It's hard to know what to say about Robert Zimmerman, a.k.a. Bob Dylan - it's all been said and by all kinds of people (there's actually a term "Dylanologists" after all!). So I'm just going to go through his key albums one at a time, covering what they mean to me and what I feel they mean to music in general; I can't do more than that, really, nor would I want to. This self-titled first album was recorded for a mere $402 after the baby-faced (check the album cover) young Dylan had relocated from Minnesota to New York City's flourishing Greenwich Village folk scene, where he played coffeehouses and small clubs. He was quickly discovered by Columbia's legendary talent scout John Hammond; in fact, Dylan was mockingly referred to as "Hammond's folly" by some. This album is enjoyable but fairly minor in the grand scheme of all things Dylan, since it's primarily comprised of covers and the two Dylan originals are hardly classics, though the better of them, "Song To Woody" (which pays tribute to his prime influence Woody Guthrie), hints at the better things soon to follow. The album's other best-known songs are primarily known for inspiring subsequent versions; The Animals definitive take on "The House Of The Rising Sun," Led Zeppelin's epic "In My Time Of Dying," the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack standout "Man Of Constant Sorrow" (also covered by Rod Stewart), and so on. Bob's versions are very good too, it should be noted, as his uniquely nasal vocals were certainly one of a kind (and certainly aren't for everybody), and he was also an able guitarist and harmonica player (those are the only instruments that appear on the album). Songs such as "In My Time Of Dying," "Fixin' To Die," "Highway 51" (not to be confused with his more famous later song about another similarly named highway), "The House Of The Rising Sun" (whose arrangement he apparently stole from fellow NYC folkie and scenester Dave Van Ronk), and "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean" are quite intense, "Man Of Constant Sorrow" and "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down" have really nice melodies (the tender latter song became one of the highlights of his famous 1966 tour; more about that a little later), and his vocals on the hillbilly folk of "Freight Train" are a real hoot. Basically, Bob was already an accomplished performer who had his very own idiosyncratic style, but what this album lacks is the classic original compositions (with his trademark brilliant wordplay) that he would soon unleash upon a startled world.
The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (Columbia ‘63) Rating: A
This is the album where Bob Dylan the folk singer emerged as a writer and became Bob Dylan “The Voice Of A Generation.” Musically it’s still just a guy singing along with his guitar and/or harmonica, but he’s written a great batch of songs on which his lyrical brilliance (there’s no other word for it) is undeniable. Produced by Tom Wilson (rather than Hammond), this album is comprised of classic protest songs (“Blowin’ In The Wind,” “Masters Of War,” “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”), classic love ballads (“Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” “The Girl From the North Country") largely inspired by then-girlfriend and “muse” Suze Rotolo (that’s her forever immortalized on the album cover), and several surreal, satirical, self-referential (“Bob Dylan’s Blues,” “Bob Dylan’s Dream”) lighter numbers, plus a couple of filler tracks (“Down The Highway,” “Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance”). The album is comprised of only two cover songs (“Corrina, Corrina” is a real keeper), though Bob sometimes liberally borrows music from older sources; why does Led Zeppelin get killed for such thievery but Bob essentially skates free? Anyway, the album starts with “Blowin’ In The Wind,” a simple, short, effective song that’s easily among his most famous efforts and which was a #2 hit when covered by Peter, Paul, & Mary (which was what started to get Bob noticed by the masses beyond Greenwich Village). “Girl From The North Country,” about a girl who “once was a true love of mine” (apparently not Rotolo in this case), is extremely pretty, while the intense “Masters Of War” is Bob at his most straightforward and angry, his target this time being the arms industry. Even better is the epic “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” which was inspired by the Cuban missile crises, while another memorably quotable (“Well, I spotted me a girl before she could leave, I said ‘let's go and play Adam and Eve’, I took her by the hand and my heart it was thumpin', When she said, ‘Hey man, you crazy or something, You see what happened last time they started’”) anti-war song is “Talking World War III Blues,” and “Oxford Town” (all 1:47 of it) is one of several civil rights songs (this one about a specific event, which is less effective than his more general protest songs which have a more universal appeal). Again, among the ballads “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” and “Corrina, Corrina” stand out (in fact the former is among his very best songs, period), and again there are several lesser lighter efforts that are minor in the grand scheme of things but which are largely enjoyable just the same (the two “Bob Dylan…” songs and “I Shall Be Free,” for example). This album has a nice mix of longer serious songs and shorter minor numbers that let you come up for air, and though musically he would become more sophisticated and interesting later on after he “went electric,” this is the best album among his early folk offerings, as it's filled with classic songs.
The Times They Are A-Changin' (Columbia ‘64) Rating: A-
Not as good as the previous album, this album is still a classic of its type. What type is that? This is Bob's most direct "protest album," with lots of then-topical lyrics (some of which haven't dated well) and angry finger pointing. It solidified his status as both "The King Of Folk" (emerging muse Joan Baez was the Queen) and the "Voice Of A Generation," though not many of these songs are typically considered among Bob's very best, and its humorless, downcast mood does get wearying after a while. The anthemic title track is certainly deserving of that designation (being among Bob's very best songs), as it's one of those timeless songs that seems to have always existed. Other notable protest songs include "Only A Pawn In Their Game," his impressive "big picture" commentary on the murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers, and "The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll," a particularly effective and affecting tune about the senseless murder of a black woman by a hateful white bigot who got a mere 6 month jail sentence for his heinous crime. The album also features a pair of fine ballads ("One Too Many Mornings," "Boots Of Spanish Leather") that address his deteriorating relationship with Rotolo (quote: "you're right from your side, I'm right from mine"). "Boots Of Spanish Leather" is actually a reworking of "The Girl From The Northern Country" (the melody, chords, and picking pattern are the same) and I may actually prefer this version, and I'm also partial to the bluesy "Ballad of Hollis Brown," whose foreboding mood throughout is later tragically realized, and "When The Ship Comes In," whose livelier melody is reminiscent of the title track but the song is still fine on its own, plus the back story behind it makes me chuckle (he was denited a hotel room for looking disheveled but the pretty Ms. Baez had no such problem). Anyway, this album is certainly more hit-and-miss than the last album, but again it has its fair share of standout songs, and it remains an important early work. The last song, "Restless Farewell," is aptly titled as, perhaps spooked by the JFK assassination and the ongoing civil rights unrest, Bob soon decided to pursue a more satirical, surreal, (and safer) lyrical path that focused more on the personal than the political.
