The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan
Lord, I miss the Nineties. You remember, peace and prosperity. It was a time when I could dismiss “Masters of War” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” as simplistic judgmental rabble-rousing. As opposed to these days, when they touch a nerve. As our leaders and pundits go to all lengths to avoid, at any cost, peace, it seems truer than ever to hear “You’re threatening my baby, unborn and unnamed.” Except my baby has a name, and a mischievous smile that crinkles around his eyes, and an insatiable appetite for bananas, and a bizarre fascination with the dishwasher, and I don’t want him to die in some far-off desert to elect a Republican majority in mid-term elections. If the early Sixties before Vietnam were this scary, the wonder isn’t that the late Sixties saw such trouble, the wonder is that the government didn’t fall. Credit Richard Nixon with absorbing all the hatred into his own person, I guess. (By the way, do you feel like there’s no good stand to take on invading Iraq? I don’t trust this administration as far as I could throw Dick Cheney not because I think they’re liars, but because they don’t seem to have any understanding that the interests of the American people might be divergent from those of the big oil companies. And yet, what if they’re right about Saddam Hussein having nuclear bombs? I’d sure hate to be downtown in the middle of a 100 kiloton explosion.)
Considering how much I dislike Nebraska and the collected works of Joni Mitchell, I should hate this album. It’s all just Bob and his guitar and sometimes his harmonica (a moniker that Bob Dylan has earned but never worn: “the man who puts the harm in harmonica”). But the difference is, Dylan never takes his audience’s attention for granted. Every tune has an intriguing melody, excellent guitar accompaniment, and well-placed lyrics. And energy. Aside from the miserable “Blowin’ in the Wind” (what kind of feeble-minded protesters took this for their anthem? It says less than nothing), there’s not a false move anywhere. Even his singing is restrained yet emotional none of that wild-eyed howling that came later.
What strikes me most is how close to the bone some of these songs cut. I never liked “Masters of War” until this weekend. It seemed too black-and-white, not considering the necessity of stayed armed to keep the bad guys at bay. But in the context of our President practically slavering over the prospect of war, the song seems less irrational and more emotional a plea to not take our lives for granted. And “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” is apocalyptic but not psychedelic; the string of chilling images: “I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it/I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it [Dylan reflecting on his mentor Woody Guthrie’s vision in “This Land is Your Land]/I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin'/I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin'” says so much about what I’m feeling right now that it’s not worth a paraphrase.
Dylan’s real strength as a protest singer was that he always cut to the emotion, not the immediate political solution (he never says, “Vote for [candidate]” or “resist the draft” or “enlist in the Marines”). I love the way “Oxford Town” describes the abuses James Meredith suffered trying to enroll at Ole Miss and then concludes, “Somebody better investigate soon.” Sandwiched between “Bob Dylan’s Dream” with its lovely lilting melody and wistful memories, and “Talkin’ World War III Blues” (probably my favorite Dylan song ever) with its goofy post-atomic adventure, that line sums up the frustrations of holding a standard in the face of life’s constant troubles (bureaucracy, friends drifting apart, nuclear war.) The last line of this trilogy gets to the heart of Dylan’s approach: “I'll let you be in my dreams if I can be in yours.”
I won’t go in detail on every song here, but Dylan covers lost love with a pair of classics (“Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright” and “Girl from the North Country”) and injects a lot of rock and roll into the proceedings (the strumming in “Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance” sounds a lot like Elvis’s Sun Sessions work). And the whole thing goes out grinning with the train-of-irreverence of “I Shall Be Free.”
Dylan just may have peaked with this, his first complete collection of self-composed songs. It’s endlessly fascinating, grabbing every mood a listener has to offer. And it’s still resonant after forty years of political and social change; I wish to God it wasn’t.
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Highway 61 Revisited
Squirm factor: 1
There are a lot of bizarre circumstances in the history of rock - the fact that John Lennon gets more praise than Paul McCartney, the critical lauding of Joni Mitchell and bashing of John Denver, the very existence of Limp Bizkit - all of which can be traced back to this album. You see, rock and roll, at one time, was all about making the best music you could, whether it was tunefully swinging or stridently twisting. You emphasized the beat and/or melody, and you tried not to offend anybody with the words. In fact, trite lyrics were one of the distinguishing features of rock and roll. And then along comes this Dylan guy, and all of a sudden "self-expression" is the name of the game.
