Sunday, March 28, 2010

Day 02: My Least Favourite Song

Another slightly-tricky choice, this one, albeit for rather different reasons. Again, it's not as though I'm not spoiled for choice - so many terrible songs, so little time...the obvious answer would clearly be something along the lines of 'Agadoo', 'Achy Breaky Heart', or 'We Built This City (on rock & roll)', songs so obviously, inescapably awful that only a fool could fail to despise them. But those are all rather too easy - besides, bad as they are, I don't really hate them, not least because - honestly - how often am I ever going to hear them?

No, for true loathing, a song needs the personal element. A bad song by an artist of whom one could reasonably expect better is always going to sting more than an even-worse song by someone one doesn't really care about in the first place. So, after careful consideration, I suspect that my least-favourite song is...

It could have been any one of a depressingly-large number of Dylan tracks from the same period, really, but since I have to pick just one, the nod goes to 'Emotionally Yours'. Unfortunately(?), the original studio version of the track is currently unavailable on YouTube, so you're being spared the true awfulness of this ghastly, ghastly song, but the live version posted above is still pretty dreadful. It does, at least, capture the essence of the song - a bland, plodding arrangement, syrupy guitar, and quite unrelentingly awful lyrics, delivered with an embarrassing cod-sincerity by a vocalist who really ought to know better.

The studio version, though, really does take it to another level, drowning what little charm might have been found in the original melody under layers of strings, synth, and the most inappropriately '80s-sounding, echo-laden production imaginable. To compound the horror, Dylan sings it with an uncharacteristic clarity, carefully enunciating every last word as though he really, really means it - "
I could be dreaming but I keep believing / you're the one I'm living for / And I will always be emotionally yours."

Banal by most conventional standards, let alone Dylan's, the song is absolutely typical of the throwaway pap which dominates his output from that era. This is despite the fact that, as demonstrated by releases such as Biograph and the Bootleg Series Vols. I-III, he was actually writing some of the strongest material of his career at the same time, only to sabotage it by either choosing manifestly-inferior takes and arrangements for the albums ('Jokerman', 'When The Night Comes Falling From The Sky', 'Tight Connection To My Heart'), or simply refusing to release them at all ('Blind Willie McTell'). Of all the legendary '60s/'70s artists who entirely failed to navigate the treacherous waters of the 1980s with dignity or credibility intact (which, sadly, amounts to "almost all of them"), Dylan's very public decline into alcoholic self-destruction was perhaps the most disheartening.

Of course, he recovered eventually, with one of the most remarkable late-career comebacks any major artist has yet managed. But for a long time, he was absolutely lost - 1985's Empire Burlesque is possibly his worst album, and 'Emotionally Yours' is the worst song on it. What pushes it from "bad" to "awful", though, is the fact that the final track on the album - 'Dark Eyes', as covered beautifully by both Calexico/Iron & Wine (for the I'm Not There soundtrack) and Patti Smith (live, both with Dylan himself in 1996 and on her own in this rather lovely performance from 2006) - is one of the finest tracks Dylan ever recorded, meaning that I can't quite bring myself to forget it entirely. Just as 'Johnny B. Goode' is my favourite song partly as a stand-in for everything else I love about rock & roll, so is 'Emotionally Yours' a completely-fitting surrogate for every awful, trite piece of sickly pablum released by artists smart and gifted enough to know better.

Or maybe I should have just gone with 'Imagine', for much the same reason.

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