Above all else, Dylan has been lauded for his brilliant, cryptic lyrics; ergo one would assume that an album predominantly dominated by covers, with a mere two originals, would be a less than thrilling prospect. Fortunately one's fears can be alleviated as Dylan's self-titled debut is a strong, highly involving outing.
The arrangements on the album are consummately minimalistic, composed solely of Dylan's vocals, acoustic guitar strumming and signature harmonica passages. As a result of this the album has a very intimate, personal feel that compounds the potency of his numbers.
Throughout the album Dylan's performance is exceptional, as he adjusts his vocal tone perfectly to adapt to each stylistic exercise he embarks on. His vocals never clash with or impede the quality of the songs, as Dylan understands each track and what it demands of him perfectly.
Predictably enough the album is primarily comprised of old folk standards, but Dylan's able to personalize each song to fit him ideally. His love for the material always shows through, and helps animate the album and make it such an engrossing listen.
It's also evident that these tracks had a profound influence on Dylan's subsequent work. In Fixin' To Die, for instance, the listener can perceive the roots of his epic classic It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding), and many aspects of the album's content would resurface in his later material.
As far as his two original tracks are concerned, they're entertaining but thoroughly lesser Dylan. Talkin' New York is a somewhat slight but still amusing travelogue of his experiences in the Big Apple, while Song To Woody, as the title suggest, is a tribute from Dylan for one of his biggest inspirations.
The best tracks, however, can be found amongst the covers. House Of The Risin' Sun is particularly devastating as Dylan perfectly conveys the young girl's desperation (and, unlike the Animals, he abstains from altering the speaker's gender), while In My Time Of Dyin' is rather hard hitting as well, vastly different from the protracted version later found on Led Zeppelin's classic Physical Graffiti.
Overall the album is a highly auspicious, if atypical, debut. While it presents some aspects of Dylan it omits many of his most important traits, which is natural in that he had to prove himself to the record label before he could achieve the kind of artistic freedom necessary for his following enterprises. While it fails to capture his skills as a poet it remains a highly inviting, enjoyable listen, and while it would be eclipsed by Dylan's subsequent outings it still holds up well as something more than a mere historical curiosity.
While not his debut, The Freewheelin' marked Dylan's true arrival on the scene as, granted a greater degree of freedom in the studio, he was finally able to unveil his unparalleled lyrical prowess. With only a solitary cover on the album, his rendition of Corrina, Corrina (and even there he's credited with the arrangement), the album acts as a showcase for Dylan's songwriting which, even at this embryonic stage in his career, was truly impressive to behold.
Two of the more well known tracks are protest anthems and, while songs conforming to that category tend to be banal, heavy-handed and transparently polemical in an aggressively preachy fashion, these two tracks succeed, ironically enough, by being at the extreme opposite ends of the protest anthem spectrum, with Blowin' In The Wind deriving its power by being less direct, veiling its message in metaphors and symbolism, while Masters Of War works by being consummately direct, to the extent that it practically bombards the listener with its righteously enraged lyrics.
The album's true standout track, however, is the epic A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall, a majestic number filled with brilliant, cryptic imagery conveyed in a list based format. The song largely redefined what a folk song could be, elevating the art form to soaring new heights.
While somewhat overshadowed by these peaks, the remaining tracks on the album are uniformly strong. Dylan employs his trademark brand of humor to good effect on Bob Dylan's Blues, Talking World War III Blues and I Shall Be Free, while the desperate nostalgia of Bob Dylan's Dream is truly moving. Girl From The North Country and Don't Think Twice, It's All Right are pretty folk excursions, while Down The Highway is a simple but effective take on the blues. Oxford Town feels like a throwaway but it's still worthwhile, Dylan's version of Corrina, Corrina is weaker than his originals on the album but still quite good and Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance is rather basic but still remains enjoyable.
Overall The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan is a truly excellent album, and one whose influence on the direction of folk music and rock in general cannot be overestimated. The genre of folk music had been rather static to the point of stagnation, and Dylan truly transfigured it into a whole new art form. With lyrics that range from cryptic musings to brilliant profundities to offbeat humor, the album can be credited with introducing a new style of poetry into the folk movement, with song structures that defied every convention of the genre. The result is an album that, while revolutionary, is just as strong when divorced from its pivotal role in folk music history. The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan is simply an extraordinary effort, effortlessly darting from insightful ruminations to imaginative symbolism to humorous interludes in the most fluid manner possible. With both brilliant lyrics and basic but effective folk melodies, the album was a milestone in folk history whose effects can still be felt to this day.
Dylan had already displayed his versatility and multifaceted nature on his previous outing; this was, however, not what the record companies nor much of his audience wanted from him. A victim of the whims of his zeitgeist, he was expected to conform to what the vicissitudes of time had trained the listening public to expect from folk singers, namely a composer of protest anthems.
Ergo after tracks like Blowin' In The Wind and Masters Of War he was erroneously pigeonholed as a purveyor of protest tunes, and this is what both his fans and the record label wanted from him: an album solely composed of self-righteous musings and predictable social commentary.
Whereas Dylan would subsequently go out of his way to alienate his fanbase, at this early stage in his career he lacked the clout that would enable him to do so, and he eventually acquiesced and gave the public what they'd clamored for.
While he certainly profited from this concession to his audience, from a qualitative perspective this was a huge misstep from Dylan, as it omitted and distorted nearly every aspect of the erstwhile Zimmerman's musical identity while conveying only a single side of his persona.
While an album comprised exclusively of protest anthems is an inherently flawed concept, breeding repetition and sanctimonious, ham-fisted ruminations on the state of contemporary society, what's worse is that these aren't even especially strong protest anthems for the most part, with the majority either lacking the poetry of Blowin' In The Wind or the sheer forcefulness of Masters Of War.
There are exceptions, of course, as Dylan was far too talented at this stage of his career to pen an album devoid of any strong material. Thus the title track is a true classic that retains the power it contained when it was first written, sounding neither dated nor untopical in the slightest.
While there are some other decent tracks, such as One Too Many Mornings and When The Ship Comes In, the majority of the songs are simply generic protest anthems, lacking in eloquence and insight, which is further exacerbated by the overwhelming uniformity of the album. Many of the tracks come off as preachy or self-righteous, and the lyrics are hardly revelatory, as Dylan fails to expose any deep underlying truths about the epoch that had escaped notice prior to the release of this LP.
One wouldn't expect that Dylan was capable of making an album of this low quality at this point in his career, with the lyrics in particular sounding beneath anything that one could imagine coming from him. Simplistic, preachy, heavy-handed and reductive, the lyrics fail to capture the intelligence, artistry and insight that characterizes most of Dylan's work, thus spawning a Dylan album that feels nothing like a Dylan album, a pale substitute for his usual genius.
Ultimately the album is simply weak and repetitive, offering an array of similarly mediocre tracks that, rather than reinforcing each other, simply hammer the same points to death ad nauseam for the duration of the LP. Dylan was capable of much more than this, as would become evident in his subsequent works which, while they may have betrayed his fans, at least, more importantly, didn't betray his own identity.
As the title suggests, this album presents a radically different side of Dylan from what was encountered on its predecessor, though it hardly enters unfamiliar territory, as it's simply a reversion to the style that served him so well on The Freewheelin.' Thus the album is bereft of protest anthems, and Dylan returns to developing himself as a songwriter and poet rather than a crusader against the transgressions and injustices of his epoch.
This transformation becomes evident from the first instant of the album with the dexterous wordplay of All I Really Want To Do, a song that provides the note of levity so sorely lacking on the bloated, self-important previous album. In fact humor plays a prominent role in the album, from the absurdity of I Shall Be Free No. 10 to the anecdotal hilarity of Motorpsycho Nitemare.
This humor hardly eclipses the album's more serious side, however. Chimes Of Freedom will conjure memories of the classic A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall with its epic stature and its similar list based structure, but it's an excellent song in its own right, filled with deft poetry and vivid imagery.
The album's true highlight, however, is the brilliant My Back Pages, a song that, as was the case with myriad Dylan songs (including Chimes Of Freedom), was the recipient of a bastardized treatment courtesy of the Byrds. This defilement hardly taints the song, though, as the track is profoundly moving, boasting some of Dylan's best lyrics to this point.
While these highpoints can and certainly deserve to be lauded, the entire set on the album is eminently worthy of praise, as the album is devoid of filler, sporting a selection of excellent songs, from the renowned classic It Ain't Me Babe to the intimate To Ramona to the unjustly oft maligned yet deeply emotional depiction of a collapsing relationship in Ballad In Plain D.
Whereas the seemingly endless procession of protest songs on The Times They Are A-Changin' made for a rather uniform experience, on Another Side Of Bob Dylan each track has something unique and worthwhile to offer, be it humorous interludes, striking poetic imagery or insightful lyrics, resulting in a much richer and rewarding listen. On The Times They Are A-Changin' Dylan was forced to temporarily stall his artistic development for the sake of appeasing his legions of protest anthem obsessed fans, but on this album he resumes his creative progression and delivers a true masterpiece.
The content of this album is often overshadowed by its immense historical significance, as Dylan, darling of the folk scene, risked antagonizing his devoted followers by 'selling out,' betraying his roots and going electric.
This was a tremendously brave career move, as he irrevocably alienated a large portion of his fanbase, branded as a Judas who had defiled his legacy by turning his back on the folk movement that had been the genesis of his success.
All the same, any amount of controversy pertaining to this musical paradigm shift doesn't change the fact that Bringing It All Back Home is an incredible album, easily Dylan's best to this point.
Ironically enough, as strong as the album's electric side is its acoustic side is the superior of the two, and one of the best sides ever to be committed to disc. It only contains four songs, but all four rank amongst the best work he's ever done, from the unparalleled poetry of Mr. Tambourine Man to the stately, majestic Gates Of Eden, to his brilliant epic It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding) to the beautiful pathos of It's All Over Now, Baby Blue.
This isn't to denigrate the electric side, however, as nearly every track present in his newfound style is a classic in its own right, from the proto-rap of Subterranean Homesick Blues to the hilarity of Bob Dylan's 115th Dream and On The Road Again to the gorgeous Love Minus Zero/No Limit to the bluesy Maggie's Farm.
While it's oft been asserted that the melodies on the electric side are rudimentary at best, and it's difficult to dispute this point, any melodic defects can easily be overlooked due to the quality of the lyrics. Dylan had grown as a poet yet again, resulting in the best lyrics of his career to this point, and some of the best lyrics ever penned in the rock genre at that.
Ultimately Brining It All Back Home is a fantastic album, bereft of filler and containing many of the best songs of Dylan's legendary career. It should never be eclipsed by the circumstances of its release as, an intriguing social phenomenon as it was, the album is equally excellent divorced from the vitriolic reception it received from a large part of its audience.
As was the case with the dearth of protest anthems on Another Side Of Bob Dylan, on Bringing It All Back Home Dylan simply refuses to allow his legion of fans in the folk milieu to dictate, shape or impede his development as a songwriter, and the result is a continuing progression as a rock artist that yields greater rewards with each passing release. While his fans may have been incensed at this alleged betrayal, to the point of issuing death threats, with Bringing It All Back Home Dylan he had composed a true masterpiece, with Dylan understanding his own strengths and potential to a far greater degree than his audience had.
Undeterred by the vitriolic invective of his erstwhile fans from the folk scene, Dylan persevered in his newfound electric style. Fortunately this time around he was able to marry stronger melodies to his electric treatment, which were further ameliorated by comparatively sophisticated arrangements courtesy of the skilled backing band Dylan had assembled.
Needless to say Highway 61 Revisited also contains some of Dylan's strongest lyrics, from the unparalleled poetry of Desolation Row to the scathing character assassination of Like A Rolling Stone to the haunting verse of Ballad Of A Thin Man. This fusion of superior melodies and exceptional lyrics results in some of Dylan's finest work ever, and indeed the album delivers one of the strongest sets of Dylan's storied career.
The album is bereft of filler, as even the slighter songs are quite entertaining, such as the title track that may seem like a mere throwaway at first but features some hilarious lyrics, injecting Dylan's customary saving dose of humor into the midst of the more serious proceedings.
Classics abound, from the tenebrous tale of Mr. Jones in Ballad Of A Thin Man to the lyrically captivating driving garage rock of Tombstone Blues to the vicious personal attack of the famed Like A Rolling Stone to the epic Desolation Row.
Dylan varies his sound to dispel any potential monotony as well; thus Tombstone Blues rocks convincingly with a fury atypical of Dylan's work, while the title track has a whimsical tone in keeping with its absurdist lyrics and Queen Jane Approximately captures a lighter, gentler atmosphere than the other tracks on the album.
