BOB DYLAN REVIEWS:
Bob Dylan (1962) / The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963) / The Times They Are A-Changin' (1964) / Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964) / Bringing It All Back Home (1965) / Highway 61 Revisited (1965) / Blonde on Blonde (1966) / John Wesley Harding (1967) / Nashville Skyline (1969) / Self Portrait (1970) / New Morning (1970) / Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973) / Dylan (1973) / Planet Waves (1974) / Before the Flood (1974) / Blood on the Tracks (1975) / The Basement Tapes (1975) / Desire (1976) / Hard Rain (1976) / Street Legal (1978) / At Budokan (1979) / Slow Train Coming (1979) / Saved (1980) / Shot of Love (1981) / Infidels (1983) / Real Live (1984) / Empire Burlesque (1985)
Bob Dylan (1962)
Album Score: 11
In the beginning, Bob Dylan's only instruments were his voice, his acoustic guitar, and a harmonica. He didn't come fully armed with his own songs, however; this is a covers-oriented folk album. That might be surprising at first glance. I mean, what is Bob Dylan if he isn't the greatest singer-songwriter who ever lived? (If you don't agree with such that statement, then I would kindly ask you to devise a way of kicking your own ass since I'm too lazy to track you down and do it myself.) But if you look at other folk albums released in the early '60s, you'll quickly notice that covers-oriented albums were the standard practice.
Folk revivalists, in particular, seemed to believe that writing original songs went against their principle; they were most interested in performing and preserving world-be forgotten folk classics. (I don't look down on that, by the way. They were doing a valuable service since many of these songs were very well worth preserving.) Dylan, however, might not have been so much interested in this; many of these songs were already well-known at the time. Rather, it seemed like he was just biding his time to make a name for himself in the recording industry to generate enough clout to start releasing his own material.
That said, he did manage to get by with two originals on this 13-track album, but they were hardly earth-shattering. Their melodies aren't great, but they're not bad. The most interesting thing about them are the lyrics, which appropriately enough, center around Dylan's own early history; “Talkin' New York” is an account of his arrival to the Big Apple, and “Song to Woody” is a fond tribute to his ailing hero.
One thing that Dylan did differently than most of his contemporaries regarding the folk covers was that he injected all sorts of humor into his vocal performances. That was rather odd since most folk songs are about death. In a few of the old blues, such as “In My Time of Dyin'” and “Gospel Plow,” he does the best he can to adapt an overblown gruff and snarling tone to his voice. He did that, I assume, because knew that he wasn't going to be nearly as convincing singing it as the people who originally sang them (he was, after all, a 21-year-old Jewish kid singing black music). So, he decided to take a gamble, for better or worse, and just sound like he was having a blast singing it. As far as I'm concerned, it worked. He comes off as playful and a lot of fun to listen to. The cover of “Freight Train Blues” is also hilarious; he rambles off the lyrics with the rapidity of an auctioneer except for one note that is so long-sustained that it's ridiculous.
These goofy vocal interpretations might have meant that Dylan didn't take his duty as a folk revivalist very seriously, but that quality does make this album an enjoyable listen for contemporary audiences. Certainly, this is miles more entertaining than Joan Baez's more respectable albums of the early '60s, which were so serious and straight-minded that they drove me mad. (I still haven't forgiven her for her rendition of “Kumbaya.”) It also helps that Dylan frequently either energetically or thoughtfully chugs away at his harmonica during most of these songs. A harmonica might not seem like much, but it was practically an excess as far as solo-artist folk albums go.
There's almost no debate that the best song of this album is the cover of the brooding English folk classic, “House of the Rising Sun.” It's one of the best songs ever written both for its melody and for its captivating lyrics. The Animals' version of it redorded two years later greatly eclipsed this version in notoriety, but you'd might as well hear both versions, because they're both excellent. Fans of the film O Brother Where Art Thou? might also be interested in hearing his version of “Man of Constant Sorrow,” which sounds extremely different than the version featured in the film. To me, it's one of the album's more underwhelming songs, but it's certainly a point of curiosity for audiences of my generation.
Even though this album is rightfully considered “merely” a precursor to the trio of iconic folk albums he would release right after this, it's still an album well worth scouting out. It not only provides a valuable insight into his roots, but it's a damn entertaining listen as well. I like it better than anything Joan Baez ever made. (Not Judy Collins, though.)
Read the track reviews:
The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963)
Album Score: 14
Oh my. Bob Dylan gets right into it, doesn't he? After the almost throwaway quality of his debut album, he goes right around and turns in this masterpiece chock-full of original folk songs. This album was released in 1963, but in no way does it deserve to stay in that era; this will resonate with the ages forever. Take that from me. A guy born in 1982. At the precise moment Dylan was getting out of his Born-Again-Christian phase.
Amazingly, I even liked this album when I started writing music reviews in 2003. I'm only amazed by that, because I had much less tolerance for folk music back then. I mean, this music consists only of a guy singing to an acoustic guitar and occasionally playing a harmonica. There wasn't a whole lot going on, right? And yet, I loved listening to Bob Dylan singing with that creaky old voice of his.
I can almost understand why some music fans don't like his singing voice. The voice might be a lot of things, but one thing it's not is pretty. However, I put it to you: Do you think these songs would have been nearly as effective if Dylan had a pretty-boy voice? What if he sang “Masters of War” like he was Barry Manilow? Would you like it then? “And I hope that you die / and your death'll come soon / I will follow your casket / in the pale afternoon / and I'll watch while you're lowered / down to your deathbed / and I'll stand o'er your grave / 'Til I'm sure that you're dead”.
You see... his voice has a world-worn quality that makes me think he believes what he's saying. He can be stone-cold serious, and I believe him. He could be talking wistfully about a long lost love, and I believe him. He was only in his early 20s at the time, but this song sounds like somebody in their 60s should have been singing it: (“While riding on a train goin' west / I fell asleep for to take my rest / I dreamed a dream that made me sad / Concerning myself and the first few friends I had / With half-damp eyes I stared into the room / where my friends and I spent many an afternoon / where we together weathered many a storm / laughin' and singing' till the early hours of the morn”). He even breaks out his 80-year-old geezer chops for “Talking World War III Blues” and gets away with it. So, nay to you naysayers. The voice is perfect.
His lyrics are excellent, too. Some people put Bob Dylan on par with all the major poets who have ever lived, but other people say such a claim is absolutely ludicrous. Unfortunately, I am unprepared make any meaningful commentary in this debate, because I know very little about poetry. However, to people who think he sucks as a poet, I will put it to you that Emily Dickinson sucked as a songwriter.
God, the melodies on this album! They're golden! Why didn't I mention them before? Of course they're usually quite simple, but that's sometimes all you need. Songs like “A Hard Rain's A Gonna Fall,” “Blowin' in the Wind,” “Girl From the North Country,” and “Don't Think Twice, It's All Right” will linger with me forever, probably even after I die. There are a few songs in here, like “Oxford Town” and “Down the Highway” with somewhat generic melodies, but I'm able to forgive him for that since his delivery makes them sound fresh.
I'm also quite amazed that this is the first time I ever really noticed that there is a lot of diversity on this. That's a feat for an album that “merely” consists of a man singing with an acoustic guitar and harmonica. There's laid-back (“Blowin' in the Wind”), romantic (“Girl From the North Country”), bile ridden (“Masters of War”), bluesy (“Down the Highway”), voyaging (“A Hard Rain's A Gonna Fall”), crazy old-fogey (“Talking World War III Blues”), serious current events (“Oxford Town”), waxing nostalgic (“Bob Dylan's Dream”), goofy throwaway (“Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance”), and the downright hilarious (“I Shall Be Free”). So I guess it's safe to say, no matter what sort of folk you like, Dylan has something for you. ...Except for British folk, but he left that up to good friends from across the Atlantic.
Well, I was thinking about being naughty and giving this album a 13, which would be easy for me to do since this isn't even a contender for my Top 5 favorite Bob Dylan albums list. (I guess I'm a sucker for electricity.) But I gave the matter some serious thought for about 15 seconds and decided that I couldn't deny this wonderful album its deserved 14. The greatness of these songs are just too staggering to ignore—not only are the melodies overwhelmingly wonderful, but these lyrics dazzle the hell out of me. And the thing about being dazzled by lyrics is especially amazing for me, since I'm the guy who would usually prefer rock singers do all their songs like “I Zimbra.”
Read the track reviews:
The Times They Are A-Changin' (1964)
Album Score: 9
This album is a hazard. Its title track is so beloved that people are going to be tempted to make it their first Bob Dylan purchase. Big mistake. If you want to start with his acoustic folk period, get the wildly entertaining The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan first. Don't even think about getting this album until you've already become a die-hard fan, and you're confident that nothing can phase you from it. Many people who get this album first will probably take one close listen to it, become frustrated with it, and exclaim: “I don't know what I'm supposed to see in this guy. He's so boring!” ...The reason I say that is because the same thing happened to me. This was the first Bob Dylan album I ever listened to (in Fall 2001), and I just couldn't connect with it. I figured it must've been the voice I wasn't used to.
Since that time, I've not only listened to all his albums, but I also saw him perform on stage (awesome). And I still have trouble connecting with this album. Especially when I compare it to The Freewheelin', which was released only seven months prior. That album was chock-full of melodies, humor and insight. It was diverse and a joy to listen to from beginning to end. The Times They Are A-Changin', on the other hand, is as stone-cold serious and downbeat as it could possibly get. And it's relentless, too. It's like a Dementor from Harry Potter came along and sucked out all of his joy and hope for the future.
As it turns out, it was the record company and his colleagues who coaxed him into doing this. Downbeat protest songs were a very popular form of music back then. I guess The Freewheelin' wasn't a proper folk album, because it was funny and imaginative. And to that, I say BAH! His fans and colleagues might have eagerly lapped it up in 1964, but it didn't stand the test of time. The exception to that is, obviously, the title track. (And I like “Boots of Spanish Leather” as well, but at best, that's considered one of his minor songs.)
Why do these lyrics have to be so boringly straightforward? Let me ask you a question: Who among you wants to hear about why murdering people because of the color of their skin is bad or about how chemical warfare will take the planet to Hell in a hand basket? All very important topics, mind you, but do any of you actually disagree with him? If you do, please do the human gene pool a favor and find a bridge to jump off of. And yet protest-folk fans used to love these sorts of songs. You know the phrase “preaching to the choir?” Protest-folk fans were the choir, and they demanded being preached to. I'm shrugging my shoulders.
In this album, Dylan also tells us stories of destitute families who can't provide for their families. “Boots of Spanish Leather” is about a sailor who goes off to sea and has to leave his love behind. These songs are more meaningful to me, but they're still quite depressing. I mean, this is wrist-slitting material.
