The ’70s were a productive period for Bob Dylan, perhaps only eclipsed by his incomparable output in the ’60s. Several albums from this era are well regarded by posterity: New Morning, Planet Waves, Street Legal, and Slow Train Coming are all very strong albums, if not stone-cold classics. Blood on the Tracks, however, defined the ’70s as much as Joni Mitchell’s Blue, and is considered by many to be Bob Dylan’s best album.
Unfortunately, Desire, released just a year after Blood on the Tracks, is often overshadowed by its acclaimed predecessor. I say this is unfortunate because, if one takes truly hardcore Dylan fans and absolutely presses them as to what the best Dylan album is, the number of Desire responses might be startling to the uninitiated.
Culled almost entirely in a single drunken session from the summer of 1975, Desire is cut from much the same cloth as Blood on the Tracks. Dylan’s failing marriage looms ominously throughout. Though his pain is displayed with almost excruciating intimacy on Blood on the Tracks, it is much more removed on Desire. So far removed, in fact, that it often sounds like happiness.
The most well known song on Desire, “Hurricane,” is possibly the worst. Famously written as a plea for the wrongfully imprisoned boxer Hurricane Carter, the song is catchy. However, it has two strikes against it: It is the only song in the entire Dylan catalogue in which he curses, and Dylan also seems strangely preachy, a mask he does not wear well. It might be said that Dylan himself was none too thrilled with the song, as he never played it after Hurricane Carter was released, famously saying, “Hurricane’s out now, we don’t have to play that one no more.”
But don’t let that bring you down. A much better substitute for this is the eleven-minute opus “Joey,” which is also an appeal against injustice. In this case, Dylan is singing on behalf of the deceased Joey Gallo, an alleged New York gangster. One of the most (if not the most) divisive songs in Dylan’s catalog, this song is either praised or derided by fans. Furthermore, the claims Dylan makes in the song contain a large degree of historical inaccuracy. Nevertheless, the chorus is possibly the best of the album, and Dylan never really digresses into “preaching” mode.
Where Blood on the Tracks was very direct, Desire is much more mystical and abstract. The world of Bringing It All Back Home is revisited in songs like “Black Diamond Bay,” a sort of beautiful combination of “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” and “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts.” In classic misogynistic Dylan fashion, a beautiful woman ends up destroying an entire island, one inhabited by a strange group of misfits that includes a Greek, a Soviet ambassador, and a French speaking, fez-wearing desk clerk.
Desire also perfectly displays the return of something that Bob Dylan had been missing since 1966: his unparalleled wit. For instance, in “Isis,” Dylan sings: “I said, Where are we goin’?'/He said we’d be back by the fourth./I said, That’s the best news that I’ve ever heard.’” Or in “Black Diamond Bay,” in which he jests: “As the mornin’ light breaks open, the Greek comes down/And he asks for a rope and a pen that will write./Pardon, monsieur,’ the desk clerk says,/Carefully removes his fez,/Am I hearin’ you right?’”
Vivid imagery born of nonsense verse pervades the album. “Romance in Durango” tells the story of two bandits on the run in Mexico. Though they could be killed at any second, the love of the man for his “Magdalena” causes him to drop all caution in order to serenade her. It also displays, surprisingly, Dylan’s seeming carelessness with music. He sings “Sold my guitar to the baker’s son/For a few crumbs and a place to hide/But I can get another one/And I’ll play for Magdalena as we ride.”
This fanciful sort of travelogue is developed in a much more sinister manner in “Isis.” Dylan often introduced the song by saying, “This song is about marriage,” which, while literally true, is hardly a close reading. The song begins with Dylan singing, “I married Isis on the fifth day of May,” apparently making him the Egyptian god of death, Osiris. He journeys to the pyramids, which happen to be “embedded in ice,” in order to rob a tomb. However, the tomb is empty, and the man who led him there was just “bein’ friendly,” so he returns home to Isis, claiming that she is a “mystical child.” This concept of the vast yet meaningless journey fills the entire album.
The emotion present in Dylan’s voice on Desire is nearly unmatched in the rest of his catalogue. One can hear the dread felt by the character in “One More Cup of Coffee” as he delays his inevitable and unnamed fate in the “valley below.” The love and sense of betrayal in “Oh, Sister” is palpable, and the feeling of injustice present in the line “Oh, sister, when I come to lie in your arms/You should not treat me like a stranger” is almost physically painful.
But the most emotional song on the album is the closer, “Sara.” Named after Bob Dylan’s wife, the song explores Dylan’s pain as a product of their failing relationship. In the chorus, he sings “Sara, Sara, whatever made you want to change your mind?” This is made all the more poignant by the fact that he recorded the song with Sara looking on from the production booth. This strategy worked, at least temporarily, as Dylan and his wife reconciled for a period of time before finally divorcing in 1978.
Desire has been all but forgotten, even by Bob Dylan himself. Case in point: In his four hundred or so concerts of the last three years, Dylan has only performed a Desire song on six occasions. However, Desire deserves to be considered among the classics in Dylan’s catalog. The artistry, wit, and emotion present in every nuance of the album is nearly unbelievable, and the world created is as well realized as anything worthy of comparison.