Highway 61 Revisited is simply an incredible album, boasting some of the best music and lyrics of Dylan's lengthy career. Every song has something meaningful to offer, with even the lighter fare being cleverly sequenced so as to allow some respite in between the more demanding material. Dylan had progressed immeasurably as both a composer and a poet, and his gifted backing band enabled him to realize some of his more ambitious musical visions. Filled with timeless classics that never sound the least bit dated, Highway 61 Revisited is a true, enduring masterpiece, not only one of Dylan's best but likewise one of the greatest albums of all time.
In many respects Dylan proved to be a phenomenon that was difficult to contain, and in the most literal sense of the world at that. Despite the protests of his record label who clamored for an abridgement of it, the single cut of Like A Rolling Stone was released in its entirety, thus rendering it by far the longest single of all time at that point in rock history (needless to say, it reached the top of the charts anyway). Additionally Dylan's last few LPs had been pushing the envelope with regards to their runtimes, while subsequently he would be responsible for the first ever box-set. Thus it's unsurprising that Blonde On Blonde, his magnum opus, constituted the first ever double album.
And this double LP format was taken full advantage of, allowing Dylan to infuse a measure of diversity into the proceedings, alternating between irreverent humor (as in Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat), comical absurdity (as in the opener Rainy Day Women #12 & 35), unparalleled poetic imagery (as in Visions Of Johanna) and sweeping epics (as in Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands). Dylan effortlessly shifts between these tones, executing each paradigm with precision and grace.
While a thirteen track album tends not to necessitate the length of a double album, thus leading to some long runtimes on the songs, Dylan is never self-indulgent, and the lengthier tracks fully deserve their extended playtimes. The album's lengthiest cut, Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands, easily merits its eleven minute plus runtime, with its hypnotic beauty, excellent lyrics and a moving atmosphere that borders on musical catharsis.
Despite being a double album Blonde On Blonde is bereft of filler (though some tracks, such as Temporary Like Achilles, are certainly, while not extraneous by any means, weaker than most of the other songs), and it boasts myriad timeless Dylan classics. Vision Of Johanna may contain the best set of lyrics in any Dylan song, and it's joined by other highlights such as the brilliant Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again and the aforementioned gorgeous Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands.
Every track has something to offer, however, be it the beyond casual recording environment of Rainy Day Women #12 & 35, the pretty I Want You or the raw, rocking arrangement of Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat.
Blonde On Blonde is simply an exceptional album, a double LP that fully justifies its length through its set of brilliant lyrics and melodies, with both arguably reaching their zeniths of Dylan's career on this album. The album has a highly welcoming feel to it, with its opener (Rainy Day Women #12 & 35) certainly qualifying as a way to introduce the album on an unintimidating note, though this charming vibe is sustained throughout much of the album, and to good effect at that.
The construction of the album itself is quite effective as well, separating the longer tracks and varying the atmosphere as much as possible so that it never becomes bogged down by stylistic uniformity or a profusion of similar songs.
Ultimately Blonde On Blonde may be Dylan's finest hour, with a fantastic selection of tracks and a charming atmosphere. The album's highly involving, and thus the length never becomes an issue. Dylan's songwriting may be at its peak here, as he deliveries an array of immortal classics (and the tracks that aren't classics are immensely entertaining as well). And while each track is strong, the album amounts to more than the sum of its parts, providing a unique and excellent experience for the listener that's quite unlike anything else achieved in the realm of rock. Needless to say the album is a necessary purchase not only for any fan of Dylan but for any fan of rock music as well. The album is a brilliant showcase for Dylan's skills, as he makes the most out of the extra time he's given on this double LP, fully developing each song to perfection and giving each track its own unique identity.
Live 1966 often polarizes Dylan fans, with two overarching schools of thought on the controversial concert; many hail the CD as the greatest live album of all time, surpassing legendary products like Live At Leeds and Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out, while others attribute this reverence to the album's historical value, feeling that Live 1966 works better as a musical artifact than as a genuine rock album.
There are myriad factors that further confuse the situation, with one of the more mystifying elements being the fact that while the album cover proclaims that the concert was staged at the Royal Albert Hall, in reality the material on Live 1966 was derived from a performance in Manchester. Thus even the most mundane facts about the album are steeped in mystery, as nearly every aspect of Live 1966 is ultimately called into question, which is precisely what one would expect from the most famous concert of the ever elliptical Bob Dylan.
The concert attained legendary status long before any official version was made available to the record buying public. The album achieved this underground mystique courtesy of what may be the most famous bootleg in the history of rock music, and by the time the concert was finally released through proper channels there were few Dylan fans who had never heard the show in its entirety.
The concert assumed its place in the annals of rock history for a plethora of reasons, not the least of which is a rare instance of a rock megastar intentionally antagonizing his audience at every turn. The first half of the concert was devoted to a stripped down, acoustic/harmonica only set, which is precisely what the crowd wanted, or so they imagined; while the instrumentation was ideal for the fans in attendance, the song selection wasn't. Dylan subverted the crowd's expectations by entirely neglecting his first four albums, meaning that his acoustic set was bereft of protest anthems or more traditional folk songs, completely denying the spectators what they had come to hear. Instead he opted to perform numbers from his electric period, which doubtless irked his audience; due to his stripped down setup, however, the crowd was still mercifully oblivious to the game Dylan was perpetrating, continuing to politely applaud each song even though their unease grew more palpable with every number.
What truly riled the crowd, however, was Dylan's second set, as his 'joke' was apparent as soon as his backing band the Hawks (the future The Band) hit the stage with electric guitars in tow. The crowd, already harboring contumacious tendencies, immediately rebelled against the erstwhile Robert Zimmerman, and their anger was only compounded when Dylan elected to play many of the songs the crowd had come to hear with electric treatments.
Sequences like the whole, "Judas!" "I don't believe you!" exchange between a fan and Dylan have been permanently engraved in the history of rock music, as an era comes to an end and Dylan's audience has clearly been left behind, unable to adapt to this terrifying new epoch of electric guitars and pounding percussion.
This whole entertainer/audience warfare is the reason that Live 1966 has achieved its legendary status, but while it offers a fascinating dynamic historical curiosity alone won't motivate a consumer to listen to an album on a regular basis. Fortunately, there's far more to Live 1966 than the intrigue of Dylan's interaction with his fanbase, as the album not only ushers in a new era through his mind games with the crowd but likewise through its brilliant music and performances.
While the acoustic set never improves upon, or even drastically alters, the original songs, it's still considerably entertaining. The tracks chosen are all strong ones, and they're also uniformly conducive to this stripped down treatment. Dylan's acoustic strumming is competent but unremarkable; his harmonica playing, however, is quite impressive, particularly on Mr. Tambourine Man where it constitutes one of the main attractions. Each song is quite enjoyable, with just enough new elements to at least somewhat differentiate them from the originals.
The electric set, however, is where Dylan truly thrives. The Hawks employ a viscerally gratifying, sloppy garage-rock style that's completely at odds with their future as The Band, but nevertheless they pull it off quite well here. The distorted riffage and sludgy guitar tones were doubtless enough to scar the Dylan-folk purists for life, yet despite this reflexive, predictable antipathy the fact of the matter is that the new arrangements actually suit the songs, never once compromising their essence. I'm not implying that I prefer them in this context, as I don't, but that doesn't dilute the fact that these are immensely entertaining performances that will surely be enjoyed by anyone with an open mind (something the bulk of the audience apparently weren't gifted with if their responses to the music are any indication).
Better still, the electric set actually opens with an otherwise unavailable track called Tell Me, Momma, which provides the perfect introduction to the Hawks' brand of reckless riffage and electric licks, also affording them the opportunity to warm up for the rest of the set.
Other highlights include a wholly transformed Baby, Let Me Follow You Down, which has been transfigured into an arena for charmingly sloppy solos and crunchy chords. Gone is the genial country excursion, replaced by garage rock at its most primitive and satisfying.
Predictably enough Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat is the ideal candidate for this heavy treatment, as the song already harbored tendencies in that direction. What is surprising, however, is the wonderful performance of Ballad Of A Thin Man, a song I wouldn't have anticipated being a good fit for the signature Hawks treatment. The song loses none of its mystery or menace, however, and is graced with highly effective keyboard flourishes that serve to enhance the song's trademark feeling of unease and apprehension.
The set ends with Like A Rolling Stone, a faithful rendition save for some extra distortion and heaviness. The song comes across brilliantly, and is the perfect closer for the concert.
Thus Live 1966 is simply a live album, and its historical importance shouldn't overshadow or detract from the concert's stunning performances and sheer entertainment value. While fascinating as a historical document, the allure of the album's lesson in the evolution of rock and roll and psychological insights into the mindsets of fans will fade away with time, so it will be the terrific music that keeps the listener coming back for more.
The circumstances surrounding this album tend to be more compelling than the album itself, as it was released in the wake of Dylan's coma inducing motorcycle accident that left him incapacitated for quite some time.
When he finally awoke, rather than compose a conventional album Dylan went into seclusion with the Band, only to emerge with a plethora of rough, patchy tracks that would subsequently be bootlegged and covered ad nauseam until the material was officially released in 1975.
This unique and inspiring genesis often causes music reviewers to view the album with a more charitable perspective, overlooking the naturally abysmal quality of the production (what production there was, that is) and the inferiority of this content when compared with Dylan's recent output.
Which isn't to say that the album is bad by any means. While true classics are scarce (save for a few gems like the deeply moving Tears Of Rage and the epic This Wheel's On Fire, each the closer on their respective discs), the majority of the material is decent and wholly inoffensive, though being bombarded by such a huge volume of overall generic and uniform country songs can grow eminently wearying. The album is yet another double, and few tracks are sufficiently distinctive to differentiate them from the endless onslaught of country tunes the listener is the recipient of.
The compositions by Dylan and those by the Band are about evenly divided, and this infuses a measure of diversity into the proceedings, though their tracks are remarkably reminiscent of one another, thus diluting and degree of variety achieved. While both Dylan and the Band are highly accomplished rock artists, this album is not representative of their best work, and as The Basement Tapes' is culled from recording sessions never intended to see the light of day the entire double LP feels haphazardly assembled, with track after track crudely affixed to one another without the fluidity or meaning of a true album.
Nonetheless there's a lot to derive pleasure from for fans of either Dylan or the Band, and the album, despite its flaws, is a thoroughly enjoyable experience. The rawness of the sound can be quite captivating, injecting a homey, primal feel into the album. Likewise the majority of the tracks, taken individually, are certainly adequate from a qualitative perspective, and the problems only start to arise from the uniformity of an album of this length, with each song being assimilated into a massive burst of country noise.
Overall, while the album is vastly overrated (largely due to its historical context), it's certainly a pretty good affair, with myriad above average country tunes. While both Dylan and the Band normally excel in this department, neither is on top of their game, breeding a degree of monotony into the proceedings, but even so the album is still quite enjoyable, no matter how marred by the nonexistent production, comparatively inferior songwriting or innate sameness that afflicts the double LP. It's certainly not a classic and it feels rather hastily jumbled together (which in fact it was), but most of the songs are strong enough, and the album cultivates a sufficiently absorbing atmosphere, so that it overcomes its flaws and limitations and amounts, in the long run, to a quite enjoyable listening experience by masters of this genre who've elected to simply have some fun together rather than devoting themselves to crafting a great album.
As Dylan's first commercial release after awakening from his coma, it's natural to subject John Wesley Harding to intense scrutiny, dissecting each note to ascertain in what respects Dylan's sound had been influenced by his tragic accident, and in what regards it diverged from its pre-coma predecessor Blonde On Blonde.
And there's no denying the fact that the sound of John Wesley Harding is considerably different from that of Dylan's magnum opus; it's debatable if this can be attributed to his well publicized accident, but nonetheless Dylan was, once more, heading in a new direction, resulting in a final product that's radically different from any previous one he'd embarked upon.
The reasoning behind the new direction of Dylan's sound, however, is rather mystifying, as the album is largely evocative of the 19th century and earlier, containing material ranging from an ode to a fictitious outlaw (the title track) to a song depicting a rendezvous with Thomas Paine (As I Went Out One Morning). Fortunately, this new direction fits him perfectly, resulting in a brilliant and unique entry in Dylan's discography.
The material is universally strong, ranging from the profoundly moving I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine to the surreal storytelling of The Ballad Of Frankie Lee And Judas Priest to the sneering I Am A Lonesome Hobo.
The album's true masterpiece, however, is All Along The Watchtower, an excursion into the realm of dark folk that carries with it an alluring mystique that couldn't be duplicated in Hendrix's hard rock variation of the song (though Hendrix's version is still quite excellent). The song is truly mesmerizing, establishing a nearly mystical atmosphere that pervades the track.
One noticeable disparity between John Wesley Harding and Dylan's previous work is the role of the harmonica; whereas Dylan's harmonica breaks tended to function as mere embellishments for his songs, on John Wesley Harding their significance is greatly elevated, as more often than not they convey the melodies of the songs themselves. This works wonderfully with the minimalistic material, and Dylan's aptitude with his harmonica work has never been better.