Perhaps it wouldn't have been so bad if Dylan still used his melodic prowess. The title track is great in that regard of course, but the remainder of these songs are woefully weak. Usually, they're based on cliché blues and folk melodies, and they're lifeless. Furthermore, they have a tendency to just boringly repeat themselves for seven or eight verses. Yawn. Maybe Dylan's problem was that he was a real songwriter. Other protest-folk sensations at the time, such as Joan Baez, also presented their folk music in a serious-as-AIDS manner. But they usually didn't write her own songs, and so they had an excuse to put in a few captivating British folk songs and time-tested spirituals in their albums. Dylan, on the other hand, was a writer, and writers had to write. The people wanted boring protest songs? Well, here they are.
Fortunately, after this album's released, Dylan would just disregard things the record executives and fans were telling him and just go his own way. Obviously, it was for the best. Even though The Times They Are A-Changin' has a great title song that everybody knows by heart, this rest of the album lacks wit, insight, and imagination. I suppose that means it isn't very Dylan-esque at all.
Read the track reviews:
Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964)
Album Score: 13
That cranky old protest dude from The Times They Are A-Changin' is gone for good, and the likable guy from The Freewheelin' is back. You remember him, right? He writes catchy melodies and interesting lyrics with occasionally a humorous bent to them. However, not everyone in 1964 was quite so receptive to it; many members of the music press criticized Dylan for “losing touch” with his base. Of course his fans knew better, and this album's reputation only increased with time. (Let me ask you something: has the music press ever been good for anything other than giving you something to read while you're on the toilet?) Of course that wouldn't even come close to comparing with the firestorm the music press would give him upon the release of his next album... Whoah boy...
But let's talk about Another Side of Bob Dylan. That's not a very fitting title for this album, because this is pretty much a direct sequel to The Freewheelin'. It even has a song on it called “I Shall Be Free No. 10,” which continues the humorous string of tall-tales he brought us previously in “I Shall Be Free.” (What happened to parts two through nine? Will I hear these on the Bootleg releases perchance?) Dylan himself reportedly hated the album name, but I guess he decided it wasn't worth battling his manager.
At any rate, it's nice to hear the guy make another album chock full of classic songs. ...Oh, and you'd better believe me that these songs are classic. You can tell that just by reading the titles. “My Back Pages.” “Spanish Harlem Incident.” “All I Really Wanna Do.” “Chimes of Freedom.” ...You got it! Those are all Byrds songs! And here they are in their original incarnations. This album also has “It Ain't Me Babe” on it. It was never covered by The Byrds, because The Turtles beat them to it. ...Yeah, The Turtles ...those belly crawling, bog-dwelling, worm-chomping low-life bits of bumpy roadkill... (Er, wait! I like The Turtles, actually. I was talking about their managers.)
“My Back Pages” is superb. ...What else should I say about it? The melody is fantastic, and Dylan sings it such a stinging way that it pierces through to my heart. [Insert inappropriate Steve Irwin joke here.] And “Chimes of Freedom” is just as good for the same reasons. That song goes on for more than seven minutes and I wish it would go on for more. The lyrics of course are striking. ( “Far between sundown's finish an' midnight's broken toll / We ducked inside the doorway, thunder crashing / As majestic bells of bolts struck shadows in the sounds / Seeming to be the chimes of freedom flashing / Flashing for the warriors whose strength is not to fight / Flashing for the refugees on the unarmed road of flight / An' for each an' ev'ry underdog soldier in the night / An' we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.”) Listening to Dylan sing this kinda sounds larger than life.
Instrumentally, all these songs are as we knew them in The Freewheelin': It's simply an acoustic guitar, Dylan's voice, and the occasional harmonica. It's the final acoustic folk album he would ever release. The exception to that is “Black Crow Blues,” which is instrumented with a bluesy electric piano. I love the piano! However, the groove and melody are very generic for the blues, and I have a tendency to find “generic blues” a hard pill to swallow. But the way Dylan sings it boisterously makes it sound fresh, so I give it my thumbs up. “Motorpsycho Nightmare” shares the spotlight with “I Shall Be Free No. 10” as one of the album's hilarious songs. It starts the same as many dirty jokes I've heard as a teenager... You know... A young man's vehicle breaks down and he takes refuge in a nearby farm where he is asked not to touch the farmer's daughter...
I gotta tell you, despite my immense words of praise for this album, I was on the verge of giving this album a 12. As a whole, its songs don't strike me nearly as classic as those on The Freewheelin'... even some of the famous ones like “All I Really Want to Do” and “It Ain't Me Babe” don't seem to get me too excited. When it's all said and done, there are only two songs on here that really hit me over the head: “My Back Pages” and “Chimes of Freedom.” The latter of which is my pick for the album's best. This album also has the eight-minute “Ballad in Plain D” on it, which seems to go on forever without doing anything interesting. But no, it's a 13. This is a mightily solid album with at least two unequivocally great songs on it. It might not be as good as The Freewheelin', but it nonetheless earns its place as one of rock's finer classics.
Read the track reviews:
Bringing It All Back Home (1965)
Album Score: 14
I am a protest-folk fan and I WILL CUT YOU, BOB DYLAN!!!!!! ...That's what a lot of people said at the time of Bringing It All Back Home's release, but time has corrected such sentiment. What I say, and everyone else who isn't afraid of "herd mentality" says, is that Bob Dylan's first electric album is pretty darn awesome. However, this album isn't 100 percent electric; Dylan wasn't quite ready to go head-first into that realm. Half of this album is acoustic. Nonetheless, both sides represent Dylan very nearly at his peak as a songwriter and performer.
Dylan had an odd way of going about his “electric” sound—he and his session musicians pursued a sort of unkempt, foolhardy tone and texture to their work. The guitarists and keyboardists all go off at once, noodling about in an undisciplined manner. The effect of that is there can be a very thick haze around these songs. Oh, and many of them are totally rockin' too! I should've mention that earlier! Most of these electric songs can be classified as garage-rock, or even hard-blues. The downside of that is sometimes the riffs are generic and the melodies are recycled. Nonetheless, the way Dylan sings them and the band performs them are fresh and exciting.
Surely the highlight of the electric side is “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” which you'll probably recognize as the song that plays in that iconic music video in which Dylan is dropping down an armful of cue cards one-by-one. Dylan rattles the lyrics off the tip of his tongue in a talky manner, which has often made people wonder if that was a precursor to rap. (I have a strong feeling this isn't the first song to ever have talky vocals in them. I don't have any examples, but I would try to trace the thread further before making the Bob Dylan invented rap proclamation.) “Maggie's Farm” is a similar sort of song with thick and sloppily laid instrumentation, and it's almost as fun to listen to as well. I also really like listening to that gruff blues riff played in “Outlaw Blues.” It might not be original whatsoever, but it's something to tap your foot to! Another highlight of the electric side is “Love Minus Zero / No Limit,” which surely contains one of the prettiest melodies that Dylan has ever written.
“Bob Dylan's 115th Dream” is as good of a song as any to point out Dylan's new approach to lyrics. In previous albums, his lyrics were usually quite humorous and thoughtful. I also had very little difficulty figuring out what they were about when I read through them. In this album, on the other hand, he has adopted more surreal imagery—the meaning of many of these songs is hidden beneath a series of allusions. Some of them might even be plumb nonsensical. (“I went into a restaurant / Lookin' for the cook / I told them I was the editor / Of a famous etiquette book / The waitress he was handsome / He wore a powder blue cape / I ordered some suzette, I said / Could you please make that crepe / Just then the whole kitchen exploded / From boilin' fat / Food was flying everywhere / And I left without my hat”)
As good as the electric side was, the acoustic side is even better. (Many of these songs, I'm reading, he had already written by the time he was recording Another Side of Bob Dylan, and I guess there wasn't a huge reason to try to electrify them.) “Mr. Tambourine Man” is easily the most famous of the bunch; if you're unfamiliar with the Dylan version, then you should at least recognize The Byrds' version. Well, it's a fantastic song, of course—the melody is unquestionably one of the finest ever written in the history of rock 'n' roll, and the way Dylan sings its vivid lyrics cements its place in history. “It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)” is quite a bit darker but nonetheless strikingly memorable, and the lyrics are some of the most iconic he's ever written. (“Darkness at the break of noon / Shadows even the silver spoon / The handmade blade, the child's balloon / Eclipses both the sun and moon / To understand you know too soon / There is no sense in trying”) The final song is “It's All Over Now, Baby Blue,” and it's another one of those songs that hits me over the head when I listen to it. Dylan sings its mournful lyrics in a boisterous—almost screaming—manner. The melody might not have been turned into a great Byrds song (it was merely turned into a mediocre one), but this melody is actually quite hummable, and I really like it.
With all this in mind, it's clear that Dylan still had some room to improve on his electric sound. But rest assured, he would address that sooner rather than later! It's for that reason, I wouldn't quite call this my favorite Bob Dylan album. However, I might actually call this the best place to start with him, if you're looking to dip into his work for the first time. After all, half of it is acoustic and half of it is electric—you'd be experiencing both worlds at once!
Read the track reviews:
Highway 61 Revisited (1965)
Album Score: 15
After Bob Dylan shocked the world by going electric with one side Bringing it Back Home, be decided to up the ante and create an entire electric album. And you know what? He improved his songwriting, too. Considering that his songwriting was already world-class and pretty much single-handedly provided The Byrds with a career, that's a pretty amazing feat for him. Oh, and he tries on all sorts of things for this album. There's hard-blues, pop-rock, hard-rock, and one very long folk song.
So let's get to it! The song that nearly everybody knows by heart is “Like a Rolling Stone.” And man! No matter how many times I've heard it in my life, it never seems like it's enough. Dylan's vocal melody is catchy and he sings its cynical lyrics in a boisterous, youthful, and stinging way. (Stinging is the most important attribute to Dylan's vocal chords, all you peopleoids who don't think he's a very good singer.) The session musicians are also phenomenal; they keep the same unkempt, but rocking style of Bringing it All Back Home, and they're always good to listen to. “Like a Rolling Stone” in particular is characterized by a hammond organ riff that was improvised and performed by Al Kooper, who was new to the instrument. The legend is that Kooper hadn't much of an idea of what he was doing, but I don't want to change anything about what I'm hearing come through my speakers.
“Tombstone Blues” is completely awesome, because it rocks. Some even say it rocked harder than The Rolling Stones at the time, and I'm not inclined to disagree. That's one song I listen to, and I have to try to keep myself from getting up out of my chair and busting a move. It's a six-minute song, too, and that's a perfect length as far as I can tell; it never for a moment loses its momentum. “From a Buick 6” literally sounds like a Rolling Stones song from 1965, and holy avocado dip, these guys rocked. If you don't think that Bob Dylan could rock, then these songs are exhibits A through Z that you're dead wrong.
The session guitarist was Mike Bloomfield, and much of his stuff was phenomenal. If for whatever reason I want to divert my primary attention from Dylan's vocals or harmonica, I can listen to what Bloomfield is doing with his guitar. Probably my favorite Bloomfield moment in this album is that stinging guitar in the title track. Extremely, extremely cool. He would later team up with Al Kooper and make a couple of interesting albums with him. ...Well, what an inspired beginning those two had!