I'm not sure why this album made such a powerful impact. Lots of other records from 1965 were bigger sellers (including The Sound of Music and Herman's Hermits), but this somehow caught the attention of the rock world, and it became more important for your music to reflect your personality than to, you know, sound good. And God forbid your personality was optimistic and you had learned to take emotional setbacks in stride - then you're just a wimp. We need your turmoil, damn it! And don't worry about being creative, just be sincere.
And what's most odd about this situation is that, unless you want to believe that Bob Dylan lived in a world where diplomats wear Siamese cats as epaulets, Einstein plays the electric violin, and Jack the Ripper serves on the Chamber of Commerce, there's not a whole lot about Bob's personal feelings on this album. It's all nonsense - fun nonsense, with a lot a goofy references and non sequiturs to make you smile - but nonsense nonetheless. Still, it gives off a definitely personal feeling: nobody else would write these songs, and so the listener excuses the crappy music because of the intensely personal nature of the words. Dylan contributes to the atmosphere by tacking on random adverbs to the otherwise sensible song titles, making you wonder, "What is it about Queen Jane that's approximate? There must be something Bob's keeping hidden."
Not that the tunes are all that bad - they're mostly generic folk or blues melodies, but there are a couple nice items, like "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" with a gentle descending phrase at the end of each line, or "Queen Jane Approximately" with its mini-arc within the phrasing of "queen." And Bob's singing is Bob's singing. It seems like he's doing his best, but there are the usual missed notes, awkward melismas and just plain shouting instead of singing. A couple times he goofs up and starts to sing the wrong words but catches himself. You'd think that's something the producer would call for a retake about. Other times, though, he's got the power and slyness you know and love, like the wink in his voice on "won't you come see me, Queen Jane" and the incredulity present during "Highway 61 Revisited" (the first song I've reviewed so far that name-checks Abe).
What brings down the lyrics here are the arrangements. For a musician, Bob doesn't seem to believe in practicing. The famous story on this album is that Al Kooper, a man who had never played the organ before (in fact, he didn't know how to turn it on) finagled a seat in the recording session and wound up playing on "Like a Rolling Stone." It's a famous part, but I'm not sure why. Kooper's lucky the song is in C - he could hit any white key and it would sound fine. And that's what he does. Just sort of random organ noodling all over, although it does get a bit more organized toward the end. And that's the kind of playing that's all over this disc. Ham-handed drumming on "Tombstone Blues." Dull vamping on "It Takes a Train to Cry." Ten minutes of lifeless strumming on "Desolation Row" relieved by some Spanish-style lead guitar that starts to get repetitive itself ("Desolation Row", like Weird Al's "Albuquerque", is one of those ten-minute epics based on a single riff that you listen to once just to see where it's going, and then avoid, although Dylan doesn't have anything nearly as funny as "that snorkel's been just like a snorkel to me.")
There's a lot to admire about Dylan's fabulous lyrics, with their surrealist imagery, clever rhymes and biting satire, and if you like his vocal style (I do) he's at his mid-60's peak here, but you have to put up with some occasionally dull tunes and under-rehearsed accompaniment. But hey, he's expressing himself, and that's the important thing.
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Keep up the great work!
I'm trying to imagine what it would have been like to be a Dylan fan in 1969: you run out to the store as soon as a new album is released, you slap it on the turntable, and you start wondering, "Did they accidentally put a Jim Nabors record in this sleeve?"
Dylan's got a new voice here, and it's not great. Previously, his surly charisma made you overlook the more-than-occasional missed note, but now he's trying for a smooth crooner's sound: there's no texture to his singing, so you really notice all those off notes. Together with the fact that this album runs shorter than half an hour and contains two throwaways, this is your least typical Dylan album of all time. What's worse is that Dylan's not even trying for a unique sound: previously, he blended rock, folk, and country by having studio musicians play out of their idiom, but here he's going for a straight country sound. Unless you're a big fan of ragged Nashville sessions, it's hard to like the backing.
The lousy duet with Johnny Cash (both seem to be starting the melody at different points in the bar) and the pointless instrumental are just the start of the triviality that abounds. "Peggy Day" is just plain idiotic, and "One More Night" seems to have derived its lyric entirely from Harlan Howard's scrapheap.
That leaves several solid efforts, though. "Lay Lady Lay" does break out of the country sound, with a gorgeous cowbell track, a laid-back organ, and steel guitar supporting his moody vocal. "Tonight I'll Be Staying Here with You" is a terrific lyric, with its mixture of joy and regret, and a lovely melody winding up and down the chord pattern. "Country Pie" is one big hoot, with its goofy lyric and frantic guitar. The best number is "I Threw It All Away" - a very typical country melody, but a good one, and a formal lyric that stands well in the long line of country heartbreak meditations.