Overall John Wesley Harding is yet another excellent Dylan album, proving that his masterful songwriting skills emerged unscathed and undiluted by his comatose sabbatical. Best of all, the album sounds unlike anything Dylan has done before or since, thus dispelling any risk of stagnation. While somewhat on the short side, the LP manages to cram in an amazing amount of content into such a brief time span, and the album certainly never feels rushed or lacking. Each song is fully developed, and each has something different and meaningful to offer. While not up to the level of albums like Blonde On Blonde, Highway 61 Revisited and Bringing It All Back Home, John Wesley Harding claims a special place in Dylan's discography, one that will never be usurped, supplanted or challenged.
In one of myriad similar maneuvers from the erstwhile Robert Zimmerman, Dylan seemed to strategically chart a course that would alienate the bulk of his audience, this time through the medium of a transformation into a Nashville style country artist. Needless to say this paradigm shift resulted in a vastly different product from any he had previously delivered, as the Dylan depicted on Nashville Skyline is a completely different Dylan from the one encountered on his prior offerings, down to a new vocal style that's nearly unrecognizable at first (part of this vocal change is attributed to Dylan's abstinence from smoking during the recording of this album, along with his intentional emulation of typical country artists).
Another respect in which Nashville Skyline greatly differs from its predecessors is the level of ambition evident over the course of the album. Nashville Skyline, while a pleasant enough listen, lacks the level of depth paramount to Dylan's prior outings; whereas albums like Blonde On Blonde were serious artistic statements, this album seems content to simply provide some light entertainment over the course of a diminutive length (less than half an hour), a far cry from a double album filled with massive pretensions (all of which came to fruition).
Ergo Nashville Skyline is not a great album, nor, seemingly, does it aspire to be. What it is, however, is a highly entertaining foray into the realm of generic country, boasting a very homey, pleasant feel and decent enough lyrics and melodies.
The acknowledged classic is Lay Lady Lay, a gorgeous country ballad that manages to muster a lot of power through its haunting minimalism.
Also notable is a new version of Dylan's classic Girl From The North Country, on which he collaborates with Johnny Cash to good effect, as Cash's voice is eminently suited to the material at hand. It isn't superior to the original by any means, but it's a fun listen and manages to be one of the highlights on the album.
Overall, however, the quality of the content is rather consistent, devoid of filler yet lacking much in the way of true classics. The album is a decidedly pleasant experience, but ultimately it amounts to little more than this, a rather forgettable affair that needn't be retained once the album's over. While it's on it's quite enjoyable, but it's severely marred by its lack of Dylan's staples, namely brilliant lyrics and thematic depth.
Thus, while the album can certainly be recommended as an enjoyable listen, and by all means it's a pretty good outing, it can't compare to Dylan's better work, and when contrasted against them invariably comes out looking weak and feeble. Divorced from this context, however, it's a solid offering, an entertaining collection of generic but well done country, and while this most likely isn't what one wants from Dylan it can be appreciated for what it is nonetheless.
Seemingly the next stage in Dylan alienating his audience, Self Portrait is nearly universally despised by fans and critics alike, and it's easy to see why. Like Nashville Skyline, Self Portrait is a foray into the realm of country music, with one principle disparity: the album is predominantly composed of covers. Ergo Dylan's greatest asset, his brilliant lyrics, are replaced by derivative country banalities, while the melodies consist of generic country standards, and this is exacerbated by the fact that Self Portrait is yet another double album.
Nonetheless, as compelling an argument as it may seem, the vilification of Self Portrait is by no means merited by the quality of the album. While the dearth of originals can certainly be frustrating, it doesn't change the fact that Dylan's selection of covers is quite inspired, while the tracks are uniformly well performed. The tone of the album is welcoming, and the songs are nearly all entertaining.
Additionally the proliferation of covers makes the originals all the more rewarding. The chief example of this arrives in the form of the album's highlight, the whimsical rocker The Mighty Quinn (Quinn The Eskimo). Sporting a great raw atmosphere and amusingly primitive delivery, the song is one of the few true classics on the album, and it's placement on the double LP helps infuse some diversity into the proceedings.
This isn't to say that the album is flawless, however; at over seventy minutes the double LP is unarguably overlong for an album composed nearly exclusively of covers, while the live cuts of Like A Rolling Stone and She Belongs To Me are pedestrian at best. The listener will likely bemoan the lack of quality Dylan lyrics during the parade of covers, and while not an insurmountable flaw it certainly is the album's chief defect.
Nonetheless Self Portrait remains a strong album, enjoyable all the way through and providing a unique experience for a Dylan album. Boasting tight performances and a diverse assortment of country material, the album is vastly underrated; if one accepts the loss of Dylan's lyrics they'll find an engaging and entertaining listening experience that, while hardly one of Dylan's best, is certainly a quality outing, and if Dylan's intent was indeed to craft a weak album to diminish his fanbase he was only successful on one count.
New Morning is yet another installment in Dylan's prolonged flirtation with country, but it's radically different from its predecessors in the genre. Whereas his prior material of this nature tended to conform to generic country, employing rudimentary and derivative melodies and lyrics that aspired more toward country authenticity than eloquent poetry, this time around Dylan forces the country music to serve him as opposed to vice versa, resulting in a much stronger album that features both superior and more creative melodies and lyrics.
The album cultivates a subdued, minimalistic feel, with arrangements dominated by Dylan's piano playing as opposed to his customary guitarwork. While there are myriad tonal shifts throughout the album, an enervated, melancholy atmosphere pervades the album, with recurring themes such as isolation and bitter disillusionment composing the bulk of the album's discourse.
The album also begins Dylan's descent into the realm of spirituality; while this is a direction that, as it became more pronounced on subsequent LPs, was anathema to me, on this outing it's far more tolerable, as it's a more abstract spirituality as opposed to one that focuses on a single, concrete form of it.
As stated before, Dylan's decision to make the country music his own rather than faithfully emulating the trappings of the genre vastly ameliorates the quality of the album, enabling Dylan to pen lyrics more akin to his usual style and concoct clever melodies that stray from standard country fare. New Morning simply feels more like a Dylan album than LPs like Nashville Skyline and Self Portrait, as he finally became adept at adapting the genre to his own style.
While not up to his classic sixties material, New Morning is a very strong outing, boasting some of Dylan's best songwriting, both musically and lyrically speaking, in quite some time. It's a far more intimate and introspective album than one is accustomed to from his material, often featuring emotionally transparent passages that are far more overtly personal than either his prior cryptic fare or his contemporaneous country posturing. The result is a highly moving experience that transcends his previous limitations in the genre and offers a very good listening experience.
Soundtracks tend to be neglected when one examines the discography of a famous rock artist, and this is truly a pity, as many rock stars who take pride in their craft are apt to devote quite a bit of energy and creativity to composing film scores when called upon to do so.
Hence this soundtrack which, despite its obscurity, is truly quite a good album in its own right. While not on par with Dylan's better work, it features its fair share of quality melodies and lyrics, and certainly should not be dismissed due to its status as a soundtrack.
The album's chief liabilities are its proliferation of instrumentals (hardly Dylan's forte) and its egregious habit of repetition. While the former isn't always a problem, as some of these instrumentals, in particular the fiddle showcase Turkey Chase and the flute dominated Final Theme are indeed quite strong, but there's little to redeem the latter defect, as the primary theme, Billy, is repeated four times with only a modicum of alterations made to each rendition. This redundancy greatly mars the album, as there are simply too few musical ideas to sustain the soundtrack when so much space is devoted to a single tune.
Another major flaw that the album presents is that there are only two real songs amidst the onslaught of instrumentals, one of which, as stated before, is incessantly replayed throughout the album, and while Billy is certainly a good song it hardly merits this chronic habit of endlessly recurring throughout the soundtrack.
The other real song is the album's true claim to fame (or would have been had the album ever attained sufficient notoriety to be called famous), the timeless classic Knockin' On Heaven's Door. While shorter than one might like, it's a highly potent, moving song, a moment of catharsis that's utterly at odds with the tracks that surround it. Along with the flute passages in the Final Theme it's one of the only instances of true beauty on the album, and elevates the LP beyond the role of an ultimately dispensable film soundtrack.
Overall by soundtrack standards the album is quite good, boasting a couple of exceptional instrumentals and two strong songs. Despite its Achilles heel of gratuitous repetition, the album is quite strong in the long run, and certainly doesn't deserve its fate of being irrevocably consigned to perpetual anonymity, even amongst most Dylan fans. Due to the weakness of some of the instrumentals and the oft lamented dilemma of redundancy the album can't achieve that high a score, but it still easily warrants a 'good' rating, if little more.
After a four year sabbatical between full fledged studio albums, Dylan returned with Planet Waves, another collaboration with The Band (though they only function as a backing band this time around, with Dylan receiving full songwriting credit for each track).
Planet Waves is the final chapter in Dylan's country phase, which is fortunate as any further outings in this genre would have placed him in danger of stagnation. Luckily on Planet Waves the formula still works, with enough inspired and creative ideas present to dispel any risk of growing stale.
The songwriting remains strong on the album, featuring a number of high quality melodies and Dylan's usual intelligent lyrics. It's been asserted that many of the songs lack discernable melodies, but even when this is the case the tracks are salvaged through the medium of alluring atmospherics.
With regards to atmosphere, the album often cultivates a bleak, melancholic feel, with a note of world weariness that can be considerably haunting. The Band's instrumentation complements this mood quite well, resulting in a hypnotic sound that can often redeem even the tracks most bereft of tangible melodies.
The album, while certainly featuring some lesser tracks, is devoid of filler, with a number of classics present on the album, from the tenebrous Going Going Gone to the sweeping anthem Forever Young and its subsequent accelerated variation which, while sacrificing the song's innate majesty in favor of a more primitive catchiness, is still quite enjoyable.
Overall Planet Waves is a fitting note to end Dylan's country period on, with Zimmerman having done all that he could with the style over the course of his last few albums. Marrying a pervasively moody, depleted tone to clever, cynical lyrics, along with the occasional strong melody, and accompanying this to the Band's effective arrangements, the album is a solid entry in Dylan's discography. While it fails to achieve a classic status due to a number of defects, from the aforementioned dearth of melodies to periodic blandness and an enervated pace along with the fact that atmosphere alone isn't always sufficient to sustain a track, the album is, nevertheless, quite good, an engaging union of Dylan's trademark lyrics and enveloping atmospherics that likewise contains more strong melodies than it's usually given credit for.
After taking his flirtation with country music as far as it could go, Dylan once more embarked on a journey of self-reinvention; rather than simply reverting to his old musical paradigm from prior to his country period, he set out to redefine himself and his musical vision once more, in this case assuming a much more emotional, confessional voice than he'd ever been employed in the past.
This shift has been attributed to a number of factors, predominantly pertaining to his recent divorce, and while this was likely a prominent catalyst for his new direction the truth is that Dylan never really needed much coaxing to pry himself from a musical style and inspire him to engage in a new one.
Blood On The Tracks is often hailed as Dylan's finest hour, and while I vehemently disagree with this assessment it's easy to see which aspects of it enabled it to elicit such a massive laudatory response from the music listening community, as it's easily one of Dylan's most accessible works. The melodies on the album are amongst Dylan's most immediately gratifying, while his lyrics often eschew his customary cryptic verse in favor of more straightforward, emotionally transparent poetry.
While this lyrical approach may compound the emotional potency of many of these tracks, I certainly prefer his usual more elusive and challenging manner; nonetheless, the lyrics present are still excellent, and are the ideal matches for these particular songs. Nor do all these tracks adhere to this stylistic shift, with notable exceptions like Dylan's obligatory surreal storytelling interlude Lily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts, a strong track perfectly positioned to prevent the album from becoming too stylistically uniform and monotonous.
Classics abound on the album, in particular the LP's strongest cut Idiot Wind, a lyrically and musically excellent number filled with bile and vitriol. Boasting sharp witticisms and mean-spirited humor along with vivid imagery and highly sophisticated lyrics, the song is a true Dylan classic, and its presence on the album alone guarantees it a high score.
Most of the other tracks depict Dylan in top form as well, however, from the relationship saga Tangled Up In Blue to the somber tale of lost love in Simple Twist Of Fate to the eloquent catharsis of Shelter From The Storm.
While ultimately the album fails to attain the heights of classics such as Blonde On Blonde, Highway 61 Revisited and Bringing It All Back Home, it remains an excellent listen, a deeply personal and moving experience. Many of its liabilities become strengths within the context of the album (such as its frequently more direct lyrics), and as has been proven time and again there's no reason for each Dylan album to feature the same merits and vices. Because of its disparities with classic Dylan material the album stands out more, and while I would dispute that this enables Blood On The Tracks to surpass its predecessors it certainly makes for a highly engaging, compelling listen, filled with all the staples of classic Dylan (excellent lyrics and strong melodies), albeit in a different form from what a Dylan fan would be accustomed to.
