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"I see my light come shining, from the west unto the east"

Class A

Main Category: Singer-Songwriters
Also applicable: Psychedelia, Roots Rock
Starting Period: The Early Years
Also active in: The Psychedelic Years, The Artsy/Rootsy Years,

The Interim Years, The Punk/New Wave Years,

The Divided Eighties, From Grunge To The Present Day





Disclaimer: this page is not written from the point of view of a Bob Dylan fanatic and is not generally intended for narrow-perspective Bob Dylan fanatics. If you are deeply offended by criticism, non-worshipping approach to your favourite artist, or opinions that do not match your own, do not read any further. If you are not, please consult the guidelines for sending your comments before doing so. For information on reviewing principles, please see the introduction. For specific non-comment-related questions, consult the message board.

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Robert Zimmerman is - always was - an extremely complicated kind of guy, quite often complicated for the very sake of being complicated, sometimes complicated for a real good reason. You can spend weeks, months and maybe years trying to catch him by his tail, and just when you finally think the case is closed once and for all him he suddenly turns around and says something like "hold it, pal, you're not gonna make me that easy" and whoops, there's another facet of his you swear you never ever noticed before.

Over the years he's made albums that were praised as the greatest albums of all time (sometimes unjustly, but who can tell?); albums that were trampled over as the most horrible trash in the world (sometimes unjustly, but who can tell?); and albums that were both. He's had so many 'peak periods' and 'down periods' throughout his career that it is not even possible to discuss him in terms of peaks and downs. The truth is that Bob Dylan is a genius. And an absolute genius at that; a talent of such a stature it's bound to shine through even in his least inspired oeuvres. He never really thought too much, nor too carefully, about the making of his songs. He just simply wrote down things that flew through his head.

And all of the time he has been deceiving people - both literally (it's a well-known fact that at least several of his early hits were all "adapted" from raw ideas that actually belonged to his Greenwich village colleagues) and figuratively. First he deceived them into thinking he was a working class folk singer. Then he deceived them into thinking he was a drug-addled psycho. Then the deception swung over to a certain "minstrel of country-western" angle - another deception. As a matter of fact, he was none of those, or, to be more precise, he could be all of those by always being above all of those. He was (and still is, I dare say) a genius. The essence of his sound lies in its introspectivity, that's my humble opinion. All of his songs are about himself, about all the sides of his inner life, be they good or bad, whether they make any rational sense or not. And he never cared about which of his sides the people appreciated most. And - once again - he was a genius. And he gets an A. And you should like him, 'cos if you don't - you don't know what music is all about. And I don't make these statements that often.

Yet please don't think of me as of a stubborn Dylan deadhead, ready to lick the man's toes any day of the week. The reason I don't prattle too much about Dylan flaws (like quite a few reviewers like to do) is that these "flaws" are so obvious that discussing them is one of the most banal things to do. Yes, we all know that he's got an 'unbearable' voice, his melodies are for the most part rudimentary (at least when compared to his major popmeister colleagues of the 60s), many of them are jibbered from traditional folk songs and most of the others fall into the standard blues/country pattern, and he often gets much too repetitive and even 'boring' in the pseudo-objective sense of the word. The bad sides are obvious.

I might just have to add that it's easy to cope with these sides once you stop thinking about Dylan's singing and songwriting in the conventional terms of singing and songwriting: frankly speaking, his creativity transcends all conventions. Sure, his voice is gruff and wheezy: but wasn't he the first rock'n'roller to prove to the world that you could get away with singing without having to sound like Elvis Presley or Frankie Avalon? His singing style has served as the primary inspiration for hundreds of performers, including such outstanding acts as Lou Reed and Jimi Hendrix. It's just not what you're going to expect. Unfortunately, people seem to be divided in two major groups here: those that "get" his singing and those that don't - or, to put it more politely, his singing "gets" to group A and doesn't "get" to group B. The first group (which includes your humble servant) thinks he's a great singer, highly emotional and in a class of his own, using his vocal cords as a peculiar musical instrument all the time. The second group either thinks he's talentless or, at the very best, that his songs always sounded better when sung by other performers. And practically nothing can change the opinions of either, and I do mean nothing - I've held numerous battles defending poor Mr Zimmerman from those who say they'd better go listen to their toilet flushing than put on a Dylan record. Whatever. I guess this has something to do with your genes after all. Nevertheless, it is always better to 'get' something than 'not to get' it (this is my primary belief about art: always try to like it), so I say that if you don't 'get' Dylan there must be something wrong with your genes. Now feel free to flame me.

It is not entirely true as well that Dylan's primary strength lies in his lyrics. Sure, he was one of rock's greatest poets, and certainly the main force behind the 'lyrical revolution' that took place somewhere in the mid-Sixties, when people finally started listening to songs like 'Mr Tambourine Man' and getting away from the permanent 'girls-and-cars' thematics. And he's indeed a great poet. He started off as a funny, rambunctious, smarter-than-thou folk singer, then plunged into full-bodied psychedelia and afterwards just kept flooding every possible basement with one layer of unexpected, unpredictable imagery after another. Again, some people complain about the utter nonsense and incomprehensibility of his lyrics, but somehow people often forget that lyrics are not prose: you do not go around 'understanding' lyrics like you 'understand' prose. Much more often than not, Dylan's lyrics just convey a mood, a general feeling, maybe a vague idea, and an endless stream of entertaining, intriguing, and sometimes downright hilarious wordgames.

I mean, everybody knows that 'Ballad Of A Thin Man' is a protest song, right? Right. And then they go on complaining about lines like 'give me some milk or else go home' and say 'THAT's protest? Man, you're whacky!' Well, dude, this is beat poetry - and, actually, beat poetry of the highest order (this coming from someone who normally is not a beat poetry fan at all). You won't be hearing direct calls like 'up against the wall mutherfuckah' in every second line. You'll get a lot of "lexical chaff", and it'll be your honourable task to extract the grain out of it. On the other hand, just think of the angriness of the lyrics. Think how Dylan goes around hitting poor Mr Jones on the head again and again and again. These lyrics might seem to be random crap - but try to substitute them with your own written random crap and you'll see nothing will work better. Stream of consciousness, but that's a consciousness of a genius.

However, like I said, it's not just the lyrics that make a Dylan song sound great. It's the way that everything is combined - the rudimentary melody, the gruff whining, the lyrics, the attitude, and Bob's own superb guitar and harmonica playing. (By the way, Bob's really a unique harmonica player - be sure to check out his early acoustic albums to particularly appreciate that, but, well, he's always been great at supplementing the emotions of his voice with the emotions of the little metal bar). His guitar ain't particularly impressive, but first-rate anyway: he's actually done his folk homework, and done it fully - and to really appreciate it, you'd have to check some of his most accomplished playing on Blood On The Tracks.

Incidentally, Bob has been often hailed as 'the greatest put-downer' in rock: this is probably true, but it's only part of the story. Yes, could have been an asshole in real life, cheating on his friends, verbally destroying people that venerated him, etc., etc., but the day we start caring for great art based on the personal life of its creator is the day art will come to an end. What often escapes the listener and the reviewer is that the "musical Dylan" is really a small humble guy. He was never a big commercial star, with just about a handful of chart-topping LPs (most of which came in the Seventies, way past his peak hour). He never really cared for commercial success: maybe he didn't really shun it, but he always made clear that his primary aim in this world was not making money or screwing chicks, and success never really got to his head. He only went for a slight commercialization of his sound in the Eighties, making the fatal mistake of incorporating disco elements in his music; but he's come back with a bang since then, and if only his poor health won't fail him, we may yet hear a significant word or two from Robert. He wrote songs that hardly ever made you stand up and shake your hips or sing along to some sentimental romantic melody; instead, these songs went straight into the very depths of your soul and spoke to you on a personal, intimate level - a thing that neither the Beatles nor the Rolling Stones, as much as I love them, could never pull off.

The proof is that whenever I listen carefully to a Dylan song or try to sing along to it, I always end up putting myself in Bob's place and trying to feel the things he felt. It's amazing how such simplistic songs as 'Mr Tambourine Man' or 'Gates Of Eden' or 'Stuck Inside The Mobile' can get under your skin and change your life forever. This, of course, is only possible if you manage to get rid of the shackles of conventional singing and conventional songwriting - I sure did, and I'm both glad and proud about that. You really gotta live up to the good sides of Bob Dylan. You have to take the presumably 'bad' sides as a given fact even before you start listening to the first Dylan song in your life. You just have to concentrate on other things, ya know? Now on to the reviews before I start talking metaphysical.



Year Of Release: 1962
Record rating = 5
Overall rating = 10

Old folk covers. But it's Dylan that sings, and that's something.


Track listing: 1) She's No Good; 2) Talkin' New York; 3) In My Time Of Dyin'; 4) Man Of Constant Sorrow; 5) Fixin' To Die Blues; 6) Pretty Peggy-O; 7) Highway 51 Blues; 8) Gospel Plow; 9) Baby Let Me Follow You Down; 10) House Of The Risin' Sun; 11) Freight Train Blues; 12) Song To Woody; 13) See That My Grave Is Kept Clean.

His first 'have-at-it' try - the exuberant little Jewish kid from Hibbing, Minnesota who's finally got his chance to get into the studio and leave his mark on the closest reel of tape. Predictably, it's only got two of his own compositions ('Talkin' New York', a funny spoken commentary on his being received in Big Apple, and 'Song To Woody' which could be regarded as sort of a dedication of his entire creativity to that ol' man folker 'n' Bobby's guru), but you even hardly notice - even these two sound so derivative from the rest of the folk/blues stuff he's covering on here. In fact, this album is not very significant musically, but it sure provides a lot of insight into Bob's roots: after listening to it a few times you begin to understand all those incessant country and folk cliches of which his early acoustic albums are chockful. Songs like 'Highway 51 Blues' were certainly the inspiration for 'Highway 61 Revisited', and I've always thought the melody of 'It's Alright Ma' was pure Dylan until I've heard its origins on this LP. And that's just a little bit of digging at the surface.

But then again, all of this material is quite listenable. Not essential, but nice. Actually, at that point dob alresdy had penned quite a few compositions of his own; however, as a humble beginner, he had to prove that he was qualified enough for singing his own material by recording all those covers. Naturally, while singing them he probably had the originals (or, where the original was lacking, those particular versions he'd heard) in mind, which is why it's a bit funny to listen to him doing all those "ol' black man" vocal impersonations - you'll never find him do all these hilarious, occasionally ridiculous things to his vocal cords later on in his career. (Check out his croaking and growling on 'Fixin' To Die Blues' for a good laugh - I wonder just how many takes and how many cigarettes did he have to sit through to get that "abnormal" rasp out of his throat at such a tender age? And to think it took him, what, thirty years to make that his natural state?) I do not think, though, that he took it as a heavy burden: whether his or Blind Lemon Jefferson's, the songs are all lively and fresh and almost breathing, and Bob has really great taste, as most of the numbers have something to them. The most amazing thing, of course, is that there were tons of similar or even better stuff left unreleased, as is today amply demonstrated by The Bootleg Series.

Thus, his rendition of 'House Of The Rising Sun' (which, actually, he unceremoniously pilfered off folkie friend Dave Van Ronk - the first of a series of similar "offences") is really not an ounce worse than the Animals' version, even if it's played with just an acoustic, without those organs and all - perhaps the generated feeling is just not as ecstatic and cathartic (and innovative), but then again, you will never want to accuse the Dylan version of being 'pretentious'. Note also that Bob sings the song with the original lyrics - daring not to change lines like 'it's been the ruin of many a poor girl/And me, oh God, I'm one'. So in this here case it ain't metaphoric and gives the listener a clear picture of what 'the house' really is, which makes the song all the more poignant. As far as I understand, the legend that the Animals learned the song from Dylan's version turns out to be, well, just another legend in the endless series of rock legends, but it's still nice to have both hanging around to do the comparisons. The funny thing is that Dylan's debut also includes his rendition of Ric Von Schmidt's 'Baby Let Me Follow You Down' - a song that was later reworked by Burdon, Price and Co. as 'Baby Let Me Take You Home' and was something like the band's first single or the band's first hit single, whatever. Again, though, I far prefer Dylan's version (though the Animals' is by no means bad); later on, he made the grotesque move of rearranging it as a rip-roarin' live electric number in order to piss off his braindead folkish fans. Check it out on Live 1966, it's groovy.

There are also faster songs on here - like 'She's No Good' and 'Freight Train Blues' that make you want to boogie with a minimum effort, even if essentially they're just 'whizzed-up' generic blues numbers. However, on 'She's No Good' Bob arrives on the scene with all his might - squirming and squealing out the lyrics all the while furiously beating the shite out of his acoustic, and, while the uninitiated may vomit on the spot and go throw on some Engelbert Humperdinck instead ('anything but THAT rusty engine hum!'), I find it to be an exuberant, enthusiastic statement of youth, force and good clean fun. I'd even say it friggin' rocks, with just a harmonica and a furiously lashed acoustic! Well, you don't really get much more energy-filled than that with such humble means. Later on, Bob would become much too serious for these tricks. And 'Freight Train Blues'? In his review, my former web colleague Brian Burks called his vocal efforts on that one the equivalent of a 'hoarse vocal feedback', and I couldn't agree more. 'I got the freight train blue-oo-OOOOOOOOOS...' Personally, I laughed my pants off first time I heard that wheeze, and apparently, Bob felt inclined to laugh as well - noticed these funny 'whoa-hoo-hoos' after each verse? Whoa-hoo-hoo!

However, don't get the impression that the record is just a hilarious throwaway. Nope, the so-much-beloved death theme is reprised many a-time - in 'Gospel Plow', 'See That My Grave Is Kept Clean', 'In My Time Of Dyin'', etc., etc. Most good folk music is about death, you know. The funny and gloomy songs are interspersed in a very, very bizarre way, so that you're really left puzzled as to what old Bob's real emploi is, but get used to it: this is just the first of the cute little mystifications that Bob would soon start throwing at us in bunches. (It's interesting to mention that the original liner notes were quick to notice Dylan's being influenced not only by great musical figures, but by Charlie Chaplin as well - and although they mainly referred to certain elements of Bob's stage behaviour, now that I think of it, all of the "funny" songs on the album are soooo Chaplin-like - surely the Tramp would be singing something like that were he ever able to sing something in his prime).

As for the songs themselves, well, in my humble opinion, 'In My Time Of Dyin' is a great deal more effective than that horrendously overlong hard-rockin' Led Zep version on Physical Graffitti: Dylan never tries to transform the song into a lengthy self-indulgent dirge full of rehashed vocal and instrumental noises, just sticking to the essence, and his passionate vocal delivery is one of the best on record. 'Man Of Constant Sorrow', which y'all prob'ly know in a way different version through kind effort of the Coen Brothers, is supposed to give us the creeps, and 'See That My Grave Is Kept Clean' ends the record on a supposedly gloomy, dreary note - just like 'She's No Good' started it on an upbeat note (despite the endless 'wanna lay down and die' refrain which could never be taken as anything more than a joke, actually, well, the song was a joke song).

Still, even if he intended to make this album really depressing (and I don't think there were any particular conceptual intentions here - except for the most important conceptual intention ever, to get WELL PAID!), he failed. The songs are good, but they're not true Dylan: see, no generic folk lyrics are gonna depress me any more than your average death metal song, that is, until they are given a properly eerie coating on behalf of some wildly talented songwriter/arranger, like Nick Cave, for instance. Except for 'House Of The Risin' Sun', which is truly scary due to the 'grounded' character of the lyrics and its being based on a true or, at least, a realistic story, I personally just don't feel any real darkness here, at least, it's not more dark than Freewheelin', and that one sure ain't dark worth a penny. But they're a good substitute for darkness, for 1962 at least.

PS. And another detail I didn't really pay attention to until recently: the spoken introduction to 'Baby Let Me Follow You Down', where Bob "introduces" Ric Von Schmidt by saying "I first met him... uh... in the green pastures of-uh... Harvard University". Isn't that sort of a perfect hint at how folk music is now treasured far more fervently among the intellectual crowds of the day rather than by the very "Folk" it is supposed to represent? "Green pastures" of Harvard University, indeed.



Year Of Release: 1963
Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 14

Perhaps THE one acoustic-and-harmonica-only record to buy if you only buy one.


Track listing: 1) Blowin' In The Wind; 2) Girl From The North Country; 3) Masters Of War; 4) Down The Highway; 5) Bob Dylan's Blues; 6) A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall; 7) Don't Think Twice It's Alright; 8) Bob Dylan's Dream; 9) Oxford Town; 10) Talking World War III Blues; 11) Corrina Corrina; 12) Honey Just Allow Me One More Chance; 13) I Shall Be Free.

This is where it all starts happening. Thirteeen tracks, with a collective length of over fifty minutes (that's twice as long as a contemporary Beach Boys LP - and makes it a real bummer to be transferred on C-90 tape, by the way), and not one of them out of place or irrelevant! As if to intentionally distance his newly-found Strength from the now forgotten Weakness, Bob almost completely eschews covers this time, and stuffs the album full of his compositions - some of which happen to be among his most famous songs of all time.

Few folk or rock fans are unfamiliar with the great innovative epic 'A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall' which, once released, put to shame folk singers and songwriters all around the world with its majestic, visionary, justifiably pompous and genuine-ringing lyrics. Emphasis on "genuine", please: there have been many epic tunes written within the rock genre, admittedly hearkening back to that ol' timey folk wisdom of the days of yore, but ever so many of them couldn't help but have a false ring, whether it be the way too straightforward and senseless stylizations like 'Stairway To Heaven' or the way too clever for their own good dark motives of Nick Cave. The lyrics of 'A Hard Rain', with its traditional "father and son" type of dialog, are chockful of imagery that really breathes "O-L-D" in your ear, and it's not until the listener actually sits down to study the lyrics sheet that he realizes: the way all these images are strung together, this could only come out of the hands of somebody well-versed in all kinds of literary studies, ancient and modern. (Or, at least, moderately versed, but with a God-given gift as well).

I mean, today it is easy not to notice the crucial importance of the tune it must have had in 1963, just because so many different people took so many different lessons out of it; but back then, "folk music" was still pretty much a sacred cow, and you either did it the way you were supposed to do, or didn't do it at all. With this one tune, Dylan practically reinvents the rules, showing that it is possible to marry ye olde narrative and musical structures to something that'd be ever so slightly more relevant (if not necessarily more accessible) to the people of today. Dylan himself has been quoted as saying that he originally wanted every single line of the "I've stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains, etc." list to herald a separate composition, but eventually settled on stringing them all together - knowing Bob's quirky personality, it's safe to assume this to have been a hoot, but it does provide some minor insight into his genius, anyway.

The much more introspective, somewhat misogynistic 'Don't Think Twice It's Alright' is yet another timeless classic here: if you ever doubted that Dylan could pen a great melody, here's your chance to disprove it. (And after having disproved that, you'd find yourself DEAD WRONG! HA HA! He actually ripped it off Paul Clayton's ballad 'Who's Gonna Buy Your Ribbon Saw'). A bitter-meets-tender 'bye bye love'-type ditty, it hits you with all the might of the Bobster's weird, by now softer, gruffer and more melancholy tone, and the effect is unforgettable. 'I gave her my heart but she wanted my soul' - had such an oppostion ever been made before in the world of folk music? Look for it.

It's hardly necessary to give out any kind of description for the third unquestionable classic on here - that all-time human rights anthem, 'Blowin' In The Wind', except to simply mention that yes, it IS right on here and nowhere else. I'd rather pay attention to the one true oddity in Bob's catalog - the unusually violent, almost to the point of bleeding, protest dirge 'Masters Of War'. For the record, this is the only song ever in which Bob openly lusts for someone else's death; nowhere else is he so straightforwardly venomous as when he grimly intones 'And I hope that you'll die/And your death will come soon/I'll follow your casket/By the pale afternoon.." Some people actually get turned off by the lyrics, forgetting that such kind of anger was nothing new in folk music; me, I think it's one of Bob's best protest songs ever, certainly edging out most of the lyrically similar material on his next album, if only because it really "rocks" (as long as you can speak in such terms of purely acoustic songs) harder and grittier than any other contester. Not to mention the eternal actuality of the song, of course. 'Like Judas of old/You lie and deceive/A world war can be won/You want me to believe' - replace 'world war' with 'war on terrorism' (or don't replace!) and smoke it now!

As numerous as the anthemic, take-off-your-hat-style songs are on here, they're far from the only thing to be enjoyed here. Bob's gruff, uncombed, intentionally raw ballads are equally brilliant. 'Girl From The North Country' (another melody that's quite traditional at heart - see 'Scarborough Fair' for its origins) is a gorgeous, sad love song, and Bob's intentionally off-key, stuttering delivery of the lyrics gives it the kind of authenticity that Johnny Cash would have been proud of - and apparently was proud of, as he later joined Bob on a re-recording of the tune for Nashville Skyline.

And as for the humourous parts - well, there's plenty to be found: 'Talkin' World War III Blues' and 'I Shall Be Free' can kick the belly out of you. Each new listen to these songs still makes me wonder, up to this day, how a guy with such a blistering, sparkling sense of humour could have almost completely lost it, or intentionally thrown it away, in a matter of four years. The verse about Adam and Eve should rank as one of the world's most flabbergastingly brilliant jokes. Remember? "Well I spied a girl and before she could leave/I said 'let's go play Adam and Eve'/I took her by the hand and my heart it was thumpin'/When she said 'hey man you crazy or sumpthin'/You know what happened last time they started". Although not everything is as innocent and inoffensive as it seems: the little brat already starts picking at his colleagues - what about that verse about the 'folk singer' who 'works herself blind' in 'I Shall Be Free'? A veiled hint at Joan Baez? 'Writes me letters and sends me checks'?. Hmm... Granted, their affair hadn't yet taken off, but there' nothing like a little anticipation to spice things up.

Coming down back to music and arrangement, this is still a straightforward folkie album - which means most of the time it's just Bob and his trusty harmonica. (The major exception is a primitive-band-take on the traditional 'Corrina, Corrina'; it can strike you as extremely awkward on first listen, but you'll get through after you get used to the arrangement. Just don't try to remind yourself of the Taj Mahal version.) Oh, and his guitar, of course, which is now occasionally used for more than just rugged schizophrenic accompaniment: listen to 'Down The Highway', for instance. Essentially, it's just a simple blues tune, and lots of artists would just play it as a simple blues tune. But Dylan rearranges it drastically, with a cool crescendo guitar phrase after each line, bringing his vocals close to a real wolfish howl: notice how brilliantly he does the closing line of each verse. 'LORD I REALLY MISS MY BABY-EEEEEE-EEEEEE - she's in some far-off land...' Brilliant, isn't it? A great, great use of "dissonance": accumulate all the passion and the fury and the howling into the first half of the line and then quickly chew up the second half as if it were nothing but an equivalent of an ad-libbed 'oh yeah' or something. That's a trick that Dylan employs on many, many more songs, although always in a different way, and it always works for me. A terrific way to expand the capabilities of conventional singing, if you axe me.

Only one tune, to me, stands out as a relatively poor inclusion, and that'd be 'Bob Dylan's Dream', and I can explain why: it's the only song on the album that's too dang serious and pretentious. Later on, Bob would learn to temper his messianistic temptations with either irresistible melodic hooks ('My Back Pages') or an unbeatable sense of majesty ('Chimes Of Freedom'), but 'Bob Dylan's Dream' somehow tries to get by without either a memorable melody or a particularly stately atmosphere, and ends up becoming a total slump in the middle of an otherwise practically immaculate album. That's not the only reason Freewheelin' gets denied the highest rating, of course; as terrific as it is, Bob would soon move on to even grander things, and besides, I'm not too morally strong at the present to fish out one of my highest ratings for a barebones acoustic album. But that's no excuse not to own it. And if my word ain't enough for you (and there's no reason why it should be enough), go ask the ghost of John Lennon.

PS. And did you actually know that the name of the gal on the album cover was Suze Rotolo? Oh, so you did. Betcha didn't know she was Bob's girlfriend at the time. Knew that, too? Okay then, here's one thing you wouldn't know for sure: BOB'S FLY IS LEFT HALF-UNZIPPED. Now that one is surely enough to make you drop out of your jet plane without a parachute.



Year Of Release: 1964
Record rating = 4
Overall rating = 9

Having Woody Guthrie as primary influence is okay; trying to bring Woody back from the dead is not.


Track listing: 1) The Times They Are A-Changin'; 2) Ballad Of Hollis Brown; 3) With God On Our Side; 4) One Too Many Mornings; 5) North Country Blues; 6) Only A Pawn In Their Game; 7) Boots Of Spanish Leather; 8) When The Ship Comes In; 9) The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll; 10) Restless Farewell.

The Sagacious Young Man is looking down upon us from the album sleeve, with a stare that's somewhere in between contempt (if you're the ruthless oppressor), condescension (if you're the helpless victim), and contemplation (if you don't fit well into either category). His young, but already slightly wrinkled face is speckled with age-old dust accumulated either in the cottonfields or the coalmines. His ruffled hair suggests the lack of proper funding to acquire even half a broken comb. His simple, inexpensive shirt is left unbuttoned at the neck, suggesting that the Sagacious Young Man has nothing to hide - his is The Simple, but Burning Truth to be told. He's here to tell you that the Times They Are A-Changin', and even if he's still far away from the age of thirty-three, he's already quite prepared to be crucified. Ironically, though, true "crucifixion" would arrive from the other side - one year later.

Apparently, Mr. Zimmerman was experiencing lots of indirect pressure from his folk music colleagues (and folks down at the record company as well) who wanted to have him put forth a real protest song album - you know, no obscure metaphorical shite like 'A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall', too artsy and indirect to be appreciated by those whoe believed in music as a political instrument. Bobbie, then, who was writing songs at a dozen per cigarette and already had a good batch of protest songs in store at the time of release of Freewheelin', was quite willing to oblige. And that's exactly what you get - ten protest songs with straightahead, generic, unsophisticated (by Bob's own standards of 1964) lyrics.

'So what?' says the hon. Opponent. 'Bob Dylan is smart; even his genericisms are heads and tails above competition. And what do you have against protest songs in the first place, Mr Right Wing Reviewer? At the very least, they're honest and they come from the heart, unlike your reviews, which most certainly smell of payola!' Well, problem number one here is that anybody can do protest songs - the circles in which Bob was still spinning, namely, the Greenwich Village ones, probably had every third inhabitant trying to pull a Woody Guthrie or a Pete Seeger or a Joan Baez at the time, including Pete Seeger and Joan Baez themselves. The formula is not too complicated; there's always a new motive or two circulating in the newspapers, and most of these guys had sarcasm-a-plenty to spice up the final dish. If we're talking about competition here, the true winner would certainly be the one who'd manage to break away from the formula, not fit it to a tee. That's what Dylan was doing on Freewheelin'; this is what's so sorely lacking on The Times They Are A-Changin'. Individuality.

And to make matters so obviously worse, quite a lot of the actual melodies here are blatantly recycled from the previous album. Some of Bob's guitar playing still manages to draw attention, but it almost never hooks you like those ragged, broken lines of 'Down The Highway' used to do, for instance. And these songs are LOOONG - I mean, the long stuff on Freewheelin', I never got tired of that one, but here, much too often the overall effect is quite akin to walking down that long, long, long alley with two high walls on both your sides and pretty much nothing else in sight, wondering how the hell did the powers that be come to locate you here in the first place and why on earth didn't they think of a shortcut. Needless to say, none of the songs feature even a slight saving touch of humor - protest songs should make you weep and confess, shouldn't they? Deadly serious, like in 'Masters Of War', but far less convincing.

Of course, I would be just a dirty liar if I said that everything on here is equally boring. Where the songs actually involve serious effort on Bob's part, the results are, as usual, admirable. For one thing, my complaints do not refer to the title track - one of Dylan's most well-known and respected anthems. The lyrics for 'The Times They Are A-Changin' are excellent and certainly capture the essence of the Sixties' cultural revolution like nothing else. Whether they're actual or not nowadays is a different question - probably depends on whether you have or don't have a generation conflict in your neighbourhood. The vocal melody is fabulous, too: that majestic "humbly Old Testament-ish" intonation was only maybe recaptured by Bob a couple of times since (most notably on 'Gates Of Eden'). But let's not forget he takes a huge gamble here - the song is so big, so pretentious, so ambitious, that it's either win all or lose all. Win all, I say. And then go on to lose it with the rest.

The rest, granted, not including 'One Too Many Mornings'; this song does have its moments, a sad, mournful little ditty with a melody suspiciously reminiscent of... the title track. (I actually prefer the live versions of 'Mornings' - particularly the crushing electric workout on Live 1966, but even the newer one on Hard Rain will do - simply because the tune works better with a drastic rearrangement, hiding its original dependance on 'The Times They Are A-Changin').

The rest, not including 'When The Ship Comes In'; another renowned song, and a great upbeat "breather" in between all the dirge stuff. Almost sounds like a nursery rhyme in places, doesn't it? And yet once again here we have tons of pseudo-Biblical imagery, as it acts somewhat like a bridge between 'Hard Rain' and 'Gates Of Eden'. It bounces, it rises and falls, it lives, unlike so much other stuff on here. And you know why it lives? Because the words are coming out so free, flowing effortlessly - there's no heart-breaking story to be told, no accusation to be carefully stated. "And the words that are used for to get the ship confused/Will not be understood as they're spoken" - now that's prime Dylan, and he knows it and he's inspired.

But when it comes to the rest... the best I can say is that some of these songs remind me of better things, either from days gone by or yet to come. 'Boots Of Spanish Leather' would be a great song... were it not essentially just 'Girl From The North Country' with new lyrics; do we really need it? not me. You can get an early glimpse at the grandeur of 'My Back Pages' at the beginning of each verse of the endless dreary epic 'Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll'; other than that, I can't bring myself to empathize for poor Hattie any more than I empathize for any random victim of any random injustice. The cascading descent of the brainwashing leftist lines of 'Only A Pawn In Their Game'? Why, later on you'll be glad that they actually were there, as the same principle will be applied to 'Mr Tambourine Man'. Right? But that would be later. For now, that's just a short taster, mixed in with political preaching.

Then comes the unbearable part - songs that are just plain bad, with nothing recommendable about them at all. When you got non-existent melodies like 'North Country Blues' and 'Restless Farewell', only thing you can do is concentrate on the lyrics, and the lyrics bring nothing new since the nights of somebody seeing Joe Hill. 'Ballad Of Hollis Brown' and 'With God On Our Side' are particularly rotten in that respect. I almost can't bring myself to believe Bob actually wrote these lyrics. Maybe they were hypnotically implanted in his head by the likes of Joan Baez or Dave Van Ronk or whoever. 'Hollis Brown' tells us the grim fate of a working class hero who ended up shooting all his family: sad, but nothing I couldn't hear about from Pete Seeger. One indication of the Dylan presence here: the closing lines. 'There's seven people dead/On a South Dakota farm/Somewhere in the distance/There's seven new people born' - that's pretty good.

On the other hand, the lyrics to 'With God On Our Side' are openly dumb, as much as I hate applying that description to anything connected with Bob.One reason I dislike protest songs is their tendency to paint everything black and white, which sometimes results in absurdities. See for yourself: 'We forgave the Germans/And we were friends/Though they murdered six million/In the ovens they fried/The Germans now too/Have God on their side'. What's the alternative, Bob? Deny the Germans forgiveness? Fry six million Germans in retaliation? Thus a song that's supposed to be an ardent peace anthem, in a bizarre logical twist, starts to advocate Hiroshima!! And I know I'm exaggerating here, but so does Bob. Stupid lyrics. Stupid song. Stupid album.

Coming back to the 'sincerity' issue, now. I'm almost certain that The Times is not Bob at his most sincere. The best stuff on Freewheelin' already showed that he was beyond the straightforward protest stage, and this here record is a clear step back. Even his poems (the so-called '11 Outlined Epitaphs') that can be found among the liner notes show just how much he's interested in waving the flag - for the most part, this is random beatnik poetry, more or less worthless without the music but very demonstrative nevertheless. No, ladies and gentlemen, with Times Bob wasn't doing much more than paying tribute to all the friendly people in whose environment he'd nurtured and bred himself for the past two years, honest tribute, maybe, but not an inspired one. Pretty soon the friendly people would surprisingly find themselves discarded and abandoned, and Hollis Brown and Hattie Carroll devoid of flowers on their graves.



Year Of Release: 1964
Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 13

Actually meaning "That OTHER Side Of Bob Dylan (Which You Saw A Year Ago)".


Track listing: 1) All I Really Want To Do; 2) Black Crow Blues; 3) Spanish Harlem Incident; 4) Chimes Of Freedom; 5) I Shall Be Free No. 10; 6) To Ramona; 7) Motorpsycho Nitemare; 8) My Back Pages; 9) I Don't Believe You; 10) Ballad In Plain D; 11) It Ain't Me Babe.

Ask anybody to guess the proper chronological sequence of Bob's first four acoustic albums and chances are most people will inevitably put Times second and Freewheelin' third, back to back with Another Side. Except for those few lucky souls, of course, who'll be quick enough to remember that when it comes to Dylan, the ordinary, routine ways of logic are pretty much inapplicable. Because, yes, in yet another bizarre twist, Bob drops protest songs as a genre - unless you can count the reference to Fidel Castro in 'Motorpsycho Nitemare' a protest element, of course - and returns back to the kind of vision we saw on Freewheelin'. Not too soon!

Actually, it wouldn't be quite right to say that Another Side is just a carbon copy - even if a particularly solid carbon copy - of Freewheelin'. Yes, a lot of the songs do seem to have their stylistic 'doppelgangers'. 'Chimes Of Freedom' seems to walk the paths of Messiahnism just like 'Hard Rain' did; 'It Ain't Me Babe' continues the "I'm just a little man" mood of 'Don't Think Twice'; 'Motorpsycho Nitemare' revives the absurdist narrative of 'Talking World War Three Blues'; and 'I Shall Be Free No. 10' speaks for itself with its title already. But there's plenty of development as well. For one thing, it's the lyrics; for the first time, Bob finally dares to put some of his more bizarre-looking wordgames on record rather than concealing them within the liner notes. Most of the songs on Freewheelin', after all, were quite easily decipherable - even the imagery of 'Blowin' In The Wind' and 'Hard Rain' was, after all, just decent poetic imagery. When it comes to deciphering the message of 'My Back Pages' or 'Chimes Of Freedom', that's a whole different story out there for you, folks.