If you're a devoted Dylan fan, you might find this intriguing, but otherwise seek out cover versions of the better tunes; they've been popular in Nashville for years now. Me, I'll stick with Dylan when he's doing something creative.
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(It's been said I'm too negative, so I'm going to review this album in entirely positive terms.)
I've owned this record for about 10 years, and despite many attempts, I have never been able to listen to it all the way through. Sometimes, I can't even play a whole side. I'm sure this is because the staggering load of musical genius presented here is too much for me to handle.
Self Portrait finds Bob Dylan presenting so many novel musical approaches that one is forced to abandon hope of finding tunefulness, emotional resonance or even adequate performance; indeed, this record is so revolutionary it throws such puerile concepts out the window. This album is the freshest music you'll ever hear - straight from Bob's brain to your ears, and no silly rehearsal is going to stand in the way.
In a number of places, it sounds like he's learning the song as he's recording it! "Days of '49" finds him groping for the melody, while "The Mighty Quinn" has several moments where he completely blanks on the lyrics. This is performance art indeed. "In Search of Little Sadie" is found in two brilliant renditions, neither of which has him hitting any of the low notes - but surely the broad-minded listener can imagine where the notes would be, right?
Elsewhere, Bob breaks new ground in atonal nasality; perhaps the high point is "The Boxer" featuring a double-tracked Dylan, neither one singing the melody - thus defying the trite conventions of hacks like Paul Simon and challenging the listener to redefine notions of "music" and "entertainment." "Blue Moon", "Take a Message to Mary" and "Early Morning Rain" may not be as exquisitely tuneless as "The Boxer" but each presents its own hurdles for the avant-garde listener to jump.
Dylan also challenges the whole notion of making records "by" an artist. So what if the "man" Bob Dylan is nowhere to be found on "All the Tired Horses", "Wigwam" and "Woogie Boogie"; Dylan the "concept" is present, at least in terms of collecting royalties. Expand your horizons and get into the new "identityless" world of "non-performance."
Overall, Self Portrait stands as a radical break with everything Dylan has stood for previously - good songwriting, impassioned performances, unique production values. Bravo to the artist for killing the bourgeois beast of pop music! My one regret is that my tastes are as yet too unrefined to grasp the value of the new style; I shamefully concede that I'm just an old square who can't get past his prejudices toward "good" "music". I pray my children will not be too embarrassed for me.
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By the way, The Stone Roses' "This Is The One" is the best song ever. Really! I just wanted to report that, because I'm gonna spend the rest of the night listening to it.
Take care, and keep up yon great work.
As always, Bob is taking on a challenge. In this case, how to make one of the tightest bands in history sound like some guys who just met on the street? Bob's solution: don't let them rehearse.
So, naturally, instead of getting to work out all the parts just right, the way the Band always did, they're forced to play off-the-cuff. This results in both Robbie Robertson and Garth Hudson overblowing like crazy, even fighting for the same space in the mix. Meanwhile, Levon Helm and Rick Danko mostly play as unimaginatively as possible, although Danko lets loose with a few nice chromatic bass lines. However, you can really tell that one more take would have done the trick in "You Angel You" where he flubs the bass line on the way out of the song. (Notice the fade here to cover up the Band falling apart. Come on, Bob, just one more take!)
Surprisingly, Richard Manuel, whose piano playing was never really highlighted in the Band, turns in the best performance here. There are lots of great moments: "On a Night Like This": a counter-bass line doubled at the octave in the left hand. This provides all the momentum in this song that the drums fail to deliver. "Going Going Gone": the ascending chords in the verse - listen the beautiful attack he gives them; it perfectly matches the sense of resignation in the vocal. "Something There is About You": the intro - up with the left hand, down with the right. Then under the harmonica solo he plays a shimmering arpeggio - makes you feel like you're out at sea. "Hazel": he's actually playing a stride piano part in a ballad! What a cool thing to do! "Never Say Goodbye": Throughout the song he plays lots of fills in Garth's range, but with a lot more bluesy feel. It actually outshines the organ.
Unfortunately, Bob himself takes over the piano for "Dirge" and gives us five minutes of insanely repetitive chording. With Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson in the same studio, we have to put up with this?
As for the songs themselves, I think it's just Dylan taking the piss out of the singer-songwriter movement. He's does John Denver's fake bucolicism ("Something There is About You"), James Taylor's self-centered doomsaying ("Going Going Gone"), Joni Mitchell's rueful love stories ("Hazel"), and shows what a real songwriter working this territory can do. Except for "Forever Young" (a shamelessly pandering appeal to the most saccharine feelings about children), each one is powerful and evocative. It's a shame he didn't let the Band do their thing - it would have been one of his best records.