The Rolling Thunder Revue has attained a place in rock history as a legendary tour, heralded as one of the greatest rock showcases of our time, but until the 2002 release of this long unheard musical artifact there was little evidence to corroborate this assertion.
Fortunately this egregious oversight has been rectified with the release of Live 1975, a double album that brilliantly captures the energy, passion and sheer scale of these concerts.
One of the primary factors that contributed to the mystique of the Rolling Thunder Revue was the plethora of guest stars it featured, a parade of famous and eminently talented musicians who appeared on various nights of the tour. Live 1975 boasts many of these rock cameos, ranging from a series of duets with long time friend and collaborator Joan Baez to guest vocals on a verse of Knockin' On Heaven's Door by Roger McGuinn.
While these guest appearances certainly heightened the sense of importance and scope of the concerts, ultimately they're mere embellishments, augmenting the proceedings but still not composing the heart of the performances. The true substance arrives in the form of the performances of the material, with Dylan in top form on vocals backed by myriad exceedingly proficient backing musicians.
What truly makes these songs, however, are the modifications to their arrangements; Dylan wasn't content with providing stale, standard renditions of the material, inspiring him to reinvent every track (save the songs culled from the Desire set list which, as the album had yet to be recorded, remain mostly faithful to their ultimate studio forms) in clever and idiosyncratic ways.
From transfiguring A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall into a powerful rocker to converting It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry into a generic but enjoyable blues outing, Dylan concocts a multitude of new musical ideas for each song, resulting in variations that, while not superior to the originals, are all entertaining in their own right, ensuring that the concerts offered new and exciting material for the fans as opposed to the overly familiar, predictable fare that tours are apt to provide for the audience.
In all, Live 1975 is an extremely strong live experience, the best one to emerge from Dylan's massive discography. For a live album to work it needs tight performances and aspects of the tracks that differentiate them from their studio incarnations, and Live 1975 fulfills both requirements with ease. The album projects the mammoth scale and excitement of the atmosphere of the tour, a difficult feat that it manages to accomplish through the medium of stellar instrumentation and brilliant track selection and sequencing. From isolated snatches of stage banter to the casual, laid back attitude the performers exude, Live 1975 truly captures the feel of the tour, immortalizing an experience that was until recently unavailable for Dylan fans save in assorted bootlegs and the vastly inferior live document Hard Rain.
Desire tends to be overshadowed by Dylan's previous masterpiece, Blood On The Tracks, and this is a pity, as it's superior to its predecessor in many respects, from its far greater diversity to its broader scope.
Which isn't to say that it's bereft of defects. Dylan made a rather mystifying decision in the composition of the album by recruiting novelist Jacques Levy to co-write the lyrics with him. While guest stars had greatly ameliorated many of Dylan's prior outings, he had never sought help in the lyrics department, the one area in which he excelled to the degree that assistance, no matter how well intentioned, would only serve to dilute the quality of the verses.
Thus the album marks the return of protest anthems; once a significant part of his repertoire, Dylan had long ago matured beyond the point of penning these quixotic social commentaries, hence the shock at the presence of tracks like Hurricane, which sports frequently awkward, simplistic and heavy-handed lyrics (though the song is still quite good, which can largely be attributed to the haunting violin solos that appear throughout its runtime). Dylan had progressed beyond the point of composing protest songs, rendering this return to them a rather pronounced regression, a repercussion of working with a collaborator on the lyrics he had always held complete authority over.
Nonetheless, aside from protest anthems like Hurricane and Joey (which are still strong tracks, if overly protracted), the majority of the songs on the album are universally brilliant, and moreover quite diverse (something that couldn't have been said of Blood On The Tracks), from the menacing One More Cup Of Coffee to the sweeping narrative of Black Diamond Bay (which surpasses its already strong counterpart on Blood On The Tracks, Lily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts) to the album's best cut, the stunning portrayal of a relationship in Isis.
While not all the tracks achieve that level of quality, the album is devoid of anything that could be termed filler, as even the lesser tracks boast superb melodies and lyrics, from the more lightweight Mozambique (though it's a profoundly questionable decision to select that particular location to represent a paradise in the song) to the deeply moving ode to his ex-wife Sara.
In addition to the bewildering decision to co-author the lyrics with Levy, another questionable choice was recruiting female singers for backup vocals. While this maneuver would usually be anathema to me, in this context it works quite well, augmenting the tracks rather than sabotaging them.
Ultimately Desire is yet another excellent album from Dylan, a diverse selection of extremely well written songs. My primary objections (most importantly Levy's involvement) become irrelevant, as the lyrics remain strong for the most part, and even when they falter, as in the protest anthems, the melodies are always sufficiently strong that they compensate for any lyrical deficiencies (with the violin passages spread throughout the album being of particular importance to establishing the atmosphere and melodies).
Fluidly shifting musical paradigms, from protest anthems to confessional ballads to ominous dirges to whimsical storytelling, the album never grows tired or monotonous, one of the most unpredictable albums Dylan had recorded in quite some time. This level of variety elevates an already excellent album to new heights, resulting in Dylan's final masterpiece for years to come.
Street Legal presents another abrupt stylistic shift, a pattern that Dylan adhered to for the bulk of his storied career. On this outing Dylan gives his material the big band treatment, complete with a prominent brass section and riddled with female backing vocals.
This latest reinvention elicited its fare share of critical bile and fan animosity, and it's certainly a jarring transformation with no transition period to ease the shock, but while the ubiquity of the big band arrangements infuses a measure of uniformity into the proceedings the distinct melodies and customarily superb lyrics dispel any chance of true monotony or tedium.
The album evokes a bleak atmosphere, with moody passages drenched in melancholia, and this treatment suits the cynical lyrics and world-weary tone perfectly. The album is often attacked for an alleged dearth of unique and memorable melodies, but I would debate that assertion, finding myriad effective tunes that complement the big band arrangements with deft precision.
Another factor perceived as a liability is the stylistically static nature of Dylan's vocals, and this charge is exceedingly difficult to dispute. Whereas on albums like Desire Dylan modified his singing to suit each individual track, on Street Legal he's content to assume the same vocal intonations on each song irrespective of what vocal treatment the song calls for. Fortunately his vocals remain an adequate fit for the material, capturing a somewhat Neil Young-esque whiny tone that matches the depressive melodic and lyrical content.
The songs themselves are universally strong, and while there are no true Dylan classics to be found in the midst of the proceedings each track boasts strong music and lyrics, bereft of any filler. Highlights include the opener Changing Of The Guards, the beautiful despair of Is Your Love In Vain? and the haunting Senor (Tales Of Yankee Power). The album as a whole, however, is extremely consistent, sustaining a high level of quality for the duration of the LP.
As a whole, the album is another resounding success for Dylan, an unjustly maligned minor masterpiece that, while it fails to live up to the standards of his true classics is still a deeply worthwhile listen, featuring a plethora of strong melodies and the intelligent poetry one has been conditioned to expect from the erstwhile Zimmerman. While something of a disappointment as a follow up to Desire, it's by no means a misstep, an atmospheric experience that by any reasonable criteria is an impressive achievement in the realm of rock music.
After Street Legal, Dylan underwent one of his most radical reinventions yet; as evidenced by the despondent tone of that album, he was afflicted with a rather potent melancholia, ergo he sought solace in religion and reemerged onto the music scene as a Christian rocker, succumbing to the allure of easy answers and all that his newfound born again status entails when applied to music.
Christian rock has always been anathema to me, generally constituting proselytizing effluvia bereft of musical or lyrical merit with its sole appeal being the unintentional humor of songs with names like 'Open The Eyes Of My Heart Lord.'
Ergo it would be natural for me to despise Slow Train Coming, the first in Dylan's series of Christian rock albums; this, however, isn't the case. While a consummately flawed and profoundly frustrating listen, Slow Train Coming is by no means devoid of its charms.
While certain tracks (like I Believe In You, Precious Angel and When He Returns) suffer from the defects listed above, Do Right To Me Baby (Do Unto Others) is rather bland and drab, and Man Gave Names To All The Animals is painfully lightweight, the remaining songs are sufficiently strong to ensure an at least somewhat rewarding listen.
One of the chief factors that elevates the album above customary abysmal Christian rock is the presence of the master of minimalism, Dire Straits' guitarist/frontman Mark Knopfler, whose guitarwork immeasurably ameliorates the quality of the album. Indeed, some passages even sound highly reminiscent of early Dire Straits material, an option I find infinitely preferable to an LP that truly sounds like Christian rock.
The best tracks, needless to say, are the ones that don't sound overtly Christian in nature, like the classic brooding opener Gotta Serve Somebody and the majestic title track (which greatly benefits from Knopfler's minimalist guitar passages). Elsewhere Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking has a solid riff and When You Gonna Wake Up is a decent enough track.
Ultimately, while a decidedly lesser effort from Dylan, Slow Train Coming is at least a very strong outing by the standards of the genre. It's a miracle that a Christian rock album is capable of attaining the rank of 'pretty good,' and Gotta Serve Somebody and the title track in particular certainly merit a few listens from Dylan fans. Needless to say the album wouldn't work without Knopfler, but as it stands there's enough craftsmanship to the songs and a sufficient amount of material that isn't explicitly Christian that a good chunk of the album can be enjoyed by those who're repelled by the prospect of a religious Dylan album.
While Dylan's innate talents were able to cushion the blow of his abrupt shift to Christian rock, he has no such luck with his sophomore religious polemic, Saved. Sporting melodies that are rudimentary at best and lyrics that are simply uninspired, derivative Christian drivel, it almost appears as if Dylan's facility for strong songwriting had atrophied, resulting in a final product that's little more than Christian rock at its most generic and unlistenable.
Whereas Slow Train Coming was largely composed of rock music with Christian overtones, on Saved the majority of the tracks are exercises in proselytizing with the rock music as an afterthought. Each song is merely a vessel for imparting Christian wisdom to the listener, bereft of any musical value or intriguing lyrical substance.
I doubt that even Mark Knopfler could have salvaged a disaster of this magnitude, but sadly he's never given the chance, failing to appear on the album in any capacity. There are no virtuoso musicians to fill this void, resulting in an album as bland and unengaging musically as it is lyrically.
It's difficult to believe that Dylan could release a product as abysmal as Saved, but the truth is that it scarcely sounds like a Dylan album at all, as the album in no way captures the brilliance and idiosyncrasies that made him one of the giants in the realm of rock. He's intentionally stifled his faculty for poetry and penchant for uniqueness so as to better convey his religious message, as if converting and saving the souls of his fan base takes precedence over providing good music.
While Slow Train Coming was by no means a classic, it at least featured some intelligent lyrics and well developed melodies. On this go round Dylan abstains from the trivial task of composing interesting songs so as to better focus on the task of selecting biblical passages and clichés, slightly rearranging them and passing them off as religious profundities. He never makes the content his own, effectively stripping any traces of his past identity from the proceedings.
In the end Saved is easily Dylan's worst hour, a tedious affair that offers virtually nothing of merit to the listener. Everything good about Dylan is conspicuously absent on this outing, resulting in Christian rock at its worse. I never once felt drawn in by the album, which amounts to little more than a parade of interchangeable tracks resulting in a severe case of monotony which can't help but bore the listener.
The album can only be recommended for completists or masochists; if you have a need to own a Dylan Christian rock album then you'd be much better off with either of the albums that bookmark it, as Saved is easily the low point of the religious trilogy. They're far from exceptional as well, but at least they actually feature a rock artist attempting to compose rock music.
While far from a classic, Shot Of Love is at least infinitely superior to its atrocious predecessor, with a renewed focus on music and a scope that's no longer exclusively restricted to hymns masquerading as rock songs. While not on par with Slow Train Coming, it does present a context in which religious rock can at least offer a modicum of entertainment for those other than devout born again Christians who prefer generic biblical recitations to actual rock music.
While it has its fair share of filler, from Dylan's plodding eulogy for Lenny Bruce to the fan favorite Every Grain Of Sand which, while somewhat pretty, is far too bland and nondescript to qualify as a Zimmerman classic, the album does offer some decent material, from the dark title track to the bluesy The Groom's Still Waiting At The Altar. None of the material can be counted amongst Dylan's best, but the presence alone of actual, fully developed rock songs is such a relief after Saved and its wretched array of banalities professing to be the keys to enlightenment and salvation that many of the album's flaws can be overlooked.
In addition to the ongoing affliction of Christian overtones the album's primary defect is its erratic character. For every solid track there's an instance of filler, making for a consummately frustrating listen. By this point Dylan has discovered how to make Christian rock at least somewhat compelling, but it's not a feat he can duplicate with any degree of consistency or precision.
While Slow Train Coming also suffered from lapses into the realm of mediocrity and worse, its peak material easily surpasses the best Shot Of Love has to offer, even managing to be moving on songs like the title track despite its religious handicap. Conversely, Shot Of Love never manages to connect with the listener on an emotional level, and numbers that attempt to achieve emotional resonance, like Every Grain Of Sand, end up sounding forced and artificial, resembling something akin to manufactured catharsis.