Second, Another Side is actually even more individualistic and convention-free than its elder brother. All of the songs are originals; none of the songs are obviously ripping off the classics; and pretty much every song on here is capable of making you shake your head, remember the times and wonder: "Now where the hell did that come from?". Even the one 'generic' tune on here, quite 'generically' titled 'Black Crow Blues', is given a specific edge by being the only song on the album played at a rusty electric piano rather than acoustically accompanied. Not that he always succeeds - in terms of consistency, I'd still rate Another Side a little lower - but that's definitely growth out there, in any case. The funny thing is, in retrospect you can quite clearly see how the next logical (or, rather, "Bobbylogical") step for him was to go crash boom bang electric, with songs like 'Motorpsycho Nitemare' gaining twentyfold in power by becoming 'Bob Dylan's 115th Dream'; but surely in mid-1964 nobody who'd heard this latest freshest would probably be able to guess his next move. This ain't exactly an invitation to lick the man's boots, you understand, but hey, fair is fair.

Now, if we wanna deal with individual songs, first thing is - what makes a completely acoustic album not just tolerable, but actually captivating all the way through? Mood diversity, of course, and clever sequencing. It would be utter suicide, for instance, to put something like 'Ballad In Plain D', the album's one open misfire, as the opening number; fortunately, it appears towards the end, when the overall impression is already too good to be spoilt by anything, including guest appearance by Frankie Avalon. (Although that could have been quite in Bob's spirit, you understand). The song is a total bore - a lengthy, dirgelike, lethargic bore, and its only reason for existence seems to have been Bob's desperate, and rather petty, need of pouring out his feelings about his recent breakup with Suze Rotolo, fueled by a feud with her elder sister. It's admirable as a historical document of sorts: on no other song in his entire life would he go into these kinds of details of his personal turmoils, and it's probably safe to say that on few other songs in his entire life has he been as honest about his true feelings (with the younger sister, whom he really loved, even if in his own egoistic way, portrayed as 'the innocent lamb', and the elder sister, whom he really hated, taking all the blame). But as a song, out there to be taken and consumed for general audiences, it's just sort of a big 'hmmm?'. The breakup took place in March; the album was released in May; my guess is, had Bob taken a couple extra months to 'cool off', 'Ballad In Plain D' would have never come into being.

Fortunately, the album starts on an entirely different note, with Bob's most upbeat song in ages, the word-playful 'All I Really Want To Do' - upbeat to the extent of every cover version of it transformed into a merry pop song and to the extent of Dylan re-arranging it as a merry pop song for his later performances as well. It's also one of his most hilarious examples of the "thesaurus approach" ever, and it's all the more sad how cover versions usually skip over so many verses in favour of the repetitive chorus - actually, repetitive only within the confines of a cover, but never coming across as repetitive in Dylan's own version. Note the parallelism between this album opener and the next one: this was a short period during which Dylan's aim was to knock you off your rocker with a heavy verbal barrage right from the very start. (Although - clever lad! - he'd give up on that practice later).

Highlights come a-plenty. 'My Back Pages' - you know that one, right? Again, possibly in the Byrds version, which is beautiful, but nowhere near as long in its beauty. Marks yet another first for Dylan: The Pretentious Universalist Nostalgic Anthem, the kind of song you usually write after having a twenty-year experience of artistic ups, downs, highs, lows, freakouts, and pustules. Bob gambled upon melting it down to three years, and won. 'I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now' - it's his usual practice of taking a brilliant line, making perfect sense and allowing quite a few people to identify with it, and surrounding it with all kinds of hallucinatory, "meaningless", but hypnotizing chaff.

'Chimes Of Freedom' - now just how much better is this song compared to 90% of material from Times? Ask anybody what that song is about and you will most likely learn that it's about, well, freedom, self-liberation, breaking of chains, the whole stuff. Yet the lyrics rarely, if ever, mention that explicitly. It's the vibe that does the trick. It's the kind of melody, the kind of vocal intonation, the kind of overall atmosphere, that would be fairly fit for a Martin Luther King-led rally, but 'the sky cracked its poems in naked wonder'? Huh? All of a sudden, there's a wonderful freshness of approach, so necessary in order to revive all the stale old feelings. Make no mistake, though, it's the melody that comes first here - like 'My Back Pages', the song builds and expands upon its primary vocal hook, because cool lyrics and enthusiasm are not enough. And the friggin' Byrds wouldn't cover it if it had no hook, either.

Of course, Another Side isn't all anthems and Important Declarations. It's no Born To Run, after all, and Dylan wouldn't be Dylan if he didn't mix this all with jokes, trifles, and little-man statements. His sense of humour, so sorely missed on Times, has been completely restored, and this is reflected not only in the opening track, but also in 'I Shall Be Free No. 10' ('Well, I don't know, but I've been told/The streets in heaven are lined with gold/I ask you how things could get much worse/If the Russians happen to get up there first') and, of course, Bob's funniest story to-date, 'Motorpsycho Nitemare', poking nasty fun at redneck mentality and referencing La Dolce Vita and Psycho, too.

The Chaplin little man is replaced by the sensitive little man on charming little 'vignettes' like 'To Ramona' and 'I Don't Believe You' (the potential of the latter song I've never really noticed until I heard the plugged-in version on Live '66: whoa!), and, of course, on the album closing 'It Ain't Me Babe', yet another Dylan classic for the ages. And again, all of you Bobbie detractors, it's the melody that comes first on here - can you beat the effect of the 'no, no, no, it ain't me babe' vocal flourish? Nope. It ain't easily done. Turned into a hit by the Turtles this time, and rightly so, because somebody at least should have had a hit with it, if Bob himself couldn't.

In short, it's a little bit disconcerting that Another Side is often overlooked - jammed into an uncozy position between Bob's most celebrated acoustic album and his classic string of electric ones, because it's really (almost) just as deserving as the rest of them all. On the other hand, there's always the pleasure of discovery, isn't there?


LIVE 1964

Year Of Release: 2004
Record rating = 7
Overall rating = 12

Superb - although it would have pleased me more to get something from an even earlier period.


Track listing: CD I: 1) The Times They Are A-Changin'; 2) Spanish Harlem Incident; 3) Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues; 4) To Ramona; 5) Who Killed Davey Moore?; 6) Gates Of Eden; 7) If You Gotta Go Go Now (Or Else You Got To Stay All Night); 8) It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding); 9) I Don't Believe You; 10) Mr Tambourine Man; 11) A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall;

CD II: 1) Talkin' World War III Blues; 2) Don't Think Twice It's All Right; 3) The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll; 4) Mama You Been On My Mind; 5) Silver Dagger; 6) With God On Our Side; 7) It Ain't Me Babe; 8) All I Really Want To Do.

The latest (as of early 2005) Bootleg Series volume of Bob's is, naturally, also the earliest. But one of the most badly needed, too. Real bootlegs apart, there has so far been next to no live material available from Bob's "acoustic years", even though there actually were plans for a live acoustic album even back then, in the early Sixties - scrapped, as so many good beginnings. Forty years later, the idea has finally been revitalized, and there you are: Dylan at the Philarmonic Hall on Halloween of 1964. Sit back and enjoy.

Oh, but you might actually ask of me why the heck are you supposed to enjoy it. "Surely", you'll say, "back in 1964, still fettered by the guitar-harmonica handcuffs, Bobbie had about as much free choice to vary his catalog as a Christian has to worship the crescent?" Well, yes. The songs you're gonna be a-hearin' do not differ much from their studio counterparts. In fact, they're hardly different at all; mostly they can just go off at a slower pace, especially the newly-written ones, probably because Bob was afraid of forgetting the lyrics - or because he was so intent on getting his lyrics loud and clear in front of the audience. (Yep, big difference here from those later times when he was so certain every member of the audience knew every lyric by heart already, it gave him that great chance of cramming fifty words into five seconds to beat the Morse code). 'It's Alright Ma', for instance, takes all of ten minutes to reach the end (the studio version is slightly over seven).

I could make dumb arguments, too, about there being some extra material here you won't get on regular albums. There's Bob's funny anti-anti-communist rant ('Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues'), the one he got censored for on the Ed Sullivan show; the also-censored 'Who Killed Davey Moore?', the first of Bob's Mistreated Boxer Songs, long before 'Hurricane' made the big time; the hilarious promiscuity ode 'If You Gotta Go Go Now', here presented for the first time and providing the non-flinching audience with roars of laughter; and the Joan Baez duet on 'Mama You Been On My Mind'. However, each and every one of these songs - in different versions, though - is already available on the original Bootleg Series, which you'd be a dunce not to own by now. Which makes 'Silver Dagger' the only song not available on any other Dylan album... and fair enough, since it ain't even a Dylan song. It's a Joan Baez solo performance, with Bob backing her on harmonica. Great performance for sure, but only very remotely Dylan-related, you understand.

So no more dumb arguments, let's get straight to the essence. And the essence, of course, is the vibe. And the vibe, of course, is unpredictability and arrogance. It's no big secret that Dylan had begun baffling his audience's expectations long before the infamous Newport festival. So it's October '64, and people still mostly think of Bob Dylan in terms of protest songs, but look at the photos: this is no longer the Wise Through Suffering Working Class Representative of Times, this is already the long-haired black-sweatered beatnik snub of Another Side. The change has come; the electric guitar has but to follow. Just how many protest songs has he performed on here? Three? Four? Five, actually - out of nineteen, and none of them among his biggest. No 'Blowin' In The Wind' on here (imagine the Rolling Stones not performing 'Satisfaction'!); no 'Masters Of War'. Three tunes from Times only, one probably due to personal request from Joan Baez.

More than that, he actually seems to be mocking his own 'protest' image. 'Who Killed Davey Moore', for instance, is introduced by him in the manner of his soon-to-be-famous absurdist interviews: 'it's a song about a boxer... well, uh, it's got nothing to do with boxing, it's just about a boxer... and, uh, it's not even having to do with a boxer, really... it's got nothing to do with nothing... I fit all these words together, that's all... it's been taken from the newspapers... nothing has been changed, except the words'. Not that the audience doesn't laugh. They do. But then again, it's not like everybody booed Dylan offstage at Newport and in Manchester, either. Some of the audience laughed - some, most probably, were offended. There's also a moment before the encore when people are shouting out requests and someone, very distinctly, yells out 'Mary Had A Little Lamb!'. 'God, did I record that?' is Bob's reply, and then: 'Is that a protest song?'. Oh ha ha ha. Right.

The "old" material - not even all that old at the time - already gets the first smidgeons of deconstruction. 'Don't Think Twice, It's Alright' started life as one of the quietest, subtlest pieces ever written; this prompts Bob, on a subconscious level maybe, to twist it cruelly and start shouting out the endings to each line as if he were trying to get his message across to the other side of the Atlantic: '...well it ain't no use to sit and wonder H-W-YYY BAAAAABE!', again sending the sacrilegiously minded part of the audience into fits of laughter. At one point he starts teasing the listeners by playing the intro to 'Ballad Of Hollis Brown', then goes something like 'naaah', and launches into something radically different. And so on, ad infinitum. The newer material doesn't evade its share of downtrodding, either: 'It's Alright Ma' is introduced as 'yes, it's a very funny song'.

Of course, all of the funniness and hicky laughter from Bob himself (the liner notes even hint at the possibility of his being high that night - not very probable, I'd say, unless, of course, Bob had a regular habit of getting high before every recorded show), all of the non-seriousness and un-solemnity are in jarring - and fascinating - contrast with the force, conviction, and energy actually contained in the performances themselves. The newer songs, soon to be recorded for Dylan's most revolutionary album, but as of now, still mostly unplayed, fresh off the oven, are particularly strong, although I wouldn't be discriminatin' the Another Side material, either.

That said, the album's centerpiece for me will always be Dylan's four-song stand with Joan Baez. Now this you won't be getting on no other Dylan album - well, except for Live 1975, that is, but they were both ten years older then, and it sure wasn't quite the same. It's a really weird, really wicked contrast, the Bobster's innovative, dissonant wheeze set against Joan's fully traditional, all-out powerful delivery. It's even wickeder during short little moments when they don't gel: what makes this version of 'Mama You Been On My Mind' so cool is how they either forget the words or can't get in complete agreement over when to start the next verse and how they are getting out of this situation. (She sings 'daddy', too, but that's understood). And during 'It Ain't Me Babe', Dylan nearly bursts out laughing a couple of times, while Baez remains stern and solemn. Priceless.

Now from a certain angle I do feel a bit unsatisfied, because I already have my share of an audience-mockin', artistically free Dylan on Live 1966 (see below). I would actually prefer hearing an even older document - something from the early days of '63 or even '62, not just because the setlists would be less predictable, but also because these earliest stages of the man's career have been so far neglected by legend. On the other hand, this might lead straight into the trap of hearing way too many carbon copies of songs from Times, so I'm not insisting upon the idea. In any case, the main point here was: is it possible to have a nineteen-song long acoustic live album that would not bore the listener to death? And the answer, the way I see it, is: yep, provided you can stand the fact that one of them is a Joan Baez solo performance.



Year Of Release: 1965
Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 14

Funny thing - Dylan goes electric, but the best songs are... acoustic? How typically Zimmermanish of him.


Track listing: 1) Subterranean Homesick Blues; 2) She Belongs To Me; 3) Maggie's Farm; 4) Love Minus Zero/No Limit; 5) Outlaw Blues; 6) On The Road Again; 7) Bob Dylan's 115th Dream; 8) Mr Tambourine Man; 9) Gates Of Eden; 10) It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding); 11) It's All Over Now Baby Blue.

(NB: the original American version of this LP is entitled Bringing It All Back Home. Remember this when you start searching the racks. I, however, review it under the title I have it. Stubborn, but true).

Well, here goes. Seeing that, like you know, everybody who really mattered - which, in Bob's opinion, sort of excluded Pete Seeger, I guess - was playing plugged at the time, and seeing no bright future in pure folkish delight, and being by nature that sort of nasty guy who likes to wreck boundaries rather than worship them, Bob makes a quick shift, grabs himself a Fender or a Gibson and records a complete album side of fully electrified compositions. Still a treading of water, of course, since Side B is completely acoustic; nevertheless, it was a huge gamble, as it nearly cost Bob his fame at that particular moment, and up to this time remains as one of the bravest, most radical decisions in rock music - perhaps Dylan's funny self-comparison with Columbus on 'Bob Dylan's 115th Dream' is not as unmotivated as you would have thought the other day.

His falling out with the folkie scene in general is legendary, as of now; back then, it was kinda dangerous, and included death threats and all kinds of shit from rabid 'protest song' thugs who only expected another Times Are A-Changin' and claimed that Dylan had sold out to the all-devouring pop industry. Well, time has corrected all the accents, including putting the protest thugs in their correct historical place (which is 'wastebin') and putting Bob on the deserved pedestal. Time is on our side, indeed. Since then, quite a few badmouths have argued, time and time over again, that 'going electric' was nowhere near as amazing an achievement as legend would have it - after all, Dylan had initially started out as a rock'n'roller; he'd already made himself a big name with the rock'n'roller crowd; and finally, tastes were generally more eclectic back then anyway - but they're all just being mean and obscene. You try radically change your accepted and well-recognized image without undergoing some kind of trauma. Here's to change and creative growth, kid.

Anyway, despite the revolutionari-ism and everything, the electric side here is still ever so slightly weaker than the acoustic one. Paradox? Might be. The revolutionary impact that it contained was certainly of a very different nature from the one of, say, a Beatles' or Hendrix' record. I mean, most of the melodies here are plain primitive, some of them following the obvious fast blues pattern ('Outlaw Blues', 'Maggie's Farm'), while some are just the same as on his previous album, only electrified and sped up ('Bob Dylan's 115th Dream'), and Bob's backing band is essentially just a garage outfit with next to none instrumental virtuosity (still sounds exciting, tho'). What really made the difference were the lyrics that were set to these melodies: psycho, trippy, absurd, some making isolated bits and stretches of sense, some purely paranoid, yet all of them immeasurably more enjoyable in conjunction with these "primitive" melodies and Bob's wheezing than on the man's previous recordings where he'd just put them as isolated beatnik poems inside the liner notes.

The title track boasts four enormous verses, all sung in slightly more than two minutes - 'Johnny's in the basement mixing up the medicine I'm on the pavement thinking of the government...', etc., something absolutely amazing in a yet relatively primitive rock world; the song is sometimes quoted as the first "rap" composition, which is, of course, completely ridiculous, since the speed of the "rap" delivery and the flurry of reading a beatnik stream of conscience, be it set to music or no, are two entirely different ideologies. But hey, if that's the only way one can mark a song's complete uniqueness, it's alright by me anyway. What often escapes people is just how well the musical backing matches that vocal flurry - I'd only been noticing the guitars and harmonica for a long time, of course, but turns out there's an insane fuzz bass part, too, and some really schizophrenic piano bashing in the background. They're just collectively "unleashing the fuckin' fury", as Yngwie Malmsteem would probably have described the situation. (And you haven't lived, either, until you've heard a bootleg recording of the song as done live by Bob and The Band on the 1966 tour - wowsers!).

'She Belongs To Me' is, musically, just a simple piece of generic blues-rock; lyrically, it masterfully ridicules traditional love songs with lines like 'bow down to her on Sunday, salute her when her birthday comes/For Halloween buy her a trumpet and for Christmas give her a drum'. And 'Love Minus Zero/No Limit' (featuring the only truly great melody on Side A, with marvelous descending guitar lines after each phrase that function as prime-time tear-jerkers) establishes a completely new type of a rock love song: that of a gorgeous, heartfelt epic, completely free from the by now traditional 'wanna hold your hand' cliches. Instead, the lyrics branch out in all directions, with that wonderful stream of conscience that links the 'Her' of the song to all kinds of imaginable and unimaginable situations... well, you just gotta hear that one yourself.

'Maggie's Farm' and '115th Dream', on the other side, continue the line of Bob's earlier humorous tunes. The former is more or less a protest song, in the same sense that 'Ballad Of A Thin Man' from the next album is a protest song: of course, it's clear that the 'farm' in question is a metaphor for the whole world, and you can easily guess the true nature of all of Maggie's relations, but then again, you can twist it all back and pretend that it's just a funny pastiche, nothin' else. Bob's vocals sound really cool on that one, though - fresh, exuberant, angry and a little bit lazy, as if he were too tired to discuss the whole business. And as for the hilarious 'discovery of America' that Bob narrates about in 'Bob Dylan's 115th Dream', well, he's taking his 'pseudo-biographical' excourses a bit too far on here, as the lyrics jump from one psycho image to another without a halt for six minutes. Wouldn't that be a bit too long? Nope. The story's so funny I can't get enough of it. Not to mention that silly burst of laughter that opens the song - another first, right?

So what's the deal, actually? Well, the melodies. We all know Bob is not a great melodist, preferring to borrow good stuff and make it great rather than invent something on the spot; but this here side, apart from 'Love Minus Zero', has quite a few melodically unimaginative tunes. 'On The Road Again' and 'Outlaw Blues', while they are short and I never get tired of them, are just unadorned garage-blues-rock kind of stuff; '115th Dream' shares the same melody with 'Motorpsycho Nitemare'; and it's not that easy to tell the intro to the title track from the intro to 'Maggie's Farm'. It would get a little better next time around, but it's obvious that musical creativity is not an element that really bothered Bob during this period. Not to mention the problem with arrangements: everything is so raw and unpolished that you can't help but yearn for a little spin of Blonde On Blonde... equally raw and unpolished, of course, but compensating for it with its vast scope and ambitions.

Therefore, if it's melodies you're interested in, it's Side B that is the real highlight of the record. Four acoustic tunes - each one a subjective gem and an objective classic. Funny, isn't it? The man quit the well-trodden 'acoustic path' just as he was at his absolute, undeniable peak as an acoustic, folksy songwriter. I guess it's hardly even necessary to introduce these four songs - they're among Bob's most well-known and cherished numbers. Okay, maybe only 'Gates Of Eden' can't hope to be an acknowledged classic, but in my opinion, it should be one, as it surpasses even 'Chimes Of Freedom' in its majesty. The graceful, stately Biblical imagery of the lyrics, delivered in his most convincing 'prophetic' tone, might be seen as pretentious, but he knows what he's singing about, and the song is so powerful I easily lift off my hat to it.

And 'Mr Tambourine Man'? It has Dylan's most memorable refrain, and also features some of his most astonishing poetical imagery ever; for some reason, I have always thought of the song as depicting the feelings of a slightly dizzy, slightly happy young man coming home in a misty fog after a particularly good and booze-heavy party. (Not that I can easily identify with such a person, mind you, but that's what music is there for). The dreadful crime is that some people actually prefer the Byrds' version of it, whining about how the song's underarranged and boring and repetitive and how the Byrds used all those lovely harmonies and made it really soar blah blah blah... Fools! Fools all of them! I dearly love the Byrds' version myself (just as I love Hendrix's version of 'All Along The Watchtower' and all those masterful Rod Stewart covers), but for Chrissake, the Byrds just made a good pop song out of it, whereas Dylan's original transcends the limits of pop, folk, everything. Its underarrangement and subtlety only adds to the general impression. Yes, brothers and sisters, I'm sorry, but my final verdict is: unless you learn how to love 'Mr Tambourine Man' as sung by Dylan better than as sung by the Byrds, Dylan is definitely NOT your personal cup of tea, as it is, for instance, mine. Arrangement and vocal harmonies aren't everything in the world.

Okay, sorry for that little self-indulgent digression. Anyway, I was just finishing; I'll just add that the gloomy, enthralling 'It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)' is Dylan's best take on psycho social commentary on here, with lots of classic quotations-turned-cliches ('even the president of the United States sometimes has to stand naked', etc.); and 'It's All Over Now Baby Blue' should probably represent his proudly saying goodbye to his folk past. It was his last purely acoustic song (guitar/harmonica) in oh so many many years...  well, not so many, really, certainly not if compared to eternity, but for the next two years, at least, he contented himself to only playing fully acoustic on stage.

Finally, about the numbers thing. Originally, this was rated as a 13 - because of all the melody quibbles above. Today, it is a 14. And please do not fuckin' embarrass yourself in my eternally luminous imperial presence by asking "why". I'm not that enigmatic. I'm really quite simple.



Year Of Release: 1965
Record rating = 10
Overall rating = 15

The rare kind of aural paradise where beatnik and Beat Fan come together.


Track listing: 1) Like A Rolling Stone; 2) Tombstone Blues; 3) It Takes A Lot To Laugh It Takes A Train To Cry; 4) From A Buick 6; 5) Ballad Of A Thin Man; 6) Queen Jane Approximately; 7) Highway 61 Revisited; 8) Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues; 9) Desolation Row.

This is where the vision becomes friggin' complete. No more of these old-fashioned, compromising acoustic ditties with Pete Seger's bad breath on their back. Oh, so they were marvelous, perfect in scope and realisation, but by mid-'65, Dylan has finally learned to set his melodies to great electric backing as well. Part of it had to do with Bob's new backing band, of course, but that's a talent as well - to be able to select the perfect guys, able to get you in mid-sentence and share your vision so that they could supplement you with great musical backing in no time. Al Kooper, one of the finest keyboard players of the entire decade; Mike Bloomfield, the new hot ragged punk guitar player of 1965; and Charlie McCoy, the one Nashville session guitarist you went to if you ever wanted a Nashville session guitarist (and were qualified enough to get Charlie, of course). If you ever happened to rave about the great organ riff of 'Like A Rolling Stone', the insane garage soloing on 'Tombstone Blues', or the tricky acoustic lines on 'Desolation Row', don't forget these guys. Bob would have been so much less without them.

Indeed, upon first glance, Highway 61 doesn't look that much different from the electric side of its predecessor, but in reality, there's been a pretty huge distance to cover. Listen just how much fuller the sound is. With all these new players, and new ambitions to follow, Bob is no longer content with setting weird lyrics to "basic" music. This is the kind of sound that nobody ever heard before: yes, it owes a lot to Phil Spector and his wall-of-sound doctrine, but only as far as both types can be filed under "Big and Boomy". Because this really ain't Phil Spector. This is rock, r-o-c-k, loud, swaggery, very much improvised, anthemic bombast, about as defiantly scruffy as Bob's nightmarish coiffure on the album cover. Speaking of the album cover, Bob gives us his most exterminating look yet on that cover - in fact, considering that he's sitting right under the album title, and remembering who the first verse of the title track is about, I'm beginning to wonder whether, with all his humbleness, he hadn't been suffering from internal delusions of grandeur back then. But then again, who cares, as long as the music is so fine?

Now, Highway 61 has been one of those trademark sacred cows all along, and perhaps it doesn't really deserve ALL of the hype that it gets, but nothing does, really; music is just music, not the Passion of Joan of Arc or the Marshall plan. Besides, given Bob's usual style of work, it was never meant to be a masterpiece - for Chrissake, the entire album was probably recorded faster than it took Brian Wilson to lay down the backing track for 'Good Vibrations'. No-one should make the plunge in here without signing the preliminary "I am aware that this record has its limitations, of which it is fully conscious" disclaimer. It is long, repetitive, the singer has a voice to beat off the vultures and writes crackpot lyrics, and many of the melodies are too obvious. Move on.

Only a couple tracks on here, I think, have not appeared on a million compilations - which certainly tells you a few things about consistency - but even these fellows I would not consider "filler" (actually, if we take "filler" to mean "stuff written at the last minute to fill in the empty spaces", more than half the album will probably fall under the definition). Out of these, 'Tombstone Blues' is a simple, but utterly ferocious blues-rock tune played at a terrific speed - Dylan wouldn't ever get that fast again. It's almost as if he were hedging a bet here, and it took even the Stones seven years to catch up with him on 'Rip This Joint'. But where 'Rip This Joint' would be a two minute long good-time barroom rocker, 'Tombstone Blues' is no less than a six-minute crazyass beatnik romp, a delirious update on 'Subterranean Homesick Blues' for those who yearned for more of the same - and now triggered into high gear by Mike Bloomfield's demonic soloing (I used to complain that he's given so little room to shine, but now I think these little outbursts after each verse are so much more convenient than a minute or so of incessant blueswailing).

Another song that's a bit more 'fillerish' than the rest is 'From A Buick 6': same old blues, ladies and gentlemen, but even so, extremely memorable, if only for its catchy refrain of 'she's bound to put a blanket on my bed'. On the other hand, it boasts the tightest performance on the album: short, compact, with all the instruments steadily moving in one direction, a nice little break from the constant looseness of the band and insane running lengths. It's not so much "poor", then, as it is simply "minor" in the face of the giants.

The giants, then, have for the most part become inalienable symbols of American pop music, counter-culture, liberal lifestyle, you name it. Very few people (correction: very few worthy people) remain unacquainted with the big drum bang that introduces 'Like A Rolling Stone', or with the already mentioned epochal Kooper riff, or with the goddamn lyrics, at least. Rock's first anthem? It certainly sounds like the prototypical arena-rock song, yes, that is, if you manage to forget the lyrics which aren't arena-rock at all. But the trick is that you mustn't forget the lyrics - and so this becomes the prototypical arena-rock song that can be turned on itself and sneer at the very concept of arena-rock before it was even born.

Any artist of a different stature than Dylan, had he had a chance to stuff such a gem on an album of his own, would probably have an album consisting of one great song and a swamp of musical midgets around. Not Bob: 'Like A Rolling Stone' never threatens to overshadow the rest of the material. There's the title track, also relatively short, but featuring even more intriguing lyrics, with people still making hypotheses about what it is exactly that 'highway 61' should be a symbol of. 'Highway 51' is, of course, a symbol of death - see 'Highway 51 Blues' on Bob's debut record; but 61? Is it something worse than death? Or better? Ten to one that Bob cannot answer this question himself, but thanks for posing it, anyway, Mr Dylan.

'Ballad Of A Thin Man' is a bit less mysterious; put simply, it is one of his best counter-cultural products ever. The unforgettable bombastic piano chords holding up the melody are borrowed from Ray Charles' 'I Believe To My Soul' (oh, how I remember spending endless sleepless nights trying to remember where the hell have I heard these chords before), with Bobby pushing the keys himself like there was no tomorrow. (In a really perverse way, this could be called the first use of sampling on a pop record). I have heard lots of people condemn the song as silly and meaningless, all because it happens to feature the infamous 'you're a cow, give me some milk or else go home' line, but oh Jesus, that's just one obvious example of Bob's 'grain-and-chaff' approach to lyrics-making. The 'cow' line is there just because he happened to get a little silly during that particular moment. On the other hand, he sure was stone dead serious when he wrote this slash attack: "You've been with the professors, and they all liked your looks/With great lawyers you have discussed lepers and crooks/You've read all of F. Scott Fitzgerald's books/You're very well read, it's well known/But something is happening here/And you don't know what it is/Do you, Mister Jones?'. Even now, whenever I listen to this stuff intently, the 'do you, Mister Jones' line sends shivers down my spine every time it's pronounced; in a way, this song is ten times as menacing and ominous as the far more flat and straightforward 'Masters Of War'.

As you have already understood, quite a few keyboard melodies and countermelodies are placed all over the album, and they're mostly real good, solidifying and expanding the sound, particularly on 'Thin Man' and the "generic" blues 'It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry'. Yep, that's a pair of quite intentional quotation marks around the word "generic" out there. Melodically, it's just a blues, like so many other Dylan tunes. But the electric piano part on it is anything but generic, and the same can be said for the lyrics and the strange, dreamy way of drawling out the third line - Bob takes this old formula and pushes it to the limits of absurdity. He'd repeat the trick a year later on 'Leopard Skin Pill-Box Hat', but with the guitar this time; here, it's the electric piano that carries the wreath. (Again, I think ol' Bobby is sitting at the instrument himself - for a guy with such a rudimentary technique, he sure got some mighty fingers and a good chunk of sensitivity, too).

'Queen Jane Approximately' is occasionally viewed as more filler - probably because the sound is so similar to that of 'Rolling Stone' - but I disagree emphatically. It is actually the Yang to the Yin of 'Rolling Stone', and let me just remind you that in the faraway Age of Long Playing Albums, the song used to open the second side of the album in stark parallelism to 'Rolling Stone'. But where 'Rolling Stone' puts you down, 'Queen Jane' brings you up: it is the record's lone, and extremely important, spark of optimism. Sure its lyrical imagery is meaningless when you take it and debunk it line by line. What really matters is not the images themselves, but the framework: "When you [come face to face with the most surrealistic shit possible]... and you [get bogged up in stuff Alice never saw in Wonderland]... and your [life is utterly ruined by pink elephants and suchlike]... won't you come see me, Queen Jane?". In fact, for all I know, the 'Queen Jane' on here might be the same person as 'Miss Lonely' in the album opener. Only this time Bobby is offering heaven instead of hell. Thanks, Bob.

Finally, the closing eleven-minute 'Desolation Row' is a gorgeous ballad which never gets boring because its very point is raising boredom to the state of art. The title has long since become a cliche, the quiet melancholy and irony of the lyrics have never been topped, and those little acoustic guitar flourishes in between each line add an element of taste and musical beauty that would be lacking otherwise. I don't worship it nearly as much as 'Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands', because the melody is a bit too simple and the arrangement, in contrast to all the bombastic overproduction before, a bit too spare to justify the entire eleven minutes. Yet the lyrics are far too interesting to be cut off simply because of some stupid time limit. I dare you to push the 'stop' button midway through - are you man enough?

And this leaves me with my personal favourite, 'Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues'. Well, I sort of chickened out to put it as 'best song', but I really hold a particularly soft spot for the ditty. It's the "lazy" one on the album, the one true number which really gives the impression of being written, arranged, rehearsed, recorded, and mixed all the while under the influence of particularly strong grass. If you ask me, that is the song that the Coen bruthas should have selected for the Big Lebowski soundtrack, instead of the pleasant, but a bit less bullseye-ish 'Man In Me'; the tune is tailor-made for the kind of guy that the Dude is. But if we're in soundtrack territory, I might as well remark that it would work equally well in a movie as different as The Wild Bunch - with its weary, don't-give-a-fuck view of a world that's as much rotten and worthless as it is absurd and surreal. Dylan strings brilliant lines one after another, completely out of nowhere, with my favs being the oddball 'Now all the authorities they just stand around and boast/How they blackmail the sergeant at arms into leaving his post' and, of course, the aphoristic 'Up on housing project hill it's either fortune or fame/You must pick one or the other though neither of them are to be what they claim'. How does he do that?

If anything, Highway 61 is simply the greatest proof that pop music does not necessarily need a traditional 'hook' to equal genius. There's so many breakthroughs on here - lyrical, atmospheric, musical, production-wise - that even if they tell me there's just two or three chords used throughout the album (which is not true, of course, but not that far away from the truth), I won't as much as scratch behind my tonedeaf ear. Along with Rubber Soul, this album marks the absolute pinnacle of the "early" rock era, and if there's anything more amazing than that, it's only that Bob actually had it in him to top this album less than a year later.



Year Of Release: 1966
Record rating = 10
Overall rating = 15

The richest emotional palette that ever was recorded so spontaneously. And the words are to be memorized, naturally.

Best song: SAD-EYED LADY OF THE LOWLANDS, but they're all great!

Track listing: 1) Rainy Day Women #12 & #35; 2) Pledging My Time; 3) Visions Of Johanna; 4) One Of Us Must Know (Sooner Or Later); 5) I Want You; 6) Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again; 7) Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat; 8) Just Like A Woman; 9) Most Likely You Go Your Way And I'll Go Mine; 10) Temporarily Like Achilles; 11) Absolutely Sweet Marie; 12) 4th Time Around; 13) Obviously Five Believers; 14) Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands.

Contrary to rumours, I do not listen to Blonde On Blonde every day, for the same reason that I don't keep the collected works of Shakespeare or Dickens on my nightstand: I'm afraid of overdosing, like I once did on the Beatles. But every now and then - say, once a year - I still get the urge to pull it out, and, true to its reputation, discover something new each and every time. This is Dylan taken to the absolute height, pushed to the limit of his lyrical skill and musical vision. Of course, nobody really knows what his real limits were, but it's quite tempting to yield to superstition and say that the infamous motorcycle crash that he suffered only a few months after recording the album was no coincidence. If you ask me, it's all clear-cut consequences of Satan's supernatural conspiracy. Brian Wilson going mushroom-headed and unable to finish Smile until fourty years later when everybody and everything, including his vocal cords, loses interest; Pete Townshend going depressed and suicidal and unable to shape out Lifehouse until thirty years later when people are more interested in his kiddie porn scandal than in his music; and Dylan nearly blowing his brains out at a time when he, not the Beatles, was starting to become the next thing to Jesus the Christ.