Another Side Of Bob Dylan (Columbia ‘64) Rating: A-
Aptly titled, this album largely does away with fingerpointing protest songs as Bob sought to relieve himself of the "Voice Of A Generation" moniker (which he never wanted) by focusing on more personal matters. Although Bob obviously worked hard on his lyrics, he was never a perfectionist when it came to recording, and this album was bashed out in a single (red wine filled) night, once again with only Bob alone on guitar and harmonica (and rudimentary piano on "Black Crow Blues"). Right away "All I Really Want To Do," one of four songs here (also including "Spanish Harlem Incident," "Chimes Of Freedom," and "My Back Pages") recorded (and improved upon) by The Byrds, shows a lighter side to Bob that was missing on the last album. I can do without his yodeling vocals (those who claim that Dylan "can't sing" can easily point to this song), and I far prefer The Byrds version, but this still gets the album off to a solid start. Other playful examples of light relief include "I Shall Be Free #10" and "Motorpsycho Nightmare," while I'd characterize "I Don't Believe In You" as a lively breakup song (and once again we have a "minor" song that would be among the best songs during the 1966 tour with The Band). Other breakup songs include the lovely "To Ramona" (presumably about Rotolo) and the infamously nasty "Ballad In Plain D," which recounts his and Suze's final breakup in all too vivid (and mean-spirited) detail (it doesn't help that one of Dylan's worst songs is over 8 minutes long). On the shorter side we have "Spanish Harlem Incident" (also about a woman but likely not Suze), but "Chimes Of Freedom" is another epic (7+ minutes) number that's the lone true protest song on the album (and a great one it is though its surreal, poetic imagery, apparently influenced by French poet Arthur Rimbaud, was a far cry from his more direct protest songs). Other major highlights here are "My Back Pages" and "It Ain't Me Babe." The introspective former song (definitively done by The Byrds a few years later) has one of Bob's most quoted lyrics ("I was so much older than, I'm younger than that now"), which I take to mean that his younger self was too serious, with the weight of the world on his shoulders, and now this older version of himself was ready to lift that ("Voice Of A Generation") burden and start living a more carefree life like a young man should. As for "It Ain't Me Babe," which was a top 10 hit for The Turtles, this is among the ultimate anti-love songs (it ain't him you're looking for, babe) and is probably the catchiest song on the album. So, there you have it, another classic early album (despite a few lesser songs and one gross misfire) that's somewhat overlooked because some of Dylan's surrounding albums are even more classic.
Bringing It All Back Home (Columbia ‘65) Rating: A+
Whereas Another Side Of Bob Dylan was essentially the launching pad for confessional singer-songwriters, Bringing It All Back Home basically birthed "folk rock" (though in truth it's usually either folk (side two) or rock (most of side one) here and The Byrds deserve a lot of credit for popularizing the movement as well, albeit with Bob's songs). Tired of the musical limitations of folk music, and inspired by The Beatles (among others), this excellent album is where Dylan "went electric" and embraced rock n’ roll, causing outraged cries from the closeminded folk purists who had previously championed him (he received a notoriously hostile reception at that year's Newport Folk Festival). Not to worry, as Dylan still had inspired folk moments at the ready, particularly on side two which yielded major classics such as “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” Still, the shambolic music and steady stream of lyrics on “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and the hilarious “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” were totally original compositions whose lyrical depth and ingenuity completely dazzled a rock community that’s idolized him ever since. Indeed, Dylan felt invigorated by this new form of expression and by working with other musicians, and he in turn influenced practically every performer that's arisen since (at least those who care about lyrics). Besides being incredibly influential, this seminal album contains other superb (if more modest) ballads such as “She Belongs To Me” and “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” while the raucous, ramshackle (if overly repetitive) “Maggie’s Farm” became (and remains) a staple of his live performances. The first song (“Subterranean Homesick Blues”) alone sent shockwaves throughout popular music, with its endlessly quotable lyrics ("you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows"), his rap-like delivery of them (many credit (blame?) Dylan for inventing rap music here), and even its simple but effective video which provided the opening scene in D.A. Pennebaker's classic rock documentary Don't Look Back. Again, side one is mostly electric and features short songs (aside from “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream”), with "Outlaw Blues" and "On The Road Again" being the weakest links (though they're not bad by any means), while side two is comprised of more expansive acoustic pieces. This version of "Mr. Tambourine Man" is twice as long as The Byrds version and I love 'em both, and though "Gates Of Eden" is probably the weakest entry on side two, it would be a career highlight for most people. The last two tracks are utterly brilliant, "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" being the type of song that's kept Dylanologists busy for decades, the latter more straightforward but with an exemplary melody and more lyrics that linger, such as "strike another match, go start anew," which was likely about him moving on from recent muse Joan Baez (also likely the protagonist of several other songs here as well) and from folk music. To speak in general terms about the album again, lyrically it features more general social critiques against the establishment along with more personal reflections, striking a nice balance (lyrically as well as musically). The album isn't perfect, as his backing band would soon get better and the album was again recorded (perhaps too) quickly (allegedly two days rather than one this time!), but these are nitpicks, for Bringing It All Back Home is a brilliant album from start-to-finish that's a cornerstone of any serious folk or rock collection. P.S. Although many assume it to be Baez, that's actually manager Albert Grossman's wife Sally who appears on the classic cover along with Dylan.
Highway 61 Revisited (Columbia ‘65) Rating: A+
Simply put, this album changed the landscape of rock music forever. Sure, it was a continuation of, and an improvement on, side one of Bringing It All Back Home, but this is the album that established Dylan once and for all as a legitimate rocker (it’s also a serious contender for “best Bob Dylan album” meaning that it’s one of the best albums ever). Never before had such a strange voice been heard on the radio (which can be best described as a nasal whine and which not everybody can get used to), and nobody had ever stuffed so many brilliantly poetic (if often baffling) words within simple song structures before. Of course, Dylan had already taken a great leap lyrically on the prior album (especially on side two), but this album ups the ante even further. Highway 61 Revisited features moody, atmospheric pieces (“Ballad Of A Thin Man,” “Desolation Row”) alongside raucous, often-amusing rockers (“Tombstone Blues,” “From a Buick 6,” “Highway 61 Revisited”), including the thrilling, utterly magical “Like A Rolling Stone,” arguably the greatest, most revolutionary rock song ever, in large part due to its picaresque poetry and brilliant organ playing from session ace Al Kooper, who amazingly made it up on the spot and had never played organ before (or so legend has it)! Although Dylan’s surreal lyrics are sometimes undecipherable, they always tantalize as one is made aware of a master wordsmith plying his craft (they always seem important). Musically, the production is thin and the playing is often ragged and spare, with extraordinary blues guitarist Michael Bloomfield (Paul Butterfield Blues Band) shining throughout (him and Kooper deserve a lot of credit for the improved music from side one on the previous album). Some of the songs here are very long and a bit too repetitive, my only complaint about this album and Dylan as a lyricist in general. Don’t get me wrong, “Ballad Of A Thin Man” is atmospheric as all get out and pretty great on the whole, but did he need to repeat the punchline like 100 times? (p.s. This song is also a prime example of how Dylan’s sardonic lyrics sometimes betray a mean streak.) The six minutes of “Like A Rolling Stone” (#2 U.S.) received considerable airplay, marking another barrier broken down by this album, since most songs of the day had to be cut down in length in order to receive any radio airplay. Consequently, this album’s significance simply cannot be overstated, and it has influenced nearly everything rock-related that’s happened since. That point is trivial now, however, since the music still holds up spectacularly well provided that you can tolerate his voice, an instrument that I find more than acceptable in light of how he’s able to convey his lyrics with maximum emotional impact. And when he hits his stride on simple but melodic ballads such as “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry,” “Queen Jane Approximately” (maybe his most underrated great song; when that wheezing harmonica kicks in it gets to me every single time), “Just Like Tom Thumb Blues,” and the great epic finale “Desolation Row,” all seems right with the world. Note: Tom Johnston took over production duties here aside from “Like A Rolling Stone,” which was produced by Tom Wilson. Note: #2: The simple but effective album cover is again iconic; Dylan has never looked cooler, before or since. Note #3: Talk about a guy on a roll; around this time Dylan also recorded the classic non-album single “Positively Fourth Street,” one of his greatest songs ever which marries a lovely Al Kooper-led organ melody to some of the most spiteful, bitter lyrics in rock history (including the greatest kiss-off last line ever) - truly the stuff of legend.