Ultimately Shot Of Love is a decent album with a bipolar disposition, constantly shifting from adequate rock to drab mediocrity. Little on the album is genuinely offensive from a qualitative standpoint, and there are enough cases of musical value that the LP can be recommended for a listen or two. The album's main value, however, emerges from its function as proof that the dismal Saved was a fluke and that Dylan could return from that low point and produce more good music; this is a pyrrhic victory at best, as there's little impressive about being somewhat better than an artist's worst album, but nonetheless this is all that Shot Of Love really accomplishes. Still, amidst the filler there are certainly a few decent tracks, so perhaps the album has some worth beyond besting Saved in a war of quality.
All the same, however, even though Dylan had learned how to compose decent Christian rock songs it's quite a relief to see this period come to a close. The born again trilogy was certainly a low point in his career, with his preoccupation with Christianity sabotaging its contemporaneous efforts. While Slow Train Coming was a pretty good outing and Shot Of Love was decent enough, there's no denying that the trilogy badly marred Dylan's style, producing songs that were good in spite of their origins rather than because of them. Likewise, while Slow Train Coming and Shot Of Love had merits, it will be the horrendous low point of Saved that will be remembered, as the former two were solid but unremarkable, attaining a middle ground that stands out far less than the extreme end of the spectrum that the latter reached.
Infidels is generally referred to as Dylan's Jewish album, but in actuality the LP is a more rewarding listen when divorced from its Judaic connotations. The Hebraic overtones are far less overt and intrusive than the born again aspects of the past three albums, enabling the listener to focus on the lyrics independently of an overarching religious agenda. The lyrics are uniformly excellent and meaningful when severed from their Judaic ties, resulting in an album that can be appreciated on a song by song basis without getting caught up in the religious and political messages and commentary that transcend the individual roles of the tracks present.
More importantly, Infidels is a highly impressive return to form for Dylan after being mired in mediocrity during the last stage of his career. The lyrics are Dylan's best in quite some time, and while much of the music is rather derivative and rudimentary the tunes all work well in the context of the album. Moreover some songs, such as the opener Jokerman, boast strong, creative melodies, proving that Dylan hadn't fully exhausted his supply of clever musical ideas.
The album is likewise greatly enhanced by the presence of guest stars Mark Knopfler and Mick Taylor on many of the tracks, and their masterful guitarwork helps compensate for the album's melodic lapses into genericism. Their instrumental prowess truly salvages some of the more melodically primitive tracks, infusing some substance into some of the more pronounced musically barren vacuums.
Ultimately it's the lyrics rather than the music that truly make the album, however. Eloquent, insightful and intelligent in a way that they hadn't been since Desire, the lyrics from Infidels redeem even the most musically bereft tracks, as his paucity of melodic ideas is countered by an abundance of lyrical ones. When treated exclusively as transparent polemics on the subject of Israel the depth and subtlety of the lyrics is largely dispelled, but this is a consummately reductive and wrongheaded interpretation designed to simplify more challenging material into easily pigeonholed ideas. While many of the tracks, especially ones such as Neighborhood Bully, are obviously diatribes on the state of Israel, there is more to them then these simplistic (and somewhat problematic) Zionistic arguments.
In the end Infidels is an excellent and oft underrated album whose lyrical merits compensate for any musical deficiencies, though even the more pronounced cases of melodic primitivism at least sound good and fit the material perfectly. While hardly top tier Dylan, Infidels reestablishes Dylan as one of the greatest talents in rock history after a somewhat lackluster streak of albums.
However, while pointing the way to the future for Dylan's talents it likewise points the way to a far grimmer future for his newly discovered flaws, as Infidels is the first Dylan album to be afflicted with at least a modicum of 80's production values, featuring such liabilities as an over reliance on synths and ubiquitous mechanical-sounding drums (though, fortunately enough, these aren't actual drum machines, merely human efforts frighteningly reminiscent of them). While these flaws are kept in check on Infidels, they're a grim harbinger of things to come as Dylan inevitably succumbs to the musical dystopia known as the eighties.
Dylan had never been terribly susceptible to the influence of contemporaneous trends in the world of rock, eschewing these fads in favor of embarking on his own, often defiantly uncommercial, musical directions. Thus the listener will invariably be shocked by the sound of Empire Burlesque, an album molded in the grand tradition of the noxious musical paradigm of the eighties. Even the several indications of this stylistic shift on Infidels are insufficient to prepare the listener for a change of this magnitude, a reinvention as profound and abysmal as his previous born again makeover.
The sound of Empire Burlesque is suffused with everything one would expect from a standard eighties product, from disco elements to ubiquitous synths to irritating female backing vocals to the inevitable drum machines. Even Mick Taylor's continued presence fails to dispel the horrors of this eighties contagion, as his guitarwork is shunted to the back of the mix in favor of these newfound eighties gimmicks.
This isn't to say that the album is without merit; there are a few decent tracks, including the one moment on the album that abstains from eighties musical trickery, the stripped down acoustic and harmonica driven closer Black Eyes. Even some of the more decent tracks are marred by the modern facets of the proceedings, however, sabotaging what would otherwise be pretty good rock songs.
Empire Burlesque places a greater emphasis on melody than its predecessor, but this amounts to little in the long run, as the music is generally either underdeveloped, overly familiar or marred beyond recognition by the eighties production values. Disco motifs dominate the track listing, while electronic, sterile arrangements abound.
The lyrics also suffer, with songs featuring basic romance thematics, overly rudimentary philosophizing or belaboring already explored territory. Obviously, given that this is a Dylan album, a number of tracks sport decent lyrics, but they're insufficient to compensate for the disastrous musical decisions. Whereas the lyrics on Infidels were able to counter the dearth of clever melodic ideas, Empire Burlesque's words can't even begin to dilute the horrors of ever present full fledged eighties elements.
Just as The Times They Are A'Changin' was a case of trend hopping resulting in a direction that failed to suit or complement Dylan, Empire Burlesque likewise adheres to modern fads at the expense of the music and lyrics. Dylan was perfectly capable of shifting styles to good effect, but never by succumbing to the allure of the hip movements of the epoch. Thus the album is a resounding failure, an LP that most likely would appeal to neither Dylan fans nor disco aficionados.
Given that Dylan was already responsible for the longest single and the world's first double album, it was probably inevitable that his storied career would breed the first ever boxset. However, whereas Like A Rolling Stone deserved its extended runtime and Blonde On Blonde more than merited its double album status, Biograph reaches the realm of excess, far more protracted and bloated than it needed to be.
Biograph simply fails to justify its length, as it shares a fatal liability with many of the cash-in copycats that it spawned: it's a boxset that manages to alienate any prospective audience it would be aimed at. It accomplishes this feat by being a mixture of both rarities and readily available tracks, resultantly not containing enough of Dylan's greatest moments to be marketed to casual listeners as a greatest hits pack, while the proliferation of songs that overlap with his previously released material will turn off hardcore fans craving something new.
Due to this defect it would be impossible to assess Biograph as a whole, so my rating will only refer to the non-album tracks, which certainly casts the boxset in a more favorable light. These rarities are a mix of singles, live cuts and outtakes, and they constitute enough of the boxset's runtime so as to easily merit a purchase.
Biograph's highlights include the classic single Positively 4th Street, a song boasting a stellar organ riff and lyrics that are character assassination at its most vicious, the surreal Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?, an entertaining rocker that lends a note of levity to the proceedings, an excellent, more forceful live rendition of Isis, the Blood On The Tracks outtake Up To Me which, despite sounding suspiciously similar to Shelter From The Storm, is quite a good number in its own right and Dylan's version of his legendary, oft covered track I Shall Be Released.
Not all the tracks meet this high standard, however, as some live cuts and alternate studio variations are at best too similar to the originals, offering little new to the listener save chronic redundancy, or simply inferior to their source material, failing to justify their presence on the album.
Elsewhere there are some true misfires, like the overly elongated simplistic protest anthem Percy's Song which reaches the level of tedium about a minute in with six more to go. Also, while the minute long joke Jet Pilot is cute it's too insubstantial to warrant more than a couple of listens.
Ultimately, once Biograph is compartmentalized, bifurcating the new and old tracks into separate categories, it becomes evident that it contains enough strong, otherwise unavailable Dylan content to merit a purchase. When combined, however, the boxset is a less attractive prospect, forcing the listener to wade through hours of old material to reach the new ones, likewise demanding an overly high price for so little new material. In the end the previously unreleased tracks do make the overall experience worth it, but it's still consummately frustrating to acquire a boxset that fails to cater to any potential audience.
On Knocked Out Loaded Dylan's flirtation with eighties production values continues, with predictably disastrous results. By this point Dylan fans were accustomed to egregious qualitative lapses, as seemingly for the bulk of the last few chapters of his storied career he'd been segueing from style to style, with each new phase seemingly taking him further and further away from his own strengths. Ergo the inevitable strategy of a Dylan fan is to wait out each new direction and hope that the next one will turn out at least somewhat better.
This is the only healthy approach to Dylan's eighties-influenced period, as there's certainly no silver lining to be found on albums like Empire Burlesque and Knocked Out Loaded. This chapter of his career produced little save irredeemable effluvia, with ubiquitous female backing vocals and the assorted trappings of eighties production values savaging what are already some of Dylan's weakest attempts at songwriting.
While it's difficult to find anything that could be termed a highlight it's easy enough to pinpoint some of the album's weakest moments. Thus They Killed Him sounds like an outtake from Saved and is on a comparable level with the horrors encountered on that particular album, while Brownsville Girl is sadistically stretched to an over ten minute runtime, while it features a paucity of ideas to even sustain a track of less than half its length.
By and large the melodies on Knocked Out Loaded are generic, instantly forgettable sonic banalities and clichés, further exacerbated by production that renders them aurally grating and sterile. Furthermore, the album features some of Dylan's worst lyrics, with little to remind the listener that they're listening to one of the greatest rock poets of all time.
In the end all the listener can really do is endure this stage of Dylan's development and hope for a better phase to follow it. While it's certainly possible to search for the elusive merits contained in the work, this is hardly a rewarding occupation and should be left to the diehard Dylan fans who refuse to acknowledge that any of Zimmerman's albums contain a single flaw. Thus more reasonable Dylan fans would do well to keep their exposure to this period at a minimum, preparing for the disappointment that will likely follow his next transition into a new area.
Down In The Groove marks yet another mystifying stylistic deviation from a man who spent his career defying the expectations of his audience, and while it's certainly a welcome change to no longer have the material drenched in noxious eighties electronic wizardry or ubiquitous grating female backing vocals not all is well with this new incarnation of Dylan.
It's immediately apparent that parallels can be drawn with the oft vilified but solid outing Selfportrait, as the bulk of the album consists of covers, only this time around they're renditions of old blues rockers as opposed to country standards, and while there's nothing innately wrong with this dynamic the problem emerges that Dylan failed to devote the necessary effort toward conjuring clever or inventive arrangements for the tunes this time around, resulting in an overwhelmingly generic product with derivative melodies left inert by the lack of energy or creativity invested in the tracks.
This would naturally lead the listener to seek solace in the originals, but for the most part there's little relief to be found there as well. Death Is Not The End is somewhat pretty, but the lyrics hearken back to the chthonic age of born again Dylan, an association that should be avoided at all costs. I actually find Cave's ironic usage of the song as the closer for Murder Ballads preferable, as even though when viewed in a more objective light it's the inferior of the two it's a context in which the track has a function more to my liking.
Elsewhere the pop rocker Silvio, one of two collaborations with Grateful Dead's court lyricist Hunter, is at least moderately catchy, but it's far from a classic, while the remaining two originals are mediocre and instantly forgettable at best.
The content is barely ameliorated by the presence of a number of skilled guest stars, from loyal disciple Knopfler to the incomparable Clapton; the former imbues Death Is Not The End with a haunting minimalist feel, but overall there are few instances of impressive or striking guitarwork on the album, leaving most songs with rather bland and lifeless arrangements.
In all there's virtually nothing offensive on the album, but the whole experience is mired in mediocrity, with few highpoints shining through. By and large nothing stands out, with a paucity of catchy melodies and a dearth of interesting lyrics. Dylan brings nothing new to his covers, wholly failing to make the songs his own or elevate them above the level of overly familiar, generic material. Meanwhile the originals by and large fail to register as well, resulting in a listen that is simply tedious, an inoffensive burst of monotony that while not painful to sit through is far from a rewarding or enjoyable experience.
While Oh Mercy is certainly Dylan's first genuinely good album in quite some time, it's far too erratic to constitute the masterful comeback it's often hailed as. The album certainly boasts some stellar material, but this influx of quality content is diluted by the presence of a number of mediocre, if generally inoffensive, tracks.