But I fuckin' digress. We're here to speak about Blonde On Blonde. The number one thing about Blonde On Blonde is that it is, historically, a double LP, in fact, the first ever double LP in rock history. Certainly it is not very odd to expect that of Dylan; already Highway 61 really stretched the LP length limits to the max, and with Bob's songs getting lengthier and lengthier because the man gave less and less concern to the problem of stopping at the required moment, it was only natural that at some point, 14 songs - which, for instance, the Beatles could easily squeeze onto a 35-minute record - would have to be strewn over two chunks of vinyl rather than one.

It is odd, though, that with such an insane amount of 'padding' - two of the songs break the seven-minute mark and one breaks the eleven-minute mark - the album can still be as enchanting and enthralling as I find it to be. Normally, if we're talking seventy-minute-long experiences, I'm all for diversity and short song lengths and, well, the 'encyclopaedic' approach to your subject. If you're gonna make it that long, well, at least make it your analogy of War And Peace. Blonde On Blonde does not work that way. It was recorded relatively quickly, over a few session days at Nashville, with Bob surrounded by a host of interchanging players, many of them seasoned country veterans rather than rock heroes. The songs were more often than not recorded spontaneously, in just a couple takes, with next to no overdubs or re-recordings. Sometimes they were even written just as spontaneously ('Sad-Eyed Lady', in particular, comes to mind). And it certainly feels that way, especially if you compare it to the immaculate gloss of other masterpieces released the same year (be it Pet Sounds or Revolver). And naturally, in a rough way, it all sounds the same, because there was simply no time for the musicians to branch out or experiment or anything - whatever musical solutions there were, they had to be found quickly and without much thought.

But in the end, that turns out to be the strength of the album. Of all the records released in 1966 (and many of them are among my all-time favourites), Blonde On Blonde is the most humane, friendly, and intimate of them all, just because all of its rawness and edginess clicks so much better with your own rawness and edginess and doesn't make you stand and go 'wow, this is God-like, I feel so small and humiliated by this holiness'. And there certainly is one aspect in which Blonde On Blonde is exceedingly diverse: moodwise. It is alternately drunk, threatening, Biblical, romantic, clownish, pissed-off, rocking, and epic, with each mood individually represented by its own melodic approach, lyrical imagery, and vocal delivery, and that's what prevents it from being boring. It's not like it's the first time we see this diversity, of course, but with the lengthy format, it's the first time we see that much of it pulled off so successfully.

And that ain't all. What really sets Blonde On Blonde apart from the rest of Dylan's output is the unique sound mixture Bob and his players got going on here. The usual cliche, provided by Dylan himself, is 'thin mercury sound', and that's a great way of describing it, but if we want to be more specific, the 'thin mercury', I would say, mainly refers to Al Kooper's organ playing such as captured on songs like 'Visions Of Johanna': this really thin, subtle, winterish tone, buried relatively deep under the vocals/rhythm section but not so deep that you have to strain your ears or anything. Then you pile up one or two or maybe even three guitars from some of the best Nashville sessionmen but it's not country they're playing, they're doing rock/pop/folk tunes which they all give a smooth, silky country flavour. The drums are soft but persistent. The vocals have unexpectedly lost much of the aggression they had on Highway 61, so that even the more 'rocky' numbers sound confused and bewildered rather than angry. The famous Dylan sneer is really only seen on a couple of numbers; most of the time it's soft, soft, soft, with no character assassination anywhere in sight. Even Bob's look on the album cover is no longer that of the angry nihilistic young man - and the scarf around his neck only adds to that "wintery" feel the whole album has.

I'm gonna go out on a limb and since nobody reads this anyway, just for my own sake, comment on every song - yes, I am that desperate. The album opens with 'Rainy Day Women # 12 & 35', a title that predictably has little to do with the actual lyrics, because the song itself is an incoherently jolly tune about being stoned (in fact, it's so jolly that a lot of people seriously believe it's Bob's hymn to drugs which it isn't - I'd rather view it as another thickly veiled piece of social commentary). You do get to see the difference in style almost immediately, though: where the previous two albums opened with larger than life, head-spinning generational anthems, we now have a shockingly inconsiderate piece of hazy clownish stuff! Who knows, maybe Bob had watched one too many of those contemporary Fellini-Antonioni movies, and this was his tribute to the whole 'life is a carnival' metaphor. Once the dust settles, though, 'Rainy Day Women' just stays with you as a charming bit of funny arrogance.

'Pledging My Time' comes next. One of the least known numbers because it's essentially "generic blues", and if you're one of the intimidating majority who thinks that "generic blues" is only made for people too backwards to appreciate real good music, it's as good an excuse as any for downgrading the album. I do, however, enjoy the song, if only for the shrill, ferocious blasts from Bob's mouth organ (his shrillest up to date, in fact), and a deep, echoey production that makes it unusually bombastic and creepy. Without a doubt, production values have improved since last year. Favourite lyrical moment: 'Well they sent for the ambulance/And one was sent/Somebody got lucky/But they say it was an accident'.

'Visions Of Johanna' should by all means be played in the evening, all dimmed lights and absolute unbreakable silence. It is, after all, a 'spiritual seance' song - and Al Kooper's thin swirling organ wisps, what are they but the spirit of the mysterious Johanna, unobtrusively accompanying you through all of the song's seven minutes? The lyrics, they don't matter that much; what matters are Bob's strange intonations and unexpected pauses, and the sly negligence in his usual rasp each time he gets around to pronouncing 'and these visions... of Johanna...', where the proverbial less is so evidently the proverbial more. If there's one song in the Dylan catalog that has to be described as 'magical', 'Johanna' is easily the best candidate - because it deals with magic, and the effect is expectedly magical. Favourite lyrical moment: 'Inside the museums infinity goes up on trial'.

With 'One Of Us Must Know', we're out of the somber wintery evening and right into the dizzy, hangover-saddled wintery morning. This time, the organ comes in thick blasts of snowy wind rather than thin wisps of smoke, and the song shakes and woozes as if the melody had itself just one too many before squatting down on the vinyl (no drugs, though. No drug presence felt at all on Blonde, for that matter). As the song breaks from verse to chorus, it's as if the drummer and piano player are going to put things into hyperthrust mode, but Bob prevents them from doing that - and at the very last moment they have to resort to special tricks so as not let it all fall apart. It's clumsy, but charming. Lack of proper rehearsing is the chief culprit, of course, but how nicely it all fits, doesn't it, with the confused, stuttered lyrics about a confused, stuttered relationship? Favourite lyrical moment comes in the chorus, of course: "Sooner or later, one of us must know/You just did what you're supposed to do/Sooner or later, one of us must know/That I really did try to get close to you".

'I Want You' is the fastest song so far, with a chorus that comes close to "non-written" status (what sort of a chorus is a chorus that goes 'I want you, I want you, I want you so bad' and doesn't even offer a friggin' rhyme to that?) and yet fitting in perfectly with all the rest. Dylan's got this uncanny ability to take a flat-out cliche - this time, one that's on the lobotomised garage-rock simplicity level - and make it all enigmatic and mysterious just because it sits next to lines like 'The guilty undertaker sighs/The lonely organ grinder cries/The silver saxophones say I should refuse you' and references to dancing children with Chinese suits and Queens of Spades and their chambermaids. I wonder if the song actually inspired the Doors for their Strange Days album sleeve - probably not, but mad Felliniesque circus visions are a constant presence in my mind whenever I listen to the melody - which, by the way, is one of the catchiest on the entire album.

'Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again' is the lone depressed number on here, but with a melody that's not too far removed from 'Positively 4th Street', as if the pissed-off, rebellious protagonist of the latter had finally calmed down, settled into a more introspective mood, and got really really downed by taking a broader look at the situation he's in. Again, the organ, with its sly little twirls and twists, carries the day, but this is very much a wildly exaggerated lyrical showcase, with little cynical pearls like 'Grandpa died last week/And now he's buried in the rocks/But everybody's still talking about/How badly they were shocked' scattered all over the place. Me, I like to notice all the little changes in intonation every time he gets around to the chorus - just how many different ways there are to utter the phrase 'Oh, mama, can this really be the end?' Bob will show you just how.

Ever so many times I have seen 'Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat' slammed for being "just generic blues, and how much generic blues can one take?". Well, yeah, if you're looking for non-trivial chord sequences and nothing else in your music, I see your point. But the way things are, I never treat a 12-bar blues recording as 'generic' unless it is truly 'generic' - that is, performed by somebody who thinks that as long as you get the chords right and the lyrics suitably 'bluesy', it's well worth recording. And not even Bob's biggest distractors, I think, could accuse 'Pill-Box Hat' of being recorded simply for the sake of recording a 'blues number'. First, it's not just blues, but it's spontaneous "garage blues", with messy, spludgy (is that a word) guitarwork that sounds like splinters of broken glass - and then Bob actually picking the lead and playing a solo that's every bit as ecstatic as yer average Count Five or Del-Vetts, just a tad slower. And then there's the lyrics of course, culminating in one of my all-time favs: 'you might think he loves you for your money, but I know what he really loves you for - it's your leopard-skin pill-box hat'. Personally, I take this line as one of the most awesome statements of Bob's genius, if only from a purely linguistic/[philo]logical point of view.

'Just Like A Woman'. The chorus has always seemed a little crude to me ('she takes just like a woman, but she breaks just like a little girl' - in another age, after all, this could serve as a pretty nifty tagline for something XXX-rated), but not even a little lyrical crudeness can take away from the fact that this is just the right way one should approach a romantic ballad without stepping into the usual cesspool of strings, cliches, saccharine, and abusing the four-letter word ('love', I mean). And right up there, coming off The World's Most Generic Melody Ever Written About A Pill-Box Hat, is one of the most complex, non-trivial, and yet astonishingly memorable chord sequences in existence - see, this little guy could write melodies that rank up there with Townshend and McCartney, even if only rarely so. Joe Cocker later covered this in his classic whiskey-man style, but for me it'll always be Dylan's neurotic delivery instead.

'Most Likely You Go Your Way' gives us another quasi-misogynistic piece, this time introduced by a loud and braggy brass rhythm, like the formerly drunk ensemble of 'Rainy Day Women' finally sobered up and got down to real business. Funny 'n' captivating brass-harmonica interplay on this one, to my knowledge never reproduced in any way by anyone ever after. I do wonder what made him choose this weird martial pattern, though - were I to direct a musical video for the song, it'd so consist of the Soviet Army Ensemble parading it through Red Square with Bob singing the words off the top of an armoured car. Favourite lyrical moment: 'you say my kisses are not like his/But this time I'm not gonna tell you why that is'. What a twist of phrase, ohmygod.

'Temporary Like Achilles'? More like 'Temporary Like Achillean Heel'; the only song that does smell fillerish too me, not just because its melody is ridiculously way too close to 'Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues' (just slowed down for additional lethargy purpose), but also because I don't quite favour that lazy Sunday-morning vibe where you just lie in bed and don't do much except munch on your private cobwebs instead of clearing them away, if you get my drift. Not on this album, at least; maybe by the time we get to New Morning, but BoB is not a lazy album by all means - hazy, perhaps, and more than a little crazy, but never lazy. A little patch of quicksand like that in a particular spot like that - two-thirds into the double album, the most dangerous location for the listener to find himself in - really does no good, and I will even refrain from lyrical quotes, all angry and frustrated-like.

'Absolutely Sweet Marie' does offer a shot of salvation, with a quicker, steadier, toe-tappier rhythmic pattern and a whole shower of those famous golden lines like 'to live outside the law you must be honest', etc. Emotionally, it's the album's most elusive number - even after all these years, I can't quite put my finger on it. Maybe nonchalant is the word here - a song that conveys the feeling of being completely free of all feelings and then feeling happy about it. Every time the refrain 'where are you tonight, sweet Marie?' comes along, you just know instinctively that the least thing in this world that actually interests Mr Singer is the answer to that question - it just sorta comes along as a figure of speech because, well, where would we be without our own personal figures of speech? I like to think of this as Dylan's perverse equivalent of 'Sitting On The Dock Of The Bay', even if the latter was yet to come.

I've heard '4th Time Around' called Dylan's parody on (or answer to) the Beatles' 'Norwegian Wood', and all I can say is "maybe" and then add "or maybe not". That there are certain similarities is quite obvious: lyrically, it's about - sort of - a guy coming to - sort of - a girl, and what happens between them is just as unclear as the story told in the Beatles' song (unless you think of the latter strictly as an arsonist's confession, that is). Musically, too, it rolls at a comparable pace, bringing on a comparable lull. No sitar, though, but the mandolin works just as fine. But I would still think of the song as kind of a natural prequel to 'Just Like A Woman', though - both bring on the same tender feel, and digging down deep, you can see that both give out hints at Bob's emotional vulnerability. Small hints, of course, little, barely perceptible shoots, which is quite understandable when you're just a little over twenty and the need for you to hurt people is so much greater than for being hurt by them. But so much more the pleasure of hunting them out and exposing them to sunlight.

Now the psychotic rock'n'roll number 'Obviously Five Believers' usually tends to be overlooked, as, for one, it immediately precedes the magnum opus of the record, and also it evidently does not stand comparison to any other major highlights of the record. But it does have the honour of being the album's only aggressively speedy number, and although it is nowhere near as tight as, say, 'From A Buick 6', it is sloppy and messy enough to give us a good garage kick before the final showdown. Great punkish guitar solo, too, and a really weird sort of "interlude" between each verse.

'Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands'. The first ever song to cover an entire side of an entire LP, even if that was really cheating (it's not that much longer than 'Desolation Row', and that one had three neighbours sitting next to it at least). It's easy as apple pie to call it a visionary, mind-blowing, baroque-folk-rock masterpiece for ages to come, and it's even easier to call it a twelve-minute yawnfest. One thing is for certain, though - it was definitely intended to be a masterpiece for the ages, and although Bob wrote it in one session and the band recorded it in one lengthy take, it is quite clear to me that this was, to Bob, the most important song he'd ever done yet. He wanted to come out with something of that sort of importance and magnitude, and that's why it's so long, and that's why the lyrics are his most convoluted and imagery-filled to date, and that's why it crawls at a snail's pace - because this time around, he has no intention of letting his words just flow through your head like eccentric, gimmicky verbal crap, but he wants you to acknowledge that yes, "geranium kiss" and "curfew plugs" really are a way of expressing your feelings towards the one you love the most (and at that time, that happened to be his wife Sarah). It's all made to sound and feel like an intricate, intensely complex Oriental poetry rug - excessive to suffocation and yet so monumental you can't help but acknowledge it. I don't listen to the song too often - it tires me out, although I do say "tires out" rather than the silly "bores", like a great work of art can do to an admirer. And it's so completely spontaneous - one motherfuckin' take! - and it's so completely perfect at that, and such a great title, too. Robert Burns, eat your heart out.

Now all that remains for me is just pack my bags and go away, leaving you with the music, but a reader comment below prompts me to break out one more note. Someone has insisted that this album will date, being superated by Blood On The Tracks because the latter is much more emotional. To this my reply is: if such is indeed the case, too bad for humanity. There's nothing wrong with BotT - I respect it as much as anyone - but it represents a much more accessible and much less unique side of Dylan, standing in the same class as quite a serious number of similar low-tone confessional records (no wonder it regularly has to withstand comparison with Lennon, Neil Young and others). BoB, though, in addition to being in a class entirely its own, is in reality every bit as emotional, if not more so. It's just that for some people, it is hard to accept the idea that images of sneezing jellyfaced women or twenty pounds of headlines stapled to someone's chest can convey as much emotion as lines like 'he felt an emptyness inside, to which he just could not relate', constituting the bulk of BoTT. Well, it isn't for me, I can tell you that much at least.

As usual, I have absolutely no idea if this review is ever going to "convert" anybody. But then nobody really needs to love BoB, or necessarily consider it the pinnacle of the pinnacles, or force-feed it to oneself until macrocytic anemia sets in. Nope. I ain't lookin' to block you up, shock or knock or lock you up - all I really want to do is just to provide those bugged with the eternal question of "what do pretentious losers in spectacles find in this album apart from a chance to show off their own importance?" with a sincere answer to said question. And if I have not been successful, don't blame it on Dylan, just blame it on me and my silly language skills.


LIVE 1966

Year Of Release: 1997
Record rating = 7
Overall rating = 12

Well, it's certainly the best-enunciated Dylan concert I've ever heard, that's for sure.


Track listing: CD I: 1) She Belongs To Me; 2) 4th Time Around; 3) Visions Of Johanna; 4) It's All Over Now Baby Blue; 5) Desolation Row; 6) Just Like A Woman; 7) Mr Tambourine Man;

CD II: 1) Tell Me Momma; 2) I Don't Believe You; 3) Baby Let Me Follow You Down; 4) Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues; 5) Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat; 6) One Too Many Mornings; 7) Ballad Of A Thin Man; 8) Like A Rolling Stone.

Have you ever loved a bootleg? So much it's a shame and a sin? Me, I haven't, which probably means that I just don't love music as much as I'm supposed to. But many people have, and Bob's infamous Live At The Royal Albert Hall is a prime example. In fact, they loved it so much that few even paid attention to the fact that the actual show was not, in fact, played at the "Royal Albert Hall", but rather at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, on May 17, 1966. Not that we can actually blame them - admit it, 'Royal Albert Hall' sounds way cooler, and we're still preoccupied with royalty, no matter how much we try to deny it. But it did prompt the manufacturers to put the words 'Royal Albert Hall' on the front sleeve, in quotation marks whose evident thinness sort of begs the question.

The reasons for this particular concert to serve as the first in a line of archived live performances continuing the so-called Bootleg Series are fairly obvious: above all, tremendous historical importance. First, it is so far the only complete performance of a young and freshly de-Pete-Seegerized Bob at the aboslute peak of his creative powers (until recently, it was, in fact, the only pre-motorcycle crash live album, giving us a Bob Dylan that was light years removed from the bruised and battered 70s version of the artist - now we have Live 1964 as well, but that one is just acoustic). And second, this is arguably the only live album by any major (or minor) rock (or any other) act on which you will hear the performer being mercilessly booed and clapped over. Don't worry: this has nothing to do with the quality of the concert, which is almost beyond reproach - only with broken expectations and shattered illusions, as a crowd of honest, but simple-minded folkies tries to throw Dylan and his supporting band off balance and try to get them unplugged and singing about the civil rights.

Now before we go into this I have to confess that I have yet to fall head over heels in love with the record, but I'm not sure if my own inner Dylan-part-o'-soul will ever be capable of that. Of course, this album was recorded just months after the sessions for BoB, and by default that should have made for a unique experience. But studio sessions are one thing, and a live performance may be two things: first, promoting the studio sessions, and second, "making a point" for a concrete group of people. Live 1966, in its entirety, is about "making a point". Dylan arrives on the stage alone, equipped with the usual guitar and harmonica, and proceeds to perform a series of songs that have nothing to do with his folkie period at all - not a single song off the first four albums. Moreover, he is almost mocking the audience by slowing the songs down and paying precise attention to his articulation, so that all the people down there would have no chance at all of missing lines like 'for Halloween buy her a trumpet, and for Christmas give her a drum' or the entirety of the "nonsense" of 'Visions Of Johanna' or 'Desolation Row'. He's not only unashamed of churning out this drivel, he's proud of it, and he wants you to know it and he wants you to acknowledge it, the little Zionist motherfucker. Hey, if I lived and worked in Manchester at the time, I might have booed, too.

Then, once the excruciating acoustic set is over, what does he do? Haul out his buddies, set up the electric guitars and play a deafeningly loud, chaotic, garage-rock set during which not only is he churning out more of this ridiculous pablum, but he even dares to take the "golden oldies" which he never used once during the acoustic set and then transform them into the same electric mess - 'I Don't Believe You', 'Baby Let Me Follow You Down', 'One Too Many Mornings'... Maybe you don't remember some of these: never fear, he'll remind you. He'll play a few enticing acoustic bars and then he'll say 'it used to be like this, now it goes like that...' and he'll signal his croonies and his croonies are gonna go bang-bang on you again and now what can a poor boy do 'cept to boo at this rock'n'roll band?

Of course, it's an awesome feeling. It really leaves you with the sensation of being present at a major historical event, at one of those crucial turns of the public conscience that the liner notes rave about, comparing Bob's bravery to Isadora Duncan's and Antonin Artaud's. However, once that initial feeling has worn down - once the intrigue is no longer an intrigue, because you now know what exactly is going to happen before the start of each new song - you're simply left with a decent live performance that doesn't add too much to Bob's studio legacy at the time.

The acoustic set, in particular, leaves me relatively cold. 'Desolation Row', without its cute little guitar flourishes, is reduced to an eleven-minute borefest; 'Visions Of Johanna', without its lovely snowy-white organ, is stripped of its enchanting evening mood; and 'Mr Tambourine Man' drags on for seven minutes without any interesting twists that we haven't already experienced on the studio version. (People have pointed out to me that he blows a real mean harmonica on it - well, maybe he is, but harmonica alone ain't heavy enough to tip my scale over, you know). Great songs, good performances, but when all is said and done, I will just go back to my studio versions, thank you very much.

The electric part, on the other hand, is certainly a lot of fun. There is even one otherwise unavailable song, a fiery 'n' ferocious blues-rock romp called 'Tell Me Momma', somewhat reminiscent of 'From A Buick 6' but played in a much sloppier fashion - as befitted The Band, at that time still the Hawks, better. Speaking of the Hawks, they do indeed come across as raving, aggressive rock'n'roll players, much unlike the future appearance of Robbie Robertson and pals, and they are a terrific backing outfit for Bob, with two sets of keyboards creating a thick, overwhelming sound, and Robertson's guitar blasts, maybe not quite enough to replace the quickly burning passion of Mike Bloomfield, maybe somewhat more calculated and cool-headed, but still maddeningly effective. Anyway, this guy wanted a big, fat, hairy sonic texture, and he got himself one. It's amazing we can actually hear him sing over the din - I'll bet you anything the audience couldn't, making this one more pretext for booing.

But even on the electric set, what goes on in between tracks is sometimes more interesting than what goes on during the tracks themselves. The clapping and the booing, and Dylan's calm, yet eccentric reaction to the audience is the central focus. That moment when he is quietly mumbling something inaudible and then, as the exhausted audience nearly collapses from clapping for too long, finishing it with a '...if you only wouldn't clap so hard'. And, of course, the by now classic exchange between a betrayed fan yelling 'Judas!' and Bob replying 'I don't believe you!' before turning to the band and shouting 'play fucking loud!' and then they launch into 'Rolling Stone'. Which, by the way, is arguably the only song on here that I find adding real extra punch to the original - but, again, it has to be taken in context, in order to understand what the hell got them so hyper-energized in the first place. It is also slowed down a bit, so that the players get the opportunity to punch out each note, each drumbeat as if they were working on concrete with sledgehammers, as if it were really that important. It's given the most heartfelt anthemic sheen ever heard at a Dylan concert, and if at least a few of the booers weren't converted to regular Zimmerman-ity after the last falling notes of it, count me ready to lose some more faith in humanity.

Yet, to be perfectly honest, I don't feel that everything on the electric set is up to the same standard. I don't feel that a lot of work has really gone into the rearrangements of old classics; 'I Don't Believe You' threatens to fall apart and sink each time the bridge comes along, and 'One Too Many Mornings' is really way too intimate a tune to be read that way. I do say that Bob would become much more versatile in thinking of creative rearrangements in the future, but here he's way too concentrated on fucking with the audience to give it a real think. And the rest, too, is hit and miss: for every terrific garage cut like 'Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat' you get yourself something botched. 'Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues', for instance, was the perfect lazy song on the perfect lazy day; trying to get it to kick ass is like trying to make a wild boogie dance out of the Kinks' 'Sunny Afternoon'.

The bottomline is that when it comes to Live 1966, everybody's talking about the conflict and confrontation, but few people are talking about the music. Which is understandable - and then let us also not forget that perhaps Live 1966 is intended to be assimilated as an 'event', a 'happening', maybe a 'psychological revolution' if you wanna go that far, and for that impact alone it deserves a major boost along the rating lines. And that's fine by me, because in that respect it awes me as much as anybody. However, calling it 'the best live album ever', as some have done, would be like, I dunno, calling Jackson Pollack the best artist who ever lived. Hey, I'm not saying that's necessarily false, mind you - I'm just saying it's necessarily weird. And sure I've been running this site for eight years now, but for some reason that hasn't been enough to make me appropriately weird myself. Not yet.



Year Of Release: 1975
Record rating = 5
Overall rating = 10

Patchy, but that's understandable. An ex-bootleg with lotsa country songs. Some crappy, some not.

Best song: TEARS OF RAGE

Track listing: 1) Odds And Ends; 2) Orange Juice Blues (Blues For Breakfast); 3) Million Dollar Bash; 4) Yazoo Street Scandal; 5) Goin' To Acapulco; 6) Katie's Been Gone; 7) Lo And Behold; 8) Bessie Smith; 9) Clothes Line Saga; 10) Apple Suckling Tree; 11) Please Mrs Henry; 12) Tears Of Rage; 13) Too Much Of Nothing; 14) Yea! Heavy And A Bottle Of Bread; 15) Ain't No More Cane; 16) Crash On The Levee (Down In The Flood); 17) Ruben Remus; 18) Tiny Montgomery; 19) You Ain't Goin' Nowhere; 20) Don't Ya Tell Henry; 21) Nothing Was Delivered; 22) Open The Door Homer; 23) Long Distance Operator; 24) This Wheel's On Fire.

At the peak of his career Bob eventually got into a motorcycle crash and subsequently dropped into a coma and out of the cultural and musical life of the Summer of Love. One can only wonder what album would have followed Blonde were it not so, and what would be Bob's part in all the movements of 1967. Instead, after the convalescence he locked himself up in New York, in the so-called 'basement of Big Pink' (or 'Big Punk', as I call it) together with The Band and started recording bunches of weird songs. The tapes were bootlegged for a long time, until in 1975 they were released officially. However, since all of the recorded material dates back to 1967, this is where it belongs in my chronology.

Such an affair as this, naturally, can't help but be somewhat patchy. There are some real gems here, but all are interwoven with lots of barely listenable, underarranged, throwaway filler. And it's not a necessary thing that Bob's songs are good and The Band's songs are not. Nope. It's just that this material wasn't sorted out (as for a regular studio release), and so for every good song you get one or two shitty ones. Naturally, Bob wasn't too hot about releasing this stuff originally; perversely, what would probably be dismissed by the thinkin' public were it to be released in 1967, had gradually turned into a legendary set of recordings, with multiple performers 'confiscating' all these songs to sing them themselves, starting from Bob's eternal bodyguards the Byrds and ending with Rod Stewart and even Fairport Convention ('Million Dollar Bash'). Needless to say, this is that unique case when the 'alien performers' managed to improve on Dylan, simply because they took the time to work on the songs and Bob didn't, although, given the circumstances, we can't really blame him for that.

I don't think many people would tend to disagree with me over the general assessment of the record. Tastes may, however, differ as to what should be considered as highlights and what should be considered as low points. I'll just list some of the songs that did manage to draw my attention, and try to explain why; but I don't guarantee the absolute truth on here (as a matter of fact, I never guarantee the absolute truth, but when you're dealing with somebody as slick and slim as Mr Zimmerman, you can particularly never tell). And before I proceed, please bear in mind that I don't really think of Tapes as a 'bad record'; rather a slightly misguided experiment. I actually enjoy most of the numbers, but, for the most part, as simply qualified background music. For Bob's own standards, which are the highest in the world (otherwise his artist rating would be lower), this is definitely mediocre at best.

On the first disc of the set, I particularly enjoy the album opener, the jolly countryish 'Odds And Ends' which sounds as if it comes straight from the Stones' Aftermath - especially if we consider that the sloppy sound quality perfectly matches the youthful intentional underproduction of Aftermath. 'Million Dollar Bash' is particularly memorable because of Garth Hudson's impressive swirling organ and the 'Oooh baby ooh wee' chorus. 'Lo And Behold!' is exceedingly funny, even if it sounds just like a slightly modified clone of the former, but I somehow find something intriguing in the line 'looking for my lo and behold!'. You? Meanwhile, the Band step in with a few noteworthy compositions of their own - 'Bessie Smith' is a beautiful, hard-hitting tune with more showcases for Garth Hudson's expert organ playing and very emotional, deeply moving vocals, while 'Yazoo Street Scandal' is an unexpectedly grim, spooky tune with echoey vocals, scary, ice-cold guitar tones and mystical lyrics wherein, to quote Greil Marcus, 'the singer is introduced to the local Dark Lady who promptly seduces him and then scares him half to death'. The song is really grim, much more than you'd expect from such a bunch of nice guys as The Band. The definite highlight of disc one, however, is the closing pleading ballad 'Tears Of Rage', arguably one of the few deserved Dylan classics on the entire set: while most of his songs here really serve to introduce his upcoming country-western period, 'Tears' apparently hearkens back to the Blonde period, with its lush, luxuriant background arrangement; in yet another sense, though, this song that has Dylan at his most broken-hearted since God knows when, actually, for the first time, I guess, also presages Blood On The Tracks.

Now disc two is even weaker. It has a couple more pleasant, but elementary countryish clones of 'Million Dollar Bash', like 'Yea! Heavy And A Bottle Of Bread', but even these are getting horrendously generic and annoying ('Tiny Montgomery', a song that strikes me with its complete pointlessness). So there's just two Dylan originals on here that I favour - the delicious, gentle 'You Ain't Going Nowhere', which I confess I only started appreciating after hearing the Byrds' version on Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, and the menacing blues of 'Long Distance Operator'. Oh, 'This Wheel's On Fire' is considered to be a classic on here, but for some reason I've never been able to perceive the deeply-hidden charm of that song, if it ever exists in the first place. Hell, the chorus has almost the same melody as 'Tears Of Rage' - a similar, but far superior song, with much more raw emotional power and far less bombast than here.

So what about the rest? Well, I won't be going on a song-for-song basis: there's just too many of them, and why should I engage in lengthy ramblings on tunes that have fewer potential than Rick Danko's left thumb? you tell me. Most of the rest is either plain derivative ('Orange Juice Blues' and a million other tunes that don't have the faintest smell of any original idea lying around), or just boring with no particular place to go (the lengthy 'Goin' To Acapulco'), or just silly (The Band's 'Katie's Been Gone'). Also remember that the stuff is obviously distributed in a bad way: the good stuff is mostly grouped on the first disc and vice versa. Oh, well. Even the traditional 'Ain't No More Cane', which should have been interesting in The Band's hands, is not so. But what would you expect of a long-time bootleg, anyway? And to think that you have to pay double price to get it, as it comes on two CDs! The worst thing is that the running time DOES NOT exceed eighty minutes, so it was fairly possible to squeeze this stuff onto one disc even without having to sacrifice some of the lesser tunes (although I wouldn't really mind). When I think that I have to pay twice as much for this as for Blonde On Blonde, that has more or less the same time amount of music, I really begin to get the feeling that the world is as irrational and illogical a place as can only be in the world. Then again, life would probably be pretty boring if everything were to be rational and illogical. Accept this as yet another undecipherable mystery of life and humbly go and buy The Basement Tapes for thirty bucks. Better still, rummage around in the used bins. You probably won't have to waste much time on the process.



Year Of Release: 1968
Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 14

An amazingly sincere excourse into the 19th century. Heaven-like country music.


Track listing: 1) John Wesley Harding; 2) As I Went Out One Morning; 3) I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine; 4) All Along The Watchtower; 5) The Ballad Of Frankie Lee And Judas Priest; 6) Drifter's Escape; 7) Dear Landlord; 8) I Am A Lonesome Hobo; 9) I Pity The Poor Immigrant; 10) The Wicked Messenger; 11) Down Along The Cove; 12) I'll Be Your Baby Tonight.

Along with Blonde On Blonde, this is probably the most intimate, spirit-uplifting listening experience that I ever get out of Dylan. I suppose that on some level the album's a solid ten, more so than, say, Highway 61; but then again, this is due to specific stellar moments, or to the general atmosphere. If taken on a song-by-song basis, there are a couple weaker numbers on here that don't really allow me to count JWH as Dylan's finest hour. Also, the length of the album - just thirty friggin' minutes in all - might be a bit off-putting for fans of the earlier period. (At least, it is so in the financial sense). I'll just content myself with saying that out of all the albums I've ever heard and reviewed, this is the most easy-going, smooth, gladly-attributed nine I've ever given out. No collection of 20th century music is complete without a copy of this record; and no rock or folk lovers' taste may be called acceptable if it can't adapt itself to its humble glory. And you all know I'm not the one who goes around giving out praises like these to just about any record that's immediately likeable. On the contrary, JWH, as nearly every Dylan album, takes some getting used to. It should never be listened to in an angry mood, and it should never be listened to as simply background music, like you listen to an average country or country-rock album. It doesn't 'kick ass' or 'rule supreme'. It's just genius.

On a 'historical' level, JWH opens a completely new trend for Bob - probably the greatest artistic revolution he's ever undergone. Even today, on latest albums like Time Out Of Mind, you can still see faint echoes of the same vibe, dimmed and subdued by the lengthy years, but not spent altogether. JWH was the first album that saw the light of the day after Bob did likewise after his infamous accident, missing the 'Summer Of Love' in the process, and it shows the man completely rejecting his past and adopting an altogether new style: hitting the country. But 'hitting the country' does not imply he adopted the well-known, banal, Band-style country. Just as well this does not mean the slightly cheesy, luvvly country style that Bob developed a year later, with Nashville Skyline, and went on to 'globalize' on Selfportrait. Both of these records were good and charming in their own way, but, after all, straightforward country is just plain straightforward country, independent of the player's originality, professional skills or emotional state. JWH, however, is different.