Blonde On Blonde (Columbia ‘66) Rating: A+
The last installment in the legendary boundary breaking trilogy of albums that most regard as Bob’s career peak (obviously also including the prior two albums), Blonde On Blonde was rock’s first double album (now a single CD). Recorded in between contentious bouts of touring with The Band (more on that in the next review), Bob famously recorded the vast majority of the album with versatile country musicians (and seasoned session pros) such as Charlie McCoy, Joe South, and Kenny Buttrey; he also brought back producer Bob Johnston (who had suggested the move to Nashville), organist and de-facto musical director Al Kooper, and added The Band’s guitarist Robbie Robertson in place of Bloomfield. According to Dylan, “the thin, wild mercury sound” of the album was “the closest I ever got to the sound I hear in my mind.” Now, I’m not sure exactly what that means, and some variation of that quote will appear in just about every review or article you’ll ever read about this album, but it does indicate how pleased he was with the album, and sure enough it again features Bob and his excellent cast of musicians at the peak of their powers, even if on a song-for-song basis I’d rank it behind Highway 61 Revisited and the much later Blood On The Tracks. In other words, being that it’s a double album, there’s some padding here even if there’s little that I’d consider to be outright filler. Oddly enough, the album’s weakest song, which starts the album, is among Dylan’s most famous songs (it was a #2 U.S. hit, after all), but let’s face it “Rainy Day Woman #12 & 35” is an annoying novelty number, though I guess it’s amusing enough as such, what with its Salvation Army marching band vibe and famous “everybody must get stoned” lyric. Elsewhere, you get several songs with a tougher blues-based feel along with some classic relationship ballads and a few epic-scale tracks (“Visions Of Johanna,” “Stuck Inside Of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again,” and “Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands,” the latter 11-minute track being the first to take up the entire side of a record). Additional hits included the jaunty “I Want You,” maybe his most perfect pop song, the gorgeous ballad “Just Like A Woman” (reputedly about another so-called “muse” Edie Sedgewick), and (in the U.K.) “One Of Us Must Know (Sooner Or Later),” one of several relationship songs and the only song here recorded with The Band rather than the Nashville guys. But this album, like all of Dylan’s albums, isn’t about hits, though it’s worth noting that in the mid-‘60s Dylan wasn’t only groundbreaking artistically, but his albums were extremely popular as well. Anyway, to cite some additional highlights, “Visions Of Johanna” is on most people’s short-list of the greatest Dylan songs, as it’s one of his songs where music is elevated to poetry, such is the beguiling nature of his wordplay, while Bob himself felt that “Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands” (about new wife Sara Lownds) was the best song he ever wrote; this one may overstay its welcome (“Desolation Row” was just as long but is even better), but when that harmonica comes in at near the 10-minute mark, it’s one of my favorite Dylan moments (in fact, though Bob isn’t technically a great harmonica player, I find that his wheezing harmonica interjections often provide a song’s musical highlight for me.) Anyway, I could go on (and on) about this album, but it’s really one of those albums that’s so important that it’s almost beyond criticism (it has its repetitive faults but they’re exceedingly minor), as even the blurry cover photo has been dissected to death.
The Bootleg Series Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966, The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert(Columbia ‘98) Rating: A
It's almost comical today thinking about all the furor and rancor caused when Dylan went electric. Of course, most of this was all rumor to those who didn’t attend Dylan’s famous – and infamous – 1996 tour…until now, that is. Recorded in Manchester (this concert it was long erroneously thought of having taken place at the other venue, hence the quotes in the title), in 1998 Columbia finally made official the release of one of rock’s most legendary bootlegs (a la The Basement Tapes in 1975). And though I doubt I’ll play the solo acoustic cd too much if at all, as it’s fairly perfunctory, with Bob trying to appease his folkie fan base even though he had clearly moved on (I can’t think of any song here that I prefer to the studio original, and in some cases I easily prefer the studio original), the second cd quite simply documents one of the most thrilling live performances ever recorded. Dylan is backed by members of what would become The Band (albeit with Mikey Jones instead of drummer Levon Helm, who had grown tired of playing groundbreaking music every night only to be roundly booed by a fiercely loyal-to-folk audience who didn’t appreciate Dylan’s trailblazing new rock direction), who shine throughout (particularly guitarist Robbie Robertson and organist Garth Hudson), and Dylan rocks harder than on any of his proper studio albums by a country mile. The music retains the timeless, ragged majesty of his classic studio albums and contains a nice selection of not quite familiar song choices, including the unreleased “Tell Me, Momma” plus several prior folk songs that are here transformed into fully-fledged rock songs (“I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met),” “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down,” and “One Too Many Mornings”). Also included are strong versions of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” and “Ballad Of A Thin Man,” and the show climaxes with an epochal, monumental rendition of “Like A Rolling Stone.” The intermission between the latter two songs features the famous exchange between Dylan and the “Judas!” shouting heckler, and one of the most interesting things about this album is hearing the at times antagonistic relationship between Dylan and the volatile audience, who frankly should’ve been far more appreciative of these energized performances, as they were witnessing history in the making. Simply put, the best of disc two is time capsule stuff, as Dylan fearlessly followed his own vision as if a man possessed. As such, it could be argued that (in addition to his many other “firsts”) Bob Dylan was the first punk rocker (punk meaning “no rules,” as opposed to acting like derelicts a la the Sex Pistols). Note: We’ll cover The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 later, but chronologically it makes sense to review this one here.