The resurgence of many of Dylan's strengths manifests itself early on with the opener Political World and the excellent Everything Is Broken, which not only boast some of Dylan's best lyrics in awhile but also rock more convincingly than any Dylan songs since years ago.
Elsewhere Man In The Long Black Coat is a haunting, acoustic number that may very well be the best cut from the album, evoking memories of Knopfler's contributions to albums like Slow Train Coming with its Dire Straits-esque minimalism. While it's strange for a master to ape his disciple, it's an unimpeachable decision, as this emulation results in a moody, atmospheric classic.
Unfortunately not all of the album adheres to these high standards. There are myriad cases of bland, uninspired material, with some of the more egregious instances of this phenomenon arriving with tracks like the drab, melodyless What Good Am I? and the comparably poor Disease Of Conceit. With a dearth of musical ideas and unexceptional lyrics that fail to redeem them, songs such as these act as cancers on the album, causing it to drag rather than flow, which dispels much of the good will cultivated by the better tracks.
Ultimately Oh Mercy is a frustrating experience, as it displays that Dylan is still capable of reaching some amazing highs but fails to demonstrate this capacity on a consistent basis. With no spiritual pretensions, no proselytizing crusades, no abysmal eighties production techniques and no profusion of generic covers there's little to blame this time around save Dylan's deteriorating songwriting talents. While, as stated before, he proves that he is capable of strong songwriting on this album, his eroding song craftsmanship casts Oh Mercy as a bipolar experience, alternating between strong (though certainly not peak) Dylan material and slow, interminable tracks that betray an utter lack of creativity and effort.
The stronger material is enough to warrant a pretty good rating, but the weaker tracks will invariably foster animosity toward the album in the listener. While it's refreshing to have an album that at least contains some good content, this only renders Oh Mercy a masterpiece when compared to the noxious effluvia that preceded it.
Before proceeding to his subsequent full fledged solo album, after the completion of Oh Mercy Dylan devoted some time to a side project called the Traveling Wilburys with George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne. When he returned to solo work he was unable to produce any tracks comparable with Tweeter And The Monkey Man (his best contribution to the band's debut and likely the best song they ever performed), but he did allow his next album to inherit much of the lightweight feel characteristic of the Wilburys (which was largely derived from the fact that the supergroup predominantly existed so that the members could have some harmless musical fun together). The result is Dylan's most insubstantial album; unfortunately, it's often the case on Under The Red Sky that Dylan seems to be having more fun than the listener.
Much of Under The Red Sky sounds nothing like any Dylan material that had been heard before, as his lyrics are uniformly lightweight and he embraces new musical modes like boogie. Some of these stylistic deviations from his norm, particularly his aforementioned forays into the realm of boogie, are perversely entertaining if only because they're so unlike anything else in Dylan's extremely lengthy discography, and he handles them competently enough (which is an easy task given how basic and generic they are; were they written and performed by anyone else their novelty value would be dispelled and they'd lose their unique appeal).
The slower tracks fare less well, however. The title track is somewhat pretty, but for the most part the ballads offer little of interest, bland material that laboriously crawls along with no strong lyrics to redeem them.
Elton John guest stars as the album's pianist while George Harrison contributes some guitarwork, but neither has a profound effect upon the proceedings, as the album doesn't really focus on instrumental prowess or fluid, elaborate solos.
The reason the Wilburys worked (to the extent that they did; they were decent enough, but far from brilliant, especially given the level of talent involved) was that their albums consisted of the each of the members contributing an assortment of ideas in a laid back, casual environment. Under The Red Sky preserves the casual environment, but simply lack the number of ideas necessary to sustain an album of this nature. As a departure from Dylan's norm it can be entertaining, but when judged on its own merits it's simply a collection of primitive, generic songs which, while well performed, never amount to much of anything. It's by no means awful or painful to listen to, but it serves no real purpose save to portray Dylan in a different light.
Dylan receives songwriting credit for each song, but that's a tad problematic as most of the tunes are so familiar and derivative that he'd have been better off referring to them as old standards attributed to some nameless, faceless musician from long ago. While the lyrics are obviously his, they fail to even come close to measuring up to his standards. Meanwhile the arrangements lack any creativity or style whatsoever, leaving a collection of music at its most uninspired, unoriginal form.
In all Under The Red Sky is an entertaining enough diversion the first time around to experience the shock of Dylan's latest self-reinvention, but there's not enough substance or cleverness to warrant any future listens. Dylan doing boogie can be fun, but the novelty value wears off after a little while. I have absolutely nothing against Dylan doing a lightweight album of this nature, but for it to work it would have to feature far superior songwriting, with creative ideas and better lyrics. As it stands I can only recommend actually owning it to Dylan completists, but hardcore Dylan fans would likely be the type to educe the very least possible amount of enjoyment from the proceedings.
Now this, unlike the aggravatingly constructed fusion of the rare and commonplace that constituted Biograph, is the correct way to build a rarities collection, with 58 tracks and each one previously unreleased in any environment. There's no irksome redundancy here, no overlap with any preexisting albums or collections, only material that can't be found elsewhere and is eminently worthy of a listen for any Dylan fan.
There are certainly some familiar names to be found on the track listing, but in each case the version present is either the song in its embryonic form or a vastly different alternate cut or a live version. Thus you can experience the genesis of Like A Rolling Stone in its first incarnation as a waltz, while some early workings, like When The Night Comes Falling From The Sky, are superior to their final forms (in this case the song works far better when stripped of its noxious disco treatment).
The majority of the content, however, is comprised of never before heard tracks, which by and large range from interesting curiosities to true lost gems. The only real lapses of quality occur on the third disc when it delves into Dylan's religious period, but for the most part the material is very strong, especially for a rarities collection, with standouts like the early haunting pathos of Let Me Die In My Footsteps and the profoundly moving Blind Willie McTell.
The album also functions as a fascinating retrospective of Dylan's career, charting his development from his days of minimalist folk covers to his 'sellout' in his electric phase to his country stage to his Christian reinvention and beyond. The boxset strictly adheres to proper chronology, thus accurately conveying the progression of his career to the listener, a true treat for Dylan fans.
In all the boxset is a must for longtime followers of Zimmerman's idiosyncratic and unpredictable career, containing a number of previously unheard classics and intriguing historical oddities with only a modicum of truly wretched cuts. The album works brilliantly as both a sonic tour of Dylan's evolution as well as simply providing an excellent collection of very strong songs on par with many of his better albums. While the length of this triple CD boxset and its hefty price tag may be daunting, it's truly a worthwhile purchase, as Dylan's castaways are on par with most rock artists' peak output.
It's no secret that Dylan, once the consummate critical darling, had managed to incur the animosity of both fans and reviewers alike over the course of his disastrous eighties run, and they showed no compunction over deriding him at every opportunity and delivering their bile through vitriolic invective both printed and through the medium of word of mouth.
While this predicament was impossible for Dylan to simply rectify via a single album, he at least wanted to somewhat repair his damaged reputation, ergo he searched for a means to solve his critical dilemma. The answer he concocted was to hearken back to the very beginning of his career and release an album solely composed of folk covers, with arrangements exclusively comprised of his vocals, harmonica and acoustic guitar.
This was a format that hadn't been employed since his eponymous debut, and Dylan surmised that a return to his roots would be the perfect remedy for restoring at least a portion of his widespread acclaim. As it turned out the resulting album, Good As I Been To You, indeed renewed much of his former critical adoration, acting as a reversion to his acoustic strumming folk singer persona which ensured that the LP would lack much of the trend hopping, eroding songwriting and myriad other defects that had plagued his recent output.
By eschewing all the pitfalls that had afflicted his recent work Dylan crafted an album that was virtually unassailable to both critics and fans alike, as it returns him to a form that had garnered him nearly universal acclaim. Dylan's audience had been clamoring for a return of the old Dylan for years, and that's exactly what Good As I Been To You provides.
The track selection is predominantly composed of obscure (save the well known Sittin' On Top Of The World) folk songs; Dylan is credited with the arrangements, but these are so sparse as well as religiously faithful to their sources that this is something of a misnomer.
Nonetheless Dylan deserves credit for his masterful acoustic guitarwork, an area in which he hadn't lost a step despite his neglect of that particular instrument in his recent work, while his harmonica passages and vocals are typically superb.
His track selection is also eminently commendable, as he chose some stellar traditional folk songs highly conducive to his minimalist treatment, while their relative obscurity provides the listener with a fresher experience than one would receive had he opted to perform more well known work.
Ultimately Good As I Been To You is a very strong outing, and one of such passion and tastefulness that it nearly dispels the sour taste in one's mouth left by its recent predecessors. While it's far from excellent, as it can't compare to Dylan's work when his songwriting is in good form, it nonetheless is a very involving, enjoyable aural experience, and Dylan's love of the source material always shines through, transfiguring rather standardly arranged covers into gripping, moving affairs.
The album, however, wouldn't work as well were it not for the refreshing change of pace it offers in the wake of his recent projects. Thus, as successful and well crafted as Good As I Been To You is, any attempts to recreate it more than a few times would be condemned to failure and denote creative stagnation. The album worked well in this situation, and it's likewise very good when assessed independently of its context, but it's not a structure that could sustain many more LPs like it, and thus it's hardly a magical solution to all of the problems that riddled Dylan's career at the time, at best a stopgap until he was capable of handling a new direction with a renewed and rejuvenated capacity for strong songwriting.
World Gone Wrong is ostensibly more of the same, another album composed of obscure folk covers handled exclusively with Dylan's trusty acoustic and the occasional harmonica passage. What does differentiate it from its predecessor, however, is a much darker, more morose atmosphere cultivated by considerably more melancholy source material, as the traditional folk numbers featured tend to depict shattered relationships and fractured lives, bereft of any lighter interludes like the doses of levity infused into Good As I Been To You by assorted tracks like the black comedy of Froggie Went A-Courtin'.
Thus with no saving touch of humor, the album sustains a bleak, depressing vibe for its duration, a pervasive and impenetrable atmosphere that compounds the emotional potency of the songs included. While some lighter fare might be welcome to break up the monotony of a parade of uniformly grim folk songs, the benefit of this dark atmosphere outweighs its detriments, enveloping the listener with its morbid spell.
The execution of the songs is once more immaculate, with Dylan exhibiting his exceptional facility with an acoustic once more, and while the arrangements once again are wholly unadventurous and unimaginative in the extreme their minimalistic nature complements the songs perfectly, with their sparse precision helping to engender the somber atmosphere that permeates the proceedings.
The track selection is once again unimpeachable, as Dylan delivers an array of excellent folk songs that are highly conducive to his acoustic treatments. While universally bleak, the tracks are sufficiently fleshed out and developed that they're easy to distinguish from one another, evading the peril of coming off like a solitary drone with the songs blending into one massive conglomerate of misery. Highlights include the haunting Jack-A-Roe, but for the most part the tracks are exceedingly consistent, with nothing that can be dismissed as expendable filler.
In all the album is another solid foray into the realm of traditional folk but, while its darker edge makes it stand out from Good As I Been To You, the formula will begin to wear on one's patience, as Dylan can't continue to deliver albums solely comprised of folk covers without falling into a rut of sameness and uniformity. While both Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong are strong outings, and make interesting digressions from the body of Dylan's original work, they can't replace Zimmerman's own songwriting, and the listener will invariably miss his lyrics and long for an end to the endless onslaught of covers. These albums wisely arrived when Dylan's songwriting was at its worst, making them a welcome change of pace from dreary eighties knockoffs, but he can only hide behind them for so long until he's called upon to resume his songwriting and display whether or not these folk diversions were able to rejuvenate his long dormant artistic creativity.
After World Gone Wrong Dylan took a four year sabbatical, a sagacious decision as he emerged from his period of inaction with his best album since Desire decades ago. After a series of less than stellar offerings interrupted exclusively by cover collections no one could have anticipated that Dylan still possessed the capacity for an original artistic statement of this magnitude, rendering Time Out Of Mind one of the greatest and least expected comebacks in rock history.
The album cultivates a deeply tenebrous, ailing atmosphere, but one dissimilar to the dark vision of World Gone Wrong; due to that LP's status as a compilation of covers, it only provided a more general and abstract conception of darkness, whereas Time Out Of Mind directly conveys the morbidity and depression of Dylan himself, making for a much more intimate, personal and moving experience. It's considerably more difficult to relate to the generic tales of woe presented in World Gone Wrong's covers than to respond to Dylan's emotionally transparent confessions, as inevitably they feel more real and penetrating.
By this point Dylan's voice had developed into something akin to a veteran bluesman's growl, and thus his delivery greatly compounds the potency of the bleak content. It's a tone that perfectly complements the proceedings, ideally suited for this kind of depressive subject matter.
