Rock 'N Roll Case Study: A CONTRARIAN'S VIEW OF DYLAN’S DISCOGRAPHY
By Scot P. Livingston
I first became aware of Bob Dylan in the late eighties. I’m sure my parents must’ve been aware of him, and maybe even liked him back in the day, but I certainly don’t remember hearing them played around the house. They mostly listened to musical theatre. As a result, when I was a teen I could enjoy The Beatles without the stigma of knowing that my parents liked them too (even though they probably did). All through high school and junior high all I listened to were Weird Al and The Beatles. And seeing as George was my favorite Beatle, when I heard about the Traveling Wilburys project and rushed out to buy it even though I had never heard of any of the other guys before. Immediately I fell in love. By the end of the summer I had accumulated Jeff Lynne’s Armchair Theatre, Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever, and Bob Dylan’s Oh Mercy! (if I hadn’t hated “Not Alone Anymore” I probably would’ve ended up with Roy Orbison’s Mystery Girl too). I loved the album – but unlike my Tom Petty fixation, it never went farther than that. Until about five years ago, upon my request, a friend of mine got me Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits, Vol. I, II & III. I first noticed it during “Subterranean Homesick Blues”. I got it. I understood the appeal of his Bob-ness. Around this time I started a new job as a security guard, and the bank where I went to cash my checks was right across the street from a Tower Records. And at the Tower Records they were getting rid of all of their old cassettes – 3 for ten bucks. So every two weeks I’d walk in there flush with cash and buy another trio of Dylan albums for my car (which only had a tape deck). I had done no reading on the life and times of Dylan, so I had no idea who these albums were seen or thought of or in which order they came in chronologically. And with really no liner notes to speak of (not that I should be reading that while I’m driving anyway), I just sort of absorbed Dylan’s entire oeuvre randomly and simultaneously. But I still loved it. Well – most of it. Finally out of curiosity I read a few books of criticism of Dylan (most notably Clinton Heylin’s works) and some of the mountains and mountains of stuff posted on the web. And I was pretty shocked to find that everything that I particularly liked on those tapes was the stuff that everyone else thought was sub-standard, while most of the stuff given the masterpiece designation I felt was overdone. I wasn’t disagreeing with the majority intentionally (like I am often wont to do). I still thought of myself as a Dylan fan. I had all of the albums right? Where did I go wrong? So this is what I think, hopefully it’ll encourage others who aren’t familiar with his catalog to give it a shot – and those who think they are, to give some stuff a second look.
Now, most people think of Bob more as a lyricist than a melody-maker. Whether we’re talking about his more straightforward protest songs or his later drug-fueled mishmash of metaphors, Bob’s words are complex, layered, and sometimes undecipherable. They’re the meat of his songs. His melodies are usually stolen from some forgotten 16th Century Scottish ballad. His chords progressions are usually just 3 or 4 chords repeated over and over. He rarely writes a separate section for the chorus, much less a bridge. But personally that’s what I really look to Bob for. I know his lyrics are brilliant. I’m not arguing with that. Of all the lyrics I’ve ever heard, his are sometimes some of the best. It’s just that I don’t care that much about the deeper meaning of the words. It’s the music that really sells what might otherwise be pure gibberish. Sure, his songs are fairly simple and unschooled, sometimes little more than just a riff. But there’s something particularly powerful and sincere in his insistence in playing them. It’s almost Punk. So to my ears, something with fairly simple or stupid words (“Wiggle Wiggle” or “Wigwam”) is much more interesting than his great epics (“Desolation Row”, “Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands”, “Joey”, “Brownsville Girl” and “Highlands”), which tend to be the same three chords for eleven-plus minutes.
Popular perception holds that Bob Dylan is first and foremost as a brilliant songwriter, an adequate guitar player, and a horrible singer. So it’s kind of a surprising to most people to hear that his first album as a complete unknown was composed almost completely made of covers. Only two originals (“Song To Woody” and “Talkin’ New York”) are included. Clearly, Columbia thought that had something in this twenty year-old’s voice and guitar picking. Not to mention his taste in traditional material. In fact the two originals are some of the weakest tracks on here. Both “House Of The Rising Sun” and “Man Of Constant Sorrow” are on here years before they became hits for The Animals and O Brother, Where Art Thou, respectively. Even though Bob himself didn’t actually write them his ear is impeccable. Another great song (that still could be re-discovered and turned into a hit is) “In My Time Of Dyin’” which is also notable for being the first and only time we get to hear Bob’s amazing/primitive slide guitar playing. Why?!? Bob Dylan is really more of a Blues album than Folk (witness songs like “Highway 51”, “Fixin’ To Die”, and “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean”). Bt was a good thing that, at that time, most people classified the album as Folk. Which during its big early 60s boom was mired in Ivory league intellectual-ism, bright harmonies and the squeaky-clean image of say the Chad Mitchell and Kingston Trios. None of them injected such humor as Bob into these old songs that were then considered somewhat untouchable (see “Pretty Peggy-O”, “Freight Train Blues” or “Talkin’ New York”). Which makes the two originals, as unimpressive as I think they are, that much more important. He was putting himself back into the process, returning it to the rough-hewn self-made form of Woody Guthrie. And in the process making the term folksinger to mean something closer to solo-singer-songwriter with an acoustic guitar rather than someone who actually just sings and plays the kind of songs passed on down by the oral tradition.
The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan
Bob rarely does the same thing twice (well – he rarely does the same thing three times in a row), and here on his second album he’s already changing things around. Gone are most of the covers (only “Corrina, Corrina” remains). Instead we get a lot of Bob Dylan in his own words. In fact two of the songs include his name in the title (“Bob Dylan’s Blues” and “Bob Dylan’s Dream”). And furthermore The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan is a good album. He manages to create a fairly wide diversity of styles with his limited instrumental palette of voice, guitar, and harmonica. Although there is one song one here, “Corrina, Corrina”, which features outside musicians – upright bass and brushed drums - for the first time (unless you count the deleted single “Mixed-Up Confusion”) already showing Bob’s frustration with that limitation. While the album is best known for its finger-pointing protest songs (“Blowin’ In The Wind”, “Masters Of War”, “Oxford Blues”, and “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall”), there’s a lot more to it than that. There are a couple of great touching sad songs (the classic “Girl From North Country” and “Don’t Think Twice”). And there’s also a lot of fun goofy songs that are as well remembered – “Talkin’ World War II Blues”, “Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance”, and “I Shall Be Free”. There’s also a couple examples of a common Bob Dylan M.O.: a standard 12-bar blues progression that he plays like he invented it, as a vehicle for some of his wild and wooly words: “Bob Dylan’s Blues” and “Down The Highway”.
The Times They Are A-Changin’
While most Dylan fans seem to prefer The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan to its consistently dour follow-up, I actually like The Times They Are A-Changin’ better. Sure, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan does feature a lot more diversity of styles, the almost constant barrage of “protest” songs makes Bob’s activism seem like less of a pose. Besides, putting the lyrics aside (as I tend to do), the subject matter must’ve spurred Bob into writing a much stronger set of pieces from a musical standpoint. “Ballad Of Hollis Brown” and “Boots Of Spanish Leather” are better than anything on its predecessor. Besides, not all of the songs are about causes. “One Too Many Mornings”, “Boots Of Spanish Leather”, and “Restless Farewell” could all probably count as love songs. Although I will agree that there isn’t much on here that’s upbeat (either lyrically or musically), I think that it’s a much more heart-rending and powerful album for it. Besides there is some optimism in the title track and “When The Ship Comes On” and some humor in “With God On Our Side”. It’s not completely bleak. Really, my biggest complaint comes from “With God On My Side”. First of all – it tends to drag on a little long for a song with only one guitar and no new parts. It also features something that crops up a lot on these early Dylan albums. He seems completely unsure what kind of accompaniment he wants on the guitar. Sometimes he’s got this wild strumming on the triplets, but when he gets tired and can’t keep up he switches to just hitting the downbeats. It’s very distracting whenever it happens. Luckily, we don’t hear much more of it after “with God On Our Side”.