Considering I love to death every single one of these songs, I'm a little bit surprised that I can pick out clear highlights in this. “Ballad of a Thin Man” is the sort of song that reeks of classicness from top to bottom. It opens with probably the most menacing mid-tempo piano riff ever in rock 'n' roll, and then Dylan comes in with lyrics that are so cynical that they cut me open. (“Well, the sword swallower, he comes up / And then he kneels / He crosses himself / And then he clicks his high heels / And without further notice / He asks you how it feels / And he says, here is your throat back / Thanks for the loan / Because something is happening here / But you don't know what it is / Do you, Mr. Jones?”)
He closes the album with the 11-minute folk-rocker “Desolation Row.” If you don't think you can make it through an 11-minute folk-rock song, think again! I can sit through that song and never really notice the time go by. Not only is Dylan's melody interesting and the lyrics absorbing, but Charlie McCoy noodles around the whole thing with some of the most beautiful and acrobatic guitar lines imaginable. Without a doubt, it's one of the most captivating songs that he's ever done.
In a world's first for one of my reviews, I gave every single one of these songs an A+ in the track reviews. I looked in my Beatles and Rolling Stones reviews each of whom had some albums that came close but no cigar. Simply put, this is a great rock 'n' roll album. For years, I've considered this my favorite Bob Dylan album, and it looks like that distinction will remain unchanged. (However, that's always open for revision. I guess we'll see what happens when I review Blonde on Blonde next. I mean, I've listened to that album enough and I don't think I like that album more, but you never know. Man... Dylan has so many great albums under his belt, doesn't he?)
Read the track reviews:
Blonde on Blonde (1966)
Album Score: 15
This is another wholly classic Bob Dylan album. In keeping with tradition, I shall have another bout of insufferable fan-worship over it. I admit I get a bit bored always writing glowing reviews of classic albums that have been well-gushed-over for the last half-century. I almost wish I could write a negative review of it just so that I could see the sort of reaction I'd get... But how could I do such a thing? I love every single one of these songs as though they were each little pieces of my life. So, I guess I'll have to wait until I review popular Bob Seger releases to get those awesomely irate flame letters that I thirst after. (Here's a sneak preview: “Like a Rock?” ...No! “Like a Crock!!”) So let's talk about this Bob Dylan album. It's one of the best albums ever made in rock 'n' roll, and there's almost no arguing with that. I mean, you could try, but you would only be defeated.
It all starts with a rousing bout of “Rainy Day Woman #12 & 25,” which features a pounding 1-2 drum beat and a brass band that gives it an Americana flavor. That is a sound that would later provide inspiration to The Band, many members of whom were present for these sessions but can't actually be heard on any of these songs. Without a doubt, it is the most unusual song he had recorded so far in his career, and it's pure ear candy. For some reason, Dylan wanted us to hear a bunch of drunk people yelling and carrying on in the background. That, and the fact that it features some saloon-style piano, makes the song sound as though it were recorded in a saloon in the Wild West or something! ...Very, very cool.
Like Highway 61 Revisited before it, the instrumentalists adopt a loose and sloppy tone, which provides it invaluably a gritty and homemade texture. He also hadn't forgotten how to write an excellent tune. If there are still people out there with the impression that Dylan couldn't write a pretty melody, they should give a quick listen to “I Want You,” one of the finest pop songs I've ever heard. The vocal melody is great, but I like the breezy guitar riff even better! “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I'll Go Mine)” is another one of my favorites with its complicated marching beat, crunchy lead guitars, and a melody so vibrant and memorable that I get the urge to sing along with it. “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)” is a laid-back ballad with some of the most personal and heartfelt lyrics that I've ever heard out of Dylan.
There are also a fair amount of R&B derivatives on here, which Dylan was certainly no stranger to at this point in his career. While they're hardly original, he makes up for it with his fresh takes on them: Dylan's singing is vibrant and raucous as always, and the rhythm section is crunchy and driving. “Pledging My Time” is particularly good with its juicy, bluesy harmonica that chugs soulfully throughout. “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat,” on the other hand, I feel that I can be somewhat nitpicky against because of its off-puttingly high-pitched guitar... that is, until it's given the chance to give us some inspired licks midway through! “Obviously 5 Believers” is as good of a toe-tapper as anything. It might not be Dylan's finest tune, but it's enjoyable as hell.
Perhaps the most contentious song of the album is the 11-minute closer, “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.” You could throw the term “overwrought” at it, if you wish, and you would probably be correct. But for me, it's phenomenal. Dylan always seems to give me the impression that everything he sings is epic. That impression only increases exponentially the longer he makes his songs. It's like he's Homer, or something, except his lyrics aren't quite as straightforward. Melodically, it's a repetitive verses/chorus structure, but it has good hooks, and the gentle and earthly instrumentation helps make it especially easy to bask in. ...I've got to have one of the shortest attention spans of anyone I've bothered to learn about, and I can sit through that and hardly notice the time go by. There are other lengthy songs in here, and they're also excellent time-passers. “Visions of Johanna” is seven-and-a-half minutes long, and it's pushed along by a pleasantly light and laid back groove. “Stuck Inside the Memphis Blues” is of similar length, but it's faster paced and with an especially catchy melody.
I'll give you a warning that this is a pretty long album. According to Wikipedia, it's an importantly long album—it's the first significant double-album ever released in rock 'n' roll. (They managed to fit it all on one disc in the CD age, which is what I have of course.) However, I want to stress that this album isn't only worth hearing because people say it's important; it makes a fantastic listen. A lot of people call this Dylan's best album, and there's good reason for that. However, due to its length, I would not recommend this as the starting point for you in Bob Dylan's discography. Do make it one of your first five, however.
Read the track reviews:
John Wesley Harding (1967)
Album Score: 14
So, Bob Dylan as we had come to know him so far had effectively perished in a motorcycle accident on July 26, 1966, and for the next handful of years, he would be portrayed by Richard Gere. He withdrew from public, wrote some songs, and then … very quietly … released this short album in December 1967. It's completely unlike anything he'd ever released before. Whereas his previous albums were frequently complex and varied, John Wesley Harding contains only simple folk and country western ditties. Many people interpreted this move as a sort of antithesis against the overblown psychedelic movement. However, I don't believe Dylan himself said there was anything so pointed behind it.
Considering how revolutionary and involved albums like Blonde on Blonde and Highway 61 Revisited were, it would have been reasonable to suspect that such a different follow-up would have been met with pitchforks and torches by the press and audiences alike... But lo and behold, they all liked it! It even holds up today, having secured a spot on one of Rolling Stone Magazine's top 500 albums of all time. (You know your album has made it if it's in a Rolling Stone list.) But anyway, why shouldn't they love it? This is by far one of the most pleasant albums that I've ever listened to. Take it with you the next time you're in the mountains on a cool and breezy spring day, and see how closely it suits the atmosphere.
When I said that this album is simple, I most certainly meant it. Dylan plays his acoustic guitar in most these songs, and he strums it in the most basic way. It harkens back to his folk days, but this is still a vastly different album than those. And that's not just because there's a drummer and bassist who are ever-present on this album. Back then, he was a youth and a bit of a renegade. In this album, he is cool and calculated. It was like he had instantaneously transformed into a middle-aged man. (Is it really any wonder how the filmmakers of I'm Not There got the idea to have different actors portraying him at different stages of his life?)
The lyrics are by far the most straightforward that I've ever heard from him so far in his career; they're often pertaining to Wild West and Biblical themes. That of course doesn't mean that they aren't also frequently captivating. (“I dreamed I saw St. Augustine / Alive, with fiery breath / And I dreamed I was amongst the ones that put him to death / Oh I awake in anger, so alone and terrified / I put my fingers against the glass / And bowed my head and cried.”) Dylan sings that song's beautiful melody against its simple instrumental backdrop sounding as sincere as ever. ...Of course Dylan's voice is still torn, but as I made clear in my previous reviews, that quality is nothing less than an asset.
Despite the instrumentation being described simple, there are a number of moments here that blow me away. The drummer has the predilection of creating tight and crispy fills, which I want to eat up. The bassist also takes the opportunity a few interesting bass-lines whenever he is given the opportunity. Perhaps my favorite spot to hear the rhythm section go at it is in“As I Went Out One Morning.” Dylan also plays an unkempt harmonica on pretty much all of these songs, and he's great. He uses them to mimic the main melody, which is just about the best thing you can do with harmonicas in gentler folk and country songs. They are also by far the most unkempt touches aspect of this album, which injects a little bit of that Wild West grit in its soul.
“All Along the Watchtower” is easily the most well-known song here, and that's because of Jimi Hendrix (whose version, while tough for me to concede, actually improves it). It's a fantastic song, of course, and surely the best one of the album. While it might not be terribly iconic, “Dear Landlord” sticks out as being one of the more memorable; it's a desperate plea from a peasant to his landlord, and it's heartbreaking. “I Pity the Poor Immigrant” similarly sticks out; it's a narrative about immigrants who'd come to wish they never moved to America.
I might not like this album quite as much as his three previous ones, but it nevertheless remains one of my favorites of his. If you're new to Dylan's discography, I have an inkling that you'll have a similar reaction to it. Of course it won't hit you over the head like an album like Blonde on Blonde does, but it shows a different side to him. Here, he is a man who was no longer interested in causing music revolutions or increasing his mass appeal. Rather, he wanted to be who he was: A musician who writes songs. And, in my opinion, these songs are freaking awesome.
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Nashville Skyline (1969)
Album Score: 13
By the late '60s, Bob Dylan was reportedly fed up that everybody and their dogs and their fleas and the bubonic plague were calling him the voice of the generation. I mean, what had Dylan done, exactly, to earn him such distinction? During the peak of his popularity, he specialized in writing derivative blues and folk music and surreal lyrics. Big deal! That's hardly worthy of being dubbed with such a massive title. Or at least, Dylan didn't seem to think so.
When he set out to defy this role with the quiet release of John Wesley Harding, it proved to be too popular to deter his fanbase. Thus, he followed it up with Nashville Skyline, an album that's pure country music through and through. What does his fanbase think of country? I bet they hated it. He also sings on it in a rather bizarre, high-pitched country crooner's voice. I still remember the first time I put on this album, fresh from the music store, and I thought to myself “Who the hell is that?” For months, I thought he had hired a different singer. (I suppose this sudden change, at least, will give people who profess to disliking his Mr. Wheezebags voice a bit of a break.)
Well Dylan failed once again, because his fans really love this album, too. Can we blame them? Or, rather, can we blame ourselves? (I've never met anyone who dared said he/she didn't like Nashville Skyline. ...But then again, I don't meet many people these days who listen to anything other than The Dave Matthews Band.) I mean, who could ever possibly dislike an album with something like “Lay Lady Lay” on it, which is one of the dreamiest songs I've ever heard? I'm sure all of you know it by heart. It's characterized by that descending chord progression played with an light electric organ, a watery slide guitar, and woody percussion. The melody, delivered by his frankly beautiful (but still goofy) singing voice, is quite charming. Easily, that's a song that can be taken to heart—and it has by millions.