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Blood on the Tracks
At last, the album I know Bob had in him! And the reason it’s so good is apparently that everyone’s paying attention. Bob’s paying attention to his singing, someone (I heard it was his brother David Zimmerman) is paying attention the arrangements, and of course the songs are written with attention to the lyrics for a change.
The most noticeable effort is in the vocals. Instead of Dylan’s usual scattershot approach, with random accents, missed notes, flubbed lyrics, he bears down, giving appropriate intensity to the emotions, singing gently on the ballads, and hitting all the notes. And because he’s making an effort, he seems to be putting more into these performances not to sound like a living room psychoanalyst, but the listener gets the sense from this record that Bob Dylan actually cares about the music on it. His phrasing on “sweet lady” in the second verse of “Idiot Wind” may be the most ironic performance in the history of singing.
The songwriting is mostly wonderful too. Dylan comes up with some terrific tunes, eminently hummable (“Buckets of Rain”), soothing (“If You See Her, Say Hello”), bouncy (“You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”) or scathing (“Idiot Wind”). The lyrics make a sort of concept album, too, as the narrator flashes backward over a ruined love affair, sorting out the wreckage through the narrative “Tangled Up in Blue” and “Simple Twist of Fate”, dropping contempt and anger all over the audience with “You’re a Big Girl” and “Idiot Wind,” then recalling attempts to salvage the relationship over “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome” and “Meet Me in the Morning.” The end of side two is a trio of wise ruminations on new love from the perspective of a man who’s just been brokenhearted, and I think it’s quite admirable that Dylan would choose to close out the album with the sweetness of “Buckets of Rain” (exquisite as this rendition is, I also highly recommend his duet with Bette Midler on her Songs for the New Depression), rather than some of the harsher sentiments elsewhere on the record. After several albums full of lazy rhymes and cliched imagery, Dylan’s near his peak on these tunes, from the twist on an old image (“like a corkscrew to my heart”) to the evocation of primal nightmare scenes (“flies buzzin' around your eyes, blood on your saddle”) to a playful phrasing of a list song (“I'll look for you in old Honolulu, San Francisco, Ashtabula”). This is not a poetry review, so suffice it to say that there’s enough in these lyrics to keep the listener absorbed for years.
To make a great record even better, this is one of Dylan’s best sounding albums. To keep things from dragging, the rhythms change up (“Tangled Up in Blue” has a subtly building drum line), keyboards fill in (the slow Moog build all the way through “Meet Me in the Morning”, from a barely perceptibly hum to a white-noise/oboe that dominates the track) or augment the guitars (the organ on “Idiot Wind”, played like a mid-60’s soul musician), and all sorts of guitars flesh out the chords (it sounds like a 6-string, a 12-string and an electric on “If You See Her” and “Simple Twist of Fate.”)
So, with all this going for it, why isn’t Blood on the Tracks a 9? “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts.” Bleah.
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The Basement Tapes
(Note: this review concerns Bob Dylan's contributions to this album. The Band's contributions are reviewed on that page.)
A lot of people cite this as their favorite Dylan album, and I think I know why: it's his friendliest. Dylan's albums, while often brilliant, are almost always difficult. That is, his singing, or his songwriting, or his lyrics, (or all three), present challenges to the average listener's enjoyment of the record. It seems as if he has a perverse dedication (except on Nashville Skyline) to defying the conventions of "listenability." When he writes a terrific melody, he'll deliver it by twisting the vowels in an approximate vibrato and striking odd accents. When he's got a great set of lyrics, he'll write a melody that lacks good hooks. And so what could be a wonderful, revelatory listening experience (this man can really sing when he wants to, and few would disagree that he's a first-class tunesmith) becomes more of a sturm-und-drang occasion, with the listener fighting Dylan to grasp the beauty within the album.
The Basement Tapes are a lot easier for casual fans; because he was not "making a record" when these songs were recorded, he's not consciously injecting difficulty into the music. Instead, he sings almost everything beautifully. Listen to "Going to Acapulco" or "You Ain't Going Nowhere" - his tone is rich and warm, he's hitting all the notes and phrasing intelligently.
