Coming only four months after the controversial Self Portrait, the more concise and immediate New Morning won a much warmer reception from fans and critics. Most welcome was the return of Dylan's more familiar, nasally singing voice, which had not appeared on record since John Wesley Harding in 1967 (he had taken on an affected country croon since then.) In retrospect, the album has come to be viewed as one of the artist's lesser successes, especially following the release of Blood on the Tracks in 1975, often seen as a more full return-to-form.
It reached #7 in the U.S., quickly going gold, and gave Bob Dylan his 6th UK #1 album. The album's most successful song from a commercial perspective is probably "If Not For You," which was covered by George Harrison, who had played guitar on a version of the song not released until 1991's Bootleg Series Volume 2, and was also an international hit for Olivia Newton-John in 1971. The song was also included in Dylanesque from Bryan Ferry
"I didn't say, 'Oh my God, they don't like this, let me do another one,'" Dylan said in 1975. "It wasn't like that. It just happened coincidentally that one came out and then the other one did as soon as it did. The Self Portrait LP laid around for I think a year. We were working on New Morning when the Self Portrait album got put together."
During the March sessions that yielded most of Self Portrait, Dylan recorded three songs that he later used for New Morning: "Went to See the Gypsy" (featuring an electric piano), "Time Passes Slowly", and "If Not For You." A number of performances were recorded, but none to his satisfaction.
After work on Self Portrait was virtually completed, Dylan held more sessions at Columbia's recording studios in New York, beginning May 1, 1970. Held in Studio B, the first session was accompanied by George Harrison, bassist Charlie Daniels, and drummer Russ Kunkel. A large number of covers and old compositions were recorded in addition to several new compositions. The master take for "Went to See the Gypsy" was recorded at this session and eventually included on New Morning, but most of the results were rejected.
Sometime in the spring of 1970, Dylan became involved with a new play by poet Archibald MacLeish. A musical version of The Devil and Daniel Webster, it was titled Scratch. "New Morning," "Time Passes Slowly," and "Father of Night" were all written for the production. Though Dylan enjoyed talking with MacLeish, he was never confident about writing songs for Scratch. "Archie's play was so heavy, so full of midnight murder, there was no way I could make its purpose mine," he would later write.
Eventually, a conflict with the producer over "Father of Night" prompted Dylan to leave the production, withdrawing his songs in the process. Al Kooper, who is credited as co-producer of New Morning, would later say that these three songs were "pretty much the fulcrum for [New Morning]... That got him writing a little more."
The next session for New Morning would not be held until June 1. By this time, Dylan had written several new songs, including "Three Angels," "If Dogs Run Free," "Winterlude," and "The Man in Me."
Dylan vacated Studio B and moved into Studio E, where he stayed for the remaining sessions. For five straight days, ending on June 5, Dylan recorded most of New Morning; he even recorded a number of covers with the intention of including a few on New Morning. The June 1 session was devoted entirely to covers, but Peter La Farge's "Ballad of Ira Hayes" was the only one given any serious consideration for inclusion. The June 2 session produced a solo piano rendition of "Spanish Is the Loving Tongue"; Al Kooper felt it was a strong candidate for New Morning, but it was ultimately set aside. Jerry Jeff Walker's "Mr. Bojangles" and the traditional "Mary Ann" were also recorded on June 2, with "Mr. Bojangles" receiving serious consideration for inclusion.
On June 9, several days after those initial June sessions, Dylan accepted an honorary doctorate in music from Princeton University. Dylan did not enjoy the experience, and it inspired him to write a new song, "Day of the Locusts."
Weeks later, a session held on June 30 was dedicated to recording new versions of "Blowin' in the Wind," but those recordings were left on the shelf.
Bob Johnston was still credited with production, but by July he was absent and would not return. Instead, Dylan and Kooper created the preliminary sequence for New Morning. The process was wrought with frustration, possibly the result of the negative criticism over Self Portrait. The first sequence of New Morning included a few covers as well as a new version of "Tomorrow is a Long Time," an original composition dating back to 1962.
Meanwhile, Kooper convinced Dylan to record string overdubs for "Sign on the Window." An overdub session was held on July 13, but Dylan left those overdubs out of the final mix. Kooper then convinced Dylan to record overdubs for a June 2 recording of "Spanish Is the Loving Tongue" and the March recordings of "If Not For You" and "Went to See the Gypsy." That overdub session was held on July 23, but Dylan would ultimately reject these recordings.
"When I finished that album I never wanted to speak to him again," Kooper said. "I was cheesed off at how difficult [the whole thing was]...He just changed his mind every three seconds so I just ended up doing the work of three albums...We'd get a side order and we'd go in and master it and he'd say, 'No, no, no. I want to do this.' And then, 'No, let's go in and cut this.'... There was another version of 'Went to See the Gypsy' that was really good... It was the first time I went in and had an arrangement idea for it and I said, 'Let me go in and cut this track and then you can sing over it.' So I cut this track and it was really good... and he came in and pretended like he didn't understand where to sing on it."
Dylan ultimately decided to re-record "If Not for You" and "Time Passes Slowly," holding one final session on August 12. During that session, he also recorded "Day of the Locusts," which by now had been finished.