Another Side Of Bob Dylan
Another Side is right. Two albums of finger-pointing songs and Bob’s already bored again and ready to move on. Although many critics tend to think of Another Side Of Bob Dylan as an electric album without the electric instruments, since the words have a lot more in common with Bringing It All Back Home or Highway 61 Revisited than they do with The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan or The Times They Are A Changin’. But really it’s another acoustic album. And of Bob’s first four solo acoustic albums, this is my least favorite. I’m not sure why I don’t like it more. It features some of the last of Bob’s out-and-out funny songs (only “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” really remain until the Traveling Wilbury days), and a lot of them (“Motorpsycho Nightmare”, “All I Want To Do”, and “I Shall Be Free No. 10”). He’s once again attempting to expand his range with the piano-playing “Black Crow Blues”. It’s not that I’m upset that his lyrics have abandoned the sloganeering of Woody Guthrie for the rambling of Jack Kerouac. It’s just that funny songs aren’t as funny; the love songs aren’t as touching. The music isn’t as interesting. “My Back Pages” and “It Ain’t Me, Babe” are good songs, but these performances are so uninspired that it’d take other performances (by Bob not the Byrds or the Turtles) to really show them off. “Chimes Of Freedom” is just annoying. Really, my favorite song on here is the one that everyone (including Bob himself) seems most embarrassed by: “Ballad In Plain D”. First of it’s a great title. The main reason I think everyone doesn’t like it is because it’s too personal, too mean, reveals too many details. They probably are, but I don’t really mind. Not being the kind of person who digs through Bob’s garbage to find out more about his private life, I couldn’t tell. Really they only part of Dylan’s personal life is the part he puts down on record.
Bringing It All Back Home
It’s kind of disappointing that Bob hedged his bets and didn’t make this album all-electric. Although the fact that he chose to put the acoustic songs on side 2 rather than first side or mixing them together sort of undercuts whatever kind of compromise he was trying to make with the die-hard folkies he was leaving. Who knows? This is one of my all-time favorite Dylan albums. Bob’s idea of rock’n’roll is certainly just loud, slightly sped up 12-bar blues with some strange words on top. There’s “Maggie’s Farm”, “Outlaw Blues”, “On The Road Again”. “Subterranean Homesick Blues” takes the 12-bars and stretches it into 24 or so to fit in all of his fun (if not terribly meaningful) words. Clearly the rest of band – who play enthusiastically and with great talent, don’t have any idea when the next chord is coming. Listening to all of the attempt to keep up (or at least catch up) with Bob makes this some great rough-hewed risky rock that demands as many repeated listenings as something as exquisite and intricately constructed as say Pet Sounds. And not that side 2 is just a bone thrown to his old audience. “Gates Of Eden” and “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” are two of Bob’s best songs ever. And both featuring single solitary one-note blasts from the harmonica at the end of each verse to remind of you of what Bob used to do – and to let you know how much different this is. Not that Bringing It All Back Home is perfect. (No Dylan album is perfect. Each has a couple of stinkers and at least one or two moments of genius. The only question is how much of each – and how good are the rest.) Neither “She Belongs To Me” nor “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” (which is a great title) do much for me. Maybe I’ve just heard it too many times from the Byrds – and William Shatner – to really appreciate it, but I always thought that “Mr. Tambourine Man”. And is it just me, or is the second guitar that is noodling around in the background of “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” completely unrelated to what’s going on in the rest of the song and slightly out of tune? Whatever it is, it ruined “It’s All Over Now” for me forever. Still, a great album.
Highway 61 Revisited
Highway 61 Revisited is not nearly as good as Bringing It All Back Home but still an amazing album. More fun up-tempo blues numbers: “Tombstone Blues”, the title track, “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry”, and “From A Buick 6” (two more great titles!). “Like A Rolling Stone” deserves its reputation as an all-time rock’n’roll classic. Bob is stretching with “Ballad Of A Thin Man” and it works. Creepy and funny, it’s my favorite song on the album. Side two is a problem though. Other than the title track, it’s filled with somewhat tedious, mid-tempo, too long excuses for clever lyrics: “Queen Jane Approximately”, “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” and “Desolation Row”. “Desolation Row” even features the return of that incessantly jamming slightly off-key guitar from “It’s All Over Now”. Sure, nothing could be as good as it, but highway 61 Revisited is still a worthy follow-up to Bringing It All Back Home.
Blonde On Blonde
Why this album is considered the height of Bob’s mid-60s electric trilogy is beyond me. (Why these three albums are considered his only really good sustained period escapes me too). Blonde On Blonde is nowhere near as good as Bringing It All Back Home or Highway 61 Revisited, just much longer. The tedious songs (“(Sooner Or Later) One Of Us Must Know”, “Visions Of Johanna”, “Temporary Like Achilles”) are growing greater both in number and in length. “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” takes up one whole side and forces the whole thing into a double album. Even the title of “Stuck Inside Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again” is too long. And yet the rocking blues songs are getting scarcer. Only “Pledging My Time”, “Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat” and “Obviously 5 Believers” (the three best songs on here) from the whole 2 record set. The more balladic love songs are getting better. “I Want You” and “4th Time Around” are better than “She Belongs To Me” or “Love Minus Zero”. “Just Like A Woman” is just okay. With much more room to stretch out and show off his range, the only really different or experimental cut on here is the drunken Salvation Army band of “Rainy Day Women #13 & 35”, another song deserving its lauded reputation. Not that I don’t like Blonde On Blonde but really, I put on the double-album Self-Portrait far more often.
The Basement Tapes
Much like Blonde On Blonde, I don’t get the appeal of this double-album either. First of all I don’t understand why they have to sell this on two CDs. At 76:41 it could easily fit onto one. Blonde On Blonde and Self-Portrait are both sold as single discs. And The Band’s songs (“Orange Juice Blues (Blues For Breakfast)”, “Yazoo Street Scandal”, “Katie’s Been Gone”, “Bessie Smith”, “Ain’t No More Cane”, “Rubin Remus”) do not belong here. Neither historically nor thematically. They’re part of some other album. And they’re not nearly as good. Even the two Band songs that Dylan wrote (“Long Distance Operator” and “Don’t You Tell Henry”) are misplaced. For me a song Dylan sings but did not write has a lot more business being on a Bob Dylan album than a song Bob Dylan wrote but someone else sang (except maybe “All The Tired Horses”). If you took off these songs, you’d have plenty of room on the disc for such legitimately released Basement material as Biograph’s “The Mighty Quinn (Quinn The Eskimo)” and The Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3’s “I Shall Be Released” and “Santa-Fe”, as well as such illicit songs as “I’m You Teenage Prayer”, “Sign On The Cross”, “Get Your Rocks Off”, “All You Have To Do Is Dream” and the superb “I’m Not There (1956)”. While the entire 5-disc bootleg The Genuine Basement Tapes (which I have not actually listened to) seems a bit much, it’s probably a better representation than the officially released 1975 version. But song selection is hardly the worst problem with The Basement Tapes. While Bob’s motorcycle accident did afford him the excuse to stop touring and slow down his lifestyle, it was not responsible for the “amnesia” that gripped Bob around this time, causing him to lose the ability to unconsciously write the kind of songs that fueled his electric heyday. In fact, if anything, the songs on The Basement Tapes certainly do sound like a piece of and further continuation of the “wild mercury sound” of its predecessors. Both in terms of the free-associated imagery in the lyrics and in the Blues-y Americana of the music, it certainly has a lot more in common with Blonde On Blonde than John Wesley Harding. The main difference between the two albums is that Blonde On Blonde was recorded in a real studio, with real quality recording equipment, and sympathetic professional Nashville session musicians. The Basement Tapes was recorded on some crappy tape recorder, in the basement of some farm, with the sloppy spotlight-stealing showboating of the Band. There are some great (written) songs on this album, but you can hardly hear them under the murk of the tapes and the omnipresent backing vocals. Really, compare The Basement Tapes versions of “Crash On The Levee (Down In The Flood)”, “You Ain’t Going Nowhere”, or “I Shall Be Released” with the versions Bob recorded in 1971 with Happy Traum for the Greatest Hits, Vol. II compilation. They’re so much better, cleaner, and more audible. A record isn’t just a performance; you have to be able to hear it. And while Bob may not have consciously went into The Basement Tapes project with the idea of ever releasing this material, and with the legends surrounding these sessions, it was probably inevitable that it would’ve leaked, he should’ve thought twice about the actual record that he did put out eight years later.