The Basement Tapes (Columbia ’75) Rating: B
Long lost masterpiece or throwaway demos? This 2-CD set is a bit of both, actually, though more of the latter than the former. Long part of one of rock’s most legendary bootleg (The Great White Wonder), Columbia finally released this joint recording after Dylan’s spectacular resurrection on the brilliant Blood On The Tracks. Which begs the question: why did it take so long for this material to finally get released? Answer: because much of it is unremarkable, certainly Dylan himself seemed to think so, though there are many critics (Greil Marcus, Robert Christgau, etc.) who would strongly beg to differ. First, a brief history lesson for those few who don’t already know the backstory. Recovering from a motorcycle accident (the seriousness of which remains a mystery, like much of Dylan’s personal life), in the Summer and Fall of 1967 Bob Dylan (now a committed family man) met up with The Band and wrote (or co-wrote) and recorded these 24 songs in the basement of The Band’s “Big Pink” house in Woodstock, New York (the one The Band later named their first album after). There are a number of very good songs here, but many of these (most of the best ones, anyway) had already made the rounds by others (most notably The Byrds, Fairport Convention, and The Band themselves; “Tears Of Rage” and “This Wheels On Fire” appeared on Music From Big Pink in 1968) by the time of this album’s official release almost a decade later (like with the last review, I’m placing this one when the album was recorded rather than when it was released). Also, there’s too much rubble amid the musty finds, though certainly a number of these songs are worth the time of any devoted fan, such as “Million Dollar Bash,” “Goin’ To Acapulco,” “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” and “Nothing Was Delivered.” That said, I feel that this is the weakest ‘60s album that either artist has their name imprinted on, though the loose, off the cuff vibe gives it a playful sense of fun that perhaps their more serious offerings lack. It’s also worth noting that Dylan wasn’t really involved with this album’s release; he sanctioned it because he was annoyed about the bootleg, but it was Robbie Robertson who actually selected the tracks and added overdubs. Many have criticized the appearance of six Band tracks (and the lack of well-known songs such as “I Shall Be Released” and “Quinn The Eskimo,” later much better done by The Band and Manfred Mann anyway) and the tinkering with the sound, but given that I’ve never heard the bootleg and I’m a big fan of The Band, this doesn’t bother me much. Besides, though the album is often listed under the Bob Dylan section, The Band’s fingerprints are all over these songs, even the ones Dylan sings, so what’s the problem with having other songs sung by guys with better voices than Bob? The fact that that this music was created for love and not commerce demands respect, and The Band and Dylan did have an undeniable chemistry, but the sloppy, tossed off feel of many of these songs leaves me with little doubt as to why they remained hidden in the vaults for so long. Long story short, I feel that the majority of this album fails to live up to its fabled legend, but if you strongly disagree you might want to proceed with the (6 CD, 139 track) 2014 archive release Bootleg Series Vol. 11: The Basement Tapes Complete.
John Wesley Harding (Columbia ’68) Rating: A
After his mysterious motorcycle accident and public disappearance during which he receded into family life and recorded The Basement Tapes with The Band, Bob Dylan again went to Nashville with producer Bob Johnston and the Blonde On Blonde rhythm section of drummer Kenny Buttrey and bassist Charlie McCoy, finally emerging with this notably less ambitious effort a full 18 months (an eternity back then) after Blonde On Blonde. But if this isn’t his most substantial or innovative album it’s nevertheless one of his most down-to-earth and enjoyable ones, with shorter songs that veer back toward the folk rock of his early albums (albeit with the aforementioned rhythm section) and forward toward the country rock of Nashville Skyline. The playing is mellower and less ragged than his recent work, with nary an electric guitar (or a chorus) in sight, as the album is filled with spare, austere songs. Bob’s voice sounds very nasal, but his conversational tone doesn’t grate (on me, anyway), and he lets loose with lots of harmonica, always a good thing in my book. Evocative songs such as “As I Went Out One Morning,” “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine,” and “All Along The Watchtower” are easy to remember, the latter especially for inspiring Jimi Hendrix’s epochal cover version, arguably the greatest makeover in rock history (he also covered this album’s “Drifter’s Escape”). Other impressive songs such as “Dear Landlord,” “I am A Lonesome Hobo,” and “I Pity The Poor Immigrant” chronicle people down on their luck, and Bob’s vulnerable singing gives these songs a memorably sad and truthful feel. Other highlights include the lighter country rock finale “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” and “The Ballad Of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest,” an epic story song – by far the longest song on the album at 5:35, this one inspired the name of the legendary heavy metal band Judas Priest - that sagely advises: “don’t go mistaking paradise for that home across the road.” Sounds like good advice to me, and this song’s message is fairly straightforward, unlike several other songs here which defy easy interpretation. Still, I like how many of these Biblical, religion-themed songs tell interesting stories, and though I may not always completely understand these songs (some of which have a spooky, haunted vibe) or remember specific details about the assorted drifters, hobos, and outlaws that populate them, I’m mesmerized by the abstract mysteries of these musically simple songs while they’re playing, and overall this is one of the most consistent Dylan albums around. After forsaking his prior superstar lifestyle, Dylan delivered an understated and underrated album whose stripped down music was the polar opposite of the psychedelic excesses of the era.
Nashville Skyline (Columbia ’69) Rating: B+
Again recorded in Nashville with the same producer but a bigger band, Bob Dylan fully embraced country on Nashville Skyline, while also forsaking big statements for simple love songs befitting a happily married man (note Bob’s smile on the goofy album cover photo). What really threw people off here was Bob’s way-weird vocal delivery, a not quite right sounding deep voiced croon that sounded completely unlike anything he had ever attempted before. But his voice has always been off-putting at first anyway, and it fits most of the material here once you get used to it. Besides, gorgeous songs such as his remake of “Girl From The North Country” (a duet with Johnny Cash that’s much different if not necessarily better than the prior version) and the stately ballad “Lay Lady Lay” (one of his biggest hits and best ballads ever) feel effortlessly natural after awhile. All Bob wants is “To Be Alone With You” for “One More Night,” but when mistrust rears its ugly head he also wants you to “Tell Me That It Isn’t True” in the hopes that he won’t have to wake up one morning realizing that “I Threw It All Away” (this is Bob Dylan we’re talking about so of course it isn’t all violets and roses; unsurprisingly it’s the more negative latter two tracks that are weightier and more impressive). On the whole, the 10 short songs on Nashville Skyline run on for a scant 27 minutes, and they contain far fewer words than the Dylan of old used to deliver, which of course disappointed those expecting a more ambitious album. Musically, some rolling piano and stabbing guitar add rock elements to what is otherwise essentially a country album; this album can therefore be seen as influential in the development of country rock (much like The Byrds’ Sweetheart Of The Rodeo). While obviously not a “major” Dylan album, especially since it has a few filler tracks (the other highlight here is the tuneful “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” which has a similar vibe to the last album’s “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight”), Nashville Skyline is perfectly pleasant and listenable if also lightweight and insubstantial. Note: There are many Bob Dylan books out there where you can read about his largely underwhelming 1970-1974 output, which included the much-maligned Self Portrait (1970), the better received but still minor New Morning (1970), the 1973 soundtrack to Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (which included one of his greatest songs in “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”), the album released by Columbia to spite him when he briefly left them for Asylum Records (Dylan), and his reuniting with The Band for the not as good as hoped for Planet Waves (1974; highlighted by two versions of “Forever Young”) and the 1974 joint Dylan/Band tour which yielded the good-not-great live album Before The Flood.