Difference number one is made by the incredible production of the record. Dylan dismisses all the lush arrangements he excelled in on Blonde and strips everything down, once again limiting himself to plain acoustic guitar and harmonica. And yet, this is not a return to the trusty folkie days of old: there is a rhythm section present on this record, with Charles McCoy on bass and Kenny Buttrey on drums. It might not be a great combo, but it sounds nothing like The Freewheelin', anyway. And when you listen to any selected song, you really get the impression that the guitar doesn't matter all that much: Bob rarely plays any interesting fills like he used to, for the most part sticking to simple, unadorned rhythm. The main accent is placed on his voice and harmonica playing, and this is where detailed attention should be paid. Now I don't know if the motorcycle accident really messed poor Mr Zimmerman's vocal cords, but fact is, he sounds far more whiny and pitiful than he did before - and I don't attribute that exclusively to the style he adopted; his voice was certainly changing, be it due to the accident or heavy smoking. But where it had lost in force and, perhaps, tolerability from the casual listener, it has more than gained in expressivity. With just a single line, any single line that starts any of the tracks on here, he's able to set a unique and mind-blowing mood, whether it be a depressive one, an angry one, a funny one, a romantic one or a preachy one.

And the harmonica? Mark Prindle once complained about its 'ugliness' and the fact that it was mixed way too loud, but I certainly can't share his feelings here, nor would I ever want to. To put it short, Bob's harmonica playing has never been better - before or since. While I always loved his harmonica solos, I must say that this is the first album where a harmonica solo is not treated simply as performing the function of an obligatory instrumental break. Instead, the harmonica sound brilliantly complements the song - it's as if the harmonica were taking on the function of Bob's voice for a while, agreeing to substitute whatever mood he was trying to set with the actual singing while Bob himself was taking a rest. And in that sense, the production is awesome: bringing the instrument out to the same level of loudness as Bob's voice only serves to accentuate the friendly 'competition' between the singer and the instrument.

The second difference is even grander, though: Bob completely changes his attitude. Where he once sang angry, protesting anthems, or brain-muddling, psycho songs that were still rooted in being in complete disagreement with the ways of modern society, he now sings about 19th century America and its problems, churning out most of the songs in a humble, almost self-deprecating, tone. Dylan the Protest Singer and Dylan the Trippy Freak now gives way to Dylan the Humble Preacher. In a certain way, that's the image he's had ever since; but on JWH, he combines it with such important elements as intriguing mystery, compelling storytelling, and visions of the country's past life, so that the preachiness never comes out boring or banal. Instead, it's as addictive as can be.

The very first song on the album, the title track, in which Bob slyly recalls the deeds of a notorious outlaw, stylizing it in the form of a traditional 'heroic ballad', has something downright captivating about it. Maybe it's the massive shock - try to put this on right after 'Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands' and you'll know what I mean. It's the total, almost defiant simplicity and unpretentiousness of the song that makes it such a treat: the lyrics are pretty straightforward, the melody as simple as can be (some say it's ripped-off of his own single 'Positively 4th Street', but it certainly isn't, as both songs can be independently traced to some obscure folkish originals), and Bob's voice humble and nonchalant. Every time I listen to it, I can't but get the feeling of this transformation - a teenage cult figure like Bob suddenly metamorphosing into an old, ruffled country minstrel singing a primitive, yet strangely deep and affectable ode to a bandit of days gone by. It's so strange and unique, this feeling, that I'm tempted to see 'John Wesley Harding' as an absolute classic - of course, taken out of context, it doesn't really mean all that much.

And yet, even this newly-found straightforwardness has its limits: Dylan immediately throws us into the illogical, absurd world of 'As I Went Out One Morning', a song in which the protagonist goes to visit Tom Paine, gets caught by a seductive girl and is only rescued from her clutches by Mr Paine himself at the very last moment. And hoopla, suddenly the mystery is right there in the air, and even Bob's voice descends from a happy whiny tone into a deeper, grumblier, prophetic tone as he tells the story of his misery: 'I offered her my hand - She took me by the arm - I knew that very instant - She meant to do me harm'. Notice the utmost care that Bob inserts into every single word, especially at the end of each line - the magic is stunning. Till this very day, the song remains a complete mystery to me, as I don't really get the message, nor do I get any particular mood or general idea from it; but hey, we all need a little mystery in our lives.

Then the mystery goes away, and is replaced by utter despair and a song so tragic and gorgeous in its essence that it brings me to tears every time I hear it. This is my second favourite on the album, and a number that you should always pplay if you want to convince somebody of Bob's greatness: 'I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine', a song where Bob narrates exactly the very fact. I am somewhat puzzled by the lines 'I dreamed I was amongst the ones that put him out to death', as I'm pretty sure St Augustine died his own death; therefore, the line should either be understood in a metaphorical sense or just attributed to Bob's unstoppable fantasy, as I can't really suspect him of simple ignorance. Nevertheless, this is one of his most effective and influential Biblical stylizations: slowly, moodily and with somber majesty he tells us how St Augustine tells all the kings and queens to 'go on your way accordingly but know you're not alone'. And the desperate ending - 'Oh I awoke in anger/So alone and terrified/I put my fingers against the glass/And bowed my head and cried' - is such a cathartic moment that only a person without a heart could hold back the tears while listening to it. Poor, poor St Augustine. Poor, poor kings and queens. Why the hell is this number so irresistible? I guess it has a lot to do with the vocals, as usual: they are not angry or preachy or reproaching, by any means, just so humble and so soft and so meek that they seduce you from the very first moment. It's like with the servants of the Church, you know: I don't feel that good about organized religion, usually, but I always feel a deep respect for soft-hearted, intelligent and understanding priests who not only know the words 'mercy' and 'tolerance' but know their true meanings as well. This is more or less the equivalent of Bob's expressivity on this track. And the harmonica blows away everything in the world, too.

Now the next song, the soaring anthem 'All Along The Watchtower', you're bound to know this one. Unfortunately, you probably know it due to the Hendrix cover which gets tons of airplay and has already equalled its position as one of the most overplayed 'classic rock' numbers, along with 'Stairway To Heaven' and 'Pinball Wizard' and suchlike. Now don't get me wrong: I like the Hendrix cover good as anybody. But I don't feel it is correct to really compare the two numbers, as Hendrix essentially took a Dylan number and edited the 'Dylan' out of it: the lyrics are the same, of course (if you neglect the fact that Jimi often contended himself with just one verse in concert, forgetting the others), but the overall feel, the message, the mood, everything else is completely different. The Dylan song in question is all built around that soft silky mystical aura that overfills JWH, and the beautiful, almost bewitching harmonica solos in between the verses set a mood full of little medieval charms: it isn't even about America, it's about the Dark Ages. 'Country-goth', I'd call it, a style never reproduced after. The Hendrix version is more of a regular psychedelic tune with wild guitar heroics, quite typical of Jimi; there's nothing mysterious or so vastly compelling there, except the soloing techniques... but wait, didn't I just promise not to compare the two songs. Stop stop stop and on we go.

Now the fifth song, 'The Ballad Of Frankie Lee And Judas Priest', which is also the lengthiest on here - the only number that goes well over five minutes, is the one I could easily live without. I'll be the first to admit that the story that Bob tells during these five minutes is fascinating, but more so as a poem than an actual song. In that respect, I might just as well be enjoying the hilarious 'preface' to the album about Frank and the three kings that's present there in the liner notes. But the melody is non-existent (just Bob blandly strumming his acoustic for accompaniment), Bob's intonations are intentionally devoid of any expression - he acts as if he were simply reciting poetry with little or no feeling, and even the harmonica doesn't really work; and five minutes of this stuff is somewhat hard to take. Same problem, only worse, would later be represented by 'Lily, Rosemary & The Jack Of Hearts' off Blood On The Tracks. For some perverse reason, the song often occupies the other reviewers' favourite spot - I still have trouble trying to figure out why. Probably has a lot to do with the lyrics; but in my humble opinion, Dylan has never been able to get away with lyrics and lyrics alone. And there's little but the lyrics to be lauded on here.

'Drifter's Escape', which opens the second side, is an obvious improvement, though. The story here is far less compelling as it is more straightforward; it's simply a tale of a 'drifter' sentenced to death or something worse ('the jury cried for more') and how he managed to escape punishment during the panic created by a lightning bolt. But the melody is somewhat more upbeat and involving, more or less in the style of the title track, and Dylan's funny impression of a bleating folk singer is enough to redeem all the straightforwardness. Not a highlight, but solid and a good distraction from all the emotional uplift and torment of the other numbers. It's also interesting that Hendrix (obviously a great fan of the album, too) did a not uninteresting electric version of this tune as well, recently unearthed and issued on South Saturn Delta.

'Dear Landlord' introduces the first significant change in sound - it's piano-based instead of guitar-based, and this significantly influences the mood. This is the kind of sound that would be much more typical for Dylan's subsequent releases (Selfportrait and especially New Morning), a sound that's far more cozy, relaxed and homely than the dangerous mystery of the guitar/harmonica interplay on the previous cuts. The song is structured as a leaseholder's plea to his landlord not to sell off his property or something like that, and Bob's self-humiliating intonations are again at work. While the song is never 'sharp' enough to bring me to tears (how long can one cry over such a short album, anyway?), it's still unbelievably sincere and heartfelt: the lyrics might be a bit witty for the occasion ('I do hope you receive it well/Depending on the way you feel that you live'), but the general feel can't be argued about.

Ah, but then comes one of the three definite highlights on side two - the sneering, sarcastic 'I Am A Lonesome Hobo'. The opening bloozy harmonica suggests you're in for something special, and that's exactly what you get: this time Dylan impersonates a hobo, indeed, but it's not a hobo that simply sits there and whines about his misery. It's not a hobo that's ready to take up a gun and shoot off every rich capitalist swine's nuts, either. It's a hobo with a devastating, cynical view on the world - as a place where everything is so bad in the first place that it can simply never be repaired. 'Kind ladies and kind gentlemen/Soon I'll be gone', he says, and it's obvious that he's more like a wandering poor philosopher than a simple feeble person. This is also a 'lesson against jealousy', but that's another matter. Again, the sneering intonations, the sardonic blues of the harmonica and the society-bashing lyrics combine to produce a true classic.

'I Pity The Poor Immigrant'. What can be said about that one? Suffice it to say that it's hard to believe the song was written in twentieth-century America, at a stage when the hardship and toil of immigration, while still existing, were far from the hardship and toil the poor immigrants were suffering a hundred years ago. I have not the least doubt that, were it penned sometime around 1840 or so, it would have without a doubt turned into the most popular 'Immigrant Workin' Song'. Lyrics like 'I pity the poor immigrant/Who tramples through the mud,/Who fills his mouth with laughing/And who builds his town with blood/Whose visions in the final end/Must shatter like the glass/I pity the poor immigrant/When his gladness comes to pass' hit the bulls' eye so precisely it's a real wonder. Add to this the slow, stuttering, almost senile delivery (Dylan's heartfelt impersonation of the poor immigrant), and you'll simply never be the same again after hearing this song. Humanism breathes through every pore of it, even through the trusty harmonica break.

The two next numbers - 'The Wicked Messenger' and 'Down Along The Cove' - are relative throwaways. Even so, 'Messenger' probably has the most elaborate melody on the whole record, with brilliantly constructed descending guitar lines replacing simplistic rhythm strumming; and the story that Bob tells is, once again, quite fascinating, though the idea is unclear, and that's a problem - where the idea is unclear, it's difficult to tell what kind of emotions or feelings the song should stimulate in you. And on 'Down Along The Cove' Bob suddenly turns to primitive love thematics, with somewhat off-putting, close-to-banal lyrics - a thing which doesn't work very well, considering that the song itself is just a generic fast blues number. The piano and occasional steel guitar, contributed by Nashville star Pete Drake, don't help that much.

However, I have no objections at all to the 'primitive love thematics' on the album closer - the luxurious, strangely sexual country number 'I'll Be Your Baby Tonight'. Honestly, Bob could hardly come up with a better album closer - telling us all goodbye not on a disturbing, mysterious note, as he'd done previously, but on a heart-warming, friendly, loving one. This is one of the best country songs in existence, with a melody close to brilliant and blistering embellishments all over the place: melodic harmonica fills abound, and Drake adds more steel guitar parts, this time completely in their needed place. The harmonica solos on that one are, in fact, more worthy than a dozen tranquilizers: my only complaint is that the song fades out almost in a blink of an eye, and right in the middle of one of these solos. Dammit, Bob. Why the hell did he have to extend that 'Frankie Lee' borefest, while at the same time cutting the best songs on the album to the point of practical non-existence? What an irrational kind of guy.

So I don't think I've yet mentioned it explicitly - fact is, most of these songs are just as short as your average punk number, a significant change of style for Bob who was the legit father of eleven-minute epics. He'd stay close to this pattern for all of his 'country' period, which would last for at least five more years. The good news is that, while this period is vastly underrated in general, he still managed to produce a great deal of genre classics. The bad news is that none of his further output from the period ever comes close to matching the beauty, mystery, inscrutability, and, at the same time, humble simplicity of JWH. The album still stands as one of the most obvious manifestations of the man's genius. And if you need some further proof, let me tell you that I just discovered I've even made this here review a lengthier one than my review of Blonde On Blonde without actually noticing it. Hmm, don't you think I oughta go and switch the ratings of these two albums? Well, probably not; I did point out a couple of flaws here that Blonde On Blonde misses completely. But buy this album today; tomorrow might be late.

And hey - I think I just figured out the meaning of the Blonde On Blonde moniker! Hint: what do you get if you try it as an anagram...?



Year Of Release: 1969
Record rating = 7
Overall rating = 12

Dylan goes hardcore country. Lightweight and short, but unexpectedly enjoyable.

Best song: LAY LADY LAY

Track listing: 1) Girl From The North Country; 2) Nashville Skyline Rag; 3) To Be Alone With You; 4) I Threw It All Away; 5) Peggy Day; 6) Lay Lady Lay; 7) One More Night; 8) Tell Me That It Isn't True; 9) Country Pie; 10) Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You.

Oh oh oh. For some, the going really gets rough here. Taking one step further, Bob has immersed himself in Nashville, quit smoking (some say that's the main reason of his odd whine-free tone on this and the followibng album) and recorded some straightforward country songs. Whatever you might say, this was certainly the true beginning of his long-time plan to rid himself of his huge fan following; even more strange, he failed - it took him one more album, and a double one at that, to achieve his goal (even though it still really doesn't work with your humble servant). The only major drawback of this album is that it's way too short. Twenty-nine minutes, for Chrissake! Highway 61 was more than fifty minutes long! It's not worth my money!

On the good side, though, he suddenly displays a charming singing voice as if he's been singing country songs all his life; writes some nice songs with perfectly understandable lyrics; and teams up with a host of Nashville thugs who managed to destroy Ringo Starr's second solo album the following year, but here they sound quite all right 'cos old Bob probably controlled the situation and, after all, he's the only songwriter on here. Out of the twenty nine minutes, there ain't even a single one that's not well worth your attention; just like every genre he'd previously engaged in, Bob personifies his country and brings it closer to the listener.

Everybody knows the classic ballad 'Lay Lady Lay' (sorry, the word 'ballad' is superfluous for this album: every song is a ballad, except the dispensable instrumental 'Nashville Skyline Rag'), with its mystical nighttime atmosphere, perfectly balanced by the tinkling percussion, floating organs, and gentle slide guitars. Unfortunately, the song is so intricate and subtle that Bob never really mastered a successful live version of it, and no rearranging tricks could ever recreate that same atmosphere on stage or even at least make a decent substitute for it. So the only way to enjoy the number is in its original version found here. The other more or less well-known number is that pragmatic bit of preachery, 'I Threw It All Away', very similar in tone to 'Lay Lady Lay' but without the slide guitar, so it's a 'daytime' song as opposed to the duskiness of 'Lady'.

But not everybody has heard the fairly interesting remake of 'Girl From The North Country' which Bob sings in a duet with Johnny Cash. The change of scenery results in a fascinating change of stylistics: the original number on Freewheelin' was just a sad tired Bob, here it's like two traveling minstrels or something, which elevates the song on a high romantic pedestal. Doesn't Johnny have one of the greatest voices in existence? Too bad I don't really have much else to say about him at this point... All the more interesting is its contrast with Bob's own - the Humble Intelligent Dude vs. the Respectable Country Giant.

A couple of the songs are just funny grooves (although that point would later be explored better on Selfportrait) - but 'Country Pie' with its sharp lead guitar lines truly rocks and when it fizzles out so unexpectedly after just one and a half minutes it's almost like an insult. Meanwhile, 'Peggy Day' is pleasant and bouncy - so pleasant and bouncy that it was later borrowed by Ray Davies who reworked the groove into his magnificent 'Holiday' (unless, of course, the groove is also borrowed by Dylan himself - quite a highly probable issue, too). Plus there's 'Nashville Skyline Rag', of course; it's pleasant, but highly generic - Bob would learn to make more intriguing country instrumentals later on (like 'Turkey Chase', for instance), but one shouldn't be too hard on the poor man: he was learning, after all. In any case, I love these charming little guitar melodies just as well.

The rest of the songs mainly recycle the balladeering theme, though. Such pretty numbers like 'One More Night' and the fascinatingly straightforward 'Tell Me That It Isn't True', for instance, should hardly rank below the 'classics' from this album. What's even less understandable to me is that most people love these numbers, yet they sound exactly like some stuff from Selfportrait which the same people hate. Talk about unfair biases...

The final rating is a seven, not because the songs suck but because it's actually a serious stylistic letdown after Harding. Well, after all Bob did want it to be a letdown, and there's no need to pretend that it isn't. It's still a wonderful record, though - which might seem like a paradox, but actually isn't. Take it this way: if a great painter suddenly quits painting masterpieces and turns himself to decorating wallpaper, does that mean that his wallpaper sucks? It's something on a different level - it's an intentional dropping of the 'high value' principle. The odds are that his wallpaper will still be better than ordinary wallpaper. Same with Bob: compared to Blonde On Blonde, Nashville Skyline is a throwaway, but out of all the pure country albums I've ever heard in my life this is, and undeniably will always be one of my favourites. Hope it will be the same way with you, too.

Although I can hardly hope for the reader to share my devotion for the following record...



Year Of Release: 1970
Record rating = 7
Overall rating = 12

A terribly understated quiet, modest album. Groovy and utterly un-serious. Remember that.


Track listing: 1) All The Tired Horses; 2) Alberta # 1; 3) I Forgot More Than You'll Ever Know; 4) Days Of '49; 5) Early Mornin' Rain; 6) In Search Of Little Sadie; 7) Let It Be Me; 8) Little Sadie; 9) Woogie Boogie; 10) Belle Isle; 11) Living The Blues; 12) Like A Rolling Stone; 13) Copper Kettle; 14) Gotta Travel On; 15) Blue Moon; 16) The Boxer; 17) The Mighty Quinn (Quinn The Eskimo); 18) Take Me As I Am (Or Let Me Go); 19) Take A Message To Mary; 20) It Hurts Me Too; 21) Minstrel Boy; 22) She Belongs To Me; 23) Wigwam; 24) Alberta # 2.

Oh boy, here we go. Now just look here: most people consider this album to be not just a HUGE letdown for old Bob, but one of the most loathsome, sordid and pitiful collection of songs he's ever done, if not ever recorded. By 'most people' I mean the general public and critical opinion as well: as far as I know, the record never gets more than one and a half stars or 2 or 3 points out of 10 even in the hands of the most generous reviewers. OK, now that being said and the warning for everybody being done, ... not to offend 'most people': you guys are nuts. In other words, this record rules. There ain't a single song of the twenty-three tracks on here that I dislike, and I wouldn't trade it in for a whole kingdom.

First of all, whoever disses it but has the nerve to praise Nashville Skyline needs to have a little part of his brain replaced. The moods of both records are almost similar - they're both 'country-rock' excursions, the only difference being that the Skyline material is more or less original and here we have more or less covers of 'classic' or 'obscure' country songs. As far as I understand, people just hate the songs for being covers, and they probably miss Bob's lyrics. But lemme just consider the background, ladies and gentlemen, lemme just consider the background! The idea was by no means make a bad album (which some people seriously think he did - they just say: 'Bob went and made one bad album intentionally!', that's what they say, and they miss the mark completely); but the idea was to make something different. And by different I don't mean revolutionary or groundbreaking or even original. In fact, by 1970 Bob was tired of revolutions, groundbreaking and originality, and he had enough of being called God and the fans endlessly waiting for that messianistic definite statement of Blonde On Blonde quality or even higher. So he thought he should do something simple instead - something ingenious, easily understandable and accessible which would shatter his 'superhuman' reputation intentionally. And, since he'd already stepped on country ground, the choice was obvious: he covered a great deal of rather banal country songs and wrote some more country songs in exactly the same styles, so sometimes it's very hard to make a difference. But I reiterate one more time: 'ordinary' doesn't equal 'bad', which so many people tend to forget.

As a result, most people hate all of this stuff, saying it's too gross, banal, and elementary. But I dunno, I enjoy it. I mean, it isn't serious at all, but hell, if you wanna tell me that my beloved 'Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues' is serious and this stuff is not, well I'll just have to smack you. You can consider it a 'parody' album, which would be close to the truth; or consider it a 'groove' album, which would be even closer; but consider it a 'bad' album? Never in my sweet short life!

Let's just jump to another level of apperception - the level on which I see, for instance, that the playing is great, with tons of professional country musicians joining Bob in the studio and producing creative, tasteful arrangements which I completely dig (and that's considering my usual disrespect for slow, boring country music in general). Even more important, on some of the tracks he continues to display that charming voice of his that he first discovered on Skyline (which shows that he could sing, after all, if he wanted to: esp. on 'Blue Moon', 'Take A Message To Mary', 'Take Me As I Am' and suchlike).

Some of the cover versions are admirable: Simon & Garfunkel's 'Boxer', for example, with Dylan singing a duet with Dylan (double-tracked, of course), or the abovementioned 'Take A Message To Mary' (which has nothing in common with 'Absolutely Sweet Marie', but is charming nevertheless); some old folk cowboy tale called 'Days Of '49', on which Bob shines with his inimitable talent to make a verse seem completely out of tune and then suddenly dive out again and put it out straight; another kinda golden oldie called 'Copper Kettle' about 'lying there by the juniper while the moon is bright'; some others I can't recall right now, but I like them all. And there's at least a dozen on here.

His self-penned material, though, is even better: the brilliant 'Mighty Quinn' is a standing out ferocious and humorous rocker, quite unlike anything he's ever done before or after; 'Belle Isle' is the lyrical opposite of 'As I Went Out One Morning', but musically they are both par; 'Minstrel Boy' drags at a very slow pace, but has a very strong melody; the instrumentals 'Woogie Boogie' and 'Wigwam' are maybe nothing special, but certainly nice; the two versions of 'Alberta' which open and close the album are good country blues, and the two versions of 'Little Sadie' are just good country.

Repeating it one more time: none of these or other songs from Selfportrait range among Bob's best work (except maybe 'Mighty Quinn'), but all of them are nice and pleasant to listen to, especially if you're in a lazy, relaxed mood. In fact, it's one of my favourite 'relaxation' albums of all time: it's particularly great to put on late in the evening when you come home all tired and pissed off after a day's toil. And no piece of music can set you in a good mood better than the opening tune 'All The Tired Horses', with just two lines repeated over and over, beautiful string arrangements, and no Dylan at all - just female choruses. Even the two live versions found on this CD ('Like A Rolling Stone', 'She Belongs To Me', from Bob's 1969 so-so Isle of Wight performances), sung in Dylan's most nasty voice, are not enough to spoil the picture.

So cheer up, folks - get this album (especially since it's a double LP on one CD) and dig it as Bob's 'groove' album. Seriously - it's one of the biggest puzzles in my life as to how people can really hate this stuff. Maybe being an American gives you the advantage of dismissing it? Well then, from an international point of view it still looks great. No, I still think that it mainly has to do with a 'crumble of expectations', as this is truly the oddest piece in Bob's catalog. Where were you when he was recording Skyline? What's the difference people? There ain't none. And of course Self-Portrait can't even hope to rank along the true Dylan classics, but hey, it's adequate - it doesn't actually pretend to, like some of his worst Eighties' albums do. I easily count it as one of the best, exemplary unpretentious, 'non-statement' albums ever recorded.



Year Of Release: 1970
Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 13

A short venture into the life of piano chords. Quiet and introspective, with just a tiny ounce of religion.

Best song: NEW MORNING

Track listing: 1) If Not For You; 2) Day Of The Locusts; 3) Time Passes Slowly; 4) Went To See The Gypsy; 5) Winterlude; 6) If Dogs Run Free; 7) New Morning; 8) Sign On The Window; 9) One More Weekend; 10) The Man In Me; 11) Three Angels; 12) Father Of Night.

This is much more of a serious album than Selfportrait, and also much more short: Bob cuts down the format and returns to the principle of 'ultra-short' record which would stick around for most of his 'country period'. Stylistics-wise, it is not entirely in another genre or anything: he is still working in the patented quiet, stripped down country style.However, by now he relies much more heavily on piano than on anything else, basing song after song on rather vague, watery, rambling chord sequences and disregarding carefully-structured riffs. Not that it's a problem: chaotic as this record seems to be, it somehow manages to be incredibly catchy. I'm not exactly sure if you'll like it if you hated Selfportrait, but if you didn't hate that one, you'll really find New Morning a major highlight in Bobster's career. Catchy, quiet and introspective - and also humble and philosophical, this time finding Bob in a somewhat toss-off, melancholy mood. But hey, that was probably the real mood he was in at the time, and everything about the album feels utterly sincere and moving.

Unless, of course, you're a piano hater, in which case this record is definitely not for you. In fact, the only real guitar-driven number on the whole record is the opening beautiful ballad 'If Not For You', also recorded by George Harrison the same year (see All Things Must Pass). This is a rare case when I actually prefer the cover to the original, but I have an excuse: George and Bob were really working together at the time (Bob also wrote, or co-wrote, I don't remember which, 'I'd Have You Anytime' for George's album), and George's version is just more polished, while Bob's take on it sounds kinda sloppy and too nonchalant. It's still cute, though, with wonderful guitar licks and a homely, cozy feel... eh, well, all of this album has a homely, cozy feel, I guess that was a rather superfluous remark.

But guitar or no guitar, it doesn't really matter: most of the piano numbers are extremely enjoyable, and much of them set entirely different moods - it never feels like the record is just chewing on one style. Some of the tunes are rather bizarre and unpredictable, like the extravagant waltz 'Winterlude': a bit in the Selfportrait vein with the formulaicness of its melody and somewhat banal love lyrics, it's not exactly a highlight, but I find its occasional roughness and straightforwardness defiant and attractive. Some, on the other hand, are utterly gorgeous: 'The Man In Me', on an amazing note, completely rejects Bob's frequently observed misogynistic attitudes with its refrain - 'takes a woman like you to get through to the man in me' - and, while some might find the 'la la la' chanting in the song cheesy and repetitive, I find it really heartwarming.

The album also sports an evident religious attitude - for the first time in Bob's career, really; one might say that in certain ways New Morning predicts Bob's 'born again' period, albeit only its strong sides and none of its weak ones. I'm mostly talking about the last three minutes on the album: 'Three Angels' is a solemn, creepy, organ-based piece, with Bob reciting a certain kind of apocalyptic vision that gives me the creeps; and 'Father Of Night' is just a very short, catchy, simplistic, childish ditty to round out the record. Unimaginable on any earlier album, but never spoiling the picture.

Religious, cozy and friendly; what other characteristics I still haven't mentioned? Oh yeah. Overall, this album produces a very 'lazy' impression as well, although it's not the 'laziness' of Selfportrait: the latter showed signs of tiredness (Bob tired of his fame and success), while New Morning displays signs of obvious boredom. Tracks like 'Time Passes Slowly' really set a unique mood that makes me imagine Bob as a lazy sluggard lying on his bed and staring at the ceiling. It does have a melody, because I'm able to remember it; but it creeps along at such a snail pace, and it sounds so blatantly minimalistic - one finger on a piano, eh? - that you will certainly be tempted to deny its very existence. Do not. It's just an Intentionally Boring (And Bored) Melody.

However, while it's indeed an intriguing and even haunting kind of boredom, it's not a creative boredom - it's rather his being stuck in one place and desperately searching for something new but never finding it, or simply not being sure whether IT has really been found or not. And although the title track, with its optimism and call for a renewal of values, tries to hint at some kind of a spiritual rebirth for old Bob, you hardly believe that from listening to other songs here: 'Went To See The Gypsy' is still the same search for spiritual perfection, while 'Sign On The Window' is as pessimistic and depressing as anything ("Sign on the window says "lonely"/ Sign on the door said "no company allowed"/Sign on the street says/"y' don't own me"/Sign on the porch says "three's a crowd" - ooohh, that's sick...). I'd bet you anything that Bob was in a terrible depression at this time, which unfortunately came to pass only five years after - with his return onto the big stage (Before The Flood) and his next period of creativity (Blood On The Tracks).

Nevertheless, his melody- and lyrics-generating motor was still in perfect form: if you can get through the somewhat uniform sound of this record (initially - you'll be amazed at how diverse it really is after a few listens), and a couple occasional misfires like the stupid beatnik rant 'If Dogs Run Free' which doesn't really fit anywhere on here, you'll dig almost every song. YES, including even the stupid blues 'One More Weekend' which doesn't fit in with the general mood here either. Stupid, but hooky-hook-filled. It is. Together with Selfportrait, the most blatantly overlooked album in Zimmy's catalog. And mind you, there ain't a single cover on here! If you thought I was a jerk for defending Selfportrait, do not extrapolate that principle on the other records!



Year Of Release: 1973
Record rating = 6
Overall rating = 11

Possibly the best bunch of instrumental soundtrack music I've ever heard. Period.

Best song: FINAL THEME (and not 'Knockin' On Heaven's Door'!)

Track listing: 1) Main Title Theme (Billy); 2) Cantina Theme (Working For The Law); 3) Billy 1; 4) Bunkhouse Theme; 5) River Theme; 6) Turkey Chase; 7) Knockin' On Heaven's Door; 8) Final Theme; 9) Billy 4; 10) Billy 7.

Hey, another good Dylan album! You may ask: how can a good Dylan album only earn a 6? Well, actually, this is just a soundtrack for a film of the same name, starring Mr Bob Dylan, too, under the name of 'Alias' (sic!) To that extent, it contains no more than two real songs (one of them reprised thrice, plus a fourth time in an instrumental version), while all the others are just instrumental themes. You may ask: how can two songs and a bunch of instrumentals even earn a 6? Well, easily, because they're that good! If anything, Pat Garrett is a very good place for anybody doubting Dylan's composing skills to come and see that there was really no ground for that. Still working strictly within the limits of country-rock where Bob had driven himself six years ago and which he was not yet intending to leave, he managed to bring together an ounce of creativity, an ounce of his usual humbleness and introspection, a handful of cute musical ideas, a bunch of excellent backing musicians, including Booker T, Roger McGuinn, and Jim Keltner on drums, and a delicious relaxing atmosphere, and all this resulted in a minor masterpiece. Very minor, but as far as soundtracks to country westerns go, it hardly gets any better than this.

For instance, because one of these songs is the super-greatest-mega-hit 'Knockin' On Heaven's Door', worth every penny and sounding a hell of a deal better than Eric Clapton's feeble reggae reproduction (which I rather like, too, but it completely lacks the stately Dylan majesty of the original); here it is set to a much more appropriate gospel backing, although it's much too short for (probably) everybody's tastes. What can be said about the song other than it denotes absolute, tear-inducing perfection? Only that, amazing as it may seem, it's not the best composition on here... so read on. The other "full song" is really called 'Billy' (or 'Billy 1', 'Billy 4', 'Billy 7', and 'Main Title Theme' if you prefer some details). The lyrics deal with matters which I can't really discuss here, since they all refer to the film I've never seen, but the melody is perfect: its only flaw is its being reprised four times throughout the album, and in the form of the six-minute long 'Main Title Theme' it can really get on your nerves unless you just treat it as soothing background music, which is actually the only way it should be treated. That said, the arrangement of 'Billy 7' that closes the album is rather weird - far more dark, ominous and disturbing than the other three versions, with Dylan adopting a very gloomy, slow intonation and then even going off into a somewhat faster 'boogie' before fading out.

And theother instrumentals? Why, as a matter of fact, our friend Bob made a surprisingly strong effort and made them as lovely as possible. Both 'Cantina Theme' and 'Bunkhouse Theme' coulda been some fine songs if set to lyrics, but apparently this fate was not theirs. So they just roll along slowly, gracefully, excellent mood music that does not rely on synthesizers; proof enough that you don't really need no keyboards to do ambient stuff. But it's really two other instrumentals that stand out above everything. The banjo-and-fiddle-driven 'Turkey Chase' is just enthralling, hilarious and a bit sad all at once, with fiddle genius Byron Berline and banjo genius "Jolly Roger" driving it forward. The fiddle is an absolutely genial, unparalleled touch here: where most of the country western soundtracks would simply contend themselves with a generic fast banjo-driven instrumental, this one receives a blistering, innovative piece of music that might not seem a lot to an unexperienced eye, but is in reality genre-breaking. At least, that's how it seems to me: I'm no big country expert, but I have seen quite a few movies and am quite familiar with the type of country music contained therein.

But the album's major moment of glory, of course, is the absolutely haunting 'Final Theme'. I don't know if it was actually Dylan who invented that beautiful, tearful flute/recorder part (played by Gary Foster), but if yes, forget all my complaints about Dylan's musical limitations: this is one of the most emotionally rich, haunting themes I ever witnessed. (And note that it also came out in 1973 - a year so full of similar cathartic experiences, like Townshend's solo on 'Quadrophenia' or Steve Hackett's solo on 'Firth Of Fifth'. Apparently, God came down on Earth that year and spent some time in Anglo-Saxon countries). The number alone is worth your buying this album; you'll easily find 'Knockin' On Heaven's Door' on any reasonable compilation, but no way you'll ever witness a compilation with 'Final Theme': if you ever find one, mail me the name of its compiler so I can write it in big letters here on the site. Anyway, thanks God it is not the last track on the album - otherwise I'd just have to listen to it again and again. Instead, the album closes off with two more versions of 'Billy' which really make the idea of saying goodbye to the record far more endurable.