He was so much into country music that he managed to get a superstar of the genre, Johnny Cash, to duet with him in a remake of “Girl From the North Country,” which was originally from The Freewheelin'. (Could countrifying one of his classic songs have been the first step in shattering the illusion?) It sounds completely different than the original—though not necessarily better—but it's still a pleasure to sit through. The acoustic guitar playing is much simpler than in the original, and Dylan's and Cash's vocals don't quite hit me quite the same way, which was squarely in the chest.
“I Threw It All Away” is a beautiful country ballad, on the other hand, that does actually hit me in the chest. The lyrics are way simpler than what we've heard out of Dylan previously in his career, but they do come across as genuine to me. (“Love is all there is, it makes the world go 'round / Love and only love, it can't be denied / No matter what you think about it, you just won't be able to do without it / Take a tip from one who's tried.”) Dylan wisely closes the album with a song that captures my attention in particular, “Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You,” which surely has one of the most beautiful melodies that he'd ever written. Also it has some particularly nice slide guitar!
There are other songs in here that could conceivably be called “throwaway” by some listeners. However, as I sit through them, it's evident to me that Dylan was metaphysically incapable of writing an uninteresting song. The most easily dismissible song here is the country-hoedown instrumental “Nashville Skyline Rag.” But just listen to it and try not to enjoy hearing all those harmonica and guitar solos! ...Now's a pretty good time to mention that the instrumentation throughout this album is extremely high quality; the crunchy Americana flavor that's lent to all these songs makes it strongly reminiscent of The Band's 1969 eponymous album. Though it goes without saying these studio musicians aren't quite as dazzling as The Band... But of course that's a difficult feat to accomplish, and I still like the style.
Lastly, one of the big complaints I hear about this album is how short it is. Clocking in at a mere 27 minutes, that's almost half what his early folk albums were, which had tested the boundaries of what a single LP could hold. Since there are 10 songs on this album, that means—if my second grade math is correct—it's an average of 2.7 minutes per song. ...Yes, Nashville Skyline is the first Bob Dylan album that, I would say, contains ditties. But what fine ditties these are! Some of them are better than others, but this album surely contains enough moments to make it well worth its weight in gold. ...And I bought it for about $7.50 in 2003, which is a bargain.
Read the track reviews:
Self Portrait (1970)
Album Score: 12
According to Wikipedia, the king of every website, Bob Dylan's Self Portrait was named the third worst album of all time by Jimmy Guterman and Owen O'Donnell in a 1991 book. Unfortunately, there's one fatal flaw with such a theory: This album has only good songs on it! How is it possible for an album with a bunch of good songs on it to be considered the third worst of all time?
Alright, perhaps I can sympathize with people who have a distaste for this album. After all, all of Dylan's releases prior to this point had either been groundbreaking or—if not—at least had an interesting and cohesive concept behind it. Self Portrait, on the other hand, is so all-over-the-place that it's really quite bizarre. For some of these songs, he sings in his classic Mr. Wheezebags voice, and in others, he uses that nasally country-crooner voice that was left over from Nashville Skyline. (In one instance, his cover of Simon & Garfunkel's “The Boxer,” we hear both versions of his voice in a frankly hilarious duet.) Some tracks were taken from a poorly recorded live concert with The Band that shows Dylan forgetting some of his own lyrics. And probably the worst offense of them all is that most of these songs are covers. We want originals, dang it!
But why complain when so many of the covers are excellent? Probably the most-maligned cover of them all is Rodger's and Hart's “Blue Moon,” but it's that sort of random weirdness that is exactly what Self Portrait is most entertaining for. ...And are you really going to deny that Dylan does a nice job covering it? His vocals are sweet and earnest, the instrumentation is nicely done, the melody is pretty. ...I like it. ...Maybe I even love it?
This album is like going to a party at Bob Dylan's house and he gives us a bag full of random party favors. Some of the objects inside are treasurable while others you might care so little about that you'll just give them to your dog chew up in the backyard. Which songs you'll treasure and which songs you'll want to toss out were of little concern to Dylan. All the fun, really, is sorting through them and not knowing what you're going to pull out of the bag next. Most of the songs here are country-western covers, which makes this a nice companion piece to his previous album, Nashville Skyline. They're all well-chosen and a pleasure to listen to. “I Forgot More Than You'll Ever Know,” “Early Mornin' Rain,” “Let it Be Me,” “Belle Isle,” “Copper Kettle,” “Take Me As I Am,” and “Take a Message to Mary” all have pretty melody, homely instrumentation, and an earnest vocal performance from Dylan.
He seems to have an odd liking for female backup singers and full string sections in this album, which I'm sure that some fans found a touch pill to swallow. Surely, that comes across as overblown, but even then, they're well-used. The opening number, “All the Tired Horses,” is one of the most despised in that respect. It's one of the few Dylan originals on this album, but it only consists of tightly harmonized female singers who sing the same line of melody and lyric over and over again while a string section sweeps around all over the place. ...I think I can understand the dismay of a Bob Dylan fan putting the album on their turntable for the first time, fresh from the mint, thinking that perhaps the manufacturers accidentally mixed the LPs with something else... But aren't those strings pretty?
My favorite moment of the album is undoubtedly “Days of '49,” an old folk cover in which Dylan sounds awesomely like a hardened old cowpoke singing about the rough old days. What I particularly like about that song is not just the catchy melody, but that really deeply rumbling instrument I hear popping in for the chorus. I'm not too sure what it is, but it's got attitude. There are also plenty of enjoyable blues covers in here, one of the highlights being the trusty old blues standard “It Hurts Me too.”
In interviews Dylan said one motivation behind releasing this album was that much of his work was being bootlegged at the time, and this was an effort to curb it. He realizes that this album was never too well received, but he points out that if the material were restricted to the bootlegging circuit, it probably would have generated plenty of quiet buzz over the years. When it would have inevitably seen its release in the Bootleg Series, it would have been probably to some acclaim. ...But of course, isn't it more interesting to listen to album album that's supposedly one of the worst ever released only to discover that it's actually quite good? Self Portrait is a solid collection of songs. Surely, some songs are hits and others are misses, but the vast majority are hits.
Read the track reviews:
New Morning (1970)
Album Score: 12
The entire world must have breathed a sigh of relief when Bob Dylan released New Morning just four months after the release of his controversial double album Self Portrait. This is—for the lack of a better term—a normal record. It consists entirely of original material in which Dylan sings consistently interesting lyrics with his soul-piercing Mr. Wheezebags vocals. He was still coming off his songwriting peak in the mid-'60s, which you'll find evident in this album since all of its songs are well-written and make enjoyable listens. The only glaring thing that sets it apart from everything else in his discography is that most of these songs are piano based.
It opens with a song that you might recognize from George Harrison's post-Beatles solo debut, All Things Must Pass, “If Not For You.” Harrison's interpretation of it was far more atmospheric and contemplative whereas Dylan's version is faster paced and far more bubbly. I prefer the Harrison version by a hair because I like what Phil Spector's production added to the atmosphere. But of course both versions have a great melody, and, in my world, all songs with melodies that ingrain themselves in my head are automatically deemed “awesome.” The title track also does that, which is one of my favorite tunes of this disc, and it's also one of the few guitar based songs here. That could be one of the reasons it tends to have more of that enthusiastic drive than many of the others. However, you can't beat the breeziness that a piano can lend to a waltz, which is what you'll find in “Winterlude.”
This album also has its fair share of piano ballads, and as far as I'm concerned, they're all worth listening to. “Time Passes Slowly,” “Went to See the Gypsy,” and “Sign on the Window” are all top-notch songs. Although none of them are my favorite moments of this discs, which is interesting, because in my previous reviews, I have a habit of telling people that I generally love piano ballads more than anything. Oddly enough, I also have a habit of telling people I'm not much of a fan of blues music, but the only straight R&B song on this album, “One More Weekend,” floats my boat so much that it's hovering above the water. ...I suppose as the only R&B song here, it lends to the “diversity” factor.
An easy culprit for “worst song of the album” is the closer, “Father of Night,” but I'd be lying if I said the song doesn't make an impression on me. It's slightly more than one minute long and contains weird, moaning female back-up singers and a piano that seems more bubbly than it should be. ...Yup, you read that right—there are female back-up singers in this album. They're not only in that track, but that's the only instance when I'd describe them as “weird” (as opposed to Self Portrait where they were almost exclusively “weird”). In “The Man in Me,” the back-up singers are brilliantly uplifting forces that well up in strategic times in the background. I really love that song, too, and that's not just because The Coen Brothers made perfect use of it in The Big Lebowski. Its melody is memorable and Dylan's lead vocals are as boisterous as ever.
Perhaps the weirdest song of the lot is “If Dogs Run Free,” which is a tongue-in-cheek take on beatnik music from the '50s. It consists of Dylan talk-singing amidst some “artful” and jazzy ivory tickling and a thumpy bass guitar. In the background there's a female scat singer acting more or less independently to what Dylan is doing. It comes off as a bit goofy, but I find it entertaining. And anyway, I'd imagine that it is pretty good for beatnik music... as little as I'm able to properly judge such things. Another song that Dylan talk-sings through is “Three Angels,” which is like something I'd expect to hear on a corny televangelist program. It features a descending chord progression played by an airy electric organ before a “heavenly” choir pipes up at the end. ...That's also a good spot to mention that Dylan's lyrics had been getting increasingly religious at this point in his career. He went full-force into a Born Again Christian phase in the late '70s, but as you'll see quite strongly hear (and more faintly in his previous albums), the lead-up to that point was quite gradual.
I've got to say that even though this record is a far more “consistent” and more Dylan-characteristic than Self Portrait, sifting through this short album filled with more or less plain piano ballads almost seems boring in comparison! The novelty value of that album was endless, and this one is serious. But of course, this is an excellent album and a must-have for every moderate-to-hardcore Dylan-phile. I wouldn't call this one of the more shimmering moments of his career, but it proves that his songwriting standard continued to be strong as he went forth into the early '70s.
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Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973)
Album Score: 11
It's for good reason that Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid was never considered a quintessential Bob Dylan album. That reason, of course, is because it's a soundtrack, and it's filled mostly with instrumentals. As is the nature with many soundtrack albums, its pieces weren't designed to be listened to but rather listened with. Nevertheless, surprisingly, this album provides plenty of moments that are well worth their weight in gold. (Or perhaps that's not so surprising, since Bob Dylan was still riding high on his awesome streak.)
The most obviously weighty song of this album is “Knockin' on Heaven's Door,” which I'm sure even the most modest rock 'n' roll fan knows by heart. It's so notable that I'm sure many people think of Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid only as *that* album with the country-western classic “Knockin' on Heaven's Door” on it. (That impression is intensified by the fact that it's one of only two songs here... The other song, “Billy” gets repeated a few times.) But there's a great reason that people only remember this album for “Knockin' on Heaven's Door;” its atmosphere is heavenly and the melody is the sort of thing that sticks with me the first time I heard it. Surely, any country-western superstar would readily give his left foot for such a song, and many of them have made cover versions of it.