Blood On The Tracks (Columbia ’75) Rating: A+
After a period during which his genius had dimmed, Dylan came roaring back with this masterpiece, which rivals his mid-‘60s trilogy of albums and is Dylan’s ultimate statement as a confessional singer-songwriter. Amazingly, Dylan famously recut over half the album at the last minute with some local Minneapolis musicians, but you’d never know it given how cohesive the album sounds (and as a bonus I think that Blood On The Tracks is the greatest album title of Dylan’s career). Inspired by his then-troubled marriage, this is often referred to as Dylan’s “divorce album,” and its popularity has baffled him: “A lot of people tell me they enjoy that album. It’s hard for me to relate to that. I mean, people enjoying that type of pain?” I can see why he’d question that, but Dylan’s greatness is in making the personal universal, so it’s natural that other people who have loved and lost would take solace in and be able to relate to this album's honest reflection (misery loves company, after all). Perhaps it’s true what they say, that one needs to suffer for one's art; beginning with the beautifully bittersweet “Tangled Up In Blue,” one of the great story songs which brilliantly switches its narrative structure throughout, this album rises from peak-to-peak. There are a couple of songs that could probably be considered less than first-rate (the epic “Lily, Rosemary, and The Jack Of Hearts” in particularly has its detractors), but I at least like all of them (yes even “Lily…”), and this is one of those albums that adds up to much more than the sum of its individual parts. That said, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention other songs I consider obvious highlights. “A Simple Twist Of Fate” is incredibly sad and affecting, “Idiot Wind” is another epic-scale number which delivers his most bitter diatribe since “Positively Fourth Street” (famous lyric: “you’re an idiot babe, it’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe” – ouch!). Later on, his howling rage has subsided, as the devastating “If You See Her, Say Hello” sees him resigned to the dissolution of their relationship, while “Shelter From The Storm” sees Dylan at his most vulnerable. A far cry from his some of his brilliantly oblique prior classics, this album provides stunningly direct lyrics about the conflicting emotions that he was going through at the time. Instrumentally, the music here is mostly acoustic but features full-band arrangements, and the songs have a timeless feel and are unsurprisingly imbued with a sad, melancholic edge. In addition to some of the old bard’s finest music (which often gets overlooked in favor of his lyrics), poetic lyrics such as “all the while I was alone the past was close behind, I seen a lot of women but she never escaped my mind” are sure to haunt anyone who has ever loved and lost. Again, such lyrical directness must’ve come as a breath of fresh air to those who sometimes wondered what Dylan was getting at in the mid-‘60s. It also doesn’t hurt that this album features Dylan’s finest overall vocal performance, and in fact it’s my go-to album recommendation when encountering people who say they don’t like Dylan because “he can’t sing.”
Desire (Columbia ’76) Rating: A-
After the emotional purging of Blood On The Tracks, Bob returns to more topical subjects on Desire, though “Isis” (presumably) and “Sara” (most directly) again honestly address his lost love. On the poignant latter song (on which he famously confesses that he wrote “Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands” for her), when Bob says “loving you is the one thing I’ll never regret” it can only be seen as a last, personal plea to try to save his marriage (apparently it worked; she was there for what must’ve been an incredibly intense recording session, and they briefly reconciled thereafter before ultimately divorcing for good in 1977). The rest of the album has a different focus, however, best exemplified by the classic “Hurricane,” a monumental 9 minute story song about “wrongfully imprisoned” middleweight contender Ruben Carter (I added quotes because it's debatable whether two juries got it wrong when they convicted him; certainly the later movie about him starring Denzel Washington was more fiction than reality). This powerful, driving rock song (regardless of how factually correct it is; for one thing the drumming by Howard Wyeth is outstanding), and many of the others, are co-written with writer Jacques Levy (whose theater background gives many of them a cinematic quality), and are prominently helped along by the exotic violin of (the previously unknown) Scarlet Rivera. Emmylou Harris also lends her beautiful backing vocals to several strong songs (“Black Diamond Day,” “Oh, Sister,” “Romance In Durango” – all wildly different from one another), my favorite of which is the haunting “One More Cup Of Coffee,” one of his all-time overlooked gems (later covered by The White Stripes). On the downside, many seem to like “Isis” a lot more than I do, “Mozambique” is enjoyable but lightweight (not to mention lyrically completely out of touch with reality), and the 11-minute “Joey” sees a worrisomely naïve Dylan (really Levy, according to Dylan) glorifying murderous gangster Joey Gallo (so that makes it at least one maybe two songs here that are sympathetic to murderers, which naturally was quite controversial). Then again, some of his older fans were happy to see Dylan again singing socially conscious songs, many of which are on the long side as the album contains a mere 9 songs that run on for 56 minutes. For all its flaws, I do consider Desire to be a great album, though it’s a minor rather than a major Dylan classic to me. It would turn out to be his last great studio album for a long time, and it’s a unique one-off among Dylan albums because he so willingly shares center stage with others (Levy, Rivera, and Harris), and though it’s far from perfect this ambitious follow-up to one of his crowning achievements continued his mid-‘70s career resurgence.
The Bootleg Series Vol. 5: Bob Dylan Live 1975, The Rolling Thunder Revue (Columbia ’02) Rating: A
This is another essential Bootleg Series installment that rivals Volume 4 as THE officially released live Bob Dylan album, and it can essentially replace the much lesser Hard Rain (released 26 years earlier), which also chronicled his Rolling Thunder Revue tour (Hard Rain captured later 1976 concerts when the tour had lost some steam). Taking a book from Joe Cocker’s madcap Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour, the Rolling Thunder Revue tour was famously comprised of many musicians, including the core musicans from Desire (bassist Rob Stoner, drummer Howard Wyeth, violinist Scarlet Rivera) but also well-known players/singers such as Joan Baez, T-Bone Burnett, Mick Ronson, and Roger McGuinn. With Dylan strangely dressed up in painted white face, this loose conglomeration of musicians sounds like a travelling gypsy caravan (my friend thinks it sounds like a gypsy version of the E Street Band). The album peaks immediately with hard rocking renditions of “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You,” “It Ain’t Me Babe,” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” all of which demonstrate that Dylan was willing and able to completely rework his songbook (something he’d spend the rest of his career doing in concert). The results aren’t always an improvement, as for example the somber studio rendition of “The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll” is more appropriate than this one. I tend to think of this album in song groupings: the blistering first few songs already described, the Joan Baez duet songs ("Blowin' in the Wind," "Mama, You Been on My Mind," "I Shall Be Released," "The Water Is Wide"), the (perhaps too) many Desire songs (some clear improvements to me such as “Isis” and “Sara”), the Blood On The Tracks songs (“Simple Twist Of Fate,” “Tangled Up In Blue”) which are arguably even more aching than the studio versions, the solo acoustic songs (“It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” “Love Minus Zero/No Limit”), and so on. The album features a nice mix of highly energized rock and mellower respites, and obvious classics (“Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Just Like A Woman,” “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”) alongside not so obvious should’ve-been-classics (some of the previously mentioned songs as well as the guitar-heavy “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry”). Of course, opinion will be divided on the Baez songs, depending on your opinion of Baez (I think she did a good job overall), but Bob is in excellent voice throughout, and this album presents a remarkable snapshot of what was a remarkable tour (one that likely influenced later large scale tours/festivals such as Lollapalooza and Ringo Starr’s All-Star Band).