For the album's final sequence, the three August 12 recordings were placed at the beginning of New Morning, while covers of "Ballad of Ira Hayes" and "Mr. Bojangles" were dropped.
"Day Of The Locusts" is a cynical piece of work inspired by his June experience at Princeton University. David Crosby was present when Dylan went to the graduation ceremony, and later commented: "Sara was trying to get Bob to go to Princeton University, where he was being presented with an honorary doctorate. Bob did not want to go. I said, 'C'mon, Bob it's an honor!' Sara and I both worked on him for a long time. Finally, he agreed. I had a car outside, a big limousine. That was the first thing he didn't like. We smoked another joint on the way and I noticed Dylan getting really quite paranoid about it. When we arrived at Princeton, they took us to a little room and Bob was asked to wear a cap and gown. He refused outright. They said, 'We won't give you the degree if you don't wear this.' Dylan said, 'Fine. I didn't ask for it in the first place.'...Finally we convinced him to wear the cap and gown."
"Time Passes Slowly" is a rather offhand and understated rendition that belies a yearning perhaps better revealed in Judy Collins' contemporary version on Whales and Nightingales.
Dylan wrote "Went To See The Gypsy" after his first meeting with Elvis Presley. Several references are made regarding Presley's career move in Las Vegas, but there is also a mention of a "little Minnesota town," a rare instance where Dylan references his childhood.
"Winterlude" verges on satirical, a humorous love song directed at a girl named Winterlude. It's immediately followed by "If Dogs Run Free," a scatting beatnik send-up, featuring Maeretha Stewart as a guest vocalist and Al Kooper on piano.
The title track of New Morning is another one of the lighter tracks, a wry take on country life that fits in well right before "Sign On The Window."
Perhaps the most celebrated song on New Morning, "Sign On The Window" expands on the joyous sentiments found in "New Morning," applying it to domestic bliss. "Beginning hesitantly, the last verse of 'Sign On The Window' builds towards its repeated last line not as a forced projection of false hope but as simple, matter-of-fact acceptance of middle-age sentiment," writes NPR's Tim Riley. "[These words] offer a way of redefining one's values that doesn't mean copping out or giving up. The antithesis of the family man, at thirty a father of four, begins broaching homeliness without irony - and still convinces you not to hear it as strict autobiography."
Guitarist Ron Cornelius recalls, "Dylan had a pretty bad cold that week. You can hear it on ['Sign On The Window'], y'know, that bit about 'Brighton girls are like the moon,' where his voice really cracks up. But it sure suits the song. His piano playing's weird...because his hands start at opposite ends of the keyboard and then sorta collide in the middle - he does that all the time - but the way he plays just knocks me out." The song was later featured in the eighth season finale episode of the television series FRIENDS, during a cliffhanger ending.
In "The Man in Me," "Dylan surrenders to the person he sees when his lover looks through him," writes Riley. "He's not trying to impress this lover, so the title hook resonates enough to carry things...'Take a woman like you to get through/To the man in me' is so direct in its expression of the unflinching cues of intimacy, you forgive him the occasional forced rhyme.". The song was later featured in the 1998 Coen Brothers film The Big Lebowski.
The record closes with "Three Angels" and "Father Of Night," the former a gospel intermission that works like a clean parody, the latter a sober incantation, Dylan's interpretation of the Jewish prayer Amidah.
Dylan originally planned to include a few covers, and he recorded a significant amount during the sessions. Several of these covers were later issued on Dylan in December 1973.
Dylan recorded a large number of outtakes for New Morning. The outtakes consisted of new recordings of his older material, some original material, and a large number of reworked tunes with George Harrison accompanying him.
The following songs were recorded at the first New Morning session with George Harrison. While the majority of these songs are rerecorded versions, these sessions yielded the original song "Working on a Guru", which is still unreleased. Notable songs from this session are the aforementioned "Guru", "Telephone Wire", "Song to Woody", and a complete version of Dylan covering The Beatles' famous song "Yesterday".
There were six main recording sessions for the album, with Harrison only being present at the first. The following songs were recorded during the remaining five sessions. Multiple takes were recorded of all the songs listed here, with the sole exception of "Ahoooah". In 1973, Columbia raided the vaults to release the album Dylan, which consisted of seven of these tracks supplemented with two outtakes from New Morning's predecessor album, Self Portrait.
"In case you were wondering how definitive that self-portrait was, here comes its mirror image four months later," wrote Robert Christgau, before giving it an A-. "Call it love on the rebound. This time he's writing the pop (and folk) genre experiments himself, and thus saying more about true romance than is the pop (or folk) norm."
While New Morning neared completion, Dylan and his manager, Albert Grossman, formally dissolved their business relationship on July 17, 1970. Grossman retained certain rights from previous agreements, including royalties on work produced under his management, but their publishing company, Big Sky Music, would be replaced by Ram's Horn Music before the end of 1971, putting an end to any joint ownership in publishing. Dylan would gain complete control over his personal management and his own music publishing. Another tense contract negotiation awaited in 1972, this time with CBS. Until then, there would be little musical activity as Dylan entered the quietest period of his career.