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Credit: Levi Mamchak

The National’s Aaron Dessner's favourite Bob Dylan album

As a founding member of The National, co-founder of Big Red Machine, a film score composer and a producer, Aaron Dessner has spread his creativity around profusely, providing a sonic smorgasbord to rival anyone over the last two decades. In all of its varied guises, however, there is a sui generis style that shines through and gives his work an unmistakable signature. 

Another artist who typifies this unique adherence to aural authenticity is Bob Dylan. In fact, it could be said that Dylan was one of the very first to adhere to the artistic tenet of individualism that David Bowie once defined when he remarked: “Never play to the gallery. Always remember that the reason you initially started working was that there was something inside yourself that you felt that if you could manifest it in some way, you would understand more about yourself and how you coexist with the rest of society.”

In that famous quote, Bowie goes on to say, “I think it’s terribly dangerous for an artist to fulfil other people’s expectations. They generally produce their worst work when they do that.” Dylan’s eternally wayfaring creative path, beginning with his initially infamous decision to go electric, has been a trailblazing expedition of never playing to the gallery that many have followed. Along the way, it has offered up zeniths, declines and Dessnor’s favourite album. 

Speaking to Esquire, The National guitarist declared Dylan’s 1997 effort Time Out of Mind. “This is my favourite latter-day Dylan record,” Dessner remarked. “I think lyrically it is on par with Dylan’s more revered early work, especially the raw and nostalgic meditations on his own mortality in ‘Not Dark Yet’ and ‘Tryin to Get to Heaven’.” With tracks like ‘Not Dark Yet’, in particular, the triumph of Dylan’s changing style comes to the fore. 

The beauty of electric music is the ambient scope that it gives to musicians. In the wired-up world of the studio, it would seem any sound is possible. Dylan used it to his advantage on ‘Not Dark Yet’ to sonically encapsulate the sound of a weary sigh. 

‘Not Dark Yet’ pairs the coarsest of hoarse voices with the dreamiest of soundscapes for a song that straddles the dichotomy of old age’s reclined contentment and regret. It is the sound of a man in his autumn feeling the warmth of the setting sun, touched by the first cold of night, and it’s a thing of beauty. 

To create this atmospheric depth, Dylan once again collaborated with legendary producer Daniel Lanois who had helped to reinvigorate Dylan’s career with the return-to-form record of Oh Mercy in 1989. This is something that Dessner also remarked on: “The swampy Daniel Lanois vibe has had a huge influence on my work as a producer and on our band in general…See ‘Slipped’ from our new album.”

While the choice might seem like a surprising one for a lot of people, the fact that the record, for the most part, is a meditation on mortality means it shares a strong kinship with a lot of The National’s work. As their frontman, Matt Berninger told the Guardian, “A lot of [our songs] are sad and about death.” However, as he rightfully adds, they go about it in such a bracing way that the songs almost seem to triumph over it, “In really fun ways.”

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