionally written songs, Desire bends all the rules that Dylan had previously set as an orthodox songwriter. Usually, Dylan's mini suites clock in around seven minutes in length. Seven minutes is the bare mean time of Desire in length. Of course, there are some more conformist three minute jangles on Desire, but they range from the nimble picked three minute songs to expansive, epic eleven minute, fictitious biographical tales of a man taken prisoner. But while Dylan's more avant-garde songwriting approach is every bit entertaining as his other albums, the song lengths are very monotonous and tedious. As good of a song they are, the length is blown out of proportion to a ridiculing state, especially when it is a drab, standard verse-chorus-verse-bridge configuration heavily based upon repetition. A very experimental, cool listen, yet can get very tiring very quickly, with little modification in the structuralism.
Not everything about Desire is out of proportion, though. Bob Dylan recruited a handful of guest musicians to juxtapose his ideas into masterpieces of melody. With the help of partner Emmylou Harris, the vocal duet between Bob Dylan and Harris rivals the harmonizing likes of Johnny and June Cash. Emmylou adds the Southern Belle sugar and spice to Bob's gravelly, trilling voice. The two duel with a subtle intensity that blends folk, country and rock into an auditory piece of art. Scarlet Riviera appears as a guest fiddler, and adds touches of bluegrass and jamboree that sweep in and out of Bob Dylan's harmonica, whilst a droning piano (Isis) deepens dark, menacing minor chords. But what is possibly the most rewarding (which happens to be very ironic to what the content attends to) aspect of Desire is Dylan's arrangements. Lyrically, Dylan speaks his mind with little concern of what anyone else thinks. He nakedly addresses his crumbling marriage (Sara) with a hostile emotion that goes full circle within six minutes and thirty seconds. Possibly what is Dylan at his most controversial is where he tells a tale of attacking minorities and racial profiling (Hurricane) which is most likely a response to the civil rights movement of the previous decade. For those of you, like me, who have never heard Bob Dylan use vulgarity in songs, will find Hurricane to be rather blunt. He openly uses the "n word" and other profanities to tell of police brutality on black men. This is very similar to the controversy that Guns N Roses had sparked with their song 'One In A Million'. It is very strange to hear Bob Dylan curse that much in his songs, as he is usually soft spoken with wordplay, but Hurricane (even with its profane racial remarks) is an epic song with rambling acoustic guitars and sputtering melodies that chime.
It is not just country and controversy that fuel Desire into being a great album. It's much more a juxtaposition of genres and cultures that Dylan seems to ignite on Desire. For instance, there is a blatant mariachi influence on Romance In Durango, where Harris and Dylan clash in Spanish verses, while horns and Latin percussion chime behind them. Desire is a world of cultural disbelief and shock, with flourishes of raw beauty and power. Any which way you interpret Desire's songs, there is going to be something divisive within its longevity. But Robert Zimmerman did not write Desire out of hatred or animosity, but rather a scenario of falling victim to fate, or maybe even his own human error. Interpretation is left to the listener on Desire, and there is not a set right or wrong answer for interpretation. That is what makes Desire such a great record in the first place, anyways. So, despite all of the lyrical siege, Desire is a captivating record, filled with unique arrangements and an ambiguity that remains to be seen as anything derived from hatred.