However, I won't lie to you and pretend that this is the most fascinating album that ever lived. Many of these tracks are long and sparse instrumentals that are played by a simple acoustic guitar that frankly contain little to keep my from mind wandering away... But maybe these tracks are supposed to make our minds wander? Where they take my mind is to the fresh-aired Wild West where I'm touring the countryside on a trotting horse. I've never seen the movie, but they couldn't possibly be for scenes other than that. These tracks are usually sweet, gritty, and surprisingly atmospheric in spite of its sparseness.
It might strike some as a bit disconcerting that the famous song on here is only two and a half minutes. But at least Dylan supplements this album with a five-and-a-half minute instrumental variation of it called “Final Theme.” The atmosphere isn't quite as thick, but it's nonetheless beautiful. The star of that show is a pan-flute solo, of all things. (Who would have thought to hear a pan flute in a Bob Dylan album?) It seems to hit all the right notes at just the perfect times.
“Billy” is the main theme of the movie, however, as it takes up four of these tracks. (They're all very different variations of it, so I hardly grow tired of it!) Perhaps that musical idea wasn't Dylan's best, but it's a breezy and enchanting. An extended, strictly acoustic rendition of it called “Main Title Theme (Billy)” opens the album with a couple of laid-back guitars strumming along with a jangly tambourine. “Billy 1” starts as a more involved instrumental with more emboldened acoustic guitars and a gritty harmonica that ends with some singing. “Billy 4” is an even rawer sung version of it with extended lyrics. “Billy 7” is slowed down considerably as though it were an afterthought.
There are other instrumental tracks here that aren't rehashes of earlier themes, most notably “Turkey Chase.” Even if you haven't heard the piece before, you probably know what it's like just based on the song title. There's some bluegrass banjo pickin', a nimble hoedown fiddle playing around, and a bass guitar doing the standard 1-2/1-2 pattern. ...And it's really good. He's hardly breaking new ground with it, but he is using a non-obvious chord progression, which exactly what keeps it on its toes. There's also “Cantina Theme (Workin' for the Law),” “Bunkhouse Theme,” and “River Theme,” which are all very nice albeit nothing to jump and shout over. ...It's one of the byproducts of being a movie soundtrack, I guess!
I suppose I should also mention somewhere that Bob Dylan also had a small role in the movie and it was directed by Sam Peckinpah. I suspect I won't go forever in my life without seeing the movie, but I at least know the soundtrack album pretty well. It might not stand up too well compared to all the great albums that surrounds this release in Dylan's discography. That's the best that can come from a movie soundtrack! However, even as a soundtrack album, this is a must for his fans. It's another bit of evidence that Bob Dylan could do anything that he set his mind to in the '60s and '70s.
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Album Score: 10
So this album consists of songs rejected for New Morning and Self Portrait, the latter of which as we all know to be one of the most under-celebrated albums of all time. This is also famously known as the album that Columbia released after Bob Dylan unceremoniously dumped them, because they apparently wanted to ward off sales for his upcoming album Planet Waves with the new label. Even if this conspiracy theory is true, by far the biggest disservice Columbia did to Dylan's discography was coming up that ridiculously lazy album title! I mean, stop being such suits and exercise just a little bit of creativity! ...The cover art is OK, though. They probably had to pay some art-school graduate big bucks for that one.
I have no idea what Dylan ever thought of the release of this record. But I, who am the center of the universe, loved that Columbia released this. I mean, why should I have been robbed the opportunity of getting to hear these songs? And I don't want to hear them in one of those lame Bootleg compilations. No sir! I want to hear them on a mainstream release! And any hardened Dylan fan—and I mean one of the real fans who would celebrate an album like Self Portrait—I'm gonna have to say that Dylan is pretty much essential listening. (And now I bet some of you are wondering if I'm just going to praise everything this guy has ever done and leave it at that... Oh I'm going to have plenty of time to not praise everything he's ever done as soon as the '80s rolls around.)
One huge similarity this album has with Self Portrait is that most of these songs are covers, many of which it seems almost surreal that he would perform. There is one original on here (“Sarah Jane”), but unfortunately it ain't exactly the great shakes. I listened to that song quite a few times this week... It's sort of fun while it's playing, because it's tuneful and upbeat, but unfortunately, it just doesn't stick with me. Fortunately, some of the covers make up for that shortcoming. “Lily of the West,” the opener, could have been included on Self Portrait and moreover be considered one of that album's purest highlights. The old melody (by an old timey composer named “Traditional”) is catchy. The instrumentation is upbeat and bubbly, and an especially great touch is that rapidly played harpsichord (or whatever that instrument is) that seems to go out of whack throughout the whole song.
The only thing weirder than hearing Bob Dylan sing “Can't Help Falling in Love” was hearing him sing “Blue Moon” from Self Portrait. But hey! If you liked it when Elvis sang it (and I don't know why you wouldn't), then why wouldn't you also like Dylan's take on it? It sounds like a perfectly earnest and sincere interpretation of it. His wheezy Dylan vocals sound quite nice amidst those loose acoustic guitars, watery electric organ, and those pretty female back-up singers. Another excellent idea for a cover was one of Jerry Jeff Walker's lovely country/folk tune “Mr. Bojangles.” Dylan doesn't really add anything to the song, but it is nevertheless comes off as sincere.
Another song that he probably didn't need to cover, but he did anyway, was Joni Mitchell's Big Yellow Taxi. It's much looser and sloppier than the original, but it's nonetheless a good interpretation of an excellent song. I mean, I enjoy listening to it. What else is there? ...But one song that I'd argue is a massive improvement over the original is Bill Trader's “A Fool Such as I” (another song that's probably best known to be performed by Elvis). This version is a completely rollicking folk-rock with a cluster of pretty acoustic, electric guitars, and an involved drum rhythm. Dylan's singing in his country-crooner voice, and I'd argue that it's one of better performances he'd ever given with that voice.
A song I officially don't care about is “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” where Dylan pretty much just talks to a very loosely played piano—it is boring and seems to go on forever. Not as bad but still pretty lame is “Spanish is the Loving Tongue,” which features a long-drawn-out beginning before a dead-fish tango rhythm pops up in the second half. I don't even like the melody that much.
But anyway when it's all said and done, I like most of these songs, which is pretty good for an album that's supposed to be worse than the worst album ever made: Self Portrait. Unfortunately, time wasn't kind to this release as it had never gotten a proper CD release. You can buy it digitally, if you feel like it, but if you want a nice, shiny CD then I'm afraid you're out of luck.
Read the track reviews:
Planet Waves (1974)
Album Score: 11
Oh man! I can imagine what a Bob Dylan fan must've been thinking in the early '70s. Up until he released Planet Waves in 1974, there had only been one “normal” Dylan album that entire decade. That was 1970's New Morning. His other three albums were two weird covers albums and a soundtrack album. But these fans needn't have lost faith! A comeback was inevitable! And here it was, in 1974, when Bob Dylan started being normal again. Moreover, he recruited The Band to play with him, and—as I'm sure we all realize by now—The Band positively ruled. Granted, they were well past their peaks by 1974, but as far as instrumental ability goes, there were few better than these guys.
But why aren't these songs thrilling the pants off of me? As a Bob Dylan fanboy, shouldn't I be gushing over these things? Yes, this album has a handful of gush-worthy bona fide classics on it, but unfortunately it's not loaded with them. The best song on the album is surely “Forever Young,” which is still widely loved to this day to the point that it's the theme song of a TV show that's currently in production called Parenthood. Its lyrics are simplistic but they sort of hit me squarely in the chest. The melody is soaring and memorable while Dylan's tattered vocals seem precisely suited for it. I'm not sure why he did this, but he recorded that song twice on this album and put them back-to-back. The first one is the best one—the atmospheric and contemplative ballad. However, the second one (still good!) is upbeat and dancey.
I also love the song that opens the album, “On a Night Like This.” Again, Dylan seemed to have long passed by his days of putting complex poetry in his lyrics, but these are quite elegant. (“On a night like this / So glad you came around / Hold on to me so tight / And heat up some coffee grounds / We got so much to talk about / And so much to reminisce / It sure is right / On a night like this.”) But you don't have to pay attention to the lyrics, if you don't want to, because the instrumentation is snappy and the melody is catchy.
The Band's Robbie Robertson—a fine lead guitarist if there ever was one—takes plenty of moments to rock out in here. One of his highlights is the acrobatic performance throughout “Going, Going Gone.” Of course, the power of a good lead guitarist is that he provides a layer of ornamentation that you'll probably only start to really get to know maybe the fifth or sixth time you listen to a song. Another one of my favorite songs of this disc is the sweet and absorbing ballad “Hazel.” I might not go so far as to say that it has a melody that lingers on with me long after the album is through playing, but I find it wholesome and heartwarming. It's a bit like eating a bowl of hot soup after being outside in the snow all day.
There are some unfortunately weak bits toward the end of the album. Notably “Dirge,” which has got to be one of the most boring and tuneless songs that Dylan has ever done. You would think that The Band would have livened it up with some dazzling instrumentation, but that woefully choppy piano nearly ruined it for me. Blah. “You Angel You” is at least more listenable, but I don't find it to be anymore interesting than anything I'd hear on an average Peter Frampton album. Even that guitar sounds like Peter Frampton. Say it ain't so!
“Never Say Goodbye” is a better upbeat song, but I won't claim that there are a whole lot of things it does to keep my yawns suppressed! And what's perhaps the biggest disappointment of them all is “Wedding Song” in which Dylan sings merely with an acoustic guitar and harmonica. ...For sure—he started his career doing that—but he sure as hell didn't write boring melodies and amateurish lyrics like that back in those days.
Because this album had such a disappointingly weak ending, I was tempted to give it a 10. However, upon the power of “Forever Young,” “On a Night Like This,” “Hazel,” and “Going, Going, Gone” giving a 10 to such a record seemed too low. Thus, it became an 11. ...Now, when this album was released, it was critically acclaimed. I think the critics at the time were just excited that Dylan was writing normal songs again for a change, after a four year absence from it. ...Heck, if I was around in 1974, I'd be pretty excited about this, also. But, as I'm looking on these records as historical artifacts, I think Planet Waves ultimately stands as a slight disappointment.
Read the track reviews:
Before the Flood (1974)
Album Score: 11
Here's the thing about this live album: You're going to have to not care so much that Bob Dylan apparently didn’t give a damn about how he sounded. He pretty much goes through his Greatest Hits playlist singing off key and making these weird howling noises throughout. For example, instead of singing the usual snarling “Do you... Mr. Jones” line in his classic song “Ballad of a Thin Man,” he screams in his microphone “Do you... MR. JONNNNESSSSSS!!!!!”. Instead of “She takes just like a woman,” it's “She takes just like a WOMANNNNNN!!!” Instead of “It's alright ma,” it's “It's alright MAAAAAAAA!!!!!” His rendition of “Blowing in the Wind” sounds a bit like a Christopher Walken impersonation. “How many times MUST!!! a cannonball fly / Beforeee they are FORever banned?”