So there you are, folks - a mighty soundtrack, that one. I guess if every movie soundtrack were this CLASSY, the world woulda run out of rock bands a good deal earlier than it did (I mean, good rock bands). If you really enjoy this awkward lot of noise made by silly people by means of weird magical objects which they sometimes call MUSIC - buy it, you won't regret it.



Year Of Release: 1974
Record rating = 5
Overall rating = 10

A disappointingly flaccid album. Maybe teaming up with The Band wasn't such a good idea after all.


Track listing: 1) On A Night Like This; 2) Going Going Gone; 3) Tough Mama; 4) Hazel; 5) Something There Is About You; 6) Forever Young (version 1); 7) Forever Young (version 2); 8) Dirge; 9) You Angel You; 10) Never Say Goodbye; 11) Wedding Song.

The first serious effort in the studio in four years, and overall it's a disaster - of course, it's still an album that many bands would kill for, but judging by Bob's standards, this is indeed a crying shame where previous records such as Self-Portrait were just a lightweight distraction. In fact, this is one of the few Dylan albums I have serious trouble to concentrate on. It marks the end of Dylan's country-rock period - and not too soon, as the formula is starting to run painfully dry. For the last time on a studio record, he is being backed by The Band, and even though Bob holds the writing credits for every song alone, they manage to spoil a lot of the fun. While Mr Zimmerman had never been the greatest of melody-writers, his songs always had melodies - some derivative, some simplistic, but essentially solid and memorable. Planet Waves lives up to its title - it sounds like dreamy, soft waves of sound rolling over the listener and luring him with their subtle moodiness so that he could forget there are so few melodies on here. I must say that at times I'm wooed over by such an approach: more than half of the songs do manage to somewhat get by on atmosphere alone, and the patented Dylan atmosphere ain't the worst atmosphere in the world. But the instrumentation is way too generic, no "thin mercury sound" of the days of yore, and The Band's playing is surprisingly mediocre - at times, they do please my ear, like with the sharp 'popping' guitar licks on 'Going Going Gone', but most of the time, it's... pretty ehhh, as I don't really find anything more appropriate to say.

In fact, on Planet Waves Bob hardly sounds any better than one of his most notorious (and most obnoxious) rip-offs - Bruce Springsteen, who, coincidentally, was just emerging on the scene at the time. Same loungey jammy stuff with little substance, and a strange self-pitying, preachy atmosphere. Did I yet mention how tired and gloomy Bob sounds on that one? Emotion-wise, Planet Waves is the legitimate predecessor to Blood On The Tracks; but where the latter was sharp, at times angry and at times with a scent of sad irony, this one is just blunt, bleak, and depressing without a particular reason, and as such hearkens more to Bob's painfully pessimistic Eighties period.

Still, it starts off just fine - with a tight, compact and funny fast country number called 'On A Night Like This' where Dylan's voice really stands out of the packs of guitars and keyboards. Sounds almost as if the song had been carried over from Selfportrait and the like (and, of course, everybody who hates Selfportrait loves it - how could it be otherwise?). Then the fun ends - once and for all; but never mind, it's immediately followed by one of his most bitter and tear-bringing ballads ('Going Going Gone'); in fact, everybody who bought the record on its release must have been shocked seeing Dylan go from such a hilarious and lightweight groove into such an overkill depression, the likes of which nobody had yet witnessed; maybe a little on John Wesley Harding, but that album had a bit of theatricality about it, with Dylan more of an 'impersonator' than a person telling a sincere confession. 'Going Going Gone' is autobiographical, and it sounds like a death sentence to himself: 'I've just reached a place/Where the willow don't bend/There's not much more to be said/It's the top of the end/I'm going, I'm going, I'm gone'. Masterful words - Dylan might have been "gone", with the depressive moods settling down forever, but he sure was still "going"...

But once the original shock passes and one gets accustomed to the dreariness of the mood, from then on it gets more and more mediocre, with track after track lacking true hooks and mainly just repeating the same mood over and over again. The only real highlight is the classic tune 'Forever Young', whose lyrics are kinda optimistic (which is why it has since become such a notorious anthem), but once again, I feel more like it's Dylan "passing the baton" to the younger generation - go ahead and be forever young, do what you like and be what you want, and I'll just sit here in the gutter and quietly die away. This makes the song more of yet another personal statement than of a cheerful anthem, and I'd also like to mention Bob's marvelous singing in the chorus; together with a few more tunes like 'One More Cup Of Coffee', it's a clear demonstration of his exquisitely talented style of singing. Don't believe me? Try hitting the notes he is and you'll see. But even so, the second, faster, more "upbeat" version of the song that immediately follows the first one, sounds like nothing more than a self-parody: it's as if Bob was intentionally "deflating" the original, transforming a powerful personal revelation into a mock-dance tune that seems horrendously out of place.

Most of the other tracks feature Dylan singing weak, uncertain lines and feeling almost lost in the woods of The Band's instruments. Or was it 'bogged in the marshes'? Feeling the necessity to squeeze at least a couple of good words about the album, I'd say that 'Hazel' is at least moody; 'Dirge' is at least, er, well, dirgey; and 'Something There Is About You' points the way to the far superior 'Idiot Wind', but the other songs are just one huge embarrassment (particularly the stupid 'Wedding Song' that closes the album - Bob singing straightforward love lyrics in an overemoting voice? This kind of stuff wouldn't even be acceptable from Bob Seger). The only explanation I have is that either a four year break temporarily affected Dylan's songwriting skills or else the same effect was produced by the presence of assorted Band members in the neighbourhood. Or both. Plus, there's an ugly album cover which, strange enough, totally fits in with the music: impressionistic pictures of several persons (Bob and the Gang?), looking just as degraded as the songs themselves. Sorry, Bob.



Year Of Release: 1975
Record rating = 6
Overall rating = 11

A happy concert album. The playing is awful, of course, but everybody's having a good time.


Track listing: 1) Most Likely You Go Your Way And I'll Go Mine; 2) Lay Lady Lay; 3) Rainy Day Women #12 & #35; 4) Knockin' On Heaven's Door; 5) It Ain't Me Babe; 6) Ballad Of A Thin Man; 7) Up On Cripple Creek; 8) I Shall Be Released; 9) Endless Highway; 10) The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down; 11) Stage Fright; 12) Don't Think Twice It's Alright; 13) Just Like A Woman; 14) It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding); 15) The Shape I'm In; 16) When You Awake; 17) The Weight; 18) All Along The Watchtower; 19) Highway 61 Revisited; 20) Like A Rolling Stone; 21) Blowin' In The Wind.

Signalizes the return of Bob to the big scene, to the big game, and to real life. If those Waves were as country-boring to your ears as to mine and you thought Bob'd been firmly grounded in that country rubbish for ever, well then - here's something new for you. This is the first of Bob's live albums (if we don't count the much later-released Live 1966), and, although certainly not the best, it does inspire some interest.

So what's up? Bob's on the road with The Band again, and this is good and bad news at the same time. The bad news is that, while in 1966 the Band were just the Hawks backing up a superior performer, by now they have finally matured to a real self-sufficient band and so have earned the right to sing their own songs - a good third of the album, if not more, is just The Band and no Bob Dylan (who was probably having a joint or two backstage during their performance). For any Band fan this will probably be a pleasant surprise; but me, I'm not excited about the fact. I don't have anything against the Band, as I consider them one of the more interesting American (okay, Canadian. Does that really make a hell of a difference?) "roots rock" bands in existence, never fearing to experiment within the genre and coming up with some of its most intelligent and endurable classics, some of which are actually performed on this here record. I mean - most of these songs are good (except for the totally idiotic, way too repetitive and straightforward 'The Shape I'm In'), but they don't fit with the general atmosphere of a Dylan album, they don't fit with it at all. I'd rather have a separate Dylan live album and a separate Band album; when Robbie Robertson and his gang disrupt the steady flow of the album - and they do it two times, on each of the two CDs that constitute it! - I just have to cringe.

That said, classics are classics, and who can deny the Band the right to perform a classic? After all, the performance and the album are billed to 'Bob Dylan/The Band', so this shouldn't come as a nasty surprise. Taken on their own, 'Up On Cripple Creek' and 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down' are among the most enjoyable country-rock tunes ever written; unlike some of their more mindless imitators like Free, The Band actually knew a thing or two about hooks. I can't say I'm in deep love with any other Band originals - some actually put me off to sleep before I can really appreciate them ('When You Awake?' When you stop singing!), and some sound painfully similar (I still can't quite tell 'Endless Highway' from 'Stage Fright' even if I kinda enjoy both). Still, I'd better discuss all this stuff in more details on a Band page, if I ever get around to doing one. Maybe someday...

Oh, well, at least they do old Bob a favour by covering 'I Shall Be Released'. Whoever is singing (Rick Danko, probably? Or that Manuel guy? I'm just not too familiar with their voices), his voice is great - that's how this song should be done, on any occasion. The original, only available on selected compilations now (originally a single, I suppose), always sounded a little bit bleak to me - and this live performance, more closely following the Band's own studio version, brings out the best in the plaintive, confessional lyrics that gotta rank among Dylan's most personal and inspired.

Now, about Bob's own numbers. After all these years of seclusion and crisis, he turns out to be in a surprisingly energetic form, shouting out the lyrics like there's no tomorrow, and although some people say he lacks emotions, he's compensating it with a strange "vocal electrification" of numbers like 'Highway 61 Revisited' (roaring '...on Highway Sixty-OOOOOONE!') or 'Most Likely You Go Your Way' ('And I go MIIIIIIIINE!') The drive and the tension can be heard on a supreme version of 'Ballad Of A Thin Man', too, and 'Lay Lady Lay' is deprived of its countryish sissyass intonations with an all-out rockin' interpretation. While none of the songs are actually superior to the studio versions, it's very nice to hear these 'ragged', slightly clumsy, but powerful live renditions to hear them take on a different life. The Band actually plays in a way that's similar to their style on Live 1966, but for some reason the "wall-of-live-sound" is not so apparent on here; maybe it has something to do with Hudson and Manuel's appreciation for synthesizers, which don't sound bad, but significantly thin out the sound. Still, 'different' doesn't necessarily mean "worse", now does it?

Well, in some cases, it does. Unfortunately, the same "vocal electrification" results in a total ruining of several 'softer' tracks - 'Knockin' On Heaven's Door' loses ninety percent of its former emotional power (by the way, I have never heard Bob doing a decent live version of this one) and 'Just Like A Woman' during Bob's short acoustic set, deprived of all of its vocal subtlety, suddenly stands out wretched and miserable. Not to mention that the closing 'Blowin' In The Wind' is a disaster, 'Rainy Day Women' is a trillion times inferior to the original studio version, and the obligatory 'Like A Rolling Stone' just doesn't make things seem better - the final crowd-pleasing numbers just go off as obligatory performances, with hardly an ounce of true passion displayed.

Apparently, Bob was too intent on showing the audiences his still being alive and all, and so decided to put all the different styles into one bag (skipping ahead once again: his later live albums suffer from just the opposite problem), which is called 'energetic gimmickry'. I just hope he wasn't breaking his guitar after concerts. Still, while Before The Flood certainly doesn't deserve its 2-CD price (cut out at least half of the Band's set, 'Just Like A Woman' and the crowd-pleasers and you have a near-masterpiece), I can't imagine a hardcore Dylan fan intentionally skipping it - after all, its importance is at least historical, as the album heralds the beginning of Dylan's "revival".



Year Of Release: 1975
Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 13

People say it's his best effort, but I say it's just an average fantastic record.


Track listing: 1) Tangled Up In Blue; 2) Simple Twist Of Fate; 3) You're A Big Girl Now; 4) Idiot Wind; 5) You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go; 6) Meet Me In The Morning; 7) Lily Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts; 8) If You See Her Say Hello; 9) Shelter From The Storm; 10) Buckets Of Rain.

A breakthrough - at last! Dylan's country period is over for ever (I mean, he would return to the country style occasionally, but it would never remain high on the list of his priorities). The sound he's adopted here is unlike anything he'd done previously, either. If you really need some analogies, then I'd say it's closer to the sound on his early acoustic albums than anything else, in that there is little or no electric guitar on most of the tracks. On the other hand, keyboards, drums and bass guitar are featured prominently, and that's what makes the difference - Bob wouldn't switch on to complete acoustic folk again until the Nineties. So this album is also extremely quiet, extremely sad and thoughtful, with great un-psycho, but still complicated lyrics and tons o' good songs.

My main objection here lies in the fact that it's the most overrated record in Bob's career; after having listened to it many, many times and having the ability to view it in the light of his other releases, I definitely wouldn't rate this as high as a lot of people define it. There are, in fact, a lot of complaints to be voiced. For one, the achieved sound is horrendously uniform: it was tolerable on a record like New Morning with its rambling piano ballads, since it was but 30 minutes long and most of the songs were over before you could even get into them. But on Blood On The Tracks, Dylan suddenly returns to the 'lengthy' formula: it is almost 50 minutes long, and quite a few of the songs overstay their welcome by far. Not to mention that, for the first time ever, Bob really makes it possible to accuse him of being self-indulgent: he tries to occasionally highlight his skilful guitar playing, but try as he might, he's not a virtuoso, and that's why I can hardly stand 'Buckets Of Rain' that closes the album. It's a nice, pleasant shuffle, but boy, I would rather have Bob blow his harmonica than demonstrating me how well he can bend the strings on his acoustic. He can't do it like Steve Howe, right? Then he'd better not do that at all.

A couple other songs don't cut the mustard for me, either. 'If You See Her Say Hello', for example. Sounds like filler to me. I've never understood the hidden charm of that song; Bob is really filled with emotion when he chants that desperate lament for a lost love, but the melody is so pedestrian, and he whines so horrendously, that I'm not moved. I confess it's a matter of taste, though - I surely understand how others might adore the song. But no matter of taste is going to save the overlong, extremely boring ballad 'Lily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts'. While the story is somewhat intriguing and the first two minutes of it are nice (still totally incomparable to the similar in style, but far superior 'Black Diamond Bay' on Desire), it quickly becomes unbearable as verse after verse is added and fails to create any kind of mood at all. You don't know if you should laugh or cry - it's just puzzling and irritating. Funny that practically all of the people that I've witnessed praising the record simply keep their mouths shut about this song (look at the Prindle site - it isn't even mentioned in any of the numerous comments). Don't want to spoil the picture with something truly embarrassing, right?

Another defect is that the song structure is even more uniform than on Blonde On Blonde: with an obligatory harmonica solo that closes almost every number, and the actual title reprised for an innumerable number of times after each verse, so that after a short time you can predict the whole song by just listening to the first verse. I have nothing against the formula, but isn't relying on just one formula for ages a sign of running out of ideas?

But don't you get me wrong, really. I was just pointing out the minor flaws of the record which prevent me from giving it a highest rating. On the positive side, one cannot deny that the emotions really flow like a gushing torrent on this record. It reflects Dylan's personal troubles at the time - his divorce and everything that went together with it, and thus, it's probably a far more personal and autobiographical record than any he'd written before that. This is, in fact, the main reason why it is so adored by the general public: Dylan puts down the mask and speaks up openly, wearing his heart on his sleeve (hate that cliche, but it does have a nice ring to it). It is therefore fully accessible, and if you're not disturbed by the usual Dylan put-offish elements like song length, repetitiveness and wheezy voice, this is indeed a good place to start, as you'll hardly ever have to scratch the back of your head and question yourself: 'Now what's that he really meant to say?' For me, though, this is actually a flaw of the record: I prefer my Dylan speaking in enigmas and serving as the Master of Puzzle. Blood On The Tracks is a great record, but many people have written heartfelt, aching confessional records - John Lennon, Joni Mitchell, Pete Townshend, etc., the list might not be very long, but it does exist. Blonde On Blonde, on the other hand, knew no possible analogies...

...but wait, here I go criticizing again. What I really wanted to say is that the melodies on here, regardless of anything I'd have to say, are often extremely strong. The opening number, 'Tangled Up In Blue' is a just classic, with Bob telling a fascinating story of romance and disappointment. And the following 'Simple Twist Of Fate' is one of my favourites of Dylan in the Seventies - a quiet, nocturnal romance with a complex, yet captivating vocal melody. Bob is probably at his singing best on the album, cleverly structuring the verse so that it slowly raises from a soft, almost hush-like murmur, to a freaky scream, reflecting the emotional peaks and downs in the souls of the two lovers he's singing about. The pessimism of the tune is really something - a killing, devastating number...

Everybody's favourite is usually 'Idiot Wind' - a poisonous, thundering blast of social/personal critique that boasts a huge level of energy unheard of even in his classic mid-Sixties albums (probably because of its high sincerity). 'You're A Big Girl Now' and 'You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go' all make part of a large 'dialogue' between Bob and his imaginary female collocutor, the former sad and touching, the latter funny and refreshing; and the atmosphere is a bit diversified with a sly hint at generic blues in 'Meet Me In The Morning'; and then, towards the end, there's 'Shelter From The Storm', a peaceful and loving song showing us that Bob finally overcame his crisis (or did he?). All of these songs are highly recommendable, and it would definitely be a crime to accuse any of them of not being sincere or not being solid.

A great album is this one; overrated or not, it's still in the Top 5, and hey, what's the point of arguing about the order of Top 5? That's right - no point. So you might as well accept my order, heh, heh. Whatever. Me, I personally prefer Desire, but that's just a matter of taste. I wouldn't blame you if you made it the other way round. After all, I like it when Bob is a bit more certain about himself, which he definitely is not here. Man, did that motorcycle crash really make a mess of him!


LIVE 1975

Year Of Release: 2002
Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 14

Unbelievably good for such a late age - and a huge thank you to those who actually selected these performances.

Best song: hardly a single misfire anyway.

Track listing: CD I: 1) Tonight I'll Be Staying With You; 2) It Ain't Me Babe; 3) A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall; 4) The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll; 5) Romance In Durango; 6) Isis; 7) Mr Tambourine Man; 8) Simple Twist Of Fate; 9) Blowin' In The Wind; 10) Mama You Been On My Mind; 11) I Shall Be Released;

CD II: 1) It's All Over Now Baby Blue; 2) Love Minus Zero/No Limit; 3) Tangled Up In Blue; 4) The Water Is Wide; 5) It Takes A Lot To Laugh It Takes A Train To Cry; 6) Oh Sister; 7) Hurricane; 8) One More Cup Of Coffee (Valley Below); 9) Sara; 10) Just Like A Woman; 11) Knockin' On Heaven's Door.

Up until recently, the only officially available document of the Era of the Rolling Thunder Revue has been Hard Rain (review below), a weakly cobbled album capturing a rather depressed, sluggish post-period of the actual roller coaster; besides, read any available description of the Rolling Thunder and you'll see that, while it did begin on an incredibly high note, very soon - and inevitably - it simply got bogged down in personal difficulties, and what started out as a crazy blast of energy, optimism, and all that get-together-have-a-good-time spirit, ended up as a nasty disillusioned bore. Imagine then my absolute surprise when I put this stuff on, expecting maybe just a slightly more involving (and significantly expanded) take on Hard Rain - and found myself face to face with a masterpiece of a live album.

The idea to paint his face white was pretty ridiculous, I guess, especially considering Bob was the only one among the whole cast to do that - if he wanted the whole shenanigan to have a Felliniesque flavor or something, he could have at least smear the same amount of makeup onto Joan Baez, and besides, all that white paint only makes him even uglier than he already was. But that's about the only half-serious complaint I can direct at this stuff. The musicianship is certainly beyond any - Bob's set of three (or was it four?) guitarists, including Mick Ronson, are distinctive and never drown out neither each other nor Bob, Scarlet Rivera delivers the goods on the violin, and whatever else is there is also good (since the songs are taken from different performances, and the Revue was essentially a "revolving door" kind of thing, I guess there's lost of unannounced people playing here and there).

The best thing, however, is Bob himself. Like on Before The Flood, most of the time he "shouts" out his lyrics - but never really "overshouts" them out. Instead, he just delivers each and every song with a classy punch, excluding the smaller acoustic subsets of the show, where he laudably quiets down to give stuff like 'Simple Twist Of Fate' a more personal touch. But even when he does a serious vocal reinterpretation of a song, it works: thus, 'A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall' is turned into something resembling a war march rather than a solemn folksy epic, and in this context Bob yelling out the lyrics simply conveys a different impression - there's a blunt, straightforward, brave-sounding menace and swagger here that's obviously less subtle than in the original but has an independent charm of its own, and don't forget the magnificent guitarwork in addition.

A particular kudos for starting the pack off with 'Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You' - not just because the song acquires a different meaning in this context, but because it's the perfect kick-off for this occasion. There's no warming up, no meticulous energy build-up, we just get swept up by the monster machine right from the get-go, and with a song that used to be a subtle unassuming ballad too but now is made into something that gives "arena-rock" a good name. I do realize that this somewhat distorts the true historical nature of the Revue - a massive touring event that was actually bigger than just a bunch of people performing Dylan songs, because it included nearly all the guest performers showing off their own talents as well (and even had Allen Ginsberg reciting poetry) - but Live 1975 really doesn't look like it's supposed to be a faithful historic document, which sets it apart from, er, hm, Live 1966, for that matter. It's supposed to be a one-hundred-percent enjoyable live album, and that's it. And thus I can even forgive the mixed origins of the performances, although I think they could easily have eliminated the nagging fade-outs in between the tracks because nobody would notice anyway.

It's dang hard to list the highlights because there are no lowlights; even an occasional early protest song like 'The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll' is drastically improved upon the original because it doesn't drag - it rolls. The Desire material is performed close to the original versions (since it wasn't even recorded in the studio by that time), but both 'Isis' and even 'Hurricane' are performed with more adrenaline than the studio recordings. Funny, typically Dylan-like bit of trivia: as the band is about to launch into 'Oh Sister', somebody shouts out 'do a protest song!' and Dylan retorts 'here's one for ya' and then starts the song ('Oh Sister', that is). Somebody's ass is stuck way too firm in 1964, methinks.

The Joan Baez duets are also excellent, even if Dylan makes sure nobody ever is able to stay in the same key with him for more than five seconds, but hey, that's the charm of doing a duet with Bob. (See the ridiculously sped up version of 'Mama You Been On My Mind' for reference). Especially beautiful is the duet on the traditional ballad 'The Water Is Wide' - gorgeous singing, gorgeous pedal steel, gorgeous everything. And the 2-disc set ends up with a non-reggaified version of 'Knockin' On Heaven's Door' (a rare thing indeed) where Roger McGuinn joins in to sing a verse all by himself in his angelic voice. What else can an Americana-lover truly desire?

It just goes to show that you can never tell with Bob, in case nobody told you already. Here you go spending your life thinking that the Revue was essentially a musical joke and now you see that where one night of the Revue could be uninspired balderdash, another one could be musical heaven. And in that respect I'm all the more grateful to those who made the selections - it probably was way harder than just walking on thin ice. As it is, Jeff Rosen and Steve Berkowitz just added one more gem (a major gem) to the already huge Dylan catalog. No fan should be without this.



Year Of Release: 1976
Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 13

Gangsters, human rights, Egyptian pyramids, fandango, violins and accordions - this is a terrific melting-pot.

Best song: HURRICANE

Track listing: 1) Hurricane; 2) Isis; 3) Mozambique; 4) One More Cup Of Coffee; 5) Oh Sister; 6) Joey; 7) Romance In Durango; 8) Black Diamond Bay; 9) Sara.

Surprise, surprise! This album is quite unlike Blood On The Tracks, but rather better than that one and worse than that one all at the same time. That's why it gets the same rating. The only thing that really unites them is Bob's state of melody-writing: most of them are excellent, and, melody-wise, there's even less filler than on Blood. If anything is 'fillerish' on here, it's the song lengths: many of them are extended beyond all degrees of mercy, and such an approach can easily wear down even the best of melodies. Which means that you gotta listen really hard and really long in order to assimilate the record in its entirety; but hell, I liked the tunes almost instantly, and I'm rarely offended by Bob's song lengthiness.

The really bad news is that this time around he decided to team up with the novelist Jacques Levy, who eventually wrote half of the lyrics on here, however strange that might seem - you'd think Dylan could be in need of any possible help in the studio but that of a lyricist, really. Count it as another one in an endless series of unpredictable Zimmerman stunts. Thus, ladies and gentlemen, for the first time since 1964 we see Bob singing straightforward anti-establishment social protest songs like 'Hurricane' (about the unjustly jailed middleweight black champion Rubin Carter) and 'Joey' (about the unjustly done in generous gangster Joey Gallo). The lyrics on these ones range from so-so to extremely dumb, which is no mean feat, especially considering that 'Hurricane' is 8 minutes long and 'Joey' is 11 minutes long. Those who are not used to having your Dylan so straight in your face can even be shocked.

The really good news, though, is that the arrangements are much more complex than on Blood, which makes the songs just a little bit more variegated: the moods shift and alternate easily in between Blood-style depression, Nashville Skyline-style hilariousness and Harding-style mysticism, plus lots of other atmospheric elements that are unique and only specific for this record. Bob's own guitarwork is backed by multiple instruments - some accordions, great, underappreciated drumming by Howard Wyeth, and, most important of all, some impressive violin playing courtesy of guest musician Scarlet Rivera. Indeed, this violin is what saves 'Hurricane' from being a dorky protest song and, quite on the contrary, turns it into a great performance: the interplay between it and the guitar is utterly spooky and sends shivers down my spine even when I just try to remember it.

Female backing vocals are also featured strongly throughout the record, and, unlike so many people, I really don't think they're out of place. Even if EmmyLou Harris's voice is sometimes more audible than Dylan's (especially on the slow, pompous, solemn 'Oh Sister'), it is quite pleasant and strong, and it never sounds generic enough to permit us to dismiss it as an obligatory R'n'B element.

The thing I like most about the album is how many surprises it offers the listener. For instance, on 'One More Cup Of Coffee' Bob adopts a special 'wailing' tone which has very much in common with traditional Judaic singing; you can thus count the song as Bob's first more or less evident tribute to his roots. And when Rivera complements his wailings with similar violin wailings, the result is musical ecstasis - Bob captures that mystical Judaic spirit almost perfectly, even if the song has little to do with Judaism (well, the opening lines - 'Your breath is sweet your eyes are like two jewels in the sky...', etc. - are indeed structured according to the Song of Songs pattern, but later on we revert to more traditional Dylan imagery). Believe it or not, the song actually rocks, and the final instrumental passage is arguably the emotional climax of the entire record.

Then, of course, there's 'Mozambique', which everybody likes to bring up on here - the song usually causes a love-or-hate reaction among fans. Why Bob chose Mozambique and not, say, Tanzania, for his metaphor of a paradise on Earth, is not understood and probably never will be; but the melody of the song is quite daring for Bob, going far, far beyond the usual blues/folk patterns that he'd abused to death and would milk further on even when there would be absolutely nothing left to milk. 'Mozambique', though, I really like: a great, memorable tune, and a very atmospheric one at that.

From Mozambique and Jerusalem we can get carried away to Spain - 'Romance In Durango' returns us to that groovy Spanish-flamenco-gypsies-corrida-etc. atmosphere that Bob seemed to so much enjoy on Pat Garrett. Come to think of it, it's too much Spanish for me: I hate Spanish music, normally, and I could hate 'Romance', too, were it not for the fact that Bob sounds so funny trying to sing in Spanish... But I far prefer Egypt to Spain: 'Isis' takes us on a trip to the pyramids and the tombs and the treasures of the pharaohs, although the song's message (if there ever was one) is much deeper than that.

I also do not know where the 'Black Diamond Bay' is situated, nor why the Greek hung himself and what's that volcano eruption about, but it's one hell of a great song: everything, in fact, that 'Lily & The Jack Of Hearts' hoped to be but could not. Maybe if he'd swapped these two songs, I would have easily awarded Blood a solid nine. It's got a steady, solid beat (great drumming again), a somewhat cunningly twisted melody and hey, it's quite sing-alongish. And, of course, it's moody: the eerie guitars and harmonicas really give the feeling of participating in some strange spectacle in an odd, mysterious location...

For me, the only possible letdown is the closing 'Sara', which I cannot accuse of having an original melody or anything like that. It's kinda strange, because, as you understand, it's a really broken-hearted ode to his ex-wife, where Bob confesses of still loving and caring for her and even admitting that it was for her that he wrote 'Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands', but most of the time it fails to move me. Maybe it's because I'm just getting tired towards the end (after all, this album is 53 minutes long!), but, in my opinion, Bob could rarely choose a decent album closer. At least, not in the seventies. Then again, dammit, maybe I'm just seeing things and the song is just as good as any other one. After all, if I'm sometimes even moved by the eleven-minute 'Joey' (yeah, the bastard really makes me shed a tear for that gangster - all hail the power of music), I should be moved by 'Sara'. Maybe you will.

Anyway, this is one really super album, and probably the last truly great album he ever did. What is so obvious after comparing it to every other record that came out afterwards is that on Desire he sounds powerful and self-assured - never again would we hear that sneering tone he uses on 'Isis' or the iron, scornful tone of 'Sarah'. Apparently, something happened in between this album and the following one, and Dylan was finally broken once and forever, started having old-life nervous crises, converted to Christianity and was ruined in the long run. But Desire is truly a work of a powerful, stern artist - a man who feels he can still change the world with his music, not just bore it with his old man whinings.

In brief: well worth buying, but if you're not a hardcore Dylan fan, don't even bother reading on. Because I'll be saying some good things about his later records, too, and I wouldn't want you to ridicule me...



Year Of Release: 1976
Record rating = 6
Overall rating = 11

Dylan reinvents his old songs in concert - with mixed results, but mostly interesting.


Track listing: 1) Maggie's Farm; 2) One Too Many Mornings; 3) Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again; 4) Oh Sister; 5) Lay Lady Lay; 6) Shelter From The Storm; 7) You're A Big Girl Now; 8) I Threw It All Away; 9) Idiot Wind.

And yet another live album, yet another spot in an endless stream, so it seems at least: the previous one was released only a year ago, and the next one would see the light of the day in just two years! Still, old Bob had a reason to do so. Before The Flood only pointed in that direction, but here it becomes obvious: the lack of energy on scene is compensated by a total, complete and unabashed re-arrangement of ALL the songs, so that instead of getting yourself an album of dull live equivalents of the studio counterparts you get yourself nine entirely different songs. Granted, Hard Rain is somewhat more energetic than whatever followed it - Dylan seems to be still wallowing in his hyper-active Desire mood, which mixes quiet introspectiveness with sudden ferocious vocal attacks as if he were leading an angry crowd to storm the White House. But these ferocious attacks don't seem to have the punch of old anyway, it's more like a patient's agony before he slurps into a total coma. Surprisingly, Hard Rain works as a direct contrast with the recently released Live 1975 - apparently, the inspiration of the "bootleg series" performances was sporadic and spontaneous, and, alas, this particular tour, even if it did come right on the heels of the Rolling Thunder Revue, is quite far removed from that album's unbelievable blast. Still, at the very least Hard Rain is arguably the last time you'll hear Dylan singing in a powerful, self-assured tone; the complete and eternal breakdown was just a year ahead. Or maybe two.

If Before The Flood was something more of a 'homemade' affair, with Bob playing with The Band before the audiences just like they used to do in that famous Basement, then what you get here is once again The Machine - tons of backing musicians, a high-polished sound, rehearsals, etc., etc. Scarlet Rivera of Desire fame is still playing the violin, and doing it quite good; four guitarists (besides Bob himself) create a marvelous polyphony, and all would be well if not for two reasons: most of the songs are overplayed, and the fabulous re-arrangements do not always work. Dylan wasn't really all that much into re-arrangements at the time, as it would only be on his next live album that he'd appear as a person who really takes delight in transforming the old material simply in order to shock his audiences (much as he'd done in 1966 - remember, when he teased the folkies by re-arranging old acoustic numbers as electric rockers and playing the psychedelic material in the vein of old acoustic numbers?). On Hard Rain, the sound is rather uniform, and the longer the song is, the more it resembles the original, while the shorter it is, the crappier it usually is re-arranged. Confused? Let me illustrate that.

The once angry and gritty 'Maggie's Farm' is turned into a sloppy country-rock boomer; for some reason, Bob treats it as something good-timey, and the result is of a near-parodic nature. And could somebody explain me why these stupid pauses before the last line? 'Whoah-whoah-oooooh.... [pause] ...said I ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm no more'. Sure, you can get used to 'em, but why should you bother? 'Lay Lady Lay', slowed down and 'embellished' by a choir of backing vocals, preserves some of its charm but is really bogged down; frankly speaking, in my opinion, Bob has never been able to master a successful live version of the song, as the somewhat clumsy and rambling melody only worked on the studio original, where it was compensated by Bob's wonderful "nicotine-free" voice and the romantic echoey production. Oh, and that marvelous slide guitar, of course. Here, it's just "sorta eh", as one would say.

Meanwhile, the more recent Blood On The Tracks songs are too incomfortable when turned into huge, arena-rock bombastic epics (as opposed to the more quiet, personal treatment on Live 1975), especially 'You're A Big Girl Now'. It should be a quiet song, god damn! It should be completely acoustic! Me no like this arrangement. Me like the song, but me suggest the arrangement sucks ass. Did that sound convincing? Probably not, but I hope you get the point anyway. OK, I do admit that 'Idiot Wind' with its anthemic sound is convenient for such a treatment, but 'You're A Big Girl Now'? Sheez! By the way, I do like 'Idiot Wind' on here - a perfect album-closing number despite the length.

That said, it's still a very good album. Simply put, whatever complaints I might establish, they would be all overcome by the mere mentioning of the track listing: these are glorious songs, and the only problem is to what extent they are, or aren't, spoiled by the re-arrangements. Well, 'One Too Many Mornings' is not spoiled - given a big-band Springsteen-like arrangements, with violin and brass and everything, it acquires a certain Biblical status and is great to sing along to. Only once does Dylan revisit the immaculate world of Blonde On Blonde, and it works: 'Stuck Inside The Mobile' is my best bet on here, slightly sped up and made a bit more upbeat (hmmm... abit more abit?), although I sure lack the organ. "Oh Sister' is the only number from the freshly released Desire, and due to this fact they haven't had the time to rearrange it, so it sounds just like the original - nothing like the scary version that would appear two years later on Budokan. Perhaps the biggest surprise is the cheerful, bouncy big-band rearrangement of 'Shelter From The Storm' which amazingly works - never could have suspected that. Still wonder why. And 'I Threw It All Away' is... well, it's rather boring because they just chew the same violin-gum, but it's not awful.