Dylan's songwriting has improved immeasurably since Under The Red Sky, as the combination of his lengthy hiatus and the reinvigorating effect of temporarily reverting to his folk cover roots on his previous two albums had drastically ameliorated the quality of his original output. Most of the tracks boast strong, moving melodies and excellent lyrics, impeccably performed by an eminently skilled backing band. From the haunting, world weary opener Love Sick to the emotionally devastating Not Dark Yet to the menacing Cold Irons Bound the qualitative standard is set high and sustained throughout (barring one notable exception), depicting Dylan on a greater creative streak than he'd been on for decades.
Unfortunately the overall quality of the album is marred by its closer, the lumbering behemoth Highlands. Clocking in at sixteen minutes plus, it does little to justify its mammoth length, providing neither sufficient lyrical depth nor standout melodies or hooks. It's certainly not bereft of any redeeming elements, as some of the lyrical passages are interesting and there are admittedly some decent melodic merits featured within, but it simply can't sustain its bloated length and thus comes of as monotonous and tedious, leaving a bad taste in the listener's mouth after completing the album.
This doesn't, however, prevent the LP from assuming its rightful place as both a masterful comeback and one of the best albums in Dylan's discography. Both intellectually and emotionally rewarding, Time Out Of Mind is a deeply moving experience, much in the way that Blood On The Tracks had been long ago. Dylan conveys his emotions in eloquent fashion without sacrificing hooks or melodies, resulting in a masterpiece from someone who had seemingly composed his last masterpiece decades ago. Dark and gloomy in a way far more organic than death metal bands or pretentious contemporary singer/songwriters could ever hope to achieve, the album makes long strides toward mending Dylan nearly qualitatively corrupted musical legacy, securing his lofty position in the annals of rock and roll history.
Whereas Time Out Of Mind was aspiring to be a serious artistic statement, its successor, "Love And Theft," feels more like a case of Dylan simply enjoying himself in the studio, with only the most modest of pretensions for the depth of his work. He harbors no secret artistic agenda, with no intention of crafting a masterpiece of thematic richness and insight.
While this naturally makes for a more lightweight installment in Dylan's massive discography, it also makes for a profoundly entertaining experience, with the listener enjoying the undemanding and slighter material as much as Dylan is enjoying performing it.
The album's chief merit is its diversity. With a heavy emphasis on retro elements, the album effortlessly veers from anachronistic fifties stylings to boogie sendups to jazzy interludes to blues passages to country mimicry to rockabilly diversions to more contemporary rock, with each mode played as organically and authentically as possible, a feat deftly accomplished by the exceptional backing band. This chameleon-like nature of the album ensures that "Love And Theft" is gripping all the way through, dispelling any fears of stagnation or monotony.
While Dylan's lyrics are strong as always, they've become considerably more lightweight as well so as to better suit the music, reinforcing the more relaxed and casual feel of the album. They tend to focus on comedy, and are quite entertaining in this regard, as humor, once an essential part of Dylan's lyrical arsenal, was a component oft neglected in his recent endeavors. When it's appropriate for the material Dylan's lyrics grow more serious, but there are few instances of truly ambitious tracks appearing on the album, seldom necessitating more complex and developed words for the songs.
One of the more fleshed out, serious numbers is the album's best cut Mississippi, a stately, anthemic track that rolls along with intelligence and grandeur, but ultimately there are no weak songs on the album, from the rocker Honest With Me to the surreality of the opener Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum. Each track offers something rewarding, be it some laughs, clever witticisms, superb instrumentation or another inspired genre exercise.
In all "Love And Theft" is an immensely entertaining experience. Someone hoping for a true sequel to Time Out Of Mind will be disappointed, as the album doesn't even aspire to match the depth and scope displayed on that album, but anyone who'd enjoy some light entertainment in the wake of an emotionally exhausting listen would do well to check this album out. While it isn't terribly ambitious it's still intelligently handled, immaculately crafted and bursting with diversity. Few classics can be found, but the album is more than the sum of its parts, and each track furthers the light tone and casual, welcoming nature of the LP.
Much like its immediate predecessor, the veritable cornucopia of disparate genres Love And Theft, Modern Times functions as a compendium of assorted music styles, effortlessly shifting from blues to jazz to country to folk to straightforward rock, an exhibition of the versatility and multifaceted mastery of one of the defining figures in the history of rock and roll.
This chameleon-esque dance across varied musical paradigms does have its liabilities, evidenced on Dylan's prior album, as in the interest of preserving the authenticity of his diverse assumed styles he's often forced to sacrifice the quality of his lyrics; nevertheless, while his poetry isn't always quite up to his own lofty standards it remains quite good by any other criteria, generally rather clever, articulate and intelligent if not terribly groundbreaking or imaginative.
One interesting musical gambit that Dylan plays is occasionally lifting the title of a preexisting song (or a mildly modified version of it), borrowing a line or riff from it and adapting the track to his own musical vision, as depicted on numbers like Rollin' And Tumblin' and The Levee's Gonna Break. Dylan had frequently been rather transparent when it came to his influences, but this venture transcends all of his past homages and impersonations of album's past; fortunately he proves rather adept at infusing his musical essence into these tracks, while the songs come across more as tributes as opposed to overt plagiarism.
The quality of the album is quite high, with highlights such as the terrific opener Thunder On The Mountain, the proletariat anthem Workingman's Blues #2 and the record's best cut, the moody, tenebrous Ain't Talkin' (which would fit in perfectly on the superior Time Out Of Mind.
Not every track succeeds to this extent, but even songs like Beyond The Horizon, which has little to offer either musically or lyrically, is still rather charming, evoking an atmosphere that's a fusion of disarming retro and Dylan's signature vibe. Sometimes the tracks focus too much on emulating the album's myriad styles while neglecting the songs' catchiness and memorability, but overall Dylan maintains this musical balance quite well, rarely descending into blandness or tedium.
Overall Modern Times is quite a strong outing; while reminiscent of Love And Theft both in terms of style and ambition, it actually surpasses the latter, with more substance to be found compared to its slighter predecessor.
It may seem questionable to release two albums of this nature consecutively, but it's a mode that Dylan avails himself quite well in, as his love for these diverse styles always shows through, and by filtering them through his own unique vision he manages to craft some intensely engaging, high quality work.
Thus Modern Times is a resounding artistic triumph, succeeding in simultaneously aping its inspirations without losing sight of his own distinctive identity and voice. While the lyrics can be erratic (when he religiously adheres to the blueprints of his influences his poetry suffers, but when he asserts his own vision they revert to their usual high, if not peak, quality, particularly in songs like the dark epic Ain't Talkin' and superbly written Workingman's Blues #2) and the melodies are often on the familiar side by virtue of their retro status, in all the album works quite well, rendering it a worthy follow up to the highly impressive duo of Time Out Of Mind and Love And Theft.
While he may be employing these exercises in mimicry as a crutch to mask his dwindling creativity, it doesn't change the fact that they're immensely enjoyable, often brilliant products, enough so to constitute a late period renaissance for an aging performer who's still retained his facility for generating great music. Modern Times is indeed a very good record, not just for a late period work but by any standards, and is eminently worthy of the Dylan name.
To be successful, an archive release needs to strike a healthy balance between historical significance and overall quality, never embracing one at the expense of the other. Dylan's official Bootleg Series has consistently adroitly negotiated this equation, offering material that simultaneously delineates the ever mysterious and multifaceted Zimmerman as a performer and charts his course as an artist, all while providing axiomatic entertainment even to those indifferent to any deeper connotations pertaining to the man or the larger rock scene as a whole.
Thus Live 1966 not only depicts an event that was a milestone in the history of rock music but also presents a highly engaging concert that can be thoroughly enjoyed on its own terms, while the box-set The Bootleg Series: Volumes 1-3 offers a wide array of rarities that, while they offer insight into Dylan's storied career, still stand up as high quality material even when divorced from their broader context.
Tell Tale Signs, the latest installment in the ongoing project that is The Bootleg Series, does not disappoint in this respect, once again offering a set that provides historically intriguing rarities that seldom lack substance as standalone content.
This time around the focus is limited to Dylan's late period work, exploring his creative activity from 1989 to 2006. This makes for a less than appealing product for Dylan newbies and casual classic rock fans who'll bemoan the lack of radio standards like Blowing In The Wind and Like A Rolling Stone, but for Dylan aficionados it's a far more attractive prospect, as this is a period in Zimmerman's legendary discography that tends to be neglected by fans and historians alike.
Thus while Dylan's classic era has already been milked dry by compilations and scholarly analyses, his later work is virgin territory, providing fertile ground for a release of this nature. Admittedly the material isn't on par with Dylan's more widely known opuses, but nevertheless it feels far fresher than a hundredth rendition of Mr. Tambourine Man would have.
Given the unreleased status of most of the songs on Tell Tale Signs it's not surprising that the album is rather erratic, but even the lesser material tends to at least be intriguing on a historical level. Ergo tracks like Born In Time, a bland, pedestrian number that was judiciously omitted from Oh Mercy, are still worthwhile despite any qualitative shortcomings, and while offering two complete run-throughs of Mississippi, neither on par with the final version, might seem excessive, it simply serves to afford greater insight into Dylan's creative process.
Ultimately, however, it's the lost gems that truly make the album worthwhile. It's a testament to the caliber of Time Out Of Mind that stellar tracks like Can't Wait and Dreamin' Of You were left on the cutting-room floor, while it's simply exhilarating to witness Love And Theft's High Water (For Charley Patton) being transfigured into a ferocious rocker onstage.
The second disc tends to be weaker than the first; little is outright bad, but the songs often feel less inspired than the material presented on disc one. Disc two does, however, contain the zenith of the collection and the greatest reason to purchase the album, namely 'Cross The Green Mountain. Culled from the soundtrack to "Gods And Generals," the number is far removed from the cursory efforts that most rock artists put forth when scoring a film. The song deals with the Civil War, and is one of Dylan's few stirring epics in recent years.
In some respects 'Cross The Green Mountain exemplifies Dylan's progression as an artist over the course of his storied career. Had the song been released circa The Times They Are A-Changin' it likely would have been a simplistic, predictable anti-war anthem; arriving at this stage of Dylan's development, however, it's a complex meditation on far deeper themes, eschewing clichés and banalities in favor of far more nuanced verse.
Musically the song is simply gorgeous, a prime moment of Dylan catharsis that's both elegantly arranged and emotionally sung. Dylan's commitment to the song is evident throughout, and apparently he devoted a considerable amount of time to researching the subject matter before he even attempted to pen a first draft. Thus Dylan went above and beyond one's usual expectations for a songwriter, particularly for a track that was neither envisioned as a single nor even intended for inclusion on a real Dylan album.
While little on Tell Tale Signs lives up to that particular number, the bulk of the album remains deeply engrossing, especially for a set exclusively composed of rarities. Rewarding on both a historical and immediate level, the eighth installment in the venerable Bootleg Series is everything one could ask for from an archive release. While there are a few moments on disc two when the album starts to drag, the majority of the two disc set is unimpeachable, and wholly indispensable for any and all Dylan fans.
Bob Dylan has played myriad roles over the course of his legendary career, from poet to novelist to filmmaker, and at the moment he's chosen the guise of DJ as an outlet for his passion for music. Needless to say he's a rather esoteric DJ, and over the course of his radio show he's revealed himself as quite the connoisseur of a certain breed of early Americana, but in doing so he's also espoused a decidedly benighted notion that's sadly harbored by all too many rock and roll greats, namely that no good music is being created anymore.
This viewpoint deeply informs much of Dylan's newest album, Together Through Life, yet despite the narrow-minded absurdity of his assertion this musical philosophy surprisingly (or not so surprisingly if you're acquainted with Dylan's last two opuses) works in the CD's favor.
In his capacity as DJ, Dylan has immersed himself in all manner of early to pre-rock American forms, and this is reflected throughout Together Through Life, an album that, while it could be reasonably called diverse, confines its eclecticism to a certain place and era.
It's clearly Dylan's affinity for this brand of music as opposed to any more commercial ambitions that spawned Together Through Life; gone are the days when the erstwhile Zimmerman would incorporate trendy (and obviously distasteful to the artist himself) elements like disco into his work in a futile attempt to stave off accusations of dinosaurism, resulting in a final product that's defiantly old-fashioned in virtually every respect.
Dylan's reverence for his influences is evident throughout Together Through Life, as he painstakingly creates faithful facsimiles of music from a bygone era. This level of authenticity has its share of repercussions, however, as it all too often comes at the expense of many of Dylan's chief intellectual and artistic gifts.
Gone is the insightful storytelling, cryptic symbolism and, ultimately, nearly all remaining vestiges of the poetic eloquence that once characterized Dylan's identity as an artist, replaced by lyrics that are firmly grounded in old-fashioned blues-wailing and nostalgic romantic crooning.
Nevertheless, while Dylan may have made sacrifices in order to preserve the fidelity of his emulations, the resultant music is most assuredly not without its charm. Yet whatever assets this style may possess the album is certainly insubstantial when compared to Dylan's classic output.