His back-up band were The Band—who in the late '60s and early '70s had the reputation of one of the finest live performing acts ever—a statement that was captured as a fact for those of us who were privileged enough to listen to Rock of Ages. Here, they are responsible for quite a few dust-rustling moments—but they do come off nearly as sloppy as Dylan's singing does. I'll give these guys points for making songs that are nothing like their studio originals... but at the same time, what were they adding? ...Well the audience certainly seemed to be enjoying it! They were probably just feeling ecstatic to being able to see Bob Dylan live on the stage, this being his first major tour since the '60s.
Dylan pretty much fills this album up with songs I'm sure the audience wanted to hear most from him. The plays “All Along the Watchtower,” “Highway 61 Revisited,” “Knockin' on Heaven's Door,” and “Lay Lady Lay” (but a particularly awful rendition of it!). Easily, Dylan's more digestible butcher-cuts are of songs that were already kind of messy to begin with. That's why I tend to like “Rainy Day Woman #12 and 13” and “Like a Rolling Stone” more than the others. Slopping up sloppy songs results in sloppy songs! I believe that's in the Second Law of Thermodynamics.
As long as they had The Band with them, who had a handful of massive classics in their own right, they had might as well sing some of their own hits as well. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is undoubtedly one of the great country-rock songs ever written... which is a statement that you can take to the bank, because I never heard Lynyrd Skynyrd do anything as good as that. (That's what I like to call the Lynyrd Skynyrd standard.) The Band's singers try their hardest to match the sloppy/howly quality of Dylan, but they don't even come close. ...If anyone's a master at mucking up his own songs, it must be Bob Dylan.
“The Weight” is surely one of the highlights not only of the Band's setlist but of the entire album. It proves that these guys could still kick up a dust-storm playing it. Of course, this'll go down in history as one of the worst live renditions of it ever, but I still like hearing them play it. They also perform “Up on Cripple Creek” (yay!), “Stage Fright” (meh.), and “Endless Highway” (eh?). One particularly great song they performed, from their debut album, was “I Shall Be Released,” which was originally penned by Dylan. Now, why couldn't Dylan have come out and sing it with them?
One of the more—I suppose—historically interesting moments of the album is when Dylan gets a sizable cheer from singing the line “But even the president of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked.” At first it confused me why he was getting a cheer from that—I mean, who wants to see a naked prez? But then I remembered from that one time I was in history class in high school that 1974 was when that whole Watergate thing was escalating. And who goes to Bob Dylan concerts if not disillusioned youth? ...But I'll tell them that they should stop their whining, because they'll all turn into yuppies by the mid-'80s. I mean, if somebody came by and told me that padded shoulders and sculpted hair-dos were in my near future, then I'd feel just a little bit better about having an unethical president.
Despite the flagrant sloppiness, I still find myself enjoying this listen. I can surely think of much worse things to listen to than 21 tracks worth of a bunch of drugged-out rock stars taking craps on their golden back catalog. I certainly wouldn't call this an ideal Bob Dylan (or Band) live album by any means. For that, you might have to turn to something in the Bootleg Series (for Dylan) or Rock of Ages (for The Band). I definitely wouldn't buy this unless you're a die-hard fan of either of them.
Read the track reviews:
Blood on the Tracks (1975)
Album Score: 13
Holy moly! Do you know what this sounds like? A classic Bob Dylan record! That is, I don't hear any of that country-croony stuff, tossed off covers, weird female back-up singers, or a single one of those coke-heads from The Band. This is Bob Dylan doing what Bob Dylan has always done best: singing in his Mr. Wheeze-bag vocals with instrumentation that can only be described as tasteful. The tunes are pretty catchy, too.
The sheer goodness of Blood on the Tracks shocked the music listening public and press so much that it was not only hailed as his much awaited return-to-form at the time, but his best album ever. That reputation continues to hold to this day. ...Surely, this is an excellent record and fully deserving of a high reputation, but is it better than The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, Bringing it All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, or Blonde on Blonde? ...You're dreaming!
But on the other hand, I think I know why people like this record so much. First of all, this is fairly mellow, which should appeal to those who think his '60s records were either too sloppy or too folky. Furthermore, these lyrics are startlingly personal. Dylan was apparently going through some rough times in 1974 and 1975 (most prominently a divorce), and it sounds like he was letting quite a few things off his chest throughout this album.
But what am I doing talking about lyrics? As I've said on a number of occasions, I'm not a lyrics-guy. Melodies are Reason #1 I think Blood on the Tracks pales compared to Dylan's classic '60s albums. I mean, can you honestly tell me any of these melodies come close to matching the immortality of songs like “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Blowin' in the Wind,” etc., etc., etc.? I doubt it!
...However, I really like “Simple Twist of Fate!” The melody is simple, but it's a thing of pure beauty! Dylan strums his acoustic guitar ever-so-gently as he sings those very touching lyrics more passionately than he sang anything ever since Blonde on Blonde. (“A saxophone someplace far off played / As she was walking on by the arcade / As the light bust through the beat up shade / Where he was waking up / She dropped a coin into the cup of a blind man at the gate / And forgot about a simple twist of fate.) “Tangled Up in Blue,” the album opener, is another excellent song. Those acoustic textures are sweet and gentle, and the subdued drumming helps keep the song going at a crunchy pace.
“You're a Big Girl Now” is a ballad, and the relatively unkempt acoustic guitars and pianos create a feathery texture. It's a bit sloppy but a far cry from the wildly unkempt textures he offered in Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde. “Idiot Wind” is surprisingly angry, as he bitterly sings about someone or some people who have done him wrong. (“I can't feel you anymore, I can't even touch the books you've read / Every time I crawl past your door, I been wishin' I been somebody else instead / Down the highway, down the tracks, down the road to ecstasy / I followed you beneath the stars, hounded by your memory / And all your ragin' glory.”) ...Funny, I might not have gone through a break-up in my recent past, but this is strangely reminiscent of how I felt in the aftermath of my being subjected to that evil-drunken-Canadian-roommate that I once had. ...Geez. I just noticed it was exactly two years ago to this date I had moved out of there...
On the downside, this album does have a song like “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts” on it, which is a nine-minute country-western song with a melody as generic as it could possibly get. ...I still like it, but that alone means that this entire album can—in no way—come close to being his best of all time. Another relative downer is a blues song “Meet Me in the Morning,” which I like, but it sort of passes underneath the radar whenever I listen to this record. “Buckets of Rain” is a pleasant folk ballad, but it's ultimately an underwhelming closer.
Even though I might not think this is Dylan's best album, it's surely an excellent one and a must for anyone who wants to own his records. This might even be one of the better places to start with him, since this is one of his more easily digestible records. As I said earlier in this review, it's not slop-rocky and it's also not too folky... There might not be a whole lot of “immortal” song on here, but this is a solid batch of Bob Dylan songs.
Read the track reviews:
The Basement Tapes (1975)
Album Score: 11
So it was in July 1966 that Bob Dylan got in a motorcycle crash and was seriously injured—it was a notorious event that took him out of the public forum and into complete seclusion. While he was in seclusion, he seemed to lose interest in his latest role as a rock 'n' roll superstar. Instead, all he wanted to do was kick back and record a bunch of songs in secret with The Band in a house in Woodstock, N.Y. called The Big Pink. In total, they recorded more than 100 of them, but you'll only find 24 on this release.
Most the songs that can't be heard here were later picked up in the first release of The Bootleg Series in 1991. But here—anyway—is his first ever Bootleg release! Dylan reportedly didn't want it released at all, but it's not a huge surprise why they did it. Ever since these songs' pressings in 1967, they'd become a hot commodity in the bootleg underworld. Some of these songs had even grown famous over the years despite them never having been officially released—many of which been covered by different artists. (Can we chalk it up to irony that one of the songs that didn't make it on this compilation is the original version of “I Shall Be Released?” Well, I guess it eventually got its wish in 1991.)
“This Wheel's On Fire” is probably the most famous of them—it wasn't only covered by The Byrds (didn't they cover everything?), but it was also covered by Julie Driscoll whose version became the theme song of Absolutely Fabulous. (I have to bring that up every time I hear the song! Well... wasn't that a great show?) But anyway, here it is in its original incarnation: You'll find Bob Dylan singing in his smokey voice amidst a heavily pounded piano and a marching drum beat. The Band joins in for the chorus, which makes the song seem especially MANLY. (I know that the actual members of The Band were quite scrawny, but whenever I hear them sing in their early albums, it usually sounds to me like they're ready to go chop wood or bale hay, or something MANLY. ...Way to go, Martin Scorsese, for ruining my image of them by showing the world their scrawniness to us in such crispy color...)
The recording quality for that song—and all of these other ones—are hardly pristine, which isn't a surprise for recordings that weren't actually meant to be released. However, doesn't that roughness lend an atmosphere to them? Most of these songs are husky R&B, slow hard blues, or country-western. The rough recording quality seems to give them all an attractive, oaky haze.
By the way, I really like The Band. In many ways, I think they outshine Dylan himself throughout this record. Although it's been said that Robbie Robertson did that on purpose by improperly inserting some of The Band's early demos in here that Bob Dylan had nothing to do with just to make them sound better. Most of those songs are quite good, but why the deception? (It's a deception that's been so good over the years that it fooled me! ...Not that it's difficult to fool me.) But anyway, many of the songs in here that were written by The Band you'll also find included as bonus tracks in CD reissues.
There are 24 songs on these two discs (which doesn't even last 80 minutes), and I've only talked about ONE song so far. And if I didn't like that British TV show, I might not have spent so much time talking about it at all! In fact, there's an even more widely loved song on here, and that is “Tears of Rage.” The Band rerecorded it for themselves and let it open their debut album. But here is the original version! And that's Dylan you'll hear singing it, who gives us a remarkably heart-wrenching performance. Another Dylan song I really enjoy is a country-western ballad “Nothing Was Delivered,” which is probably more famous for The Byrds' take on Sweetheart of the Rodeo. But please join hands with me and agree that this original version is MILLLLLESSSSS better!
Well feel free to sift through the track reviews at your leisure, but I do believe I covered all the basics up here. Since this is an album that was never meant for wide public consumption, the only people who need to own this are Bob Dylan fans. ...or Band fans, but are there really any Band fans out there who don't like Bob Dylan? I will issue a warning that this is an uneven album. Seven years ago, when I reviewed Bob Dylan's discography for the first time and also a newbie to rock music, I completely skipped over this release. However, if I know my 21-year-old self as much as I think I do, I'm positive I would have hated this. The Basement Tapes is just for freaks. And if you like it, I congratulate you! You might even like it more than I do, since all I could do was muster up a “respectable” 11.