John Wesley Harding
And once again Bob’s shifted gears on us. Gone are the electric guitars that so inflamed the Newport audience. At the height of psychedelia, Bob the rebel comes out with what in the 90s would be considered an Unplugged band. Also the tenor of the lyrics has changed. Instead of the random fleeting images of Blonde On Blonde, we have a set of fairly literal straightforward story-songs, the original definition of ballad. Regardless of how interesting or dull the events described, you could always tell exactly what was going on. Oddly enough, the one song with the most surreal lyrics, “All Along The Watchtower” was also the biggest hit (not for Dylan, but Jimi Hendrix). This time around Bob is only using a bass and drums in addition to his acoustic guitar and harmonica. Only while Bob’s earliest albums, which didn’t even have that rhythm section, managed to sound interesting and diverse, this new arrangement strangles and limits Bob. While Bob would make this line-up work to great effect on Blood On The Tracks, here it has a very static and dull quality musically. Most of the songs are kind of hard to tell apart from each other: the title track, “As I Went Out One Morning”, “I Am A Lonesome Hobo”, “Dear Landlord”, “Drifter’s Escape”, “I Pity The Immigrant”, “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine”. As for “The Ballad Of Frankie Lee And Judas Priest”, goes on way too long, particularly if you find the lyrics to be unimpressive. By the time the Pete Drake shows up for the last two songs (even though usually I think of the pedal steel guitar and the audio equivalent of a headache), it’s almost a relief to get some more scope. A couple of songs are worth mentioning. “All Along The Watchtower” manages to be just as wild and heavy as Hendrix’s version, even without all the distortion and effects. “The Wicked Messenger” (my personal favorite) is just a simple riff, repeated with such single-mindedness that it becomes something much more impressive. “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” could be seen as an interesting one-off genre experiment if it weren’t for the album that follows.
Apparently Bob’s balladeering, acoustic trio phase only lasted the one album, John Wesley Harding, and once again it’s off to something new. “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” wasn’t a fluke, it was an omen. Here Dylan’s trying his hand at making music as a business. Even though at this point he’s a happily married family man, Bob’s songs celebrating love found (“Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You”, “To Be Alone With You”, “Peggy Day”) sound no more intimate and personal than the songs lamenting love lost (“I Threw It All Away”, “Tell Me That It Isn’t True”). He’s trying to emulate the Tin Pan Alley, Brill Building, and Nashville’s Music Row School of songwriting. Detached, popular, mechanical. The thing that makes the album work is how bad he is at being this kind of songwriting hack. His earnestness at trying to write a good, commercial, popular song is almost enduring. Musically – well, I really don’t like country music, but I don’t mind it so much here. Sure, the duet with Johnny Cash (“Girl From North Country”) takes one of my favorite Dylan tunes and drains most of its beauty. Dylan also showcases his first instrumental, “Nashville Skyline Rag”. While normally I would laud such a move, this ditty is little more than a jam – which since it’s being performed almost entirely by session musicians, shows off little originality or insight. The tune “Country Pie” is so off its attempts to describe domestic bliss that it almost seems like one of Bob’s weirder Blonde On Blonde kind of moments. It’s my favorite on the album. The other real classic is “Lay Lady Lay” with it’s unusual cowbell/bongo percussion, subverts the otherwise stereotypical country sound, helping make it stand out all the more. I’ve got to say that it’s sub-30 minute running time also makes this trip into the actual Nashville sound that much more endurable.
Although Bob has certainly released albums that in popular and critical perception were worse than Self-Portrait (Knocked Out Loaded, Down In The Groove, even 1973’s Dylan album) none have receive the amount of derision and scorn. Why exactly? Of all of Bob’s musical U-turns that could’ve turned into career suicides (going from covers to originals, going from protest to personal, going from acoustic to electric, going from rock star to recluse hermit and then returning as a country gentleman) this was the only one that didn’t bring him for fans that he alienated in the process. It was the first move he made that didn’t seem wise in retrospect. Plus the title, Self-Portrait, certainly promised a far more in-depth and personal view of the artist than it delivered. But I think the thing that still bugs Dylan fans about Self-Portrait is the big question that hovers over the entire album: Why’d he do it? Was recording an album almost entirely of covers a big F.U. to Albert Grossman who he was suing for control of his songwriting royalties? (Much like Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music). Or even a big F.U. to all of those rabid fans who were dissecting even the trite clichés of Nashville Skyline hoping for a deeper meaning? Much like the motorcycle accident, a way/excuse to slow down the star-making treadmill he was trapped on. Or had the “amnesia” set in and this was the best that Bob could do? He has claimed that Self-Portrait was in his own way his “bootleg” record. What did he mean by that? It’s not like this was previously unreleased (legally) material that he put out, like The Bootleg Series or even The Basement Tapes, he deliberately recorded this to sound like a bootleg that didn’t exist. Considering that the big Bob bootleg at the time was The Great White Wonder, which mixed 1961 Dinkytown recordings with 1967 Woodstock demos, he might have meant that Self-Portrait was just as jumbled, schizophrenic and incompatible with itself. For those looking for something Bob’s lyrics, this double album was certainly a disappointment. He didn’t even write 2/3rd of the songs. And those he did write were either really sloppy live versions from the Isle of Wight Festival of previously released songs, or songs with no words (“Woogie Boogie”, Wigwam”) or only two lines repeated ad infinitum (“All The Tired Horses”). Really the only new lyrics on here belonged to “Living The Blues” and “Minstrel Boy”. But I like it. It’s one of my all-time favorite Dylan albums. Of course, that may just be my tendency to root for the underdog. Plus the fact that I was not around to be disappointed during its initial release. But really it’s not that bad. If you look at it right. Don’t think of it as an accurate, in-depth look into Dylan’s whole life. Rather see it as a blurry snapshot from a day in the life. Singing along to a couple of pop tunes on the radio that he kind of likes (“The Boxer”, “Early Morning Rain”). Remembering some old tunes from his past growing up in the 50s (“Blue Moon”, “Let It Be Me”). But mostly some older folk tunes that he discovered later and inspired him in the early days playing (“Copper Kettle”, “Belle Isle”, “Little Sadie”, “Alberta #1” & ”#2”). Even trying to figure out the chords to one of them (“In Search Of Little Sadie”). Goofing around outside the studio making music, ala _The Basement Tapes_ (“Woogie Boogie”, “Minstrel Boy”). Trying to figure out some words (“Wigwam”) or at least the next line (“All The Tired Horses”) of some new songs he’s just started writing. Going to his day job singing songs he doesn’t really feel connect to anymore (the live versions of “She Belongs To Me” and “Like A Rolling Stone” with the forgotten lyrics). It’s almost Dylan’s most recorded record (at least until _Empire Burlesque_). Unlike all Dylan albums up to this point (and most after) which sound like they were recorded in under a week with a new group of under-rehearsed musicians learning the songs for the first time. This album features what is Dylan’s first vocal overdub, when he harmonizes with himself (almost) on “The Boxer”. And while there are some definite recording tricks and time taken on this album there is still a certain amount of the usual sloppiness on the album (like the unmistakable error that ruins the otherwise perfect “Days Of 49”). But it’s like he’s taken these little doodles on crumpled up napkins and put them into these ornate gilded frames. Much the same way Phil Spector’s production transformed the Beatles’ Get Back project into the perplexing Let It Be. Definitely not what anyone wanted or expected at the time. In some respects, it was so weird, that every album that got decent critical or popular acclaim after it (New Morning, Blood On The Tracks, Infidels, Oh Mercy!, Time Out Of Mind) were considered comebacks.
