Desire is perhaps Bob Dylan’s most “worldly” album. Part of Desire’s charm and wild character comes from the help of Jacques Levy who co-wrote eight of the nine songs on Desire with Dylan. It’s a messy, ramshackle affair filled with Middle-Eastern and Gypsy influences (Scarlet Riveria’s violin is over the record), lyrics sung in Spanish (“Romance in Durango”)and song titles (“Mozambique”) suggesting that Dylan would rather be anywhere than home. These sounds and lyrics were no doubt inspired by The Rolling Thunder Revue Tour was Dylan imagined as a sort of traveling circus – complete with numerous guests. Emylou Harris shows up for background vocals on many of the songs – an idea that Dylan would take to the extreme on albums such as Street Legal and Empire Burlesque.
It’s also an album full of epics. “Isis” finds its narrator trying to both treasure and the mysterious Isis. The fictional story seems transcends the normal rules of geography and time, as the narrator travels through Egypt and Mexico (and burying his traveling companion in the process) before realizing that he was a fool. The song loosely suggests that perhaps Dylan would one day again come back to his wife. “Joey” presents tale of Gangster Joey Gallo in a somewhat sympathetic manner – an outlaw with a code and morals. (Although critics have pointed out that Gallo was quite violent.) Then of course, there is “Hurricane” – the album’s most famous track recalling the trial of boxer Rubin Carter.
Ultimately Desire comes off as a 1970s version of Blonde on Blonde as Dylan tries so many different ideas and pushing them in wild and unexpected directions. Scarlet Riveria’s violin drives the first two songs (“Hurriance” and “Isis”) creating a tension and propelling these vastly different stories along. “One More Cup of Coffee” with its haunting duet between Harris and Dylan, sounds like it could have been an old Eastern European folk song that Dylan dug up from the album. “Romance in Durango” sounds like Dylan cut the song in a studio in Durango.
Desire closes with “Sara” – an ode to his wife, where he remembers his young children playing in order to get here back. It’s a haunting song (especially since Sara Dylan was in the studio when Dylan sang it) but it’s almost too much. Dylan’s best songs are usually shrouded in mystery and have numerous meanings – and with “Sara” is so naked and personal, it’s almost a shock to hear Dylan be so honest for once.
Desire ranks among Dylan’s best because he’s challenging himself and his audiences expectations of him once again and creating some beautiful songs in the process.