Read the track reviews:
Album Score: 13
Wow, this is a unique specimen! Have you heard anything quite like it? It shows Bob Dylan performing lengthy story-songs with a pop flavor to them. But there's one thing that pops out at every listener the first time they put on this album: There's someone noodling around with a very fluid-like fiddle throughout all these songs. And I mean, this fiddle sounds positively golden. Story is that he met this violinist, Scarlet Rivera, by happenstance. Maybe Nora Ephron should make a movie about that? John Williams could write a bouncy musical score for it!
Though there is a lot of controversy surrounding this album, which probably explains why this became one of his best-selling albums of all-time. (It reached Double Platinum, a feat not even shared by Highway 61 Revisited.) It contains a protest-song about the imprisonment of boxer Rubin Carter who was accused of murder and was serving a life sentence. Dylan very bluntly tells us in the song that Carter was innocent and the people who put him in jail were racists. Whether or not Carter was actually innocent (I don't even know), this song ended up drumming up a lot of support for Carter, and that eventually escalated into his release from prison in 1985. Perhaps this is one of the few examples in the world a protest song can claim to have done something! But who cares about the lyrics when the melody is catchy as hell? It's even upbeat in spite of the lyrics. Of course it's hard to ignore lyrics in a Bob Dylan album, but if you just feel like dancing to something, he created quite an infectious groove. If this doesn't make your toe-tap, then nothing will.
Maybe a bigger point of controversy among Bob Dylan fans is the fact that he actually collaborated with someone on these songs by the name of Jacques Levy, who mainly helped write the lyrics. That seems a little bit like Billy Joel helping Paul McCartney out with melodies, but whatever. If there's one thing true about Dylan throughout his career, it's that he did whatever the hell he felt like. This one's just another example of that. This partnership could also explain a song like “Mozambique” with lyrics that sound like it was taken from a cheeky tourism video. (I did read the country went into civil war shortly after this album was released... might they have been being facetious?) But wow! I love that song! The melody is pure POP in a way I've never heard him do before.
Speaking of places in the world other than the USA, Dylan kind of takes us all over the world in this album. There's a Mexican folk-ballad in here called “Durango.” It sounds authentic to my ears—to the point that the melody isn't really original—but Dylan delivers it with such conviction in his voice that it's pure win from beginning to end. “One More Cup of Coffee” is one of the album's pure highlights and has a bit of a Middle-Eastern flavor in Dylan's bendy vocal performance and some really good Gypsy-style violin from Rivera. “Black Diamond Bay” is an atmospheric ballad that's about tourists in a far-off locale who get killed by a volcano. (Ouch! ...Come to think of it, I live nearby a bunch of volcanoes...)
Even more controversial than “Hurricane” was “Joey,” which is an 11-minute song about gangster Joey Gallo. It doesn't purport that Gallo was innocent, but it depicts him as a gangster with a heart. (I mean, most people could understand why Dylan would write a song like “Hurricane,” but this song sympathetic to Joey Gallo, I don't think anyone understood. I hear Emmylou Harris singing back-up vocals in the chorus of that song... Wasn't she gonna say something about this goofy subject matter?)
There are two songs on here about Dylan's own life, specifically his pending divorce with his wife Sara. Well, “Isis” isn't about Sara directly but most people consider it a metaphor. And then there's the closing song called “Sara,” which just as the name suggests, is about as direct as possible. Finally, I think it's important to mention that this traditionally marks *THE END* of Bob Dylan's run of consistently amazing albums that started in 1962. After the release of 1978's Street Legal, it was pretty clear that Dylan had started to go down that woeful road of mediocrity that many artists—no matter how powerful they once were—eventually find themselves heading down. Certainly those 14 years he'd taken to release such a wonderful string of albums are unparalleled, and I would recommend for everyone to take some time to soak them all up. Of course, I'm still going to review the remainder of his discography (which I'm not even halfway finished with at the moment), but my glowing reviews of his albums are going to be few and far between after this point!
Read the track reviews:
Hard Rain (1976)
Holy bazollies, another live album? It had only been two years previous to this when he released Before the Flood. I guess considering that was the man's first live album, he figured he had a lot of making up to do. This is also kind of a de facto soundtrack of a live concert that aired on NBC.
But is this album any good? Reportedly, the recording was taken toward the end of their tour, and they were worn out. A bootleg released in 2002 called Live 1975 was recorded earlier in the tour and apparently shows them in a more robust condition. ...I'll get around to reviewing that. At any rate, Dylan's treatment of his own material is assuredly more normal than it was on Before the Flood; however, he still isn't afraid to slop things up left and right. The main difference between this live album and the previous is The Band wasn't there to encourage the sloppiness.
Sloppiness isn't necessarily a bad thing, though. The brash energy that they emit in these performances is kind of infectious. It begins with “Maggie's Farm,” which unleashes a scream-singing vocal performance, danceable drum beat, raw female back-up singers, and tiny bursts of electric guitar flurries. It's not at all what the original sounded like, but can I really say 'no' to it? No I can't! “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” is another massive classic that was clearly a good choice for the slop treatment; its charges through its six-minute length like a steam-engine as Dylan bellows its catchy melody at the top of his lungs.
I faintly hear audience members begging for Dylan to play “Lay Lady Lay,” which was when he played “Oh, Sister.” That's a slower paced song, and I'm not quite so enticed with its slop there, and it gets cluttered. After that he gets around to playing “Lay Lady Lay,” and they nearly destroyed it. The original was dreamy, but here, it's obnoxious, and Dylan's ugly scream-singing did it no favors. Similarly, “I Thew It All Away” was originally a beautiful ballad from Nashville Skyline, but here it's been torn to shreds. On the bright side, “One Too Many Mornings” resurfaces from The Times They Are A-Changin' and it fares relatively well with the rude treatment.
I also like the rough 'n' raw rendition of “Idiot Wind” here, which closes the album, but you'd have to be an idiot peeing into the wind if you think that it in any way matches the brilliant studio version from Blood on the Tracks. But, of course, the song was great to begin with, and it's very difficult to screw it up. “Shelter From the Storm” has the fuzz-guitar turned up quite high (which is in stark contrast to its acoustic-only studio counterpart); however, that lends it extra energy, and, of course, I enjoy the melody.
So, in the end, this is a good album because the songs on it are good. Moreover, this is Bob Dylan before he reached his Born-Again phase, which means that he was only singing his peak material here. This is definitely a for-fans-only release, but I'd imagine most of them will enjoy what Dylan has to offer here. I know I do! 11/15
Street Legal (1978)
The worst thing I can say about Street Legal is that most of its songs seem to go on for too long. The opening track, “Changing of the Guards,” for instance, last seven minutes while only giving us a marginally hooky melody and its backing band that sounds like fairly ordinary bar-rock. I enjoy it fully for about three minutes, but after that, I'm wondering why he's staying with it. Sure, he's done lengthy songs like this in the past (such as “Hurricane” from his previous album), but they've never been this uninteresting. “New Pony,” a slow blues, only lasts about four minutes, and it's OK, but I'm ready for it to end by one and a half. Dylan used to make blues music with such verve. Like him and the blues were fine, feathered friends. While that song is hardly terrible, it's entirely ho-hum.
Well, as it turns out, I'm about the 10,409,594th person to write that Street Legal was the first wholly mediocre album of Dylan's career. (He released a few similarly underwhelming albums previously to this, but at least those ones had interesting stories behind them.) Unfortunately, I don't have a unique enough of an opinion to differ with this consensus. Though I'll add the caveat that we should use “poor” in relative terms; Street Legal would be perfectly acceptable if it were released by practically anyone else in the world. It's the curse of the songwriting genius. We expect pure inspiration out of him 100% of the time. ...But even if I don't expect pure genius out of him, I'd at least appreciated it if he'd have allotted more time for those squawking female back-up singers to practice. I don't understand the appeal of them not knowing when they're supposed to come in.
But those squawkers do sound pretty nice on what's my favorite song of this album by far, a country-western ballad called “Senor (Tales of Yankee Power).” I'd even say that's one of Dylan's most underrated tunes, and it needs far more love; it has a melody that tends to get stuck in my head, and its acoustic atmosphere is thick and delicious. (That sweet piano, those strummed guitars, and that haunting woodwind are the stuff of dreams.) It's a very pretty song, but its attitude is gruffy, and Dylan's torn, searing vocals gives it just the right grit. If nothing else, it makes me want to put on a spaghetti western. My second favorite track is “We Better Talk This Over,” in which gets the same sort of thick acoustic texture going. The melody is pretty nice, too, but I don't find it as memorable. The six-minute closer “Where Are You Tonight (Journey Through Dark Heat)” is vaguely similar to “Like a Rolling Stone” except it doesn't even come close to generating the same kind of momentum, and I end up getting tired of it halfway through its six-minute running length. But still, I find it enjoyable.
Other songs I don't like as much. But I'd even say most of those are pretty good. “Is Your Love in Vain?” gets monotonous after awhile, but its melody is pretty as it follows a chord progression borrowed from “Pachelbel's Canon.” “Baby Stop Crying” also starts off pretty nicely, but it's too long, and that woodwind starts to get on my nerves. Maybe the only song I have extreme distaste for is “No Time to Think,” which is so lumbering it's tedious and features an especially ugly vocal performance. You know how a lot of people dismissively call Dylan's music unlistenable because of his Mr. Wheezebags voice. If that was the only song of his they'd ever listened to, they'd have a point. I can hardly stand that for two minutes much less that eight minutes. Albeit, I will mention that the old-timey saloon piano I hear in the background has a nice ring about it. Maybe I wish this were a country-western concept album? Oh, if it only had more songs on it that generated the same kind of rustic charm as “Senor,” we would have had another classic on our hands.
Even though this is a disappointing Bob Dylan album for sure and effectively marked the beginning of his middle-age, I would say this remains overall a good album. At least there are enough decent songs on here that I'd recommend it for your collection if you're a Dylan fan. So, let's let this album dwell on the higher end of a 10/15 .
At Budokan (1979)
Another live album? This is his third in five years, which seems excessive for someone who is almost exclusively thought-of as a studio musician. However, this is startlingly different than the previous two I've listened to. Those albums showed Dylan in a rough and tired state where he seemed to be rattling off songs off the top of his lungs and encouraging his band-mates to be sloppy as possible. In this album, it's quite the contrary: it's like show-biz. I mean, if Dylan decided to establish himself as a Vegas attraction in the late '70s, he wouldn't have had to make his sound much different than this. (And, don't worry: he doesn't do a Tom Jones version of “The Times They Are A-Changin',” or anything …These songs are just given lusher and more deliberate arrangements.)
I totally like this version of “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” just for that six-note refrain played with flutes. ...I suppose this proves it doesn't take a whole lot to amuse me, but why can't more bands put things like oboes and flutes and xylophones in their songs to make them sparkle a little more? Plus, I like that very faint violin I hear playing around in the background, and I also like that piano which twinkles about like a puffy dream. That, plus the happy drum-beat and bouncy, melodic bass makes this one of the most gleeful experiences I've ever had with Bob Dylan.