That said, re-reading the review, I see it coming off as very subjective. Well, anyway, what the heck? I gave you all the tracks, I gave you the basic idea of their being arranged, I told you this was recorded before Bob's breakdown. Go make your friggin' conclusions yourself. Dylan had so many live albums out that it's frankly impossible to choose the best one.



Year Of Release: 1978
Record rating = 5
Overall rating = 10

Hopeless, dreary pessimism drenched in horns, back-up vocals and dressed in not very impressive melodies.


Track listing: 1) Changing Of The Guards; 2) New Pony; 3) No Time To Think; 4) Baby Stop Crying; 5) Is Your Love In Vain; 6) Senor (Tales Of Yankee Power); 7) True Love Tends To Forget; 8) We Better Talk This Over; 9) Where Are You Tonight (Journey Through Dark Heat).

If you ever happened to hear At Budokan and Slow Train Coming, this album is a must for you. Not because it's so good (it isn't as involving or intriguing as either of them), but rather because it is the logical predecessor to both of them - form-wise to the first one and soul-wise to the second one. What the hell is that, you wonder? Lemme explain.

On here, Bob abandons his social critique and the protest atmosphere of Desire, and overall it could be hailed as a return to the more quiet introspective songs of Blood On The Tracks, if not for two reasons. First of all, most of the tracks are gospelish and 'tutorial' by feel, emphasized by a huge brass section and prominent backing female vocals which do not yet seem horrible but already feel annoying, particularly since they crop up just about everywhere and tremendously add to the general monotonous feel. The 'big band' effect of Hard Rain has finally made it onto a studio record, and it's no wonder that lots of Budokan stuff sound exactly like this - after all, the band personal is mostly the same. Scarlet Rivera is gone for ever, replaced by the much more weak David Mansfield, and this practically obliterates these nagging violins. The others I won't name because it's not that interesting.

And alas, that big-band sound is just not interesting at all. Everything sounds the same, including Bob's voice, which has all of a sudden abandoned the rich palette of styles and atmospheres exploited on the previous two albums and now just sounds whiny and complaintive. (Hint: it would sound whiny and complaintive on every Dylan album from now on. Perhaps he just swallowed something wrong?). There are no 'rockers' as such on the album, no 'ballads' as such; pretty much every track is reduced to the same formula, i.e. a stomping big-band sound with few discernible melodies, obligatory horns, stinging guitars and female backups. In short, this is the second biggest immediate shift of style that Bob had ever experienced since ditching the 'thin mercury sound' of Blonde On Blonde for the 'mystical country' of John Wesley Harding. However, where that first shift was amazing in that both the old and the new styles were mind-blowing, this second shift is really unsuccessful; Street Legal has really nothing important to add to either the Bob legacy or musical legacy in general.

Second and even more important in the line of factors that explain why I refuse to rate this record anywhere near to the two preceding it, is that the subject themes start getting - how'd you say it? - questionable. Three cheers for Bob: Bob has started to sing love songs! 'Is Your Love In Vain', after all, is no serious lyrical feat (although the melody is quite nice), and 'True Love Tends To Forget' is just a sad and equally forgettable wailing. The more 'serious' songs hardly go anywhere as well. Basically, if Blood On The Tracks was an album of an angry philosopher, then this one is just an album of a self-unassured old man. Damn it, it's the first album which really makes me think of Bob's age - he sings about old men's problems, sounds like an old man, and looks like an old man on the photographs, too! (You gotta see these inlay photos - they're really creepy). This 'old feel' really explains his conversion to Christianity: he was obviously in a mid-life crisis, like so many of his contemporaries - Pete Townshend and Mick Jagger, for instance. But if Pete survived his crisis by breaking up the band and Mick did likewise soon afterwards, Bob found new strength in Christianity. Oh, but that comes later. Sorry.

Now that I've given you some explanations on that first phrase, let's discuss the musical value of some of the actual songs off Street Legal. Like I said, 'Is Your Love In Vain' is a nice sad love song, and there are some others in the same vein here: 'Baby Stop Crying', for instance, has a CCC (catchy climactic chorus). However, I guess it's the whole album which is incredibly sad and depressing, like the opening track, 'Changing Of The Guards', suggests: a tired vocal, backing female vocals which don't much help, and lazy saxophone breaks that really bring me down. Side B is pretty much dull: not bad, but unmemorable; besides the pretty acoustic-based 'Senor (Tales Of Yankee Power)', there's really not much to boast about here. And the lengthiest track on the album, 'No Time To Think', gives the impression that Bob really didn't have much time to think about it: most of its eight minutes are spent on a pointless chanting of borrowed Latin words: 'socialism - materialism', 'revolution - evolution', etc., pretty dull. You might enjoy it, but I just think most of these songs were written without much care. After all, Bob is no Keith Richards - critical situations rarely make any good impact on his songwriting.

That said, as seen from the comments below, many people tend to get a liking to that album, and I don't really want to particularly put it down. It is definitely atmospheric, perhaps the most depressing album Bob ever put out before Time Out Of Mind (which kicks the shit out of Street Legal anyway). But atmosphere alone can't get you through a Dylan record (just see what happened to Planet Waves). Some interesting melodies would have been appreciated as well - so far, for me this remains one of his most unmemorable and generic records. Some particular involvement, too - this is the first time that Bob does nothing but just pile up all his troubles and worries in front of us and say, 'So whaddaya think?' Well... I think you gotta fire your photographer, Bob.



Year Of Release: 1978
Record rating = 7
Overall rating = 12

The Great Live Machine of Zimmerman spits out some more innovative reinventions. Buy it at least for the imagination.


Track listing: 1) Mr Tambourine Man; 2) Shelter From The Storm; 3) Love Minus Zero/No Limit; 4) Ballad Of A Thin Man; 5) Don't Think Twice It's Alright; 6) Maggie's Farm; 7) One More Cup Of Coffee; 8) Like A Rolling Stone; 9) I Shall Be Released; 10) Is Your Love In Vain; 11) Going Going Gone; 12) Blowin' In The Wind; 13) Just Like A Woman; 14) Oh Sister; 15) Simple Twist Of Fate; 16) All Along The Watchtower; 17) I Want You; 18) All I Really Want To Do; 19) Knockin' On Heaven's Door; 20) It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding); 21) Forever Young; 22) The Times They Are A-Changin'.

Hoowee! If you thought Hard Rain featured a big band, then how about this? Not an orchestra, but close! Guitars, violins, brass, flutes, drums, backing vocals, etc. - what a big step up from Freewheelin', eh? Compared to Hard Rain, this is a much tighter affair: the sound is immaculate, everything is apparently rehearsed up to the point of suffocation, the drastic re-arrangements are carefully thought over, and if there were at least some signs of a jovial good-time on Hard Rain, there's none of it here. This is a slick, smooth, immaculately produced, brilliantly crafted double album, and it mostly consists of classic hits, once again changed to the point of unrecognizability. This makes the album quite worth buying for the sake of curiosity if nothing else. I actually enjoy it: when you're already fed up with listening to 'Mr Tambourine Man' for the three thousand four hundred and fifty-seventh time, there's no other relief than that of putting on At Budokan and hearing Bob breathe new life in that classic with a bombastic arrangement.

I have to warn you, though: At Budokan got perhaps the biggest lambast from critics since the unhappy days of Selfportrait, and it still remains one of the most universally despised records that Dylan ever put out. And once again, as in the case of Selfportrait, words fail me. Definitely, this is not what the fans would be expecting from Dylan; where in 1970 they were offended with the man being too lightweight and 'corny', here they are offended by the fact that he dares to 'suck the life out' of his classics, reducing them to Las Vegas-type schlock and eliminating that genial spontaneity and freshness that made his earlier live performances and albums so inspirational. If you're necessarily demanding spontaneity, improvisation and 'band freedom', this is not your bet. But I say: "SWELL!" We've already heard 'unconventional' Dylan before; let us now turn around with the man and see how well does 'conventional' Dylan work.

And what do I see? I see that Dylan has made a magnificent, titanic, unbelievable job of completely transforming each and every one of these twenty-two tracks into something completely different from their original status. At the least, you gotta give him credit for that; At Budokan holds my personal record as 'most original live album ever recorded'. Now it's obvious that when you're conducting such a risky job, there will be some inevitable losses and failures along the way; sometimes the songs are indeed changed so much that they drop their very essence which made them treasurable in the first place. But there's not too many cases like that; for the most part, the basic structures and emotional cores are preserved. And frankly speaking, I don't give a damn about the supposed 'lifelessness' of the arrangements. I appreciate creativity, and I applaud the songs - the songs are still as catchy as ever. Plus, Bob is in good form; I don't hear him being 'detached' or 'disinterested' - heck, if he had been 'uninspired', he probably wouldn't have bothered about putting up the whole program.

Let me just name a few highlights first. 'Mr Tambourine Man' is the obvious one - I can't understand how this bombastic arrangement, with gorgeous flutes, powerful guitars and such a romantically-sounded Bob can actually fail inspire any Dylan fan. Only complaint is - Bob omits some of the verses to make way for instrumental sections (a flaw that mars quite a few of the tracks, but a flaw that I can disregard as well). Other than that, we have yet another rearrangement of 'Maggie's Farm', this time constructed arround a terrific little guitar/brass riff and a rather complex system of tempo changes.;'Oh Sister' gets a total reinterpretation, having been transformed from a gospely patronizing psalm into a dark voodoo chant, with eerie backing vocals and ominous ethnic beats. 'It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)' also becomes bombastic and almost metallic, with Bob leading the verses through a series of mini-climaxes and some particularly interesting guitar/violin interplay.

The reggae (sic!) variant of 'Don't Think Twice It's Alright', no matter how much people might hate it, is just harmless fun. Inferior to the original? Well, certainly so, but the important thing is, it's different from the original. Think of it as a different song, if you wish, and suddenly you'll be feeling a whole lot better. 'Love Minus Zero/No Limit' is, I don't fear to say that, superior to the original version, with a tiny little flute fitting right in in between the verses and adding extra flavour. 'Ballad Of A Thin Man' is nice and atmospheric. And the more recent songs (from Blood On The Tracks) are treated somewhat gentler than they are on Hard Rain (especially 'Simple Twist Of Fate').

The letdowns will certainly be different for everybody - for me, however, there's only a small bunch of those. Number one on the list comes 'I Want You' - the song is slowed down and deprived of a rhythm section, and Bob's voice without any instruments is just not necessarily a very good thing. The song doesn't work at all even if you manage to distance yourself from the original. 'Knockin' On Heaven's Door' sounds like a parody on Eric Clapton's reggae version of the song, which wasn't my favourite Eric Clapton tune in the first place. 'Blowin' In The Wind' reinterpreted as a jazzy piano piece also doesn't seem to work just because it's so darn slooooow and tedious. Also, due to the length factor one gets tired near the end, and the closing 'Forever Young' and 'The Times They Are A-Changin'' just don't hold your attention all that much (I believe they wouldn't be holding my attention on a more 'authentic' Dylan live record either, were they to come at the very end of it). Still, these are essentially just minor complaints.

Again, as in the case of Selfportrait, I ain't saying this album is particularly great or something. But to the average Dylan fan who loathes this I repeat it once again: don't judge Mr Zimmerman by your expectations of what - in your mind - Mr Zimmerman should actually be doing. Mr Zimmerman has always reserved the right to be unpredictable, and I applaud him for that. Rather judge this record by the very quality of the tunes and the level of performance. The tunes are great, the performance is tight and professional; if you want a particularly Sincere, Authentic and Convincing Muse floating around, go back to Live 1966 or some other place like that. I can happily be satisfied with this, as I'm just busy digging the exciting untrivial arrangements.



Year Of Release: 1979
Record rating = 7
Overall rating = 12

The first Christian album, but how come the songs are mostly good?


Track listing: 1) Gotta Serve Somebody; 2) Precious Angel; 3) I Believe In You; 4) Slow Train; 5) Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking; 6) Do Right To Me Baby (Do Unto Others); 7) When You Gonna Wake Up; 8) Man Gave Names To All The Animals; 9) When He Returns.

This album marks the transition to an entirely new era - the Christian one. Having suddenly embraced Christianity (not that it was a completely unexpected move - Bob had quite often come up to that point in the past, and he sounded so dang depressed on Street Legal, after all, that he did need a shot of religious inspiration, I guess), Bob decided that all of his previous output belonged in the trash can and that his real job was to do some new Christian music. And when I say 'belonged in the trash bin', I really mean it: his first new tour after the release of this album included NOT A SINGLE song from his past, just Slow Train numbers. I suppose this had a lot to do with the grand 'fuck my audience' tradition of old (remember Live 1966?), but whatever the reasons, this new Jesus dedication must have been really strong. Supposedly, people were just leaving these Dylan concerts in bunches. This album should SUCK!

And yet - for some strange reason, it doesn't. It sure has some filler, because when Bob gets particularly slow and mellow, the vibe strongly reminds me of Planet Waves - the same tuneless swamp of pointless guitars and melodyless vocals. This is particularly evident when we take the two songs that are the most religious here, tunes that should have rather been performed by Elvis than by Dylan. 'I Believe In You' is, after all, just a statement that explicitly formulates Bob's conviction, at the expense of a memorable melody. And the closing number, the piano-based 'When He Returns', is just a steady bore. Barry Beckett, the keyboard player, tries to do a bad Elton John imitation... and fails. That is, he does an atrocious Elton John imitation - it all sounds like the introduction to 'Candle In The Wind', but never goes beyond the introduction. Huh.

But the rest - well, the rest just sends all kinds of possible shivers down my spine. I really don't know why, but these melodies are good - not as great as those on Desire, but not really worse and maybe even better than on Street Legal. They have some real hooks, they are tight and snappy, and they all just rule. Perhaps it's because Bob is aided by Mark Knopfler (who actually makes at least one song, 'Precious Angel', sound like vintage Dire Straits? Who knows? Or maybe he is aided by Jesus in person? Rather by Mark, I think; there's really quite a bit of Dire Straits musical influence throughout, and I'd bet you anything that if only Mark had hanged out with Bob a little longer, perhaps Saved wouldn't have turned out to be such an awful disaster.

Anyway, the slow, dark, ominous, creepy 'Gotta Serve Somebody' was a deserved hit. Admittedly, the 'listing' lyrics are rather dumb, but, alackaday, all of the lyrics from the Christian period are - you have to accept a certain degradation in quality for granted - and in any case, even the 'listing' displays Dylan's never really disappearing talents as a lyricist. Try to make a 'list' like that yourself, and you'll see what I mean. 'You may be rich or poor, may be blind or lame, may be living in another country, under another name...'. Hah!

The other single 'Man Gave Names To All The Animals' rates among Bob's better reggae contributions. Hey, actually, Bob didn't use reggae all that much, apart from reworking 'Don't Think Twice' on the last record, of course, but this one's a really fun try. If you ask me, it's just hilarious to see such a lightweight track on a 'born again' record. Where else on a 'born again' record will you hear lyrics like 'He saw milk coming out, but he didn't know how, uh-huh, I think I'll call it a cow'. Plus, you gotta treasure the completely unexpected and almost shocking ending to the song... Eh?

A third real classic is the title track, opening with trademark Knopflerian lead lines (you know, the ones where the guy achieves so much with so little) and having each verse just climb up and up to the climactic chorus - 'and there's a slow, slow train coming, up around the bend...'. Arguably, this is one of Dylan's most powerful and anthemic statements of the Seventies, and inarguably, the last time he's managed to pull off such a grandiose, angry and pissed-off performance. It isn't even necessarily Christian - just a little reminder of the world's corruption, you know. I look at some of the lyrics and I want to utter the word 'banal', but I can't - I mean, is there even the slightest bit of phoneyness in Bob's voice as we hear him go 'they say lose your inhibitions, follow your own ambitions, they talk about a life of brotherly love, show me someone who knows how to live it'? Not a single bit. All too strange that he didn't even come close to recapturing that wonderful pathos on his next Christian albums.

Heck, even the minor songs on here are quite decent. 'Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking', for instance, features a classy jazz arangement and a gritty heavy guitar riff, and 'When You Gonna Wake Up' has some really interesting changes in tempo you don't often witness on born-again records. So, apart from the two stinkers I've mentioned above, virtually every track here has something in store, which is a great relief: apparently, Bob's sudden convergence to Christianity did not make any serious impact on his songwriting skills.

If you don't have anything in special against Christian music, this album will be a pleasant surprise. But even if you do, Slow Train Coming isn't the kind of Christian album that really imposes Christianity on you. Not all of the songs are really intent on driving that point home, and even those that are can easily have their lyrics overlooked while you concentrate on the general musical aspects. Anyway, I'm not a Christian and never will be one (although I have nothing against honest, sincere Christianity), but it's perfectly easy for me to identify with the philosophy of 'Gotta Serve Somebody' and 'Slow Train' anyway. So count me happy, and believe me - this is the "Christian rock" record to buy if you only buy one.



Year Of Release: 1980
Record rating = 1
Overall rating = 6

What was that? Made on order from some revival organization?

Best song: are you jokin'?

Track listing: 1) A Satisfied Mind; 2) Saved; 3) Covenant Woman; 4) What Can I Do For You; 5) Solid Rock; 6) Pressing On; 7) In The Garden; 8) Saving Grace; 9) Are You Ready.

You know it's not usually my style to give out ones. Particularly to five-star rated artists; as far as I can remember, this is, in fact, the only one issued to a five-star artist, and that should really be saying something. The fact that Dylan rates Five Stars on his own accounts for the fact that this is not, in fact, the worst record ever made or anything like that; I did hear worse. When compared with trash like Clapton's Pilgrim or Genesis' Calling All Stations or Rod Stewart's Camouflage, Saved looks positively glorious. But judging by Bob's own standards, there simply couldn't have been a huger disappointment for me.

Simply put, out of the triad of 'born again' albums this one's the only unlistenable one. For all kinds of reasons. Reason number one is: the lyrics suck. No, wait, they don't just suck, they suck, blow, stink, [insert your favourite denigrating verb in here]. It almost seems as if all of a sudden Bob has simply forgotten that he used to, like you know, be an independent and imaginative poet at one time, took some generic, hollow gospel hymns, gave them a few twists in order to be able to credit the songwriting to himself, and went ahead. Want an example? I could give you one, but one of the readers took that pain for me (check out an extract from 'Solid Rock' in the reader comments section). And I assure you, all of the nine songs on here have that kind of lyrics. It is murder. When you start singing lyrics like that, no kind of expression, sincerity, emotion, whatever in your voice can justify the lapse of good taste. (I am, of course, speaking about using that kind of lyrics within rock songs - I would have no problem trying to accept them within gospel hymns, etc., except that I'm not a big fan of gospel hymns either, but that's my personal problem and nobody else's). And, of course, the fact that these lyrics come from Dylan, one of the most expressive and brilliant poets of the XXth century, is just like a bucket of cold water over my, and many other people's, heads. If you want to see Bob brilliantly combining his 'born again' image with the usual high quality of the lyrics, go see Slow Train or Shot Of Love. This stuff is really horrible.

Okay, but what about the music? The music is just as bad, and it is obvious that Bob really didn't care that much - all the backing tracks sound like their exact and only aim was to provide at least some backing to Bob's Christian mumblings. Where Slow Train was an interesting venture into a really diverse world, with blues rock, jazz rock, and even reggae stylizations, this is just boring, ponderous, roots-rock backing with no original, exciting or entertaining level whatsoever. Seriously now, I can't name even a single track on here that would catch my ear as far as music goes. Yes, Bob does shift tempos from time to time (the title track is far faster than anything else, for instance), but does that really matter? It doesn't.

Sure, on some tracks, particularly the slower ones, the band does try to establish some kind of 'spiritual' groove, with echoey minimalistic guitars ('What Can I Do For You') or watery pianos and 'inspired' backing vocals ('Pressing On'). But the best effect they can achieve is a 'faux-Dylan' atmosphere, establishing the formal conditions necessary to achieve the usual emotional resonance but forgetting to insert any essence. The 'soul' tracks, like 'Are You Ready?', are a total and complete embarrassment; I could maybe forgive Bob for trying to reinvent an old classic number as a soul pastiche for novelty effect, but singing generic gospel lyrics in his usual hoarse voice to a soul beat is a waste. And the fast 'rockers' ('Saved', 'Solid Rock') don't present us with any interesting riffs, you know the score...

Amazingly, some people do dig this album, so I feel I have the need to make a disclaimer like I made it for the previous record: I am in no way a good Christian, but I have absolutely nothing against Christians, Christian culture, people that are 'born again' or Christian music as a whole. It's just that there is absolutely no need to extol one's Christianity in such a cheap, pathetic, generic way as Bob does it here. I can hardly believe, in fact, that he willingly agreed to record such nightmarish tripe, unless, of course, it was just a further experiment in alienating his huge fanbase. Actually, I am inclined to believe that. And in any case, all of this 'born again' period for Bob was a very strange thing: on one hand, nobody really has the nerve to say that it was all just a large hoax, on the other hand, let us not forget that Bob's preoccupation with Christianity ended as quickly as it began (and miraculously turned into a preoccupation with Judaism before just dissipating into thin air), so I do allow myself to have my doubts on the matter.

In any case, I don't really even care if the music, lyrics and performances on Saved are supposed to be serious or if it's just one big put-on - it sucks either way. At least Bob's previous put-on, with Selfportrait, boasted diversity, nice melodies and a potload of ideas - offensive or not, these were real ideas that made the record worth listening to. Saved hasn't got even a single idea. Yes, of course, at least Bob doesn't go disco or punk, but perhaps it would have been better if he'd sung a quartet with the Bee Gees or joined the Clash on second rhythm guitar. That would at least be fun.



Year Of Release: 1981
Record rating = 6
Overall rating = 11

A decent effort: nothing new but some more enjoyable Christian music.

Best song: SHOT OF LOVE

Track listing: 1) Shot Of Love; 2) Heart Of Mine; 3) Property Of Jesus; 4) Lenny Bruce; 5) Watered-Down Love; 6) The Groom's Still Waiting At The Altar; 7) Dead Man Dead Man; 8) In The Summertime; 9) Trouble; 10) Every Grain Of Sand.

Whew, that was close. At least this one doesn't sound as if it was written by the Reverend Billy Graham. Either the miserable sales of the previous album got on to Bob (if such things were ever getting on to him), or he just felt ashamed. so the songwriting on here is definitely up a grade - up five grades, actually, considering the rating improvement. Shot Of Love certainly marks Bob's transition in the Eighties, with everything almost frustratingly lightweight and the tunes never reaching up to the man's spectacular heights of old - it doesn't even hold a candle to Slow Train Coming, due to a lack of atmospherics and moodiness which made that album so compelling. But at least there are no truly pedestrian numbers on here, and every single track sounds like it's been, well, crafted: Bob really took the time to work on this stuff, instead of spending it kneeling at the altar and rearranging generic psalms. A couple of tracks still retain that dumb hymn atmosphere to a certain extent, but overall the only thing this album is seriously suffering from is striking unoriginality.

Pretty ballads like 'In The Summertime' and 'Every Grain Of Sand' are very much listenable; 'In The Summertime', in particular, borrows a bit of its melodicity from John Wesley Harding (or Selfportrait? Lord knows I'm the only one not to be offended at that thought), and lets us recapture the humble little Zimmerman of old. As for 'Every Grain Of Sand', it is often considered a Dylan classic, but I find the song a bit too slow and plodding, if ultimately convincing. Not to mention that the main melody is just a re-write of the far superior 'Shelter From The Storm'. Still, I'd take this song over the entirety of Saved - here we have the real Dylan, the man that I've always loved and respected, not a fake papier-mache gospelish clown.

Still, even in all of their derivative glory, these two ballads fit in wonderfully with the rest of the material, and, like I said, I find something redeeming about every single song on here, which is ten times more than I could even start suggesting about Saved. The only non-specifically Christian song on here, 'Lenny Bruce', is a moving necrologue to the fallen hero - quiet and thought-provoking. And the Christian material, where I suppose you abstract yourselves from the sometimes trite lyrical cliches, has enough hooks to justify replayability value. The title track is, in fact, my favourite cut on the entire record! Where was this atmosphere of total desperation, this dark piano tone, these hysterical cries of 'I NEEEEEED a SHOT OF LOVE!', this paranoid guitar backing on Saved? Whaddaya know - all it took was shift the control from "appraisal" to "apocalypse", and the cat's in the bag.

In fact, throughout all of the record we get a feeling that Bob was far and away lying to himself about his newly-found peace of mind on Saved: the songs on here show us that true peace of mind is as far away as it ever was. The phoney gospel style of Saved is replaced by the usual paranoia, depression and melancholy: even when Bob is praising the Lord, he seems to be doing that either with some kind of irony ('Property Of Jesus') or he's just concentrating on the poor sides of human nature again ('The Groom's Still Waiting At The Altar', 'Dead Man, Dead Man'). This brings in the hope, and don't forget that the hooks keep coming as well. 'Heart Of Mine' features cool tempo changes and nice guitar work from Ronnie Wood... and features Ringo Starr on tomtoms, too. 'Property Of Jesus' I probably couldn't defend objectively, but it's so wonderfully sloppy and simplistic that I can't help but be drawn into the groove.

Plus, on a couple of tracks Bob even dares to rock out! No, I mean really rock out, not the feeble pseudo-rockin' jello of Saved, but some real edgy rock, like in 'The Groom's Still Waiting At The Altar' (generic, but credible and impressive blues workout), and on the jazzier rocker 'Trouble', which is so minimalistic I could have sworn he'd called in Mark Knopfler to produce it again, but turns out that he didn't. And 'Dead Man Dead Man' actually is in a reggae tempo, which means the diversity factor is back as well.

In short, this is a return to form - not a stable one, and not a breathtaking one, but the overall quality of the album makes me really really wonder about the debacle of Saved. The more I think of that album, the more I'm convinced that an enemy of humanity hypnotized Bob into recording those tracks and agreeing to release the results. Don't believe me? Look at Slow Train Coming and Shot Of Love: doesn't the latter seem like a logical inheritor of the former? It does. Now look at Saved. Does it fit in between? Like a bullet between your front teeth. No interesting melodies or arrangements, trite lyrics, phoney 'joyful' atmosphere... The biggest and most unexplainable embarrassment in the Dylan catalog. Forget about it, grab Shot Of Love instead.

Oh, and, by the way, have you noticed that the triad of Dylan's Christian albums is the only bunch of Bob albums that don't feature his face on the front cover in any particular form? What kind of modesty is that?



Year Of Release: 1983
Record rating = 5
Overall rating = 10

A lyrically strong product, but the melodies are essentially an old piece of chewing gum extracted out of a sticky pocket.

Best song: JOKERMAN

Track listing: 1) Jokerman; 2) Sweetheart Like You; 3) Neighbourhood Bully; 4) License To Kill; 5) Man Of Peace; 6) Union Sundown; 7) I And I; 8) Don't Fall Apart On Me Tonight.

This marks the end of his 'born again' period (not too soon!) and the end of the transition into the gloomy 80's. None of these songs are bad; none of these songs are truly memorable or anywhere as exciting as the best stuff from the '60s or '70s. Having re-recruited both Mark Knopfler and Mick Taylor, he suspiciously starts to move in on modern trends: booming electronic drums, synthesizers and disco rhythms are starting to gain territory, although they wouldn't really make themselves obnoxious until the next album. Even so, they manage to ruin a couple of tracks, most notably 'Union Sundown', and while these "innovations" give some fans a chance to rant about the 'constantly evolving Dylan sound', there are some directions of evolution that are simply unsuitable. Why does Sly Dunbar sound like a drum machine on most tracks? Isn't he, like, a living person? Who's that Alan Clark and why can't he get himself a fresher keyboard sound? Oh well, at least we got Knopfler and Taylor, which means that half of this album follows the Dire Straits stylistics and the other half follows the basic R'n'B pattern. In fact, both Mark and Mick are pretty good on the album - sometimes it's worth putting on a song or two for the guitarwork alone.

As for the mood, it is eventually the same as on Shot Of Love: dark depression. This is the Blood On The Tracks of the 80's: same old story of disillusionment, tiredness and being sick of life. This time, though, everything is seriously saturated with elements of Judaism. Yeah, the sudden transition from Christianity to a strong Zionistic identity is unbelievable, but hey, this is Dylan we're talking about. Nothing predictable about this guy. There's even an inlay photo showing Bob upkneeled and touching the Sacred Land against a Jerusalem landscape. And while it's not always possible to understand that on first listen, many songs deal with Israel - starting from 'Jokerman' (allegory for Israel, so they tell me) and ending with 'Neighbourhood Bully' which just might be one of the most lyrically dubious tunes Bob ever penned, along with 'Joey' and a few others. Such a starch rightist upholding of Israel with basically no contempt at all for the 'neighbours' is certainly one of the most rash decisions ever taken by the man (see Richard James' comment on this issue for more details).

On the other hand, not all of the songs are Zionistic - there's plenty of the usual "woman tragedy" stories ('Sweetheart Like You'), social critique ('License To Kill'), lost love complaints ('Don't Fall Apart On Me Tonight'), and even one throwback to the born again period ('Man Of Peace'). Unfortunately, this time Bob really hasn't taken enough care to think about the melodies. Well, we all know he'd never been a fantastic melodyman, but geez! For instance, 'Man Of Peace' sounds great until you suddenly remember you've heard that one as 'From A Buick 6' ages ago. Of course, it's slower and differently arranged, but the melody is still the same. One could argue that "Bob is not about the melody", but there's just too little interesting happening in the song that I could really uphold it. Repetitive, dumb organ pattern. Nice, but poorly mixed, unclimactic acoustic solo. Robotic lifeless drum beat. What's up with that? Who really needs that?

The closing ballads 'I And I' and 'Don't Fall Apart On Me Tonight' sound like two drops of the same water. Of these, 'I And I' is by far the most impressive, and, apart from 'Jokerman', the only song that could at least remotely approach 'minor classic' status, with a few eyebrow-raising melody twists and a certain BOTT feel to it... then again, maybe I am confusing BOTT with Dire Straits? Knopfler's all over this song, almost drowning Bob in a sea of tasty minimalistic guitar licks (some of which are lifted directly from songs like 'Wild West End').

'License To Kill' and 'Union Sundown' (the latter of which shamelessly steals its main riff from 'Rollin' And Tumblin') are just weak, weak, weak... this album doesn't present any beautiful acoustic passages, like Blood; no surprising tricks of Desire; and no roughness-and-ruggedness of Slow Train Coming. It's just normal - your ordinary kind of background music you listen to while cleaning your room. Not nasty in any way, but certainly not essential.

Only the opening tune, the most well-known one, can be classified as a really cool one. 'Jokerman' is mostly memorable for its romantic refrain, and even if it's no new 'Mr Tambourine Man' which it certainly evokes lyrically, it's still touching. And original. Listening to that refrain, you don't get the feeling you know the song already. I don't care if it's about Israel or not; there's an atmospheric, imaginative feel to the song that takes you places, with Clark's haunting quiet organ in the background and the 'remote' percussion adding to the beautiful effect rather than detracting from it, for once. But 'one chain don't make no prison', and placing the song at the beginning of the album only makes a mistake of raising our expectations, only to have them crushed into dirt later on.

Overall, I wouldn't beg you to buy this album; but if 80's Dylan is OK with you (and this is the first real 80's Dylan: Shot Of Love still sounded like it belonged to the 70's), go ahead and get it. Don't get me wrong - I still think it's rather nice, and hardly worse than any of his '70s misfires like Street Legal or Planet Waves. It still shows a mature, if slightly over-conservative this time, lyricist, and I'm not offended by anything. But it's certainly not a record to be pleasantly surprised about, and like almost all of Dylan's Eighties' records, it simply hasn't aged all that well.



Year Of Release: 1984
Record rating = 6
Overall rating = 11

A bit too late for kickbutt rock and roll, isn't it? Still, with a bit of imagination you might even enjoy it.


Track listing: 1) Highway 61 Revisited; 2) Maggie's Farm; 3) I And I; 4) License To Kill; 5) It Ain't Me Babe; 6) Tangled Up In Blue; 7) Masters Of War; 8) Ballad Of A Thin Man; 9) Girl From The North Country; 10) Tombstone Blues.

Bob's next live album displays a sudden and totally startling departure from the kind of live sound he'd been experimenting with throughout the Seventies. The Big Band, with its flutes, violins, accordeons and female backing vocals, is gone without a trace. Instead, he's gone back to a simple five-person back-up, with Mick Taylor being the most prominent of the musicians (there's also Ian McLagan on keyboards, who used to serve the Faces and the Stones, but he's buried so low in the mix, you'd bet he was playing three miles away from the stage). The drastic re-arrangements are gone, too: out of the ten selections, only one ('Masters Of War') is beyond recognizability. Everything looks as if Bob had listened to a couple of his old live tapes (see Live 1966) and decided, all of a sudden, that he wanted to be a rock'n'roller again. So the band mercilessly crunches and punches through his old standards, at a speedy tempo and with Stonesy guitar solos courtesy of Mr Once Was A Rolling Stone.

As a result, it all sounds OK and hardly offensive for hardcore formulaic Dylan fans, even though there's really nothing special. But beware, you'll also have to deal with the fact that Bob sings everything in his whiny weezy tone that he'd developed somewhere around 1978 and wouldn't have changed until Time Out Of Mind. The old roaring vocal cords energy of old is not to be found any more - and sometimes I wonder if it was due exclusively to a physiological change in Bob's voice or if he was intentionally singing in this way to add to his usual 'shock factor'? Probably both.

The material is strong, of course, but then again, all of Dylan's live material is strong, so it's no particular asset. There's yet another take on 'Maggie's Farm', finally, quite close to the original - except that Bob's vocals picture the protagonist as a lumbering clown rather than a protesting young man, of course. The generic blues version of 'Highway 61 Revisited' is not bad at all, highlighted by massive guitarwork from Taylor - the guy obviously hasn't lost a thing since the Ya-Ya's days.