Street-Legal (Columbia ’78) Rating: A-
I discovered this album much later than any of the other Bob Dylan studio albums I’ve reviewed thus far, and I’m pleasantly surprised by how good it is. Reviews of this album at the time were largely unkind, and in the U.S. at least it was a much weaker seller than the prior three studio albums (all of which hit #1), but apparently that was in part due to sound problems that were resolved by subsequent reissues (having come to the party late I’m blissfully unaware of the problematic earlier versions, having never heard them). All, in all, I’d say that this might be my favorite Dylan album that’s never mentioned among his classics. Obviously Dylan’s recent divorce weighs heavily on his mind on certain songs, but I find the music here to be uplifting on the whole, helped in large part by the gospel backing vocals that prominently appear on every song along with horns, saxes, and other assorted instruments (violins, mandolins, and keyboards in addition to the usual bass/guitar/drums setup). A couple of outstanding 6+ minute epics open (“Changing Of The Guards,” one of my favorite Dylan songs) and close (“Where Are You Tonight (Journey Through Dark Heat)”) the album, and there are also quite a few underrated catchy numbers (“Baby, Stop Crying,” “Is Your Love In Vain?,” and the wonderfully titled “True Love Tends To Forget”), as well as the atmospheric, Spanish-flavored “Señor (Tales Of Yankee Power”). Even a lesser song like “New Pony” is salvaged by strong guitar and sax solos; in fact guitarist Billy Cross lends strong solos to several songs, and there’s not a single song here (also including the lively Irish folk of “No Time To Think,” another epic, and the more low-key “We Better Talk This Over”) that I don’t appreciate in some way. On the downside, Dylan’s voice shows some wear and tear here, and it’s not a major classic when compared to some of his best albums, but Street-Legal has a lot of nice melodies and is a very enjoyable listen.
Infidels (Columbia ’83) Rating: B+
Like most people, I’m not a big fan of Bob’s evangelical “born again” trilogy of albums. That said, the majority of side one of Slow Training Coming (1979) is very good, though the album runs out of steam during a weak second half. Saved (1980) is the weakest entry but even that one had some redeeming moments, particularly in its mid-section (“Solid Rock,” “Pressing On,” “In The Garden”), while Shot Of Love (1981) at the very least contained two of his best tracks from the period in “The Groom’s Still Waiting At The Altar” (a throwback rocker that was originally only released as a b-side but was belatedly added to the album after it proved to be too popular to keep off) and “Every Grain Of Sand” (one of his best ballads ever, period, and a longstanding personal favorite going back to my college days). So, feel free to combine the best songs from all three albums, you’ll end up with a really nice album, actually. That said, it was a smart career move when Dylan decided to return to less heavy-handed material on Infidels, his best album of the period though it could’ve been even better (more on that a bit later). On the downside, the album suffers somewhat from cheesy ‘80s production techniques, and songwriting-wise the album has a couple of clunkers (“Neighborhood Bully,” “Union Sundown”) and a couple of merely pretty good tunes (“License To Kill,” “Man Of Peace”). On the plus side, the outstanding band, including the legendary likes of guitarists Mark Knopfler and Mick Taylor, and the rhythm section of Sly Dunbar & Robbie Shakespeare, makes even the so-so songs worth hearing, and there are four excellent songs, both from a songwriting and performance standpoint. The album’s best song is its first track, “Jokerman,” another stunning personal favorite from back in my college days (my roommate/buddy Kevin had it and “Every Grain Of Sand” on a killer mix tape). A catchy reggae flavored track with mysterious, mystical lyrics, it’s simply a great song regardless of period, and “Sweetheart Like You,” despite some regrettably sexist lyrics, is an affecting, melodic ballad with a soulful guitar solo. The spare, bluesy “I and I” is another acknowledged winner, while “Don’t Fall Apart On Me Tonight” ends the album with what I consider to be an overlooked gem. So, half the album is superb and half is pretty decent, which was disappointing only in retrospect once we learned that some of his best songs recorded for this album weren’t included on it (songs such as “Foot Of Pride” “Lord Protect My Child,” and the especially notable “Blind Willie McTell” were only released several years later on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3).
Oh Mercy (Columbia ’89) Rating: A-
Let's face it, the 1980s was not a kind decade to most music legends from the '60s and '70s. After Infidels an uninspired Bob Dylan delivered several weak releases: Empire Burlesque (1985), Knocked Out Loaded (1986), and Down In the Groove (1988). There were a few songs from these albums worth salvaging (“Dark Eyes,” “Brownsville Girl,” and “Silvio,” for example), but this period probably marked the low point of Dylan’s career. His best result from this period was actually when he moonlighted in the supergroup The Traveling Wilburys, whose first album released in 1988 was highly enjoyable (the most notable Dylan song in the Wilburys was “Tweeter and the Monkey Man”). Teaming with producer Daniel Lanois, previously best known for his stellar work with U2, Peter Gabriel, and Robbie Robertson, 1989's Oh Mercy saw a fully engaged Dylan (perhaps re-energized after his time with the Wilburys) delivering his best, most consistent solo album of the decade. It helps greatly that Lanois brings his typically brilliant atmospherics to the table, but this wouldn’t mean much if Bob’s writing wasn’t also up to the task. Recorded in New Orleans, the album’s swampy sound easily brings that legendary Southern region to mind, as Dylan delivers a series of haunting songs that reek of a certain late night desperation. The best of these are probably “Political World,” “Everything Is Broken,” “Ring Them Bells,” “Man In The Long Black Coat,” and “Most Of The Time” (the most U2-like song on the album and my favorite one). Several session musicians give certain songs a full-bodied sound (though “Political World” and “Everything Is Broken” are the only songs I’d describe as “rockers”) and as usual with Lanois it’s often the spaces between the notes that get to the heart of the melodies. Dylan’s raw, gravelly voice shows some clear wear and tear and rarely rises above a whisper, while his lyrics are very good but a bit more hit-and-miss than at his absolute peak. The critics lauded this album with praise, and perhaps they went a bit overboard in their eagerness to prop up their fallen hero, but despite a couple of lesser tracks on side two and an overall lack of variety there’s a lot to like on this long overdue return to relevance. P.S. Dylan recognized that this was an important album, as he devoted a significant portion of his Chronicles autobiography to it. Alas, as with Infidels, one of the best songs (“Series Of Dreams”) recorded for this album didn’t surface until The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3. This anthemic, powerfully building (and even more U2-ish) track would’ve not only been the best song on the album (heck it’s arguably his best song of the entire decade), but it would’ve given this ballad-heavy collection some needed variety. Note: In 1988 Dylan started a relentless touring schedule that’s since come to be known as “The Never Ending Tour.”