To my ears, New Morning always sounds a bit like Nashville Skyline ... only without the country. No fiddles or pedal steels, but it’s still Bob trying once again to work in the songwriter-for-hire mode. Sure two of the songs are lyrically little more than veiled anecdotes from Bob’s life (meeting Elvis in “Went To See The Gypsy” and getting an honorary doctorate in “Day Of The Locusts”). But for the most part this is Bob writing outside of himself. He’s doing work for other writers and projects (“Three Angels” and “Father Of Night” from the nowhere near completed Devil and Daniel Webster musical). On my two favorite songs off this album, he’s showing off his range and versatility with a schmaltz-waltz that would be perfect for the Lawrence Welk show (“Winterlude”) and then switching directly into Jazz (“If Dogs Run Free”). Even the Blues (which Dylan had often played with and stretched into his own image) is given a fairly straight run-through with “One More Weekend”. He’s even trying to write straight-ahead pop songs like the title track, “The Man In Me”, and “If Not For You” (which sounds like it should be a hit for Olivia Newton-John... and it was). While New Morning is not nearly as brave or interesting as Self-Portrait or even Nashville Skyline, it’s a solid, fun, and occasionally weird album.
Although an album of outtakes from Self-Portrait (all covers) was certainly considered by most to be the worst idea imaginable, it didn’t anger die-hard Dylan fans as much as Self-Portrait simply because, they knew Bob wasn’t to blame for this. Dylan was in fact released apparently by Columbia without Bob’s permission as a form of revenge for (temporarily) signing with David Geffen’s Asylum label. There wasn’t that question of “what was Bob thinking?” hanging over this album, making it much more forgivable and much less interesting. In fact, since this is the only album in the oeuvre that Bob hasn’t officially released on CD (although it’s still available on cassette), it’s often considered fairly apocryphal to the official canon. However it clearly wasn’t enough of a thorn in Dylan’s side to keep him from returning to Columbia, where he remains to this day. It is also, despite sounding very similar in tone and (non-) authorship, most of these track are not from the Self-Portrait sessions. Just compare the la-la-la’s on “The Man In Me” and it’s impossible to deny that these songs were recorded during New Morning. While Dylan has denied that the all-original New Morning was recorded as a response to the critical hammering that Self-Portrait took (and the fact that he recorded most of New Morning before Self-Portrait’s release does bear this out), the fact that he pulled all of the covers songs that were going to make up a large portion of that album may have been an indication that he was listening to what his fans wanted instead of trusting his own instinct. Because Dylan isn’t bad. It’s not great. It’s not even as good as Self-Portrait, but it’s pretty good. It takes a lot of guts to cover not one but two Elvis songs (“A Fool Such As I” and “Can’t Help Falling In Love”) – especially if one isn’t known as a vocalist and interpreter of other people’s material. It is kind of odd that he chose to re-write the one line from which Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” in which the title actually appears. He had no problem singing from or even writing from the woman’s point of view before (“House Of The Rising Sun”, “North Country Blues”). I guess singing that you had an “old man” doesn’t necessarily mean one is female. The version of “Spanish Is the Loving Tongue” is often derided for being cheesy and lounge-like. Its worst crime seems to be failing to be the solo piano version that appeared as the B-side to “Watching The River Flow”. Personally, while it may not be as intimate, it’s far more cohesive, interesting and fun to listen here. Overall, it’s a fun weird goofy album, even if “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” drags on a bit too long. It definitely deserves to be released on CD, although it appears unlikely (at least until after Dylan croaks).
Greatest Hits, Vol. II
Generally, I don’t pay much attention to compilation packages. While they are a good way of introducing a neophyte to an artist, generally they don’t represent the artist’s most interesting work... namely the kind of stuff that isn’t a greatest hit. It’s through one’s flaws and failures that one really gets to know what makes someone tick. Besides, if you happen to have a different taste or sensibility than the majority, your favorite songs from an artist may have no relation to those that sold the largest number of 45s. And usually the weakest track on any compilation is the one new (or previously unreleased) track used to force the completist collector who insists on owning everything. Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits, Vol. II is worth mentioning (unlike Vols. I and III) because of the four sides of vinyl, one whole half-record of new material is presented here. Besides if you add the two singles released at the same time, “George Jackson [Big Band Version]” and “Watching The River Flow” (which is also included on Greatest Hits, Vol. II) and their B-sides “George Jackson [Acoustic Version]” and “Spanish Is The Loving Tongue” and the one outtake from the “George Jackson” sessions included on The Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3, “Wallflower”, you’ve got enough for a whole album. In fact if you put all A-sides the stuff that Leon Russell produced on one side, and all of the B-sides with the Happy Traum duets on the other, you’ve got a half-electric, half-acoustic LP much like Bringing It All Back Home. And for my money, one great (purely hypothetical) album. Why Dylan chose to spread this out over a couple of singles and a compilation is hard to say. It was in the middle of a relative dry spell for Dylan – he could’ve used a stopgap. Remember when the year and a half between Blonde On Blonde and John Wesley Harding was considered sacrilegious? Nowadays, we don’t even expect a new album from Dylan (or anybody else) for three or four years. And as compilations go it fairly interesting. Most of Bob’s actual hit hits were included on Greatest Hits, Volume I. So instead we’ve got songs like “My Back Pages” and “All Along The Watchtower”, which were hits but not for Bob, included with songs that the fans seem to really like (“Stuck Inside Mobile”, “Tom Thumb’s Blues”) that were never even released as singles. Interesting.
Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid
Most people see Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid as nothing more than a really long super-maxi-single for “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” with several unnecessary re-mixes of the B-Side, “Billy”. While it’s hard to argue that there are any other songs on this album (or any other album by Dylan or not) as good as “Knockin’”, if you’re only interested in Bob for his words you’re going to miss a whole lot here. It is easily Bob’s most instrumental heavy album (and since it’s really a soundtrack, that’s too be expected). Most people can’t even really tell these songlets apart. Which means they miss all the fun goofy humor in the banjo-laden “Turkey Chase” (my second favorite song on the album). And of the songs that do have words, you get three different vocal versions of “Billy” (numbered 1, 4 and 7 for some reason) as well as another instrumental. Sure, all three offer up pretty close to identical lyrics – all which are little more than dumbed-down Cliff’s Notes versions of the plot of the movie. Musically they do each convey a subtly different mood. Okay, “Billy” is not a particularly great song, but despite its reputation as an all-time classic, “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” actually is. And regardless of Eric Clapton or Axl Rose’s attempts to steal this song, the Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid version remains the definitive one. Sure, this album is a lost great classic, but it’s certainly worth more than just that one song.