The main highlights, though, should be recognized in the excellent album closing version of 'Tombstone Blues' starring guest player Carlos Santana on lead; a nice acoustic set with the happy audiences roaring along to 'It Ain't Me Babe' and with totally new lyrics to 'Tangled Up In Blue'; a drastically re-arranged 'Masters Of War' with some hard-rocking guitar that manages to nearly ruin it and completely transform it into a mighty arena rocker all at once; one more 'Ballad Of A Thin Man' which sounds oh so good without the backing vocals (and I'd already started getting used to the version on Budokan); and a decent, moderarely emotive 'Girl From The North Country'.

The only thing that seriously lets the record down are two bland numbers from Infidels, but, after all, this is the Infidels tour, so it's understandable. On the other hand, an alternate perspective is that the Infidels numbers are the best on here - after all, Bob's new vocal style is better suited to songs like 'I And I' than to songs like 'Maggie's Farm'. So it's a question of attitude, basically. Plus, it goes without saying that without these songs, the album could have looked like 'greatest hits live'. Then again, one can't help but notice that for a 'greatest hits live', the track selection is surprisingly obscure - I mean, all of the songs are pretty good and all that, but apart from 'Tangled Up In Blue' and maybe 'Ballad Of A Thin Man' or 'It Ain't Me Babe', there's not really a single 'greatest hit' on here. No more stale, unnecessary, perfunctory versions of 'All Along The Watchtower', 'The Times They Are A-Changin', 'Forever Young', 'Like A Rolling Stone', 'Blowin' In The Wind', well, you understand me, doncha? In this respect, I'd say Dylan's single live LPs usually work better than Dylan's double live LPs: they sort out the songs we'd already heard a million times before to point out the lesser tracks. Kudos to Bob for that.

Actually, many people don't give a damn about Dylan's live albums, especially around this period, but I wouldn't go as far as to say they're bad. It is obvious that they are far inferior to the studio originals; but then most live albums are, if your band isn't supposed to be the Who or Derek and the Dominos. And even if this particular album doesn't present us with the main attraction of Dylan's live performance (that is, the popular game of 'guess the melody'), it's still solid. You just gotta have an open mind for accepting such kinds of things, and first and furthermost, remember that Dylan's schtick often was to murder a particular song in concert and make the listeners enjoy the actual process. It's hard to take, but believe me, it is just like that. Just remember - if Bob murders a song, it's because he wants to, not because he can't do it the right way. You could say it's all the same, but truthfully, it isn't. It's a special nihilistic position, the one Mr Zimmerman has secretly preached all his life. Real life, heh heh.



Year Of Release: 1985
Record rating = 6
Overall rating = 11

Displays certain original ideas - but only if you get through all the disco...


Track listing: 1) Tight Connection To My Heart (Has Anybody Seen My Love); 2) Seeing The Real You At Last; 3) I'll Remember You; 4) Clean Cut Kid; 5) Never Gonna Be The Same Again; 6) Trust Yourself; 7) Emotionally Yours; 8) When The Night Comes Falling From The Sky; 9) Something's Burning Baby; 10) Dark Eyes.

Burlesque? Rather "discotheque", if I might say so. The modern production values have finally burst the dam, and even though Mick Taylor is still fiddling around with his guitar (and I had such high hopes for this guy after he'd left the Stones), this is all-around flaccid synths and booming drum machines. Ooh, just let me look up the producer... Hey, there ain't no production credits! THE COWARD! Just wait until I punch his... ok, ok, after all, Bob sang on it and listened to the final results himself, so he must have been satisfied. The only question I would like to ask of Mr Zimmerman: what the hell made him go out and want so much to sound contemporary in 1985? He'd missed so many boats and badnwagons before that this final choice of going poppy-electronic is simply unexplainable. Oh well, I suppose that so few producers were not willing to embrace modern production techniques in 1985 that Bob simply didn't want to waste time on finding a 'retroish' kind of guy. His will must have been fading.

The only consolation is that the song material is at least significantly stronger than on Infidels. At least most of these songs do not sound like hastily thrown together rehashes of older classics. Even the lengthy seven-minute disco headache 'When The Night Comes Falling From The Sky' (yeah, and the female backing voices are back, too! Imagine that) has traces of being actually thought over, although Bob's whinings sound particularly out of tune on such a straightforward disco number. Pardon me, but he seems to impersonate an old dinosaur beggar weeping for alms on an 80's street... All the more depressing is the fact that the original, disco-less version of the song, which can be found on The Bootleg Series, is excellent, making it a classic case of "idea-butchering".

What I certainly like on the album, though, are a couple of damn fine, inspired, tracks: most notably, the opening 'Tight Connection To My Heart (Has Anybody Seen My Love)' shows us a bit of genuine emotion, and for once the backing voices sound in their places. It's also pretty energetic, with Bob dropping the wheezy whiney approach and recapturing some of the self-assured religious punch of old - faint echoes of the 1965 era Dylan can be perceived on here. 'Clean Cut Kid' is a better attempt at an angry-anti-social anthem than 'Neighbourhood Bully' on the last record; it sounds generic disco rock'n'roll, but the lyrics and occasional guitarwork by Ronnie Wood make up for it.

A couple of other songs may sound as if you've heard them before ('Seeing The Real You At Last' is set in a jazz-rock arrangement not unsimilar to the one on the, once again far superior, 'Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking', and, frankly speaking, when I first heard the opening notes of 'When The Night...', I thought they were going to do a disco arrangement of 'All Along The Watchtower'. No kidding!), but overall you'll have to agree that some of them do sound fresh, what with all the disco and ragged vocals ('Emotionally Yours'; 'Trust Yourself'). I do not think that, apart from 'Tight Connection', there are any particular lyrical highs - and 'Trust Yourself' is actually a lyrical low; rarely has Dylan been so straightforward and banal in his philosophic ramblings - but spare the guy, willya? He's been at the top of his lyrical game for more than twenty years, after all, so let's just listen to him producing nice plaintive ballads like 'Emotionally Yours' instead. (Although the other ballad, 'Never Gonna Be The Same Again', just keeps escaping me. Probably because the melody is non-existent, but don't quote me on that.)

And the album closes with the beautiful ballad 'Dark Eyes' where it's just Bob with his guitar and harmonica - jus' like in the good old times, eh? Who knows, maybe if he'd done all the other nine tracks in the same arrangements, it would have worked better? Who knows?

Anyway, I'd be the last one to completely bash the stuffing out of this album, but I'm also not following the All-Music Guide in saying that it was a remarkable return to form after all those flops. It's definitely not among his worst albums (then again, Dylan's had so few really worthless albums out that maybe I should have rephrased that), but there's absolutely no need to present Empire Burlesque as a highlight, either. As I think I already mentioned before, some people might like the album because it presents us with a slightly more energized and re-vitalized Dylan, with the emphasis on the rocking and persuasive powers of the songs rather than on their "miserable" "dragging" aspects - perhaps the last time in Bob's career, after which it was all darkness, depression and self-humiliation. But that's hardly a virtue in itself; last time Bob revitalized himself, he came out with Saved. Still, all odds taken, for a 1985 album this one's pretty cute; at least it's apparent that Bob was still willing to take some chances with writing actual songs, instead of so many of his contemporaries who thought that acquiring this whole electronic/hi-tech production background would make a fine substitute for creating melodies.

In this sense, I really respect Empire Burlesque and suggest you do the same. You may not love it, but you gotta respect it. That's the way life goes, isn't it?



Year Of Release: 1985
Record rating = 6
Overall rating = 11

And thus we initiate the "Rock Star Boxset Deification" process.

Best song: in a box? Oh, okay, POSITIVELY 4TH STREET then.

Track listing: CD I: 1) Lay Lady Lay; 2) Baby Let Me Follow You Down; 3) If Not For You; 4) I'll Be Your Baby Tonight; 5) I'll Keep It With Mine; 6) The Times They Are A-Changin'; 7) Blowin' In The Wind; 8) Masters Of War; 9) Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll; 10) Percy's Song; 11) Mixed-Up Confusion; 12) Tombstone Blues; 13) Groom's Still Waiting At The Altar; 14) Most Likely You Go Your Way And I'll Go Mine; 15) Like A Rolling Stone; 16) Lay Down Your Weary Tune; 17) Subterranean Homesick Blues; 18) I Don't Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met);

CD II: 1) Visions Of Johanna; 2) Every Grain Of Sand; 3) Quinn The Eskimo; 4) Mr Tambourine Man; 5) Dear Landlord; 6) It Ain't Me Babe; 7) You Angel You; 8) Million Dollar Bash; 9) To Ramona; 10) You're A Big Girl Now; 11) Abandoned Love; 12) Tangled Up In Blue; 13) It's All Over Now Baby Blue; 14) Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window; 15) Positively 4th Street; 16) Isis; 17) Jet Pilot;

CD III: 1) Caribbean Wind; 2) Up To Me; 3) Baby I'm In The Mood For You; 4) I Wanna Be Your Lover; 5) I Want You; 6) Heart Of Mine; 7) On A Night Like This; 8) Just Like A Woman; 9) Romance In Durango; 10) Senor (Tales Of Yankee Power); 11) Gotta Serve Somebody; 12) I Believe In You; 13) Time Passes Slowly; 14) I Shall Be Released; 15) Knockin' On Heaven's Door; 16) All Along The Watchtower; 17) Solid Rock; 18) Forever Young.

I finally went out and bought it (see my former dilemma in the Bootleg Series review below), not because I like boxsets so much, of course, but because, believe it or not, at least a third part of this particular boxset (including a few songs that only appear on compilations otherwise) cannot be readily found anywhere else - and out of three CDs in all, that's not really a bad proportion. Yup, Biograph was probably the last "revolution" ever practiced by Mr D, as it is widely called the first boxset ever (not that I really know, or would care to know), at least, the first boxset to use the now-regular practice of serving a ridiculously interspersed mishmash of greatest hits, arbitrarily chosen album tracks, and obscure rarities.

The arbitrariness is particularly bitter when it comes to sequencing - I mean, the discs are moderately chronological, so that the first one is more like the early mumblin' Dylan, the second one is more like the mature growlin' Dylan, and the third one is more like the elderly whiny Dylan, but that's actually a generalization that threatens to go from "approximate" to "plain wrong" any minute. Why the compilers declined to put the tracks in straight chronological order, like a true 'biograph' should have 'em, is beyond me - and the worst thing is, you can't even re-program the thing unless you have one of those groovy three-and-more-disc-changin' CD players around. Maybe it was Bob's own wish, according to his own perverted standards. Whatever.

So anyway, like I said, about two-thirds of the material are songs that everybody's already familiar with - and since I approach Biograph not as a compilation but rather as a chance for us to hear something previously unheard, I'll refrain from the usual complaints like 'why isn't 'Desolation Row?' on here' or 'what is that crap like 'Senor (Tales Of Yankee Power)' actually doing in this context?'. Instead, I'll just skip forward with a brief description of the otherwise unavailable, or otherwise compilation-only available, material, and you make your own conclusion whether you want this crap or not. (Oh, and just one thing before I start - I usually don't discuss liner notes, but the ones for Biograph are exclusively interesting because there's a whole boatload of Dylan's own opinions, both on the songs in question and on life and other shit in general. You don't often get this on regular albums).

Now then - the first disc is the least interesting of the three, with only five tracks of note. The tracks are good, though. The most interesting discovery is Bob's first single, 'Mixed-Up Confusion', which is that legendary piece of moderate-rock boogie he actually recorded with a band (no electric instruments, though) back in late 1962 - the single flopped and Dylan went back to guitar and harmonica for two long bleeding years, but it was still a first of sorts. It's a fun little tune, actually, and would easily fit onto his first album. There's also one version of 'I'll Keep It With Mine' (a piano version as opposed to a guitar version that surfaced later on The Bootleg Series); a long long long tale of social injustice called 'Percy's Song', which I'm not particularly fond of because it smells too much of the stuff on The Times They Are A-Changin'; a very pretty rendition of 'Lay Down Your Weary Tune', another in a row of 'unreleased Dylan gems' expropriated by The Byrds; and a live version of 'I Don't Believe You' from the infamous 1966 tour, similar to, but different from, the one on the "Albert Hall" concert.

Disc 2 has more of those obscure goodies, and it's starting to get hotter! Primarily because the best Dylan song to have never made it onto a regular LP is here, the classic 1965 single 'Positively 4th Street'. Dylan's most vicious putdown of you'll-never-guess-who ever, saved from melodical triviality by that absolutely terrific descending organ riff. Also advisable for everybody is the other 1965 single, 'Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?', which is somewhat less memorable but actually rocks out more - maybe that's why Hendrix occasionally played it live.

What else is there? An unspectacular, but nice, acoustic live version of 'Visions Of Johanna' (at least the sound quality is much better than the "Albert Hall" version); an early Basement Tapes-era take on 'Quinn The Eskimo', done in a somewhat "countryish" style as opposed to the all-out rockin' version on Selfportrait, so choose between the two yourself; an early take on 'You're A Big Girl Now'; a terrific live rendition of 'Isis' from the Rolling Thunder Revue, even if I do believe Bob overscreams on the song a bit; a Desire outtake ('Abandoned Love') that's not very interesting if you already heard the album; and a funny little tidbit ('Jet Pilot') that provided the origins of 'Tombstone Blues'.

Finally, the third disc provides us with: 'Caribbean Wind' - a pretty powerful, even inspiring rocker that dates to, believe it or not, the Shot Of Love sessions (and initiates a whole set of excellent outtakes from the Eighties that were all, for some reason, kept away in order to make room for the much more conventional and bland stuff he did put on record); 'Up To Me' - a BOTT outtake that sounds eerily similar to 'Shelter From The Storm'; 'Baby I'm In The Mood For You' - this one is from 1962 again, and is a pretty cheerful ditty along the lines of almost everything else recorded that year; 'I Wanna Be Your Lover' - one of the most rocking tracks Dylan actually put down in 1965, but as you know, he had this odd habit of neglecting his "fast-rocking" material (same story happened with 'Tell Me Momma' - remember that one?); fine live versions of 'Heart Of Mine' and 'Romance In Durango'; and a two-minute "summary" of 'Forever Young' that Bob hastily put down on tape when asked by his company for the lyrics and music in order to put a copyright on it. Oh! How could I forget? They also put Bob's own version of 'I Shall Be Released' on here, to complete the picture.

Altogether this comes to more than seventy minutes of "new" material, none of it really bad, although some of it certainly destined for the seasoned fan only; in any case, this is not a bad percentage, and reason enough to scoop up the set if you see it used and relatively cheap. It's a "wise" thing on the company's part that none of these performances were ever placed on The Bootleg Series - or that would make Biograph look even more redundant than it actually is.



Year Of Release: 1988
Record rating = 4
Overall rating = 9

It could have been the best... were this the only Dylan album. As it is, it's easily one of the worst.


Track listing: 1) Let's Stick Together; 2) When Did You Leave Heaven; 3) Sally Sue Brown; 4) Death Is Not The End; 5) Had A Dream About You Baby; 6) Ugliest Girl In The World; 7) Silvio; 8) Ninety Miles An Hour (Down A Dead End Street); 9) Shenandoah; 10) Rank Strangers To Me.

[Note: this was preceded by the studio Knocked Out Loaded. I don't have it, even though I've seen it lyin' around a couple of times. Eventually I think I'll come close to buying it, but I have better things to do now.]

Another Infidels for him (Infidels, I mean, as the key example to defining "a totalitarian rule of mediocrity"), with several crucial differences that make it worse: the songs are significantly shorter, significantly more lightweight, and in addition, about half of them are covers of obscure and semi-obscure pop songs from Bob's past. Dylan finally running out of steam? Me, I suppose this was just another 'move' of his witty mind, but can't really argue with the fact that this album still sucks. Had the year been 1970, this album would be a Selfportrait of sorts, only with more inventive arrangements and a more relaxing, soothing atmosphere. But in 1988, Bob suffered from a total lack of innovative or just about any kind of ideas. The arrangements everywhere are as generic as possible, with generic rhythm guitars, by the book, dull guitar solos, predictable synthesizers, and a zero percent entertaining value. At least the electronics-based production is mostly gone, as Dylan reverts to simpler and more aesthetic musical values; but that doesn't salvage the record none.

The songs are really the same blues/ballads patterns that he's been using for dozens of times before, so nobody needs them. I mean, what the hell, if you get to have Eric Clapton on guitar, Ron Wood on bass, and Henry Spinetti (one of Clapton's best drummers) all guesting on a track like 'Had A Dream About You Baby', you could hope for something spectacular, couldn't you? Well, I can hardly distinguish the track from the half dozen numbers surrounding it. Dumb lyrics, too. Some of the most straightforward and bland crap Bob had written since his "born again" period.

No, don't get me wrong: Bob never really put out a truly stinky album. Taken on its own, none of this stuff is truly nasty - it's just blatangly unoriginal. If somebody plays me a generic blues or an equally simplistic and non-outstanding boogie tune, I'll hardly be offended; I'll just have trouble with cherishing this event within my memory for as much as the next few minutes. Same here. Maybe there are a couple bad songs ('Ninety Miles An Hour (Down A Dead Ends Street)', to me, sounds like utterly bad Springsteen; too good Bob didn't write it himself), but overall, it's songs like 'Had A Dream About You Baby' and 'Sally Sue Brown' that would give you the general idea: bland corporate rock'n'roll with not a single reason to be worshipped, because rock'n'roll, regardless of whoever is performing it, is supposed to rock, and these songs rock about as much as Britney Spears when she's singing 'Satisfaction'.

A tiny bunch of tracks still manages to stand out, allowing me to raise the rating at least one point. The pretty 'Death Is Not The End', while really simplistic, is still a charming original, and to me, recalls the atmosphere of all those quiet, meditative numbers on Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid. Mark Knopfler guests on guitar on that one, too, and does a far better job than Eric. 'Silvio' is a passable pop-rocker with a catchy chorus; 'Shenandoah' is a passable rearrangement of a traditional song; and 'Ugliest Girl In The World' is at least something new, whether for good or bad, I don't know. By the way, the lyrics on 'Silvio' and 'Ugliest Girl' were co-written by Dylan and Robert Hunter, the official Grateful Dead lyricist; whether this serves as a link between this album and Dylan's subsequent Dylan & The Dead release, I don't know, but the very idea of such a collaboration seems strange to me anyway. Oh, and, by the way, Garcia, Weir, and Brent Mydland all sing backup vocals on 'Silvio' as well. Yes, and I guess the acoustic number 'Rank Strangers To Me' isn't the worst way to end the album - but the song certainly is no 'Dark Eyes' or even no 'Buckets Of Rain'.

The rest of the songs is just generic recycled filler. I mean, I liked 'Let's Stick Together' when Bryan Ferry was performing it on the same-titled album - with a creative brass arrangement and a wonderful vocal delivery. Dylan just takes the bare bones, throws on a completely meaningless guitar arrangement and sings the song with so much detachment that it's obvious: just about any kind of cover could have taken this song's place, and Bob still wouldn't give a damn. And what's with the ugly synth-backed whining on 'When Did You Leave Heaven?' Miserable.

Of course, analogies with Selfportrait are inevitable here - again, Bob goes for an intentional butchering of his reputation, concentrating on stupid cover material and showing a total lack of contempt for the audiences. But in 1970, Bob was on a creative roll, and this intentional "alienation" only resulted in his creating an album that was different, not bad at all. Here, he created something totally useless, and the fact that the album is so short (just over thirty minutes) shows that he simply wasn't interested. Two or three decent songs that got onto the album by mistake, the rest is either due to contractual obligations or... or, well, it could be that Dylan was intentionally releasing something like that.

But somehow I doubt it. By 1988 anybody but Dylan was the focus of media attention, and the man didn't really need to "get rid of his fame" - with all these lackluster records flooding the vaults, he'd already gotten rid of it without any need for special sabotage moves. He was just getting old. Let's face it.



Year Of Release: 1989
Record rating = 6
Overall rating = 11

A surprisingly strong performance, despite all of its 'washed-upness'.

Best song: SLOW TRAIN

Track listing: 1) Slow Train; 2) I Want You; 3) Gotta Serve Somebody; 4) Queen Jane Approximately; 5) Joey; 6) All Along The Watchtower; 7) Knockin' On Heaven's Door.

One cannot expect anything good from a bunch of ol' hip grandfathers and a wheezy washed-up prophetical ruin, ain't it so? Well, if that's what you think, then you're dead wrong. Actually, Dead wrong! Ha ha! Good pun! The Dead, incredible as it may seem, make a fine backin' band for Bob - better, in fact, than The Band thirteen years ago. His vocals are in rather good shape, too. Actually, I don't find the Dylan/Dead match as odd as some might find it: the Dead had done quite a few Dylan covers in their live shows, and their psychedelic personality would have no problem in making way for their "rootsy" personality in order to assimilate the standard style of Bob. What made them play the actual gig back in July 1987 is a different matter: I don't know the story behind this pairing, nor do I know the reasons for which this recording spent so much time in the vaults before being remixed at the end of 1988 and released a few months later. All I know is this ain't a bad album, and in fact, it's a good "precursor" to Dylan's comeback...

Perhaps the greatest oddity of this record is in that older (and more classic) songs sound worse than newer ones. My favourite numbers on here are two songs off Slow Train Coming, arranged with slightly more bombast and verve than in the studio, but that doesn't worsen them none. 'Slow Train' is delivered as if Bob's life depended on it - he seems to deliver every new line with a start, as if being possessed - a blasphemous kind of delivery, isn't it, but it works, and I couldn't care less about the rest. 'Gotta Serve Somebody', with (so it seems) a bit of improvisation in the lyrics and shrill guitar blasts from Mr Garcia, is quite a nice treat as well. Hey, I know what you wanna ask me - no, no, relax, Bob hasn't at all reverted back to the "born again" status. What do we have against these two songs, anyway? Two of the best songs from inarguably Bob's best "Christian" album. Let's honour good songwriting when we see some.

But let's have the heart to condemn a butchered song when we see it, too. That's what happens to 'Queen Jane Approximately' - the song is plain butchered. Yeah, what he does to it is butcher it! The classic version on Highway 61 sounded like a message of hope, consolation and protection. When Bob sang 'Won't you come see me, Queen Jane' you wanted to run to him for cover. Here, when he sings the same line, it seems he's rather offering you to share his troubles than to shake off yours. That great self-assured vocal style of 1965-66, hell, it never returned after the motorpsycho nitemare... Totally horrible. And the song isn't saved by any kind of creative re-arrangement, as on Budokan, either.

'I Want You' is not that good as well, even though it is at least fast and tight (unlike the disgusting operatic version on At Budokan); adding a nice guitar solo was a good idea, but in the long run, it only serves to prolong the painful effect of realizing how much Bob actually revels in his "nasty old man" role. He simply throws it in your face, just like he used to throw his intentionally awful Selfportrait-era live renditions of 'Like A Rolling Stone' and 'She Belongs To Me' in your face nearly twenty years ago. But where the live performances of 1969 could have been judged as a witty artistic statement (or "anti-artistic", if you wish), this is just a certain confirmation of the status quo: "I am old and tired, and so I'm gonna play you my old standards if you wish, but I will play them in an old and tired way, and I don't give a damn!". And while I might understand that attitude, it sure gets on my nerves at times.

That said, 'Joey' and 'All Along The Watchtower' are all right by me. I don't know why the hell did Bob wish to resuscitate a song as odd and controversial (and long!) as 'Joey' ten years on, but he did it anyway, and lo and behold, it worked out, although this live version, powerful and stately as it is, still doesn't approach the becalmed, sarcastic punch of the original. As for 'Watchtower', it's pretty good, and that's all I gonna say. How many different live versions of 'Watchtower' does one really need? How many different live versions of 'Knockin' On Heaven's Door', either? Just two obligatory "classics" at the end to rev up the ordinary buyer's excitement? Oh well, at least they've stripped 'Knockin' On Heaven's Door' of the eternal reggae arrangement, making this the closest Dylan ever came to actually recapturing the mystical, gripping atmosphere of the studio original. If only he'd managed to stay on time... but he probably never wished to, anyway.

In all, despite all the complaints, this ain't no murky stuff. If you just can't get enough of Dylan, get it, but don't let it be your first live album. Plus, the album cover is definitely worthless. It looks like it belongs to a heavy metal album rather than to a Dylan album. Oh, I mean, the skull and roses are typical for G.D. albums, but I don't like the train. I don't like the number 13, either (which you can see on the train). I mean, I'm definitely not superstitious; I just want to say that it was a bit too straightforward to put that number on that train, now wasn't it?



Year Of Release: 1989
Record rating = 6
Overall rating = 11

The long-awaited 'comeback', it's really not essentially different from the other stuff.


Track listing: 1) Political World; 2) Where Teardrops Fall; 3) Everything Is Broken; 4) Ring Them Bells; 5) Man In The Long Black Coat; 6) Most Of The Time; 7) What Good Am I; 8) Disease Of Conceit; 9) What Was It You Wanted; 10) Shooting Star.

A heck of a comeback. 1989, indeed, has been a year of half-assed 'comebacks': the Stones, McCartney, and Clapton all released albums that sold well and got a lot of good reviews, but in retrospect, lost a large part of their appeal. No wonder: there are some good and some bad things that unite such superficially different records as Oh Mercy, Steel Wheels, Flowers In The Dirt, and Journeyman. The best thing is that, indeed, and there's no doubt about it, all of these albums are head and tails above ninety-nine percent of the dreck these guys put out in the mid-Eighties. The age of dumb, mindless fiddling with electronics has passed; 'retroish' values are on the way, which means more guitars, more "melodies" in the traditional sense of the word, more thoughtful lyrics and more sentiment and soul. The bad news is that the worst decade in music couldn't have passed without leaving any trace - and all of these albums suffer from mediocre songwriting, some more, some less. In other words: if you're listening to Dylan in chronological order, Oh Mercy will roam all over your mind as a friggin' masterpiece, but if it happens to be your first Dylan album after the classics, you're bound to be underwhelmed.

Like I said, the change in production means a lot to this album: the back-up singers are gone, together with the synths and drum machines. In comes former U2 producer Daniel Lanois with his bunches of cool-sounding echoey guitars, and the result is obvious - this sounds fresher and more entertaining than anything since at least Bob's 'born again' period. Even if at times you feel like you're going to scream out "Where's the goddamn melody?", Mr Lanois rushes up to you and gags you with such a beautiful ringin' guitar line that all you can say is "mmmmuffleflug, where did he get that sound from?"

Moreover, Bob is trying to make his voice sound a bit more diverse than on the previous five or six albums: the usual 'old man' whining tone sometimes gets substituted for the melancholy 'sly' intonations abounding on Blood On The Tracks (especially on a song like 'Ring Them Bells'), and anyway, he is obviously using that voice of his as a musical instrument once again. Yup! Sounds good. Catch Mr Dylan while he's on a roll; you never know when he's going to overwhelm you or underwhelm you. I mean, if you thought he'd stay that "well-voiced" forever, just wait until you hear Under The Red Sky...

The faster numbers are definitely upbeat and catchy - 'Political World' is a great, well, anti-political anthem, while 'Everything Is Broken' takes its anger and disappointment directly from Blood. The guitars ring out loud and strong, and as a result, the songs rock harder and with far less mercy than... well, I haven't heard Dylan rockin' so well for ages. 'Political World' definitely has punkish undertones to it; maybe I should thank Lanois for it and not Dylan, but that ain't really so important. Isn't an artist hardly anything more than the sum of his producers? Hah! You know as well as me how much truth resides within this sarcastic remark. In any case, the two songs make me wanna bring out my air guitar, and that's a good thing.

So why do I only give the album a 6? Well, see, the slower songs on here are pretty much dispensable. All of these slow ballads really don't have any better melodies than the ones on Down In The Groove, and you know what that one is. And there are way too many slow ballads on here, which means that while the overall sound is pretty tasteful, the percentage of diversity is at a tremendously low level. Pardon me, but while Mr Zimmerman is still able to suck me in with his introspective lamentations while he's on, I can hardly tell the last four songs apart when they're over.

Don't laugh, either, but I sometimes think that Dylan had been listening to way too much Dire Straits. Sure, there's no Knopfler here, but the Dire Straits spirit is all over this record - and it's the spirit of Communique, not the spirit of Dire Straits. 'What Was It You Wanted', in particular, reminds me of 'Where Do You Think You're Going' so much that I couldn't help but bring up the comparison. And it's not a very pleasant thing to know that Dylan, once the Master and the Guru, is now taking lessons from one of his most devoted disciples himself. It's no crime, but it sure says a lot.

In any case, before we go on, let me just pinpoint a few more relative highlights for you. 'Where Teardrops Fall' is a very nice and, in fact, outstanding ballad with Lanois playing a very Harrisonesque steel guitar part, giving the song a certain aethereal atmosphere that elevates it from the rest. 'Man In The Long Black Coat' boasts a particularly dark, spooky, night-time atmosphere (quite Dire Straits-like as well, isn't it?); the song impressed Emerson, Lake & Palmer so much they even did a cover of it on their In The Hot Seat album. And 'Most Of The Time'... well, I just like that song, maybe because it's slighlty more optimistic than the rest. Maybe not. I just like it.

Final verdict is - just like the previous three or four albums, Oh Mercy really adds little to the Zimmerman legacy. It doesn't exactly recycle his product, and it has some truly good songs on it, but it explores practically the same subjects as almost everything else. Hum, hum, hum... oh, there's one serious difference. This is the first album since his 'born-again' period, and one of the few ever, that doesn't display Bob's face on the front cover (there's an interesting picture on the back, though). Instead, it pictures a guy with glasses and a female painted on a blue brick wall. What does that stand for? And who is crying for mercy? What is this - retro symbolism? Not very convincing...



Year Of Release: 1990
Record rating = 5
Overall rating = 10

Dylan gets a bit childish and silly; consider this the 'Selfportrait' of the Nineties, but a 'Selfportrait' for kids.


Track listing: 1) Wiggle Wiggle; 2) Under The Red Sky; 3) Unbelievable; 4) Born In Time; 5) T.V. Talkin' Song; 6) 10,000 Men; 7) 2 X 2; 8) God Knows; 9) Handy Dandy; 10) Cat's In The Well.

In between the last two records, Bob had been busy working with the Traveling Wilburys (see my reviews on this here site if you're interested), and this record certainly shows it. The best guess is that one fine day Bob took a listen to all his Eighties' records, then lay for a long time on his sofa chewing up his lips and finally said: 'Man, I must have been really pissed off'. Because this certainly does not sound like anything he'd done before... well, before Selfportrait, like I said. His voice here is shredded as usual, almost totally unbearable in some places - when I first heard the title track, I thought he might have been recording it on his deathbed. And the lyrics still come out mumbly and whiny, like a beggar's plead again - actually, he even looks like a beggar on that album cover. But that's about everything that you can find in common with this and Oh Mercy.

The Wilbury groove had Bob throwing away all the pessimism and sad complaints and all the real whiny stuff and playing some good old rock'n'roll - and he liked the idea. So, on Red Sky he gets his old pals and simply boogies, or does simplistic pop/blues songs with minimal, often trivial (sometimes even banal) lyrics, to quite mixed results. Actually, your feelings towards this record will depend on your expectations: just don't expect that this is going to be a serious record. It's going to be a danceable groove, but a pretty-sounding, totally inoffensive danceable groove - the only thing that betrays the sound's late Eighties' nature are the electronically enhanced drums (in parts) and an occasional cheesy synthline (in other parts). Most of the time, it's just Bob, some guitars, some Hammond organs, some harmonica, of course, and some cool piano. Plus, the piano is played by Elton John, and there's George Harrison here, too - contributing an occasional steel guitar line that will rip your heart out.

So the problem is whether you'll be able to say okay. On first listen I hated this album, but I think that I got it on the second one. It's all just fun, plain, mindless fun. Sure, the title track's lyrics about a little girl and a little boy who lived under a red sky strongly remind one of some Mother Goose poems, but why shouldn't Bob be allowed to take a little break after thirty years of pumping out serious (or serious-sounding) lyrics? It sounds very gentle and nice. Like an old grandfather telling a story to his little children. Critics who disses this record missed the whole point - and made the fatal mistake of judging it, like Selfportrait, on the same level with Dylan's other works. Boy, is that silly. How often do we find philologists saying stuff like: 'How could the great master of soul and mind, the author of Hamlet and Othello write such a stupid offensive pipsqueak of a play in Comedy Of Errors? What was the man thinking about, pushing trash like that on his spectators' eyes and ears?'. Please, ladies and gentlemen - if Mr Dylan makes a lightweight kiddy record, judge it by the standards of lightweight kiddy records.

And once you realize that, maybe you'll be, like me, pretty much able to get your kicks out of such nursery rhymes as 'Wiggle Wiggle' or the closing 'Cat's In The Well', because they boogie, and they boogie in a nice, involving way, with generic, but inoffensive and moderately catchy melodies: and '10,000 Men', in addition to that, has some really great guitarwork going on. It does not rock, I'll admit, but it isn't supposed to - it just bumps and boogies along, and why should everything rock, for Chrissake? If everything rocked and nothing boogied, life on this planet would get pretty dull...

Actually, the 'fast' songs on here are much more enjoyable than the slow ones: all of the above, plus 'Unbelievable', are really good, silly, giggly rockabilly grooves, but the slower ones, apart from the strangely moving title track, are mostly forgettable. '2X2' is maybe the worst of the lot, but 'God Knows' and 'Handy Dandy' never thrill me either (and whose dumb idea was it to tackle the beginning organ line of 'Like A Rolling Stone' onto the otherwise generic mid-Eighties rip-off 'Handy Dandy'? Smack him for me, if you please). Maybe that's simply because Bob hadn't boogied for such a long time (read: never) - and it pleases me so that I get put down by the slower material.

More probable, though, is the answer that the slower material is simply of much lower quality: passable ballads with recycled chords that don't even get suitable lyrics this time. I mean, nothing on here gets suitable lyrics, but on the best tracks you get so carried away by the simplistic beats that you simply don't care. Also, the very idea of the record is that it has no message whatsoever: and once you do meet a track that does have some message ('TV Talking Song', for instance), it doesn't really fit in with the rest.

Overall, there's absolutely nothing substantial here, and the record is still nowhere near as satisfying as Selfportrait, mainly because it sounds rushed and highly unpolished; but just a good load of pure silly fun. It shouldn't be high on your 'wanted' list (place it at about number twenty-five or so on your Dylan shopping list), but do not evade it - especially if you're a freak like me and can get your kicks out of Selfportrait.