The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 (Rare and Unreleased) 1961-1991(Columbia ’91) Rating: A
After the encouraging Oh Mercy, Dylan took several steps back with the disappointing Under The Red Sky, but then he (or Columbia) finally released this album, which longtime Dylanologists had been waiting for. Dylan had delivered scattered previously unreleased songs before on Greatest Hits Vol. II (1971) and especially his Biograph box set (1985), but this was the first time he had devoted a whole album (make that three albums) to assorted rarities, unreleased songs, and familiar songs but in alternate takes. Rather than being mere barrel scrapings, what’s amazing about these albums is how good (great even) many of these songs are, as the album fascinatingly presents a sort of alternate history of what earlier Bob Dylan albums would’ve been like had he made different (in some cases better) choices. Sequenced chronologically by when the song was recorded, the first disc is comprised of Greenwich Village folkie Bob, with various outtakes, demos, and a few live tracks. Unlike most people, this is probably the disc I listen to the least, but there’s still lots of high quality stuff to be found here, such as “House Carpenter,” “Talkin’ Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues” (Bob at his most humorous), “Let Me Die in My Footsteps,” the live “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues,” “Only a Hobo,” “Moonshiner,” and “Last Thoughts On Woody Guthrie,” his lone actual poem set to music which fittingly closes disc one. Disc two is comprised of outtakes and alternate studio takes from The Times They Are A-Changin’ though Blood On The Tracks. High quality songs such as “Seven Curses,” “Mama, You Been On My Mind,” “Farewell, Angelina,” and “If You Gotta Go, Go Now (Or Else You Got To Stay All Night)” easily could’ve made their respective studio albums, and boy is it good hearing Michael Bloomfield and Al Kooper again with Bob on rocking Highway 61 Revisited-era tracks such as “Sitting on a Barbed Wire Fence” and “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry” (vastly different and probably an improvement on the original version, though this rendition of “Like A Rolling Stone” can’t hope to compare to the incomparable original classic). Though obviously unfinished, I’m also partial to the Blonde On Blonde outtakes “I’ll Keep it With Mine” (on which Kooper again shines) and especially the 6+ minute “She’s Your Lover Now,” which showcases Bob at his vitriolic best (memorable quote: “you just sit around and ask for ashtrays, can’t you reach?”). Also notable is a version of “I Shall Be Released” with Richard Manuel harmonizing on the chorus, and a version of “If Not For You” featuring George Harrison, while the “Tangled Up In Blue” and “Idiot Wind” alternate takes aren’t better than the originals but they are fascinatingly different and well worth hearing. So is the alternate version of “If You See Her, Say Hello” that begins the third disc, and though the latter day material on this disc is (unsurprisingly) less consistent than the first two, it also contains some real gems, some of which (as previously mentioned) should’ve but didn’t make it onto albums like Shot Of Love (“Angelina” and a wonderfully spare rendition of “Every Grain Of Sand” featuring Jennifer Warnes’ and Dylan’s dogs are highlights), Infidels (the three previously mentioned songs but also the poppy “Someone’s Got A Hold Of My Heart” and the soulful “Tell Me”), and Oh Mercy (“Series Of Dreams” which makes for a great set closer here). You also get a couple of Desire outtakes (welcome back Scarlet and Emmylou!) and a rocking Rolling Thunder Revue live track (“Seven Days”) among several other lesser entries. That’s the problem with this set; at 68 previously discarded songs obviously not everything here is going to be a bulls-eye, and I suspect that most people will make their own playlists rather than playing any of these sides all the way through (I’ll also bet than no two 25-track playlists would be exactly the same!). Still, given that these songs were essentially discards the quality of these albums (and most of the subsequent Bootleg Series albums) is remarkable, as Dylan’s best discards were proven to be better than most people’s prime stuff!
Time Out Of Mind (Columbia ’97) Rating: A
After the triumphantly received The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 Dylan decided to continue turning back the clock, releasing a pair of albums, Good As I Been To You (1992) and its darker companion piece World Gone Wrong (1993), on which he reverted to Bob the folkie by recording old traditional songs with only his voice, guitar, and harmonica. I’ll be honest; these albums are good for the genre exercises that they are, but I almost never reach for them, and his MTV Unplugged album wasn’t one of the more notable albums in that series (unlike say Nirvana or Eric Clapton). Bob then smartly reunited with producer Daniel Lanois, who provided his atmospheric imprint on what turned out to be Dylan’s best album since Blood On The Tracks. Apparently, Dylan and Lanois clashed at times, but given that Dylan’s two best albums since Blood On The Tracks were both produced by Lanois (the other of course being Oh Mercy), clearly he deserves a lot of credit for bringing out the best in Bob. Of course, brilliant atmospherics only mean so much without quality songs, and Dylan has written some great ones here, along with some good ones and no bad ones. Apparently these songs were written before Dylan, then in his mid-‘50s, came down with a serious heart condition, almost as if he had a premonition as several of these songs see a wise elder statesman staring down at his own mortality. This then, is Dylan’s “death album,” but musically it’s not all doom and gloom, as there are some rockers and bluesy vamps alongside the atmospheric late night organ-based ballads that form the heart of the album. As for Dylan’s voice, not since Nashville Skyline has it undergone such a transformation, as his ravaged old man voice sounds weathered beyond belief, which takes some getting used to but which is actually quite fitting for these songs. Highlights include “Love Sick,” which immediately and expertly introduces the album’s spare, moody late night sound, “Standing In The Doorway,” one of his saddest, most gorgeous ballads, “Trying To Get To Heaven,” which is musically a bit brighter but lyrically sees Bob very aware of his own mortality, “Cold Irons Bound,” probably the best up-tempo tune on the album, and the album’s centerpiece song, the masterful “Not Dark Yet,” which for my money gives John Prine’s “Hello In There” a run for its money as the greatest song ever about growing old. Also worth a mention are “Make You Feel My Love,” which was later taken to the bank by Adele, and the almost spoken word “Highlands,” which rides a nice little groove for over 16 minutes, making it his longest song to date and a fitting finale for what was then viewed as a great comeback album but which is now recognized as merely the first step in a career renaissance.