I’ve got to admit, I really don’t like Planet Waves. For one thing I’m not a big fan of The Band. I’ve not particularly liked any of the stuff they’ve done as a group. Robbie Robertson always seemed like a smug, condescending, pretentious rock-star (like Sting or Phil Collins). Back when they were just a band and not The Band, they were good for what Dylan was doing on tour in 1966 (namely loud), but there’s a reason why he always ended up using the Nashville session players on his album. (The fact that drummer Levon helm was too chicken to endure the boos of Tour ’66 is another stroke against them). Their playing has always been as subtle as a sledgehammer. But it’s not entirely The Band’s fault that I don’t like this album. On Planet Waves, Bob finally achieves what he was aiming for on Nashville Skyline and New Morning; he becomes a completely detached, uninvolved songwriter. But where those two discs were charming in the sincere ineptitude, this one actually pulls it off slickly – much to its detriment. And as a result songs like “Tough Mama”, “Hazel”, “Something There Is About You”, “You Angel You”, and “Never Say Goodbye” are almost impossible to tell apart. It’ll become a bad habit that’ll pop up again and again in Bob’s career. The opening number holds some promise. The Cajun Zydeco of “On A Night Like This” promises more of the weird genre experimentation of New Morning’s “Winterlude” and “If Dogs Run Free”, but never follows up on it. “Going Going Gone” is in fact a really good song, but you can hardly tell over The Band’s showboating. (Although I like most of At Budokan, the version of “Going, Going Gone” on there proves it could be much much worse). “Forever Young” ends Bob’s tradition of adding more than one version of the same song to the same album (“Alberta” and “Billy”). While the slower second version is pretty darn good (and proof that Rod Stewart is a thief), the fast version makes the song seem almost as forgettable as the rest of the album. Compare “Dirge” with the similarly arranged (just piano and acoustic guitar) “Blind Willie McTell” from The Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3, and see how distracting Robbie Robertson is in comparison to Mark Knopfler. His little scratching the string thing is all over here and really annoying. Even without The Band, “The Wedding Song” sounds about as tacked on as it really was. Not that the album is painfully unlistenable or anything. With a musician as talented as Bob Dylan, even when he’s coasting there’s bound to be a certain amount of quality to endeavor. It’s just that there’s a real lack of anything interesting or risky going on here.
Blood On The Tracks
I know it seems like I’m just disagreeing with the commonly held Dylan perceptions on just about everything. But I’m not doing it just to be contrary. Case in point: I, like most everybody else, actually like Blood On The Tracks. I’ve never heard the original New York pressing, but for my money the Minneapolis tracks fit in and work perfectly. In fact, I can’t even tell which ones were re-recorded. I know most people like to look at this album as an emotionally raw and painful, if cathartic, album of heartbreak (much like John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band.) But if you don’t pay to much attention to the lyrics, it’s a fairly upbeat, up-tempo collection of songs. Particularly bouncy are the two songs with some of the most maudlin words: “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” and “If You See Her, Say Hello”. “Meet Me In The Morning” is yet another one of Bob’s re-interpretations of the 12-bar Blues format. In fact, even the lyrics to “Lily Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts” are light-hearted. Really, only “Idiot Wind” and “You’re A Big Girl Now” are particularly slow, sad, or are in a minor key musically. While “You’re Big Girl Now” is one of my favorite songs on the album, I never quite understood what the big deal about “Idiot Wind” was. It’s a good song, but really the weakest one on this collection. And it does just go on and on. “Tangled Up In Blue”, “Shelter From The Storm”, and “Simple Twist Of Fate” are all bona-fide classics. “Buckets Of Rain” not so much. And while overall this is an unarguably great collection of songs, I don’t find myself listening to it that often. Clearly it’s not because the subject matter strikes a nerve. I don’t know – maybe it’s just too perfect and there are not enough weird fun little flaws to get caught up in. Still I always do enjoy it on those rare occasions when I do play it.
Most of Bob’s albums up to this point (except for Self-Portrait) sound like the rehearsal tapes of Bob’s new backing band warming up for a tour. It’s just one group of musicians trying to learn a new batch of songs quickly. And whatever you think of that particular group of musicians (Nashville’s finest session men, Mike Bloomfield and Company, The Band formerly known as the Hawks), that’s all your going to get on that album. But rarely has a group of musicians so strongly imprinted a Dylan album as the ones on Desire. If you don’t like Emmy Lou Harris’s vocals and Scarlet Rivera’s violin, you might as well turn this album off now, there’s nothing on it you’ll like. Even the best songs (“O Sister”, “One More Cup Of Coffee”) are sometimes hard to distinguish from the rest of the album. Lyrically, the songs have a very cosmopolitan, international flavor to them (thanks in most part to Bob’s only long term collaborator, Jacques Levy). Musically there are some moments in here where Bob shows off a bit of sophistication (the double-time in “Romance In Durango” for example), but it’s mostly just typical high-quality Bob. While the Rolling Thunder sound does get a bit grating at times, both “Sara” and “Isis” are particularly strong – perhaps just because they manage to stick out. “Hurricane” actually is a good song regardless of whatever factual errors the lyrics may or may not contain. “Joey” on the other hand... while I’m often in disagreement with the rest of Dylan aficionados over Bob’s over ten minute epics, at least here everyone sees my point: it’s boring. It goes on too long. It’d be a fine song if he just cut like seven verses out of it. Why they can only see it in “Joey” and not “Sad Eyed Lady of the Highlands” or “Lowlands” is beyond me.
While most of Bob’s big band sound is in tact from Desire, trading the violin for the saxophone and Emmy Lou’s lone back-up vocals for a trio of female gospel singers suddenly turns the ragged gypsy caravan into a slick Vegas production. I’ve always been really conflicted about Street Legal. On one hand you’ve got this brave new experimental band giving the songs a wide variety of possible sounds. On the other, the LP was recorded almost as muddily and murkily as The Basement Tapes leaving most of the subtle nuances buried in the mix (subsequent attempts to re-mix the album have produced no effect audible to my ears). On the plus side you’ve got three of my all-time favorite Dylan tunes: “Senor (Tales Of Yankee Power)”, “New Pony”, and “Changing Of The Guards”. “New Pony” even shows a return of Bob writing an entire song around one simple magnetic riff, something we haven’t heard since “The Wicked Messenger” on John Wesley Harding. However, the other two-thirds of the songs on there are as unremarkable and forgettable as Planet Waves. The band on this album is great. I don’t know why it gets knocked as too show-biz-y. I even liked their live At Budokan album. I generally don’t pay much attention to live albums (If the songs are too close to the original arrangements, then why not just listen to the original. If the songs are too far off of the arrangements, then they just seem sacrilegious). But the constant way that Bob and his quote-unquote Vegas band deconstruct and rearrange the most notable songs from Bob’s catalog is both fascinated and brave, if not always successful (“Going, Going, Gone”). I find myself listening to Street Legal a lot – if just out of curiosity, though not usually enjoying it as much as I think I should.
Slow Train Coming
This album bugged out a lot of people, particularly when it first came out, almost solely because of its unremitting message. But really if you ignore the lyrics, there’s a good record in here. Not great but good. And as the fear that Bob has totally lost his mind and will be doing nothing but singing Jesus songs for the rest of his life, this album’s stature has grown. Clearly, whether you agree or even care about what he’s singing about, he really means it. Personally I don’t care if the lyrics are about sins, salvation and Satan or if they’re about hoboes, immigrants and landlords. I’m only interested in the music. And musically, it’s a lot more consistent than Street Legal. Although there aren’t any songs as good as the three good ones on that record, overall it’s much better. Clearly “New Pony” has re-inspired Bob to write more songs around a single riff. “Gotta Serve Somebody”, “Slow Train”, “Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking” and “When You Gonna Wake Up?” all follow this formula. They’re best songs on this album. The slower numbers, “Precious Angel”, “I Believe In You” and “When He Returns” are powerful, but not nearly as impressive. Also included is a whole new category for Dylan, Kid’s songs. Since the first songs most of us ever learn are Bible songs, it does make since. “Man Gave Names To All The Animals” is silly and fun (which is nice on such an otherwise heavy record). And “Do Right To Me Baby (Do Unto Others)”, with it’s extra beat added every fourth measure (going from 4/4 to 5/4) is one of the most musically complicated things Bob’s written since the jazz chords of “If Dogs Run Free” or the constantly shifting keys of “In Search Of Little Sadie”. Overall Slow Train Coming is a pretty good album, and despite being a fairly staunch atheist, I enjoy listening to it.