The record's major advantage, by the way, which nobody ever mentions, is that it's incredibly short - at a time when everybody was using and over-abusing the CD format and stuffing the space up with 70-minute sonic explorations, this whole album is, like, about 35 minutes long. Thus, unlike Selfportrait, it will never get on your nerves, unless you accidentally press the 'repeat' button on your stereo.



Year Of Release: 1991
Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 13

Some fantastic unreleased stuff: nothing groundbreaking, but every fan of Dylan should have this.

Best song: would you really like me to pick one favourite from fifty-eight outtakes?

Track listing: CD I: 1) Hard Times In New York Town; 2) He Was A Friend Of Mine; 3) Man On The Street; 4) No More Auction Block; 5) House Carpenter; 6) Talkin' Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues; 7) Let Me Die In My Footsteps; 8) Rambling Gambling Willie; 9) Talkin' Hava Negeilah Blues; 10) Quit Your Low Down Ways; 11) Worried Blues; 12) Kingsport Town; 13) Walkin' Down The Line; 14) Walls Of Red Wing; 15) Paths Of Victory; 16) Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues; 17) Who Killed Davey Moore; 18) Only A Hobo; 19) Moonshiner; 20) When The Ship Comes In; 21) The Times They Are A-Changin'; 22) Last Thoughts On Woody Guthrie.

CD II: 1) Seven Curses; 2) Eternal Circle; 3) Suze (The Cough Song); 4) Mama You Been On My Mind; 5) Farewell Angelina; 6) Subterranean Homesick Blues; 7) If You Gotta Go Go Now (Or Else You Got To Stay All Night); 8) Sitting On A Barbed Wire Fence; 9) Like A Rolling Stone; 10) It Takes A Lot To Laugh It Takes A Train To Cry; 11) I'll Keep It With Mine; 12) She's Your Lover Now; 13) I Shall Be Released; 14) Santa-Fe; 15) If Not For You; 16) Wallflower; 17) Nobody 'Cept You; 18) Tangled Up In Blue; 19) Call Letter Blues; 20) Idiot Wind.

CD III: 1) If You See Her Say Hello; 2) Golden Loom; 3) Catfish; 4) Seven Days; 5) Ye Shall Be Changed; 6) Every Grain Of Sand; 7) You Changed My Life; 8) Need A Woman; 9) Angelina; 10) Someone's Got A Hold Of My Heart; 11) Tell Me; 12) Lord Protect My Child; 13) Foot Of Pride; 14) Blind Willie McTell; 15) When The Night Comes Falling From The Sky; 16) Series Of Dreams.

The problem of alternative is really one problem that can kill you, if you know what I mean. So, just imagine that: here I am in this little Italian store with a little spare cash on my hands, and all of a sudden I see two Dylan boxsets right before me: one's Biograph, one's this one. And painfully I try to decide which one to buy. On one hand, Biograph has 'Positively Fourth Street' and 'Can You Crawl Out Your Window' on it, and these are great songs which I still don't have on CD. On the other hand, Series have got lots of outtakes I ain't never heard of. Maybe it's some kind of suspicious crap?

I finally decided to get Series just because there wasn't a single tune I ever heard before on it (the few well-known song titles turned out to be alternate versions). And god darn it, was I ever right! There are fifty eight previously unreleased tracks, and they're all great! Nah, slightly kidding. There is some stuff there that isn't quite up to par - well, it's like with any outtake album. But a lot of them are really really good. And thank God I didn't decide to waste my money on that silly Biograph set. Anyway, I hate these sets with half of the tracks well-known, half obscure (that's the reason I never got 30 Years Of Maximum R'n'B, even with all my respect and love towards the 'Oo). Who do record companies aim them at? Hardcore fans do not need the well-known, and novices do not need the obscure. That way, everybody pays more money than they'd really need to. I tell you, that's what those damn box sets are - just an attempt to get twice as much money for an artist's output. Make them issue standard hit packages and rarities albums and don't bother with that shit.

Okay, stop that digressing. I was talking about the fantastic Bootleg Series. Even though they claim that they are '1961-1991', i.e., reflecting Bob's entire career, the main emphasis is lain on two epochs: the early acoustic, folky years (26 tunes, most of them from 1962-63) and the 'born again/Infidels' period (1979-83, with 10 tunes). The other epochs are represented scarcely: the early electric years (1965-66, 8 tunes), the 'seclusion' period (two tracks), the 'country' period (three tunes), some Blood On The Tracks/Desire outtakes (six tunes), and two later tunes (one from 1985, one from 1989). But I don't mind that the material is chronologically uneven, and you shouldn't as well.

The early tunes are all swell. Most of them are slightly worse than the songs he recorded for his first albums - either they're covers, or they're simply made on occasion, or they're a wee bit too political, etc. That's why they were left out, I guess. But even so, the covers are moving (just take a listen to 'House Carpenter', by gum!), the songs made on occasion are either hilarious ('Talkin' Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues') or scary ('Walls Of Red Wing'), and the political stuff is ironic as well ('Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues'). You also get to see Bob as a bluesman ('Quit Your Low Down Ways', where he does lots of nasty things to his voice in order to imitate some John Lee Hooker or Cryin' Papa Buffalo - it's good!), a spiritualist ('Paths Of Victory') and, of course, a philosopher as he was (the magnificent 'Let Me Die In My Footsteps' - one of my favourite acoustic songs of his). There are a couple misfires ('Worried Blues'), but they're few and insignificant. And what can you say about a CD that ends with a seven-minute poetry raving called 'Last Thoughts On Woody Guthrie' where you can hardly discern the words at all - and it's fascinating!

CD 2 starts with a couple more acoustic songs (including a funny cough fit on the instrumental 'Suze' and the gorgeous 'Mama You Been On My Mind' and 'Farewell Angelina') and then introduces us to Bob's electric beginnings. Here you'll find out that 'Like A Rolling Stone' began its life as a waltz, that 'It Takes A Lot To Laugh' was originally a fast rock'n'roll song (I still prefer the finished version, though), and you'll also get acquainted with a brilliant Blonde On Blonde outtake - 'She's Your Lover Now' may have finally matured into 'One Of Us Must Know', but it stands out loud and proud being isolated just as well, a brilliant angry song which really tells us a lot about Bob at that particular time. Unfortunately, the outtakes from this period, arguably Dylan's most important period in all, are really few. They're being followed by a moving version of 'I Shall Be Released', with incredible backing vocals by Richard Manuel, a comedy throwaway from Big Pink ('Santa Fe') and a duet with Harrison on 'If Not For You' - superior to the version on New Morning, because both the playing and singing aren't that sloppy (Harrison's version on All Things Must Pass is even better, though). The disc closes with Blood outtakes - especially interesting is 'Idiot Wind' which doesn't yet have the anger and irritation of the finished version. And 'Call Letter Blues' (the future 'Meet Me In The Morning') even has a synth solo during the fade out! WHY??

CD 3, finally, is the worst of the lot - just because some of the 'Christian' material is not decent at all. Still, it does have some more 1974-5 outtakes (I simply adore the Desire-style 'Golden Loom' and 'Catfish'), a roaring live version of 'Seven Days' and the great blues anthem 'Blind Willie McTell'. Plus, if you hated the disco version of 'When The Night Comes Falling From The Sky', you just have to hear the version on here. Turns out to be a good song, after all - that is, before the producers messed it up and made it unlistenable.

Indeed, I could go on for hours since there's just too much material on here - but I think I'll stop. Maybe someday or other I'll add a couple of postscripta to this here review. I just want to stress one more time that this is one of the most fantastic outtake collections I've ever heard. And thank God one more time that I bought this and not Biograph. May all wise and rational people follow my example.



Year Of Release: 1992
Record rating = 7
Overall rating = 12

A funny retro album, but you've heard it before...

Best song: hard to tell. They're all very even

Track listing: 1) Frankie & Albert; 2) Jim Jones; 3) Blackjack Davey; 4) Canadee-I-O; 5) Sittin' On Top Of The World; 6) Little Maggie; 7) Hard Times; 8) Step It Up And Go; 9) Tomorrow Night; 10) Arthur McBride; 11) You're Gonna Quit Me; 12) Diamond Joe; 13) Froggie Went A-Courtin'.

An unexpected 'return to roots' (was he inspired by listening to some of his early folk songs while listening to the newly issued Bootleg Series? Could well be!). Come to think of it, there is a certain link between this album and Under The Red Sky - the small, but important link that says "strip yourself of the seriousness, enjoy the simpler, more commonplace aspects of this life"...

Whatever the background, the fact remains that Bob suddenly eliminates all of his partners, straps on an acoustic, adjusts his harmonica and reproduces a couple (actually, a dozen) old folk songs - just exactly like he did on his debut album. Indeed, the only stylistic difference from Bob Dylan is the inevitable change in voice (he can't help being an old geezer, after all) and a slight change in thematics - instead of gospel and blues, these are just straightforward, unabridged folk ditties. Unknown, too. Obscure, if I might get the chance to point out. I don't know whether he roamed all through North Dakota or the Texas plains with a tape-recorder to fish out these beautiful creations of popular genius, but nobody knows 'em all the same. The major exception is Howling Wolf's 'Sittin' On Top Of The World' (the only generic blues on here), but the others don't even come close. Never mind, though - they all sound good.

Apparently, it was somewhere here, somewhere at this particular stage in his career, that Bob finally decided to look past his shoulder at everything he'd done in the Eighties - and I dunno, but no sane man could identify Dylan's Eighties' output as timeless work of a genius, and Bob probably couldn't do that himself. So, a back to basics, freshening album like that was a necessity; not just a lightweight piece of throwaway material, like Red Sky, but more like an exercise in "sancta simplicitas", if you get me a-driftin'. Tune up, play, have fun, and don't worry 'bout a thing. As it is, we even see him ending the album on a humorous note - with the children's tune 'Froggie Went A-Courtin'. And I can't even remember the last time Dylan sounded funny... God, it must have been on 'On A Night Like This', and that was eighteen years ago! (And I do mean "funny", in a good sense of the word, not "stupidly funny" as when you consider the lyrics of Under The Red Sky. And let's not even mention all those mid-Eighties cover tunes, shall we?)

Still, I wouldn't rate this album extremely high - it's been overhyped, which is understandable (Dylan goes acoustic again! Ring the bells! Chime the chimes! Bring out the firehose!), but which isn't all that good. The record is entertaining but, let's face it, it's not miraculous. Lovers of Dylan singing covers should primarily redirect themselves to Bob Dylan, 'cause this is one recycled album, too. Beautiful folk songs like 'Jim Jones', 'Blackjack Davey', 'Hard Times' and 'Arthur McBride' are folk songs, after all, and any old folk singer could sing 'em just as well. And Bob isn't even bothering to spice them up. His debut album was shocking, maybe even revolutionary, because of his voice and the 'vocal chord feedback' way he used it - Good As I Been To You predictably gives no surprises in that direction. It can be described in one sentence - "Bob Dylan plays old acoustic folk songs" - and having read that, you won't actually raise an eyebrow throughout. (Question is: why is this review so goddamn long then? Answer: hey, even Dylan had to spend some time recording this album, so let me spend some time reviewing it!) Nor is it spectacular in the way of playing, arranging or anything else. It's just... nice.

Very very nice, and, of course, it's much better to listen to these fresh forgotten melodies than to yet another recycling of Bob's favourite subjects and melodies. Plus, who's gonna save all these beautiful tunes for posterity if it's not Mr Zimmerman? Who's gonna lament the tragic story of 'Frankie & Albert'? Who's gonna waste his precious time breathlessly sucking in the misfortunes of 'Blackjack Davey'? Who's gonna pity the poor soldier so cruelly deserted and betrayed by 'Little Maggie'? And who's gonna stop, drop all his business and contemplate the meaning of life while thinking about the 'Hard Times'? Nobody - unless this somebody is a Dylan fan and has to buy all his records, including this one.

As a funny curiosity, let's also mention that sometimes you can even boogie along to some tracks - 'Step It Up And Go' is particularly interesting in that respect, an 'acoustic blues-rocker' if there ever was one. Also, 'Tomorrow Night' gotta rank as one of the most gorgeous ballads Bob ever recorded. Just thought you'd care to know that. Overall, though, the quality of the songs is very even - it's not as if there were some outstanding melodies or hooks here, nor is it as if there were any worthless songs at all (a couple might be a bit overlong, but that's that). In other words, just what you'd expect of traditional tunes.

So no, I'm not condemning the record at all, and probably, if I had been following Dylan's output chronologically since at least the early Eighties, I would have jumped on my tail at least twenty feet higher when this came out. But in retrospect, this is just a good album. Not better than Selfportrait by any means - and even less diverse than that one, for that matter. But Anglo-Saxons sure write cool tunes.



Year Of Release: 1993
Record rating = 6
Overall rating = 11

A sad retro album, but you've heard it before...

Best song: JACK-A-ROE

Track listing: 1) World Gone Wrong; 2) Love Henry; 3) Ragged & Dirty; 4) Blood In My Eyes; 5) Broke Down Engine; 6) Delia; 7) Stack A Lee; 8) Two Soldiers; 9) Jack-A-Roe; 10) Lone Pilgrim.

Basically Good As I Been To You Vol. 2, but with a set of slight differences. First of all, this time it really seems that Bob was packing a tape recorder: you're not supposed to know any of these covers unless you were the one who guided Bob over some mountain passage or wild prairie (although judging by the liner notes, one could deduce that certain people were actually happy to provide Bob with these songs - for instance, he admits to have picked up 'Two Soldiers' from Jerry Garcia himself). Bob himself, however, thinks all of these songs are very special: the liner notes, composed by himself, provide you with a set of lengthy poetic analyses of each and every one of 'em so that you end up thinking they must be William Shakespeare or something, instead of an old cowboy's ranch tune. Or something. Not that I'm saying he's a-wrong, mind you: shallow and straightforward as all these folk ditties might seem, they're all subject to any kinds of subjective interpretations, and if they really mean such a lot for Bob, I'm all for it because it makes his delivery even more passionate and sensitive.

World Gone Wrong is, in that sense, a real hardcore album. Technically speaking, it's immaculate: Bob's acoustic playing is at the forefront (sure it is, as there's nothing to detract us - Bob doesn't even play that much harmonica on the album), and his singing, unless you're one of those that keep saying Bob can't sing, has never, never, never been more 'authentic'. So the record should be a pure delight for folkies; the thing that worries me more, though, is that this time the fun is completely gone - no 'Step It Up And Go' here, and no pleasant throwaway like 'Froggie Went A-Courtin''. All the songs are deadly serious, stories of lost love, misery, unhappiness and unjustice, with titles like 'World Gone Wrong', 'Ragged & Dirty', 'Blood In My Eyes', and 'Broke Down Engine' the norm of the day. This makes the album somewhat more difficult to endure in one sitting - although, granted, the record might not even be presupposing that you should listen to all this stuff at one time. After all, this is no concept album.

Also, this time around the track listing includes more blues originals, so it's not as diverse or entertaining as the previous one, in a structural way, at least. In that way, it comes more close to his debut album - and so gets almost exactly the same rating, with one point added on for expertise and professionalism gained with the years. Which doesn't necessarily mean that these songs are better than the ones he sang thirty years ago; they're just a bit 'deeper'.

The title track, the romantic 'Blood In My Eyes' and the mystical majesty of 'Jack-A-Roe' are the highlights here, and I guess the record might be worth 'em. Then again, just as its predecessor, the tracks are very even, more even, I'd say, because this sense of woe and misery and life's tragedy is sown all over the place, whether it be the more simple my-baby-left-me problems of the title track or the more general I'm-a-loser message of 'Ragged & Dirty', or the all-out-hell of a nightmarish existence in Blind Willie McTell's 'Broke Down Engine', as Dylan puts it, a song 'about Ambiguity, the fortunes of the privileged elite, flood control watching the red dawn not bothering to dress'. Just a couple story-telling songs are meshed in with the general complaints, and even these, like 'Stack-A-Lee' or 'Two Soldiers', don't paint exactly pretty pictures, oh no they don't. Describing the musical values of the songs is an impossible task - suffice it to say that this ain't at all different from Good As I Been To You. Oh wait, I'd already said that before.

Well, on the other hand, you wouldn't expect Dylan singing about dancing round the mulberry bush. After all, he'd by now gained enough authority to take on these songs and perform them as if his life depended on it. Face it, hearing a young twenty-year old Bob singing about life's evils on 'House Of The Rising Sun' was nice, but it could hardly pass in the same authentic way as it does when we hear a fifty-yeard old Bob singing about life's misery on 'Broke Down Engine'.

That said, as good as Mr Zimmerman is at recreating the haunting folkish atmosphere, the songs in general are no lyrical masterpieces, especially compared to Bob's own classic acoustic compositions. We all know that the melodies are one hundred percent Dylan, cuz he was so busy stealing them in his early days and recycling them in his later days. (No offense, Dylan fans - you know it's true, Mr Zimmerman will be the first to tell you that). But the lyrics are 'folk', and, however much I respect and, at times, adore folk culture, I'd much better prefer Bob's "author" poetry. Dylan's early career was a classic example of one singular talent taking some of his people's legacy and showing the world what kind of soup exactly could be prepared on that kind of fuel. But now that the soup has been eaten, what's he gonna do? Well, he gonna collect some more fuel.

So watch out for the next original album! Maybe the world had gone wrong, but that was just a sign that Bob Dylan had gone right.



Year Of Release: 1995
Record rating = 7
Overall rating = 12

So Dylan IS suited for an MTV environment, after all. Heh. Go figure.


Track listing: 1) Tombstone Blues; 2) Shooting Star; 3) All Along The Watchtower; 4) The Times They Are A-Changin'; 5) John Brown; 6) Rainy Day Women # 12 & 35; 7) Desolation Row; 8) Dignity; 9) Knockin' On Heaven's Door; 10) Like A Rolling Stone; 11) With God On Our Side.

"Dylan Unplugged" looks like a pretty goofy idea at first; the guy'd spent half of his life unplugged, what next? Johnny Cash Unplugged? Ravi Shankar Unplugged? But just one listen to the actual disc is enough to see that "Dylan Unplugged" is not so much about the actual musical side of the deal (in fact, I'm positively sure I heard some electric licks on a few tracks - whassup with that?) as it is about Bob presenting some of his material live in a small near-intimate setting. Because previously, what we heard was arena-rock Dylan and stadium-rock Dylan; Unplugged, naturally, is far less crowded and therefore far more intimate. And since the actual performance is goddamn near flawless, all I can say is this is a great experience.

Some people have the nerve to complain about Bobby's ultra-nasal whiny singing on the album. Well, yeah, he does sing in his Nineties voice, which is at least twice as twangy, shrill and ear-destructive as his Sixties voice. But I personally don't feel much difference between Bobby's tone on here and on, say, all those excellent Nineties studio albums he did, from the cover albums reviewed above to Time Out Of Mind reviewed below. I guess the problem is with getting used to Dylan singing classic material in this ultra-nasal whiny tone; well okay, lemme tell ya I've heard bootlegs from the "Never Ending Tour" where the actual singing was much, much, much worse. A couple extra listens to let the nasal tone wear off on you and you're all set.

Plus, there's a totally great backing band - I don't know a single name out there (although some of those musicians apparently stayed with Bob to do his next record; the bass player Tony Garnier even went on to make Love And Theft with him), but unknown as they are, they do their best to earn the reputation of the famous. Excellent invigorating drumming, terrific bluesy/boogie acoustic guitar licks from John Jackson, delicate and delicious pedal steel and dobro parts, well, once again you should probably come up with your own epithets. Bob sure knows how to pick out people.

As for the setlist, you can always count on Mr Zimmerman to dust some old forgotten classics and bring out some major surprises, after all, that's the man who never plays the same setlist twice. Out of the eleven songs, there are four obligatory crowd pleasers: 'All Along The Watchtower', though acoustic, is still played a la Jimi Hendrix like Bob used to do all his life; 'Knockin' On Heaven's Door' fortunately drops the lame reggae rhythms and returns to the majestic acoustic strum of the original (although I still insist it's the Dylan Song No. 1 that loses most of its impact outside of the studio); 'Like A Rolling Stone' drops the fabulous organ riff (bastard! why? he did have an organ player out there!) but is played tighter than ever, anyway; and the only misfire is 'The Times They Are A-Changin' - not only is it my opinion that by the Nineties the song should have been dropped off the setlist for ever, as it could only function as a nostalgic piece by then, but it's also drastically slow, plodding, and monotonous. Six minutes. Goddammit to hell.

The rest is the "draw lots" bunch - you'd never tell Dylan would play 'Rainy Day Women' for his unplugged set, but he did, and did it with verve. 'Desolation Row' is a little bit cut down and deprived of its main melodic component, but the feeling is intact (although I do have to join the justified indignation of Mark Prindle - had these MTV goers ever listened to Bob at all if they all start clapping and cheering only at the end of the first verse? It's like 'oh man, he said "desolation row", duh, I guess this has to be "Desolation Row"', time for some applause!'). The major highlight is 'Tombstone Blues', opening the album; in its acoustic-only form, it's no longer an overdriven beatnik-garage-rocker it used to be, but rather a straightforward good-time country-blues-rocker with several guys battling with each other over how many tasty fast country-blues licks they can throw at the crowd. Total guitar heaven, and in many ways points the way to all those fun blues-rockers on Love And Theft.

Occasional misfires, apart from 'Times', would include 'Shooting Star' (not a bad song, but there's a ton of better ones - I mean, why not do 'Sarah' instead or something?), and for some reason he prefers to close the show 'With God On Our Side', which was lame in 1964 and has only become lamer (though maybe not all that less actual) by 1995. (Geez, that Times album really sucked, didn't it?). But this, in turn, is compensated by the rare 1989 track 'Dignity', an amusing - and involving - blues-rocker that's only commonly available on Greatest Hits Vol. 3 otherwise (was it a hit? gee, I'm so misinformed), and the old folkie tune 'John Brown' which, I guess, he dug out from the same vaults where he found all the gems he put on his previous two albums. It's a great anti-war anthem, you know, of the typical folksy kind - simple and cliched, but honest and kinda "tradition-sacred", if you know what I mean.

Plus, buy this album for its cover! I guess it's all because of the sunglasses, but hey, on the cover Bob looks like he's actually having fun - as if all this business actually rejuvenated him and pulled him out of his misery for a while. And that's a good thing - to know that Dylan can still be having fun.



Year Of Release: 1997
Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 13

A good comeback. A new voice, some new songs, and a new sound. What more could be wished?

Best song: LOVE SICK

Track listing: 1) Love Sick; 2) Dirt Road Blues; 3) Standing In The Doorway; 4) Million Miles; 5) Tryin' To Get To Heaven; 6) Til I Fell In Love With You; 7) Not Dark Yet; 8) Cold Irons Bound; 9) Make You Feel My Love; 10) Can't Wait; 11) Highlands.

I really don't know what happened. Most probable is the solution that the previous two albums, while relatively mediocre effects by themselves, have succeeded in somewhat refueling Dylan's talent and gave him a good base for making yet one more effort of making a self-penned album. And the album is really good, maybe the best since... since Desire, indeed. I give it a weak 13 as opposed to that album's strong thirteen, but still, you gotta give the veteran his due: these songs are not just impressive quality product, they actually feel like essential product, something one gotta live up to and not just treat as your typical background Dylan 'easy' listening or something.

What's so good? Well, for one, Bob has gone through yet another change of voice: instead of the usual old man's whining ('like a beggar asking for alms'), here's a strangely confident tone. Not that it's more energetic: indeed, he sounds even older than before, but this time it's a profound, rich, sad, and slightly sly bluesy kind of voice. Get this record at least in order to hear that tone, you won't believe your ears.

Next, he makes a definite statement in totally refuting all the slick modern production and arrangement techniques, and that's yet another plus. Isn't it good to hear some tasty guitar chops and Sixties' organs instead of boring synths and drum machines? This time, Daniel Lanois chooses 'retro' as the main motto, and although I don't know any of the players employed on here except for Jim Keltner on drums, they do a good job: the guitars sound fresh, crisp and totally live, the organs flow smoothly and tastefully like on Bob's Sixties' records, and the record actually breathes - few other albums sounded that human and natural in 1997.

Third and last, the songs themselves are good. Of course, you've heard all of these melodies before ('Can't Wait' - typical Dylan ballad; 'Dirt Road Blues' - typical fast blues tune; others, too, it's easy to find their ancestry), but this time I wouldn't call any of them 'recycled waste'. This is mostly blues tunes he'd never done before in that way. Sad, depressed blues tunes. Not gospel, or disco, or anything. Just sad, depressed blues tunes destined to reflect an old man's reminiscences of his past and thoughts of his future.

The only flaw is that most of them are overlong, especially the final sixteen-minute 'Highlands' (I don't know whether the title was chosen specially for recalling associations with 'Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands', but the songs themselves have practically nothing in common). 'Highlands' is just your ordinary decent blues stuff, and extending it in such a painful way could only be compensated with great lyrics, but the lyrics are in no way great. It's just a dorky sad story about Bob trying to draw a picture of a waitress on a napkin. Well, there's a bit more to it, but it's too long for me to remember. It does try my patience until I simply begin treating it as background music - nope, the days of breathtaking lengthy epics are definitely over for dear old Bob.

Indeed, I don't know if any of these songs really come close to the standard of the opening 'Love Sick' which just hits you with such a terrible force that this is where you begin to understand all the depressed stuff on Oh Mercy, Empire Burlesque, etc., was just litte children's games compared to this collection. Hearing Bob sing 'I'm walking through streets that are dead... I'm sick o' love' really makes me shiver. This is hardly even depression - it's more like a maniacal suicidal tendency, and if not for the little snatches of optimism on 'Not Dark Yet', you'd think that after the completion of the album the only thing left to do for Bob would be to go and take an overdose of pills or throw himself from the Empire State Building. Even that song goes 'it's not dark yet, but it's getting there', so I guess there's really no way out in the end. That's what makes the album so monumentally great, though: where other dinosaur rockers are either waxing nostalgic like little stupid children or proudly proclaiming that true rock'n'roll never dies even when you're chained to a wheelchair, Bob takes the hard way out by affirming that old age is imminent and expectations of death are quite normal for him.

And pretty much all the other songs have that cold, moderate and slightly mystical aura to them as well. It's just as if... well, just look at Bob on the back cover. His face is white as snow, and that's what he is: detached and stiff, unpenetrable and inscrutable. This is not a human record! It's a monstrous record! Boo! Real scary. 'Cold Irons Bound', eh? How's that for a song title?

So yeah, I thought I wanted to say something, but I guess I did it already. What really makes this record stand out is the general atmosphere. This is a truly unique listening experience, and I doubt if Bob will ever be able to repeat it. In fact, I don't even know if he'll ever make another record at all - this sounds like a potentially excellent swan song, and a logical conclusion to his career, even if it definitely is not a pretty one. But dammit, he himself chose that road - thirty years ago, with John Wesley Harding, he set out on the path of depression, cynicism and self-loathing, and after Time, there's simply nowhere to go but get out of this world. If he does fire off a sequel, rest assured I'll be among the first buyers; but somehow I doubt he'll be ever able to repeat this minor masterpiece. And he's too busy going out on his 'Never Ending Tour' anyway.



Year Of Release: 2001
Record rating = 7
Overall rating = 12

Another reinvention? Or just a solid case of being backed-up by roots-rock pros?


Track listing: 1) Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum; 2) Mississippi; 3) Summer Days; 4) Bye And Bye; 5) Lonesome Day Blues; 6) Floater (Too Much To Ask); 7) High Water (For Charley Patton); 8) Moonlight; 9) Honest With Me; 10) Po' Boy; 11) Cry A While; 12) Sugar Baby.

My God, Bob Dylan doesn't sound depressing. DAMN. The last time he did that was on, um, Good As I Been To You, but as far as albums of self-penned material go, er, um, I'd have to go back twenty years earlier than that, I suppose. This is the greatest shock you will get from listening to the record... then again, I suppose he's only fulfilling my prophecy I wrote at the end of the Time Out Of Mind review: "there's simply nowhere to go but get out of this world [of depression, cynicism and self-loathing]". Call me Nostradamus.

Seriously now, this is an amazing album. It's not rambunctiously GRRREAT, definitely not a stupid five-out-of-five or A++ or whatever else reviewers all over the world have hurried to give it; once the hype dies down, Love And Theft will occupy its deserved place as a minor gem somewhere in between Bob's early acoustic stuff and his early Seventies' introspective country-rock exercises. But as of today, and I'm writing this review a fresh week after the record's release, Love And Theft definitely summarizes one thing - old Bob ain't giving up yet. At least, he's definitely NOT going to end his career on such a creepily depressed note as Time Out Of My Mind. Hint: look closely at the album cover and tell me if the Bob on the cover reminds you more of Eighties, Seventies, or Sixties Dylan. Guess there can't be no second answer - time has taken its toll on Mr Zimmerman's brave Jewish traits, but he's still able of assuming the same brave and defying pose as he did thirty-five years earlier on his very best record.

Not that I'm really comparing. The idea behind Love And Theft is essentially simple. What Bob does is take a bunch of old standard melodies and set them to the usual brand of witty lyrics. Wait, what I meant was really old standard melodies. Some primitive boogie-woogie, some generic jazz ballads, a totally uninventive blues pattern or two, and a couple o' country ballads stripped right down to the very core. There are a few curious 'experimental' twists along the way, like the sudden shift of tempos on 'Cry A While', but they're really all so unserious I needn't mention them at all. In other words, Bob is going down to the roots of his roots, the only difference being is that he actually writes all the lyrics himself.

What's the big deal? Well, first of all, it's the WAY this stuff is played. All you Eric Clapton fans should start bombarding God's mailbox immediately threatening to steal his Fender collection unless he offers Larry Campbell (guitar, violin, banjo, mandolin), Charlie Sexton (guitar), Tony Garnier (bass), David Kemper (drums), and Augie Meyers (keyboards) ten times better wages than Bob - see, this is exactly what Clapton's latest, Reptile, suffered most from: sterile playing and lifeless production sucking out any true emotional power that might have been contained therein. Most of these guys played on selected or all tracks from Time Out Of Mind four years earlier, but it's the genre diversity of Love And Theft that really allows them to let loose. Often, what they do is just engage in all kinds of jazz or rockabilly cliches, but they do it with such genuine gusto and energy that you can't help but be caught up in the fun. Crystal clear, delicious guitar lines, nice swirling organ phrases, you know how it goes... not just a bunch of guys who show you how effectively they mastered the formal art of playing the blues, but a bunch of guys who really care for the music and, moreover, understand how to fit it in with Bob's style of vocalizing. One thing I'm not always pleased is are the drums - they got this tinny "retro drums recorded in the Nineties" scent to them, and that deviates from the album's timelessness, but I guess you can't expect perfection on every corner, right? The drummer himself is good, and that's that.

And then, of course, there's the fact that it's a Bob Dylan album, and a revitalized Bob Dylan album at that. The lyrics themselves aren't among Bob's greatest - essentially I think of them as "Dylan's take on traditional blues/jazz matters", which means that the level of encoding is pretty twisted, but you needn't really break your head trying to decode anything. All of this stuff is pretty lightweight, even the more 'anthemic' tracks like 'Mississippi', arguably the most inspired song on the album, the one that tends to get the most under my skin, at least. On the more rocking tracks Bob is pretty undistinguishable from J. J. Cale, singing in a rough scary voice to the same kind of menacing R'n'B that J. J. is famous for. Still, I love J. J. Cale, and I love Bob as he crawls his way through the weird tale of 'Twiddle Dee & Twiddle Dum' - a song that could have easily fit in on the much despised Under The Red Sky, only better because I just can't get my attention away from those marvelous interplaying guitars. And Bob shows himself as comfortable with sloppy rockabilly ('Summer Days') as he does with a grittier brand of blues-rock that he's definitely way more used to ('Honest With Me').

The songs actually don't offer a lot of things to say about themselves - what can I say about, say, 'Lonesome Day Blues' besides the obvious "it's, eh, um, it's Bob Dylan and he's doing that blooose thing, man"? I'll just say a few words about the softer songs: 'Mississippi' is powerful and beautiful, 'Moonlight' is a gorgeous jazz waltz if ever there was one, 'Po' Boy' is Dylan's best ever impersonation of a ragged old country minstrel waiting for a penny, and the closing six-minute 'Sugar Baby' is somewhat of a 'Dark Eyes'-style phenomenon: a deep introspective acoustic ballad, deadly slow and pausing after each verse, supposed to form a 'serious' ending to a thoroughly 'light' process. There, that wasn't much, but I sure can't offer you a lot more.

There ain't a single bad song here, unless you just dislike the idea in general, in which case there ain't a single good song here. Or maybe you have a personal vendetta against country ballads, or against rockabilly, or cabaret jazz, whatever, well, you get me anyway. It's hard for me to say what was the overall message of the record, though - I am actually still a bit stumped over it. With stuff like Selfportrait, it was obvious that Dylan was just trying to 'ground' his talent, going for something earthly and simple to get rid of the Messiah tag; with the early Nineties acoustic albums, it was obvious that this was a desperate attempt to 'rejuvenate' his musical skills by going back to the roots for inspiration. This here is something in between - obviously, he's yearning for the roots once again, but this time Bob's got some secret agenda of his own going on. My suggestion is that Love And Theft, what with all of its immediate value already assessed, is actually supposed to be a transition album (again), that Bob is on to something that still remains kinda obscure, and so instead of starving myself to death trying to guess what that something is, I'll just wish for Bob's good health and hold my breath for the next record. Because, frankly speaking, Love And Theft would be a really really odd way to finish a musical career.



Year Of Release: 1997

The latest greatest. Of course, a one-CD greatest hits compilation is absolutely ridiculous: it barely scratches the surface of Dylan's innumerable chef-d'oeuvres, but, if you're skint or going on vacation, you might as well get it. I keep it because it has the beautiful single 'I Shall Be Released', unavailable on the original albums, but otherwise there's just no reason. Although I must admit that this is a really serious effort: almost every important album from 1963-83 contributes one or two tracks, and I cannot imagine any possible complaints. There's nothing from Another Side, and a couple of the tracks are arguable (why 'Oh Sister', for example), but that's about it. Also, it features only one post-Infidels track ('Everything Is Broken' from Oh Mercy), but I guess nobody'd be unhappy about it.


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