“Love and Theft” (Columbia ’01) Rating: A-
The consensus album of the year (according to Rolling Stone and the Village Voice, anyway) was released on September 11, 2001. However, unlike the dark, death obsessed Time Out Of Mind, “Love and Theft” is a loose, far more upbeat (if still reflective) album that revels in its many moods and styles. The album puts an exclamation point on one of the most spectacular career resurrections in recent rock history (similar to Neil Young’s career revival in the ‘90s), as this veteran rocker packs more rich musical details and hard won wisdom into this album than most artists can muster in an entire career. It helps that he has such a great band (arguably his best since The Band) by his side, which enables Bob to pursue driving rock n’ roll (“Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum,” “Honest With Me”), ‘50s rockabilly (“Summer Days”), a jazzy shuffle (“Bye and Bye”), bluesy goodies (“Lonesome Day Blues,” “High Water (For Charley Patton),” “Cry A While”), weary folk (“Po ‘Boy"), and melodic ballads (“Mississippi,” “Moonlight,” Sugar Baby”) with equal ease. Sometimes these songs sound like generic genre exercises, making this a very good rather than a great Dylan album for me, but some memorably well-spun phrases (examples: “you went years without me, might as well keep going now,” “yes I cried for you, now it’s your turn, you can cry awhile”) or deft musical touches (such as the violin in “Floater (Too Much To Ask)”) makes every song on this consistently strong album worth hearing (which is why I’ve mentioned all of them!). My favorite songs are probably “Mississippi,” a brilliant, timeless Time Out Of Mind outtake actually previously recorded by Sheryl Crow, “High Water (For Charley Patton),” an effective tribute to the titular blues hero similar to what he had done previously for Blind Willie McTell, and “Po’ Boy,” which features Bob’s best vocal on the album. About those grizzled, croaky vocals; Bob’s voice is pretty shot at this point, I’m not going to sugarcoat it, so those of you who take issue with his voice might really take issue with his latter day voice. Ultimately, I find it to be merely a minor negative on an album that has many outstanding positives. Again, the band – consisting of guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell, guitarist Charlie Sexton, Time Out Of Mind holdover Augie Meyers on accordion and organ, bassist Tony Garnier, drummer David Kemper, and bongo player Clay Meyers – is really good, and the album’s rich Americana sound has little in common with Time Out Of Mind or any other Bob Dylan album for that matter. Having ditched death a few years earlier, this 60 year old sounds very much alive on “Love and Theft”. Note: The prior year (2000) Dylan received his lone Oscar for his Wonder Boys theme song “Times Have Changed.”
Modern Times (Columbia ’06) Rating: B+
This one took a little longer, but again the results were well worth it, though I consider Modern Times to be the weakest among Dylan’s justifiably acclaimed trilogy of late career comeback albums (though he’s released several albums since, I don’t think any of them have been as good as Time Out Of Mind, “Love and Theft”, or Modern Times). His last album, “Love and Theft”, proved that Dylan could still make a really good album without Daniel Lanois, and stylistically this album is more a continuation of that one, though bassist Tony Garnier is the lone holdover musician from the prior album. That said, the album’s best song to me, yet another epic closer in “Ain’t Talkin’,” has a dark late night atmosphere that’s reminiscent of Time Out Of Mind. Elsewhere, Dylan generally alternates rockers and ballads, with the ballads on the whole being much better as some of the more up-tempo songs are a bit on the generic side (my favorite rocker is probably “Someday Baby”). Also problematic is his liberally borrowing of melodies and even lyrics without accreditation; for example, the first song, “Thunder On The Mountain,” could easily be co-credited to Chuck Berry and Memphis Minnie. Then again, musicians have been “borrowing” from each other for ages, and by the time he’s done shuffling things around, most of these songs are Bob Dylan songs through and through. Ballads such as “Spirit On The Water,” “When The Deal Goes Down,” “Workingman’s Blues #2,” “Nettie Moore,” and the aforementioned finale are all excellent, in part because Dylan’s vocals are more palatable on the whole than on the prior album, whose more consistent songwriting and superior band performances still gives it the overall edge to me. But regardless of where this album stacks up career-wise, the bottom line is that Modern Times (which features more violin than any Dylan album since Desire) was another rock solid, legacy enhancing release. Note: This album became Dylan’s first U.S. #1 album since Desire, and subsequent albums have also charted highly.
The Bootleg Series Vol. 8: Tell Tale Signs: Rare and Unreleased 1989-2006 (Columbia ’08) Rating: A-
Most people consider Bob Dylan an all-time great, but his Bootleg Series of albums made even those people place him on a higher pedestal. What other classic rocker has such an abundance of excellent non-released songs (or even comes close)? After The Bootleg Series Vol. 6: Bob Dylan Live 1964, Concert at Philharmonic Hall and The Bootleg Series Vol 7: No Direction Home: The Soundtrack, which are worthwhile but inessential for casual fans, comes Vol. 8, which is essentially the sequel to Volumes 1-3 (since Volumes 4 through 7 were archive live releases). This 2-disc set is comprised of unreleased songs, alternate song versions, demos, live tracks, and orphaned soundtrack songs covering the period from Oh Mercy through Modern Times. The fertile Oh Mercy and Time Out Of Mind period are most often revisited, probably because Dylan felt those albums were overproduced (due to Lanois not exactly being a hands-off producer), and most of the rawer, more stripped down alternate versions are worthy companion pieces to the originals, though I personally generally prefer the gauzy Lanois versions (for example, this “Series Of Dreams” is simply less epic and exciting than the prior one without the big production bulking it up). This version of “Most Of The Time” sees Dylan in his early folk format (acoustic guitar/vocals/harmonica), and it’s a fine version even if I prefer the Oh Mercy version. Many people seem to prefer this more spare, reserved “Someday Baby,” and even though I don’t I do like both version and I’m glad that both were released. Likewise, I think the version of “Mississippi” on “Love and Theft” is the best version, but the two vastly different versions here that kick off each disc are both excellent as well, though I don’t think that two versions of “Dignity” were warranted as well. On the whole, disc one is superior to disc two, and the material is more hit-and-miss than the first three volumes, plus Dylan’s voice during this era could be problematic as I’ve mentioned before. As for the biggest highlights (to me, anyway), the epic-scale, atmospheric folk of “Red River Shore,” whose accordion gives it a unique flavor, would’ve been among the best songs on Time Out Of Mind, and that goes likewise for the excellent “Born In Time” and Oh Mercy (an inferior version was actually released on Under The Red Sky). The swirling, atmospheric rocker “Dreamin’ Of You” is another standout from the Time Out Of Mind period (so Bob’s best latter day album could’ve been even better!), and a live 2003 version of “High Water (For Charley Patton)” is a seriously rocking standout, making me wish that Bob/Columbia would release a live album from the early 2000s. Saving the best for last, the violin-enhanced “Cross The Green Mountain,” Dylan’s 2003 contribution to the Gods and Generals soundtrack, is another epic ballad that’s simply one of his best songs ever, not to mention among his greatest soundtrack songs (i.e. “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” “Things Have Changed”). On the whole, there are some songs I skip here and there, but like the first three Bootleg Series volumes this album presents a stellar alternate history of what might’ve been, plus the majority of these two discs are simply a damn good listen. Note: Subsequent Bootleg Series albums (as of this writing) have sought to revisit his early folk era (The Bootleg Series Vol. 9: The Whitmark Demos: 1962-1964), recast Self Portrait in a much better light (The Bootleg Series Vol. 10: Another Self Portrait (1969-1971)), close the book on The Basement Tapes (The Bootleg Series Vol. 11: The Basement Tapes Complete), and revisit his greatest era (The Bootleg Series Vol. 12: The Cutting Edge 1965-1966). P.S.: Dylan was given a huge honor when he became the first musician to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016.
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