In truth, Time Out Of Mind was the last Dylan album that truly was envisioned as a masterpiece. Love & Theft, Modern Times and Together Through Life are all strong outings in their own right, and could hardly be labeled toss-offs, but they uniformly lack the ambition and sense of purpose that permeated Dylan's superb nineties comeback album.
This stems from the fact that Dylan's latest trio have felt more akin to genre exercises and epochal homages than true musical visions, lacking the scope, focus and sincerity that made Time Out Of Mind so compelling. The three albums are by all means quite entertaining, but they also feel conspicuously slight; Dylan clearly devoted a good deal of effort to them, but with a set of goals that aren't exactly what one has grown accustomed to expecting from the musical icon.
While on Together Through Life Dylan is working in a certain mold, this doesn't signify that it doesn't feel like a Dylan album. Part of this can be attributed to Dylan's voice; the gravelly rumble that he first developed on Time Out Of Mind is back in full force, unifying the set with its mix of bluesman's growl and artist's sensitivity. There's more to it than that, however; even when the music is transparently shaped by artists of the past, Dylan is such a larger than life presence that every note is imbued with his signature personality and idiosyncratic charisma.
As I'd alluded to, Together Through Life may not be Dylan's deepest work, but it's still a captivating and highly enjoyable listening experiences. The melodies are rather basic, and clearly much of the music has been passed down from Dylan's predecessors, but each track is deftly performed courtesy of a stellar backing band and, equally importantly, Dylan's love for the style animates the material with an energy and vitality that makes the songs all the more potent and bewitching.
In addition to his terrific backing band Dylan also collaborates with The Grateful Dead's court lyricist Robert Hunter; it's difficult to pinpoint his contributions to the album with any degree of precision or accuracy, and as I noted in the analogous scenario on Desire the only area in which Dylan never needs assistance is in the lyrical department, but nevertheless his involvement is certainly not a liability, and in the end what's most important is that Together Through Life feels like a Dylan album through and through.
While the songs are somewhat derivative, an inevitable side-effect of being so deeply rooted in the trappings of the past, they remain highly entertaining, and there's nothing I would ever refer to as filler. Highlights include the world-weary opener Beyond Here Lies Nothin', the amusing My Wife's Home Town, the sardonic closer It's All Good and the rougher cut Forgetful Heart.
As a product of the album's innate character, however, even tracks like Forgetful Heart that are, at least on a superficial level, bleak and serious, are difficult to take that seriously, coming across more as an approximation of an old-time dark song than an actual dark song, its potency diluted as a byproduct of being so firmly entrenched in a specific musical paradigm.
This isn't necessarily a flaw; not all Dylan albums need to be dark and serious, and there's certainly merit in delivering a lightweight and entertaining experience. Together Through Life is, quite simply, fun, and while most expect more than pure sonic recreation from a Dylan song he's more than entitled to just entertain himself and, by extension, entertain his audience.
Love & Theft had suffered from the same critique, being labeled as slight and an indication that Dylan was simply, so to speak, slumming it, and that was a comparably misguided appraisal. Dylan has developed a passion for this breed of old-fashioned Americana, and he executes it with masterful poise and grace. As far as melodies are concerned, even when they're basic or familiar they're still catchy and engaging, which is all that one can reasonably ask for. The resultant album is another strong addition to Dylan's massive oeuvre, and one than can be heartily recommended to any fan of his legendary body of work.
With his prolific days far behind him, it's almost inconceivable for Dylan to release two albums in a single year. The shock value of this brief surge of output will begin to subside, however, when one takes the nature of his latest work into account, only to give way to a shock of a completely different nature.
Bob Dylan has released a Christmas album, comprised of faithful renditions of classic Yuletide staples. Few interpretations differ from their originals, and the album lacks even the slightest trace of irony. The album isn't a postmodernist gambit, a sneering satire or a cynical subversion.
Whereas The Jethro Tull Christmas Album was a Jethro Tull album disguised as a Christmas album, Christmas In The Heart is, quite simply, a Christmas album, nothing more and nothing less.
Dylan's career has been predicated upon constantly reinventing himself, so it's only natural for his style to change over the years. At every juncture, however, his music has betrayed facets of his unique persona. Love And Theft, Modern Times and Together Through Life may bear little in common with Dylan's classic material, but they reflect where he was at those particular moments in time. Christmas In The Heart, however, doesn't reflect Dylan at all, and moreover fails to feel like a Dylan album to even the slightest extent.
While I'm an unapologetic Dylan fan, I can deal with the concept of an album that completely lacks any hint of his presence. A collection of Christmas songs, however, is not only something that I don't want from Dylan but something that I don't want from anyone, thus leaving Dylan as the sole hook to bait me into purchasing the album. Therefore when this attraction proves insubstantial it's natural that I'd sour on the entire project altogether.
This may lead one to wonder why the album doesn't receive a lower rating. The fact of the matter is that the album simply radiates tastefulness. As has been the case in all of Dylan's recent work, the backing band is immaculate, and once the shock of the erstwhile Zimmerman singing Christmas songs wears off one will find that his voice is actually quite suited to the material.
Throughout the album, Dylan never preaches nor proselytizes; it's doubtful that he would ever even contemplate doing so, but it's a formidable challenge to keep track of Dylan's consummately mutable, perpetually shifting religious affiliations. Rather than engage in sanctimonious prattle or didactic polemics Dylan simply performs each song with care and dignity, and when combined with the aforementioned exceptional instrumental backing this makes for what may very well be the best versions of these Christmas standards that one is apt to encounter during the holiday season.
Thus if I ever actually want to listen to Christmas songs I'll immediately pull out my copy of Christmas In The Heart. This is a rather unlikely scenario, but if one is going to do a Christmas album it's best that one does it well, and Dylan certainly has with his latest offering. Ergo it's through no fault of Dylan's that I'm predisposed to disfavor the album, as his sole crime was electing to make the album in the first place. The execution may be flawless, but the underlying concept of the album still proves to be its Achilles heel.
In truth, rather than having Dylan produce an immaculate Christmas album I'd rather he not have produced a Christmas album at all, though that's a critique that's apt to result in considerable guilt on my part. The reason for this is that all profits from the album go straight to charity, a commendable and benevolent gesture on Dylan's part that nevertheless can't mask the fact that Christmas In The Heart is an album that, try as I might, I'll never like. I recognize the album's merits, but the Christmas theme proves an insurmountable obstacle toward my enjoyment of the album. These are simply songs that I don't want to hear no matter how well they're performed. Thus in retrospect I'd probably have been better off giving a donation to charity than ever actually purchasing Christmas In The Heart, leaving the album for those who enjoy these songs and will doubtless find much to laud about Dylan's latest venture.
To the best of my knowledge, this album represents the earliest officially released Dylan concert, and that alone will make it irresistible for most hardcore fans. The concert certainly depicts a very different Bob Dylan from what most are accustomed to, but ultimately that's not necessarily a good thing.
Dylan simply doesn't have that much to offer an audience at this stage in his career, as most of his best tracks from this era simply aren't very conducive to impressive live showings (at least not with the faithful way he treats them here). While the songs can still be somewhat enjoyed on these terms, the album suffers from three major handicaps that make the concert largely forgettable.
The first of these is an overall lack of historical importance. While the concert may precede other commercially-available live shows, this doesn't make it more relevant or revelatory in any meaningful department. When the infamous 1966 concert falters on a musical level (not that that happens often), it's still redeemed by the fascinating dynamic unfolding between Dylan and his incensed audience.
Another critical flaw is Dylan's fidelity to the original renditions of his songs. In later years Dylan became a master of reinventing nearly his entire catalogue for live consumption, and this serves to reinvigorate interest in overly familiar numbers. During the Brandeis concert there's simply nothing to differentiate the songs from their classic cuts, and while this doesn't breed boredom per se it certainly dilutes the excitement of listening to Dylan perform.
Finally, in a gesture that even a few short years later would be completely uncharacteristic for him, Dylan plays the entire concert safe, taking no risks at all. He transparently builds the set-list around precisely the songs his audience wants to hear, pandering to their preferences in a manner that would be anathema to him today.
Thus the concert centers around political tracks, be they whimsical (Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues) or serious (Masters Of War). The crowd responds predictably well to this approach, but this doesn't make for an especially compelling listen for the Dylan fans of this era.
This isn't to say that the album is bereft of merit. These are still solid songs competently performed. By Dylan's standards, however, this is an underwhelming experience. None of the songs are improved upon, nor even dramatically altered from their originals. Furthermore, Dylan's political side is certainly overexposed, and I hate it when his social-conscience is treated as his greatest asset.
While it's interesting to hear such an early concert, it's ultimately little more than a novelty. These songs, in nearly identical forms, can almost all be found on studio albums, while the exceptions are present on installments of the Bootleg Series.
The simultaneous adulation from the crowd and likely apathy or contempt from certain later Dylan fans poses an interesting dynamic. Should the chronology be rearranged, many would doubtlessly feel that the politically-minded Bob Dylan who caters to campus activists on this album is the true sellout, rather than the daring Bob Dylan who went electric to deliver an album that actually is a classic concert in 1966.
The Bootleg Series has proven to be one of the most consistently worthwhile rarities series in rock music, and The Witmark Demos is no exception. The album focuses on a chapter of Dylan's career that's often neglected in favor of his better known peak period. This ensures that instead of redundancies or extraneous alternate cuts of old standards, the set actually includes legitimate lost gems that were hitherto unavailable for mass consumption.
This customarily glossed-over period marks the humble beginnings of Dylan's career, during the uncertain days when he was forced to buy out his own contract in the wake of the commercial debacle that was his debut album. The album begins as Dylan heads to Witmark, his new record label, hoping that he'll not only salvage his career but also buck the trend of the era and enable songwriters to sing their own songs.
Dylan evidently had quite a backlog of unused material amassed over his adolescence and early adulthood, as upon his arrival at Witmark he seems eager to pour every last idea he has onto tape. The result is a 47-track behemoth that presumably only scrapes the surface of Dylan's musical imagination, making for quite an intimidating but always rewarding listen.
More so than nearly any other release, The Witmark Demos depicts Dylan in his most raw, concentrated form. This is due to the completely stripped down, minimalist nature of the sessions. The album finds Dylan alone with only his acoustic guitar and harmonica beside him (save for a few tracks where he opts for the piano instead). This is Dylan at his most pared down, with no session musicians or ambitious arrangements to dilute this purity.
While extolling the virtues of the album, many have espoused the idea that the Witmark demos make for an intimate listen, but I vociferously disagree. Even at moments that are meant to be emotionally transparent and deeply sincere, like the famed tearjerker Bob Dylan's Dream, the erstwhile Zimmerman still feels aloof and distant. Interspersing songs with snippets of banter and the occasional wisecrack also doesn't exactly constitute a more open, honest or inviting feel, as Dylan maintains the same membrane of detachment that marks his entire career. This is by no means a liability, and even when Dylan isn't trying to intimately connect with his audience his work can remain profoundly moving.
Anyone acquainted with Dylan's oeuvre can easily surmise what type of material will appear on an album from this period. This is still a time when Dylan suffers from the misapprehension that all deep, serious work must inherently be political in nature. Therefore, on nearly any more ambitious number Dylan devotes himself to launching bile-filled invective at the government, preaching about unequal wealth distribution or protesting racial injustices. While I tend to agree with these viewpoints, overexposure to these sanctimonious and, seemingly, somewhat forced diatribes makes me long for the time when Dylan realized that he didn't have to be socially relevant in order to be meaningful.
Fortunately, the origins of this artistic awakening are also present on the album. While Dylan had already made great strides in this direction on tracks like A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall, it isn't until Mr. Tambourine Man that this metamorphosis is complete. On that song, Dylan emerges as one of the greatest poets in the history of rock music, achieving depth and meaning without resorting to protest anthems. This song marks a turning point in Dylan's career, even if it doesn't mean that he's fully shed the trappings of his pandering polemics.
This transition from protest-artist to poet is elegantly chronicled on The Witmark Demos, but while fascinating in its own right it's not the reason to purchase the album. For any Dylan fan, the main attraction is the previously unreleased tracks. Admittedly the alternate versions of established favorites aren't especially interesting, as the studio renditions are nearly as stripped down to begin with, but the never-before-heard tracks are well worth the (remarkably reasonable) price of the set.
While they don't rank amongst Dylan's best work, these songs all have something to offer. While John Brown is yet another politically-minded discourse, it at least puts an interesting spin on the genre by directing its vitriol at the mother of a soldier. This is a far cry from Dylan's typical scathing indictment of the 'masters of war,' making the track considerably more interesting.
Ultimately The Witmark Demos is another worthwhile installment in the venerable Bootleg Series. Furthermore, its inclusion of previously unavailable songs makes it essential listening for any Dylan fan. This isn't the same thing as finding a great lost Dylan album, but it's also a far cry from the fan-exploitation that listeners of rarities sets are accustomed to. The album is valuable from a historical perspective, but more importantly it's also enjoyable to listen to.