Most people see Saved and Slow Train Coming as two sides to the same coin. And while they may share a common lyrical focus, for my money Slow Train Coming has a lot more in common with its predecessor, Street Legal, than it does with Saved. Looking past the words, Slow Train Coming’s songs sound a lot Street Legal’s. They’re basic pop-rocks songs with the same basic arrangement of horns and backing singers. Sure you’ve got Jerry Wexler doing a much better job recording it, and Mark Knopfler adding some more zing on the guitar, but really it always sounded like Bob just added the word Jesus to whatever songs he was working on at the time of his conversion. Really, Saved is the first of the quote-unquote born again albums that really sound like it. The music here is Gospel. I don’t get why Slow Train Coming is always more respected than Saved either. I mean if the Jesus words bother you, you’re not getting much help from either album. I think at the time, Slow Train Coming was seen as a weird one-off diversion, but the fear with Saved was that this would be all that Bob would sing about from here on out. Plus with the music so clearly Gospel, it’s harder to pretend that the lyrics aren’t really so dogmatic. I think the two are just about equal in terms of quality. I love the extended genre exercise into the Gospel milieu. The title track, as well as “Solid Rock” really rock out. “A Satisfied Mind” is a slip, but a brief one. “Covenant Woman” is really the only bad song on here. It’s a solid uncompromising album.
Shot Of Love
Shot Of Love is one of Dylan’s most confused, schizophrenic albums (the all-over-the-map Self-Portrait was at least done deliberately). I’m not just talking about the half-secular half-sacred lyrics. While the personnel remains fairly consistent throughout the album, the feel, the producer, and even the studio seems to change from song to song. Other than Street Legal, this is the album I’m most undecided about. There are some great songs one here. Shot Of Love continues in the vein of Slow Train Coming and Saved in that the title track is one of the best songs on the album. “In The Summertime” and “Every Grain Of Sand” are two of the strongest of the slow ballads during the whole born-again period. “Trouble” is another great, but sadly forgotten, song composed almost entirely from a single riff. “Dead Man, Dead Man” chugs along with a modest aplomb. “Heart Of Mine”, “Property Of Jesus” and “Watered Down Love” just lay there limply. The worst song on here though – by a wide margin – is “Lenny Bruce”. Forget the fact that the lyrics give no indication why such a non-Christian kind of man should be so lionized by the same guy who wrote “Property Of Jesus”. According to this song, Lenny’s greatest accomplishment was just being misunderstood by his peers and persecuted by the government. The same reason Bob idolized (and wrote songs for) Joey Gallo, or Billy the Kid, or Rueben Carter and George Jackson. Actually, if all it takes to gain Bob's admiration is to be wrongly accused and punished, then Dylan’s Christian conversion makes a lot more sense. But putting the horrible lyrics aside, “Lenny Bruce” is still a long boring annoying song. And while Bob has a habit of changing his mind at the last minute on his albums (The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, Blood On The Tracks), his decision to add the B-side “The Grooms Still Waiting At The Altar” to line-up several years after the fact, is kind of cheating. But it does make a big difference. Now the balance of the album is finally tipped towards the good songs. And “Groom”, another simple riff-song, is one of Bob’s best. It’s almost impossible to think of Shot Of Love without it.
While no work of art should be judged on the basis of what it isn’t, no album is more defined by what isn’t on it as much as Infidels. At first this was a good thing, because what isn’t on it are any songs with an overtly Christian message. Except for “Man Of Peace” which everybody chose to ignore (maybe the blatantly pro-Israel “Neighborhood Bully” canceled it out). But as reports surfaced of even greater songs being recorded and not released on this record, its reputation sank. While there are rumors of superior versions of almost every album Bob recorded languishing in the vaults, from the most beloved (the original pressing of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, the New York version of Blood On The Tracks) to the most despised (the Argentinean misprint of Down In The Groove with “Important Words” on it) none have suffered so much in comparison to what it could have been as Infidels. And it’s not hard to see why. Not only is “Foot Of Pride” easily the equal of anything on that album, but “Blind Willie McTell” is as superior to the rest of Infidels as “Knocking On Heaven’s Door” is to the remainder of Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid. Although, I suppose it could always be worse, the few good songs on Infidels could’ve been replaced with “Julius And Ethel” or “Death Is Not The End” or “Lord, Save My Child”. In fact “Blind Willie McTell” and “Foot Of Pride” manage to be some of the best things on The Bootleg Series 1-3 on which they finally do appear. “Blind Willie McTell” is now played live far more often than anything that did end up on the album (which didn’t even get the same sort of historical revisionism that added “The Groom’s Still Waiting At The Altar” do Shot Of Love). But, what of the actual album that was released? “Sweetheart Like You”, “Don’t Fall Apart On Me Tonight”, “Neighborhood Bully”, and “Man Of Peace” are all about as unremarkable and pedestrian as anything on Planet Waves. “License To Kill” actually is a good song, but I had no idea until I heard Tom Petty singing it at the 30th Anniversary Celebration. This version does it no justice. Regardless if you agree with the politics behind the rather trite and simplistic lyrics of “Union Sundown” it is actually fairly good rocking tune from a musical point of view. The only track on here that can go toe-to-toe with “Foot Of Pride” (if not “Blind Willie McTell”) is “I And I”. I have no idea what it’s about, but I like it. I don’t know why “Jokerman” was picked to be the single, and is still used in all the subsequent compilations (Greatest Hits Vol. III, The Essential Bob Dylan). The whoa-oh-oh-ohs that Bob sings before the title are not only completely off, which isn’t a horrible or surprising sin for Bob, but it doesn’t even sound like he’s missing the same notes each time. Maybe he’s going for that kind of vocal extemporizing I don’t even like in the R&B singers who can really do it. Whatever it is, it ruins the song for me. And like the rest of Infidels, it’s a disappointment.
Usually the nicest thing anyone can say about Empire Burlesque is that the songs would’ve been pretty good without Arthur Baker’s production. In fact, bootlegs of pre-Baker-ized tunes would fetch a pretty penny. But personally, I think the synthesizer-laden sound actually adds a lot to the album. Maybe it’s just because I was ten and totally unaware of the album when it first came out, that I am able to see it as not so much of a crass commercial attempt to jump on the latest fad. For me the cheesy ‘80s production is no more anachronistic that his ‘60s sound. Of course, his ‘60s sound wasn’t exactly the dominant style of the period, especially the anti-psychedelic John Wesley Harding. But that’s what makes this album so fascinating, never had Dylan tried so hard (and failed) to pander to his audience. Check out the Miami Vice threads on the cover. It certainly shows the most time and care spent in the studio since Self-Portrait. Just take a look at “When The Night Comes Falling From the Sky” (my favorite track on here). Now compare it to the E-Street Band backed version on The Bootleg Series 1-3, which is far closer to the kind of arrangement you would expect from Bob, without being nearly as good. But thanks to Arthur Baker, the song becomes far more memorable and fascinating (and not just like a car crash that you can’t help but look at). Just listen to those octagonal electronic drums! You can also do a side-by-side comparison of “Tight Connection To My Heart (Has Anybody Seen My Love)” with the earlier unreleased “Someone’s Got A Hold Of My Heart”. In my mind, there’s no contest. One of the biggest disappointments of Infidels was despite having Sly and Robbie produced by Mark Knopfler, you don’t really get a Reggae-Dire Straits sound. It just sounds like any other Dylan album. At least he’s trying something new here. I love “Tight Connection”, “Seeing The Real You At Last”, “Clean Cut Kid”, “Trust Yourself”, “Something’s Burning, Baby” and “When The Night Comes Falling”. And I don’t know how much I would’ve without Arthur Baker. They are kind of part of the Planet Waves mold. Only the slower songs “I’ll Remember You”, “Emotionally Yours”, and “Never Gonna Be The Same Again” suffer from this high-paced sleek design. Actually the biggest drawback to the album is everyone’s sole favorite, “Dark Eyes”. In returning to the solo acoustic guitar format, it reminds most people of Bob’s entire back catalog - something no one Dylan album can stand up to – instead of forcing the listener to accept the “new” Dylan. “Dark Eyes” hedges Bob’s bets, and Empire Burlesque suffers because of it.