Another reason this album seems so friendly is that Dylan has abandoned the contempt that circulates through almost all his other albums - from "Masters of War" to "Highlands", a lot of his lyrics are motivated by the need (or perhaps simple preference for) cutting down other people. In these songs, there is an absence of malice. Instead, there are funny little stories ("Clothes Line Saga"), lusty escapades ("Apple Suckling Tree"), and a lot of wisdom. Throughout the album, he invents or restates all sorts of proverbs that one would do well to live by: "take care of yourself, get plenty of rest"; "remember when you're out there trying to heal the sick, that you must always first forgive them"; "too much of nothing can make a man ill at ease"; "lost time is not found again."
Finally, Dylan was really on a hot streak with his tunes this time out. Writers like Greil Marcus will pontificate that this work delves deeply into early folk and blues music and that's why it resonates with us. Um, maybe, but since I've never listened to early folk and blues music (except in grade school when we sang "Fifteen miles on the Erie Canal") I'm not sure that explanation works. What does work is to say that "You Ain't Going Nowhere" has a beautiful circular pattern of short phrases, that "Open the Door, Richard" has a deceptive hook buried in the refrain, that the tag of "and I ain't got a dime" in "Please Mrs. Henry" dips to a ridiculous low note that sets the desperation of the lyrics in comic relief.
Not that everything here is pure genius: there's a fair amount of filler, in shapeless songs like "Tiny Montgomery" and "Yea Heavy and a Bottle of Bread", and the production is moderately murky. (It's actually very murky compared to, say, a Young Rascals record, but this is Dylan we're talking about - a man who was able to make terrible-sounding records as late as 1988.)
Dylan's choice of the Band to accompany him here is wise - they'd played on the road with him and had developed a sense of his way with a tune. Unlike the studio cats who usually sound baffled trying to keep up with Dylan on his other records, these guys are quite sympathetic to the moods and phrasing he establishes. Garth Hudson is particularly good on the uptempo numbers, and Richard Manuel and Rick Danko's harmonies actually rescue some of the songs, like "Yea Heavy and a Bottle of Bread" or "Million Dollar Bash" from being complete toss-offs. What's most remarkable is the complete change in their sound from the Live 1966 concerts. They managed to turn from a blustering wall-of-sound outfit into a gentle country-rock combo.
This record came out several years after it was originally recorded, and many of its songs were originally made famous by other artists, so a comparison is certainly in order. The Band recorded "Tears of Rage" and "This Wheel's on Fire", both of which Dylan co-wrote with Band members. "This Wheel's on Fire" suffers in the basement version from a sloppy arrangement, which is redeemed with a brilliant keyboard line on the Band's version. Dylan sings "Tears of Rage" better than Richard Manuel, who puts too much strain on the melody instead of letting the notes speak for themselves, but I prefer the phrasing of Manuel's "why must I always be the thief" to Dylan's "why am I always the one who must be the thief". "You Ain't Going Nowhere" was done by the Byrds, but Roger McGuinn's vocal doesn't really do justice to the bemused inspiration of this tune. Dylan's own later version (on Greatest Hits, Volume II) is a train wreck on vinyl.
True Dylan fans may find this record unsatisfying, as it only skims the surface of a huge pool of basement tapes (bootleg 12-CD packages are available), but I find this the most satisfying record of Dylan's career; easy on the ears but full of musical gems.
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Time Out of Mind
As you may have surmised from my Stones reviews, "the blues" ain't my cup of meat. Sure, I like brisk 12-bar rockers and bluesy guitar licks, but the genuine grumpy-southern-groaning blues doesn't do much for me. And Time Out of Mind is pretty much all slow blues.
This was widely acclaimed by the critics and even won the Album of the Year Grammy (putting him in the esteemed company of Toto, Celine Dion, and Phil Collins), but that was mostly because everyone was glad he didn't die (remember the heart infection?) The music itself is dullsville, and the lyrics don't go anywhere either. There are two numbers that stand out: "Make You Feel My Love" has the usual trite rhymes but a subtle gorgeous melody that Dylan massacres, which accounts for the round of Nashville covers that followed (I prefer Trisha Yearwood's version), and "Highlands" has even less musical content than most of the songs (there's literally just one guitar lick, over and over) but is perversely stretched out to Topographic Oceans length with 20 verses, seven of which are dedicated to a failed attempt at ordering eggs in a restaurant. It's amusing the first time, infuriating afterward.
It's hard to say much about the rest of the album. Dylan affects his "look Ma, I'm a bluesman" voice, and he sings obvious sentiments (heartbreak is bad, growing old is not fun) with lazy phrasing, and the production is swampy beyond belief. It's the kind of music they play at Applebee's for "Blues & Barbecue" night.
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