The best albums are creepers – you don’t like them at first, but they keep calling you back and, bit by bit, become favourites.
Avalon, the final album from Roxy Music, is a creeper. The first time I heard it, it was like an easy listening radio station – the kind of stuff that meekly fades into the background while you wait for the dentist to be ready for you. But it kept calling me back and now I know it’s not music for a dentist’s office, it’s music for headphones while walking the city streets at night. “It’s raining in New York on 5th Avenue,” sings honey-voiced leader Bryan Ferry, “and off Broadway after dark – love the lights, don’t you?”
Yes, Bryan, yes I do.
Avalon is a wonderful pop album for grown-ups: jazzy, layered and dreamy. “More Than This” and the title track, featuring sublime background vocals from Yanick Etienne, are obvious stand-outs. Melancholic masterpieces.
But the ultimate creeper-maker is Bob Dylan. There is no album in his massive catalogue that doesn’t get better with multiple listens. The man is light years ahead of all of us and all we can do is try to keep up.
In 1997, he was 35 years into his recording career and at a point when most people figured he was done making music that was pertinent and great. And then he came out with the moody and bluesy Time Out of Mind, and began an amazing late-career resurgence that continued with Love and Theft in 2001 and Modern Times in 2006.
The weary, old-man voice that has characterized his later work is in full bloom on Time Out of Mind, which is perfect for delivering such rueful lyrics. He seems weighted down by regret and thoughts of death on every track. On “Not Dark Yet” he declares:
I was born here and I’ll die here against my will
I know it looks like I’m moving, but I’m standing still
Every nerve in my body is so vacant and numb
I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from
Don’t even hear a murmur of a prayer
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there
Time Out of Mind was produced by Daniel Lanois, whose distinctive production style is called swampy by some and atmospheric by others. I’m in the second camp. It works when the artist is in a certain mood, and Bob was in that mood when he wrote these songs.
Two great, sombre albums by two mature artists. But only one can emerge.
WINNER: Bob Dylan, Time Out of Mind (2 points)
Next week’s battle – #30: Los Lobos, How Will the Wolf Survive? (1984) vs. Green Day, Dookie (1994)