Knocked Out Loaded
While Empire Burlesque wasn’t a failure in my mind, it was not a success commercially – which is what it seemed like what it was aiming for. So for the next two albums Bob gives up on trying to record an album as a single entity. Both Knocked Out Loaded and Down In The Groove are more like of compilations of various recording sessions from a broad time period, rather than one group musicians recording one album in one week. Not even Shot Of Love (which at least kept a consistent core of musicians even as it rotated through the studios of L.A.) sounds this patchwork. But like the deliberately bootleg sounding Self-Portrait, it was definitely intentional, and it works (although not nearly as well). Of the two albums, Knocked Out Loaded receives the most scorn – with the biggest exception. Everybody likes to think of Knocked Out Loaded as nothing more than a really long single for “Brownsville Girl” with a lot of really bad B-sides to ignore. Which is too bad, because personally, “Brownsville Girl” is the worst moment on the album (other than the children’s choir that pops up on “They Killed Him”). Much as the solo acoustic guitar of “Dark Eyes” undermined the rest of _Empire Burlesque_, so does the epic length of “Brownsville Girl” remind fans of Dylan’s earlier style and works against the rest of the album. Only, where “Dark Eyes” merely tainted as an added on tag, “Brownsville Girl” dominates, consisting of nearly a third of Knocked Out Loaded’s thirty-five minute running time. Frankly I find “Brownsville Girl” not only lacks the musical sophistication to justify its eleven minute length, but the lyrics themselves seem to be over a dozen verses about a guy trying to remember the name of some movie. But people focus on that song and erroneously compare the rest of the album to it. When in fact the rest of the album holds up quite well on it’s own. Not that the album’s great, but it’s nowhere near as bad as everyone makes it out to be. “You Wanna Ramble” and “Got My Mind Made Up” are my two favorite songs on here. Shuffling up-tempo rockers of the kind that Bob really should record more of. Sure, “They Killed Him” deserves it horrible reputation. If Kris Kristofferson only wrote three verses there is no need to have Bob and the back-up singer and that eardrum-splitting children’s choir each take a turn to sing all of them in various combinations. This album features the highest number of co-authors of any album since his collaboration with Jacques Levi on Desire. Not only did he write songs on here with Tom Petty, Carole Bayer Sager, and playwright Sam Shepard, but Bob also wrote “Steel Bars” with Michael Bolton, “Heartland” with Willie Nelson, and “Waiting For The Morning Light” with Kiss’s Gene Simmons around this time, none of which he ever recorded. Clearly Bob was hoping to find someone new to write with, but the two solo originals (“Maybe Someday” and “Driftin’ Too Far From Shore”) though are truly forgotten gems that would not have embarrassed Empire Burlesque or Infidels. “Under Your Spell” is still a little unformed, but the mandolin and steel drum arrangement of “Precious Memories” gives it a very nice feel without specifying any genre (Appalachian-Caribbean?). Give Knocked Out Loaded another listen, this time skipping “Brownsville Girl” and see if there isn’t something there.
Down In The Groove
The second (and final) album during this piecemeal phase is often derided as Self-Portrait part two. And while it’s a sad state of affairs that the original Self-Portrait engendered so much shock and outrage at the time of its release, while Down In The Groove received only a disappointed shrug of the shoulders, what this album really is closer to is Knocked Out Loaded without the “Brownsville Girl”. Both feature the (unique for Dylan) co-writers. Both feature their share of covers. Both have a couple of originals thrown in. Both have an entirely different group of musicians backing him on each song. Both are filled out with outtakes from previous albums: “Brownsville Girl” was originally slated for Empire Burlesque while “Death Is Not The End” was recorded during the Infidels sessions. “Shenandoah” is Down In The Groove’s “Precious Memories”. “Let’s Stick Together” sounds so much like “You Wanna Ramble” that it’s surprising that they weren’t cut at the same sessions. If nothing else Down In The Groove proves that Knocked Out Loaded’s sound and methodology wasn’t a fluke. “When Did You Leave Heaven” shows the Empire Burlesque synthesizer sound working on a traditional song. While “Sally Sue Brown” doesn’t take full advantage of the members of The Clash and The Sex Pistols playing on it, it’s still a walloping good time. The two collaborations with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter are also pretty rocking. It’s too bad that “Silvio” is the only one people are really familiar with (appearing on Greatest Hits, Vol. III as well as numerous live shows), because “Ugliest Girl In The World” is just as good. The lyrics manage to be simultaneously insulting and flattering to its object of desire, plus it the first time Bob’s tried to this funny since Another Side Of Bob Dylan. In fact, it’s those fun upbeat tunes that really make the album. Only the slower songs (like “Death Is Not The End”) don’t work as well. “Ninety Miles An Hour (Down A Dead End Street)” and “Rank Strangers To Me” all sound like the freely improved intros to some other song. I keep waiting for the drums to kick in and the real tune to start, but it never does. If these songs had been replaced by some of the other upbeat songs for movies he did at this time (“Band Of the Hand (It’s Helltime, Man)” for the movie Band Of The Hand and the version of John Hiatt’s “The Usual” he recorded for his own starring vehicle, Hearts Of Fire) as well as the cover of “Important Words” that mistakenly got stuck on copies of the album released in Argentina, well then Down In The Groove would’ve been something to really write home about.
Once again Bob switches tracks on us. And much like I hated to agree with the popular consensus about Blood On The Tracks, I’ve got to admit I really like Oh Mercy!. Of course the fact that this was the first Dylan album I ever bought (okay... permanently borrowed from my father) may have something to do with it. Sure “Man In The Long Black Coat” threatens to bring up comparisons to his earlier work in much the same way “Dark Eyes” or “Brownsville Girl” did, but luckily the song is strong enough to stand on its own – and the atmospheric touches Daniel Lanois added, help it seem like less of a throwback. Aside from that song, my other two favorite numbers on here are “Political World” and “Everything Is Broken”. Two up-tempo rockers based on simple blues riffs that help keep this album from being a complete refutation of the two albums that came before it. Personally my least favorite tunes are the ones that everyone else liked: the slower material like “Where Teardrops Fall”, “Ring Them Bells”, “Disease Of Conceit”, and “Shooting Star”, but they’re not bad. Every Dylan album has its ups and downs, but it’s really the quality of the songs in the middle (“What Was It You Wanted”, “What Good Am I?”, “Most Of The Time”) that really make the album work as a whole.
