Desire, the album Bob Dylan made after Blood on the Tracks, is his newly-single-in-New-York-City record. After he and his wife Sara split up, he moved back to New York, living in the Village and carousing at night with a mix of buddies old and new. One night he saw Patti Smith play at The Bitter End and, impressed by the chemistry she had with her band, decided that he should work with a regular band himself in order to get something similar.
He pulled together a motley selection of old pros and youngsters to be in his group (violinist Scarlett Rivera he picked up while he was being driven through the Village in a limousine and she was walking down the road carrying a violin case, which seems borderline predatory today) and went in the studio with a view to recording a new album. At the first session, he had 21 musicians in his band. Nothing usable was recorded, and nothing would be until he took the advice proffered by every experienced musician on the session and attempted the songs again with a much smaller band.
The album was notable in many ways. The lyrics for the songs were written by playwright Jacques Levy rather than Dylan himself; Bob scholar Yo Zushi hypothesises that Dylan had gone to the well so deeply for Blood on the Tracks that he had nothing left to say (at least, nothing about his failing marriage), and was comfortable with the idea of singing someone else’s words. It broke with the studio orthodoxy of the era in its reverberant, big-room sound, and the prominence of Howie Wyeth’s drums in the mix (compare these songs to the very controlled, small-sounding mixes on Blood on the Tracks). Its come-join-the-party beginnings, with 21 musicians on hand for the first session, presaged Dylan’s next wheeze, the Rolling Thunder Revue, which saw him gather everyone from Joan Baez to Mick Ronson (from David Bowie’s Spiders from Mars) to barnstorm up and down the East Coast, playing impromptu gigs in whatever theatre or gymnasium would accommodate them, and bringing famous friends up on stage to join in when playing their home city or if they happened to be in town. A recording of Isis from Montreal begins with Dylan roaring “This is for Leonard if he’s still here” – the “Leonard” in question was indeed that Leonard.
However, the album (and the music from that era of Dylan’s career generally) was only successful in parts. One More Cup of Coffee, which featured Emmylou Harris, was one of the better ones, succeeding on atmosphere and the exotic vocal melody. Allen Ginsberg, whom I assume recognises Jewish singing when he hears it, spoke of Dylan’s “Hebraic cantillation” on this song; to me it sounds more like a muezzin’s call to prayer. But either way, it sets a mysterious and compelling mood that as Ginsberg noted is distinctly non-American – a rare and notable thing in Dylan’s music, considering that he began his career as an impersonator of wandering Okie Woody Guthrie.