Under The Red Sky
While it may not be as good as Oh Mercy!, I don’t understand why Under The Red Sky has such a bad reputation. Sure those looking for lyrical profundity are going to be disappointed. Almost all of the songs feature the title phrase, or some variation thereof, repeated at the beginning of each line (or every other line). Even the title track features each couplet sung twice once right after the first time. Only “Born In Time” and “TV Talkin’ Song” avoid this kind of repetitiveness. But really, it’s Bob’s most silly, fun, straightforward, rocking album ever. “Wiggle Wiggle” may inspire even fewer people to do a Dylan dance that “The Wilbury Twist”, but still the idea is too funny! And having Slash play on it cinches the deal. I think “Unbelievable” was an inspired choice for the single, and I’m kind of disappointed that the title track was used instead on The Greatest Hits, Vol. III. “Under The Red Sky” may feature a great George Harrison guitar solo, but it is not only the slowest song on here, but other than “2 X 2”, the only slow song on the album. It’s not very representative. “God Knows” sounds like it’s going to be another song composed entirely of an intro (much like those on Down In The Groove) so that when the real tune does belatedly kick in, it’s a bit of a surprise as well as a relief. “TV Talkin’ Song” may be Bob’s most musically unsophisticated, featuring only one chord, but it’s played hard and strong and isn’t very long, so it’s hard to quibble. While not perfect, this is the kind of album that I really wish Bob would make more of. Unfortunately the reception to this album was so chilly that Dylan radically changed gears again.
Good As I Been To You
Once again, Bob tries something new. Or rather, something old – really, really old. Another collection of traditional folk tunes with just the acoustic guitar, harmonica and voice, it makes everything that came after his 1962 debut, Bob Dylan until now seem like a diversion. A long and pleasant diversion, but still just a detour from Dylan’s main calling: folksinger. And what of the grammatically incorrect Good As I Been To You? Where John Wesley Harding showed off his harp playing and New Morning demonstrated his piano playing ability, here Bob gets to spotlight his fingerpicking prowess. Compared to his debut, his improvement as a guitar player is not only stunning, but also surprising since we’ve never heard anything like it on any of his previous efforts. But the biggest difference between this album and his first is in song-selection. While history could eventually prove me wrong on this, the songs Bob dug up for this album are not nearly as good as the ones on Bob Dylan (why, I heard some character on the Showtime series Dead Like Me singing “In My Time Of Dyin’” just last night). There’s not nearly the range – none of the songs are as goofy and funny as “Pretty Peggy-O” or “Freight Train Blues”, and whereas he added his own personality and wit to those song, on this album he’s much more of a strict historian, performing these traditional ditties the way they are meant to be sung. While there are many great tracks on this album (“Blackjack Davey”, “Sittin’ On Top Of The World”, “Step It Up And Go” and “Tomorrow Night” are my favorites), overall the album is too monotonous to be truly enjoyable. Really the song that stands out the most is the closer, “Froggie Went A-Courtin’”. For the first time since Slow Train Coming, Bob’s doing children’s songs. He also recorded a version of “This Old Man” for the charity album For Our Children around this time. Maybe someday he’ll do a whole kids’ album. That would be great, but Good As I Been To You is an album that was probably a lot better for Dylan to make than for us to listen to.
World Gone Wrong
While Bob often goes through these phases that last two or three albums, never has one album sounded so much like another as World Gone Wrong does to Good As I Been To You. It’s another solo acoustic album of old folk tunes. Really everything I said about one also applies for the other. Rumor is that World Gone Wrong is bluesier while Good As I Been To You is more folksy, but I’ll have to double-check that. I have a hard time telling them apart. It’s too bad that their combined running time doesn’t allow you to put both albums on one single CD-R. It would make a good Self-Portrait part IV (part one being New Morning and Dylan, part two would be Knocked Out Loaded and Down In The Groove). “Love Henry”, “Blood In My Eyes” and “Tow Soldiers” are the best tunes on here. There’s nothing as interesting as “Froggie Went A Courtin’”, but the literal knocking on the guitar during “Broke Down Engine” is priceless. World Gone Wrong does earn some points for being shorter and having those deliriously non-illuminating linear notes. The biggest drawback to this album being: that he’s already done it.
Time Out Of Mind
Bob’s had a lot of comebacks. He’s comeback from periods of waiting (the motorcycle crash that preceded John Wesley Harding, the break from touring or even releasing anything other than soundtracks and compilations before Planet Waves) periods of supposed weakness (the early ‘70s albums that came before Blood On The Tracks, the mid-‘80s albums that pre-dated Oh Mercy!) and even periods of weirdness (New Morning breaking from the shadow of Self-Portrait, Infidels breaking from the dogma of the born-again albums). But certainly no Dylan album has had to make a return to the public consciousness of all three: the wait (the four years since Bob’s last album, seven since the he last penned an original song), the weirdness (the two acoustic folk albums) and the weak (the critically reviled Under The Red Sky). All of that coupled with the fact that Bob nearly died during the release of Time Out Of Mind made this album a slam-dunk with the critics and fans when it came out. And as much as I hate to be seen as a follower – they’re right: Time Out Of Mind is a great album. Plus its title taken from “Accidentally Like A Martyr” by Warren Zevon. “Dirt Road Blues”, “Can’t Wait” and “Million Miles” once again find Bob subverting the 12 bar blues paradigm. “Love Sick” and “Cold Irons Bound” are both scary cool tunes of which Daniel Lanois can really sink his teeth into. “Make You Feel My Love” is the kind of song you’d expect Billy Joel or Garth Brooks to think would make a big hit if only someone with a decent voice were singing it, completely ignoring the fact that it’s the grit in Bob’s voice that gives this otherwise syrupy song its power. Even the slower songs (“Standing In The Doorway”, “Trying To Get To Heaven”, and “’Till I Fell In Love With You”) are as good as their counterparts on Oh Mercy!. Really the first hour of the album is one of my favorites, but then Bob has go into the 16 minute “Highlands”, making Time Out Of Mind as long as the double-record Blonde On Blonde. And of all the Dylan epics, it’s my least favorite. There are some good lines in here talking to the waitress, but we’ve got ten verses or so before we even get to the diner. The music in background is as uninteresting and repetitious as anything Bob’s done. Just skip that song, and you’ve got Oh Mercy! part II.
Love & Theft
Love & Theft is to Time Out Of Mind what Under The Red Sky is to Oh Mercy!: a fun, goofy follow-up to a dark, murky, serious Daniel Lanois produced comeback. Although the perception of it has waned a little since, I don’t know why Love & Theft was so hailed at first while Under The Red Sky was so reviled. Perhaps the four years (instead of one) that separated Love & Theft from its predecessor gave rise to fears that Time Out Of Mind was going to be Bob’s last big hurrah. Maybe producing it himself with his touring band instead of using flavor-of-the-month Don Was and his stable of rock stars, helped lower expectations a bit. Who knows? I liked it when it first came out – and I still like it. Lyrically it’s his funniest since Another Side Of Bob Dylan. Knock-knock jokes? Booty call? Hunting bare? “Throw your panties over board”? “I’m sitting on my watch so I can be on time”? “Call down to room service/ Said send up a room”? I know Bob’s words don’t usually affect me that much, but this is great stuff. And musically – it’s all over the map (crooners, blues, ‘50s rockers), but thanks to the touring band backing him, it’s still cohesive. Most of the songs are more versions of the 3 (or less) chord blues (“Tweedle Dum & Tweedle Dee”, “Summer Days”, “Lonesome Day Blues”, and “Honest With Me”). Yet, “Moonlight” and “Bye And Bye” use some the most complicated jazzy chords since “If Dogs Run Free” from New Morning. And to keep the album from getting too monotonous, the occasional accordion, banjo or violin just shows up. As hard as it may be to believe, Bob’s latest really is one of his best.
And that’s where we are now. While the Never Ending Tour continues to live up to its name, Bob’s only been releasing albums every four years lately. Which should mean something in 2005, but expecting Bob to keep doing what he’s been doing is foolish. Hopefully there’ll be a new record soon, though. As great as Dylan is as a live artist (I’ve seen him a couple of times, so I know it’s true) you only get that Bob for one night. The only way a kid like me, who was born while Dylan’s brother was busy convincing him to re-record his second or third comeback, is going to get to experience the Bob of his heyday 60s or mercurial 70s is on vinyl (or CD). And as uncomfortable as Bob seems to be in the studio environment, these are the only permanent snapshots we get of an artist constantly in motion.