I would say that “Ballad of a Thin Man” and “It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)” lose quite a bit of their bite from the show-biz type orchestration (they don't have nearly the sneering, soul-piercing quality of the originals), but they're still vastly entertaining things to listen to. Even the saxophone solo in the former song, even though it reeks of that Saturday Night Live vibe, entertains me. I gave “Like a Rolling Stone” and “All Along the Watchtower” very high ratings even though they also hardly measure up to the original. ...Well, maybe I like those songs no matter where I'm hearing it! Ah, they're very solidly recreated, anyway.
Many of these songs have a lighthearted, almost soft-rock vibe to them, which is a decision that I'm sure irked a few listeners back in the day. If it weren't for Dylan's obviously distinctive voice, I might have assumed this rendition of “Just Like a Woman” was a cover by The Eagles. But do you want to know a secret about The Eagles? They weren't bad. (Forget anything I might have said to the contrary in the past!) “A Simple Twist of Fate” gets crunchy strings in the refrain, which is lush, but kind of a cool idea.
Some of these interpretations are hilarious to me, only because I'd never thought Dylan would even try such things. For instance, I'm not 100% bought into the reggae interpretations of “Knockin' on Heaven's Door” and “Don't Think Twice, It's All Right,” but it's bizarre, isn't it? “One More Cup of Coffee” predominantly uses a beatnik bongo drum rhythm, which I wouldn't have expected, but it positively rules. Maybe that swinging section in the middle of “Going Going Gone” and the twinkly nursery rhyme rendition of “Blowing in the Wind” weren't his greatest ideas, but they're... er... interesting. “All I Want to Do” has a bouncy rhythm to it that (for better or worse) reminds me strongly of The Beatles' “With a Little Help From My Friends.” “I Want You” might be the worst thing here, because he turned into a sparse ballad with only an organ, guitar and flute noodling around miserably as Dylan sings with them.
“Oh, Sister” has a subdued blues quality to it with plenty of humid electric guitar licks, attitude-ridden saxophone, and rumbly organ, and Dylan sings it with a bit of a growl. There aren't many songs in this live album that I like better than the original, but that's one of 'em.
This is a double live album, and it's too difficult to mention every song here, so I won't. I'll close this review by mentioning that the recording quality is excellent—you can hear every note clearly and Dylan's voice is mixed just as well as it is in his studio albums. So, I shall heartily recommend this live album to anyone who would like to hear entertaining polished versions of Dylan's classics. 12/15
Slow Train Coming (1979)
This was where Bob Dylan found Jesus Christ, and it marked easily the most controversial point of his career. The reason for the controversy was his live shows of the era in which he would refuse to play anything from his back catalog. He said those songs weren't 'given to him by God.' Me, the starry-eyed fanboy, might have attended one of those concerts and would've been thrilled to see him play anything. However, I guess Dylan had to deal with quite a few hecklers. I'd say the best thing about Dylan finding Jesus--as far as his albums were concerned--was that it served briefly to revitalize his songwriting after the relatively disappointing Street Legal. It gave him an exciting new thing to write about, I guess.
This is the kind of album I should listen to sometime on a cross-country road trip. Most of these songs seem to have a slow, chugging mechanism behind it. It's a little like--er--a slow train coming. It sounds a bit like an early Dire Straits album, and--wouldn't you know it?-- this album features Dire Straits' Mark Knopfler on lead guitar. His influence was not only seen through the chuggy grooves, but he laces these songs heavily with healthy smatterings of his characteristic, clean guitar. (Knopfler, reportedly, only learned that this was going to be a Christian-rock album when he showed up for the sessions. Surprise!)
Now, when I tell you I don't mind these lyrics about God one iota, the statement would have to be supplemented with two things: 1) Most of the reviews I write give nary a mention of lyrics; 2) I am a Christian and thus not 'offended' or particularly 'mystified' by Dylan's public conversion. With the latter thing said, however, I don't usually like Christian-rock. At least in the years I've grown up around churches and attending youth groups, pretty much all of the popular Christian-rock music I've heard seems plastic, seemingly stuck forever in early '90s adult contemporary scene. Its lyrics also tend to be either preachy or boringly simplified.
I will say this about Bob Dylan's Christian lyrics, though: At least they tend to pertain to what Christianity means to Dylan or are fairly entertaining interpretations of Bible stories. (“Precious angel, you believe me when I say / What God has given to us no man can take away / We are covered in blood, girl, you know our forefathers / Let us hope they've found mercy in their bone-filled graves”) Dylan's lyrics from the '60s were legendary, of course. While the lyrics in Slow Train Coming don't exactly measure up, they're not bad.
Of course the most important thing to me regarding Slow Train Coming is that I enjoy every song here! Even relatively generic blues songs, like “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking,” thrills the endless pants off of me. The electric guitar has a clean snarl to it, and the bass guitar plays an addictive, walking groove. Knopfler comes in midway through with a punchy guitar solo, which is equally as good as it is on a Dire Straits album. ...But the most Dire-Straits-like song of the album also happens to be my favorite (and probably everybody else's), the opening song “Gotta Serve Somebody.” They create the slickest groove I've ever heard on a Dylan album (and I'll ever hear again!), and when it's combined with a catchy vocal melody, it's practically irresistible. Other songs I enjoy for those exact reasons include “Man Gave Names to All the Animals,” “When You Gonna Wake Up,” and “Slow Train.” Alright, maybe I can complain that this isn't a very diverse album, but once I start listening to these songs, I want to be caught forever in their mellow grooves.
The songs I don't like as much are the ballads, which lack those appealing grooves! But even those are OK by me. “I Believe in You” has a simple melody and is rather long, but it's an effective one--particularly the chorus when he expresses his faith in God, which comes across as heartfelt. My least favorite of them is the piano ballad “When He Returns,” which features Dylan singing only to a piano... but I don't find the melody especially interesting, and his torn, sand-papery vocals come across far too brazen for its own good. I mean, certain members of the public didn't like his voice as it was!
But this is an entertaining album, overall. If you can see your way past the lyrics, it's equally as recommended to Dire Straits fans as it is to classic Dylan fans. 12/15
I remember reviewing this album a long time ago and panning the ever-loving mercy out of it. After all, pretty much anyone “respectable” pans this record. This is the second of Dylan's infamous born-again trilogy, except this time he didn't have chug-happy Mark Knopfer to keep things interesting. Thus, there is not much else for this album to do except suck. Also not helping matters is that he'd started to write lyrics that were so preachy that they were far more reminiscent of the songs you'd expect to hear from sideshow preachers than the usual brilliant, thoughtful things Dylan had written in his prime.
I was hoping to listen to this album today and have a wildly divergent viewpoint of it, but alas: My tastes just aren't that weird. I find that this album's legendary suckiness is deserved outright. But with that said, I like the title track, which is a frantic gospel. Maybe I like it for the wrong reasons. I mean, it's hilarious, isn't it? This wheezy voiced cultural icon I'm imagining to be clad in a white suit, singing with a full gospel choir behind him. If I didn't know his conversion to Christianity was serious, I would have thought he was joking. (By his grace I have been touched / By his word I have been healed / By his hand I have been delivered / By his spirit I have been sealed)
Where Dylan really disappoints is ballads like “Covenant Woman.” The instrumentation is loose and sloppy, like Dylan ballads ought to be, but there's so little about it that I can take away from it. I mean, it's listenable enough as background music, but if I wanted to listen to background music, I'd rather listen to every song recorded by America that didn't appear on one of their greatest hits albums. At least they were prettier. The exception to this is the penultimate track “Saving Grace,” which manages to capture my attention quite well and is essentially the only song here I like for what I think are the right reasons. That is, Dylan creates a rather warm and cozy vibe, and the melody is almost memorable. The lyrics continue to be quite bland, unfortunately, but I'd imagine I would find them acceptable from anyone other than Dylan.
If you want to hear the worst of the worst, look no further than the fourth track: “What Can I Do For You?” It has such a ridiculously plodding drum beat and a blank melody that it makes me sad. Maybe even worse is the 'uplifting' gospel “Pressing On” that is so ridiculously heavy handed and boorishly delivered that I can barely even stand it. However, he does make up for some of that with a similar gospel, “In the Garden,” which manages to pick up just a little bit of dust. It nevertheless continues to make me wonder where Dylan's panache for great melodies went, because that song is forgettable as anything I ever hear in music. The closing song is a bit of hard blues, and while it's hardly the worst bit of the album, I find it to be most disappointing of them all: Hard blues is the kind of music you're supposed to feel in your heartbeats. That song is so dull that it doesn't even pump enough blood to my brain, which is why it's feeling so numb.
What Dylan doesn't practice enough in this album is a principle that I wish all rock 'n' roll songwriters would hold sacred: If you don't know what else to do, rock. Dylan was just not on when it came to the ballads, but he had a pretty good crew of instrumentalists who could cause a ruckus when it was required of them. That's why I enjoy listening to “Solid Rock.” That is, it's no “Like a Rolling Stone,” but it's got a beat you can dance to.
I'll close this review by saying that there are worse albums in the world than this. Keep in mind this is Bob Dylan, and he was one of the best. This was just a misstep. And a legendary misstep at that. (I'm surprised to find so many five-star reviews of this album on Amazon! Well I guess I can never tell what people are into.) 7/15
Shot of Love (1981)
This is the third and final of Dylan's Born-Again albums and also happens to mark a major improvement over Saved. It passes the most basic standard that I have for "good" albums: That is, I enjoy thoroughly listening to it at work. However, the obvious complaint about the album is that little about it blows me away. (That is, apart from the power of the Holy Spirit.) However, that's really only a complaint I muster because Dylan's classic albums so frequently blew me away that it was like my head was inside a tornado.
As you might have realized by now, Bob Dylan was rather raggedly looking fellow. This album very much resembles that appearance; this sounds just as unruly as the thick head of hair he has on his head. It's rife with chunky rhythms, unkempt guitar, and Dylan often singing at the top of his lungs. This is also frequently accused of being an album full of generic tunes. It's a completely valid criticism, but there's also no rule that generic tunes can't be entertaining. And that's what this album is to me: It's a collection of entertaining songs that are presented in a highly energetic manner.
“Heart of Mine” is my favorite song of the album. It's extremely upbeat and joyous with an appealing melody, and I enjoy its orchestration consisting predominantly of a bouncy piano and guitar. “Property of Jesus” is another keeper--even though the verses might be a little uninteresting--it turns into a true powerhouse as he belts out the chorus, which reminds me something that The Band might have written in the late '60s. “Shot of Love” is the album opener and features a heart-pounding R&B groove and some funky rhythm guitar. That song especially is generic, but the heart-pounding aspect of it is enough to sell me the ticket.
“The Groom's Still Waiting at the Altar” is a very heavy bit of blues that has tons of energy radiating from it. Once again it's absolutely generic, but its instrumentation is thick and filled with spirit. There you'll hear wobbling guitars flailing all over the place; rhythm guitar, bass, and drums pounding away with verve; bluesy ivory tickling that is required for these sorts of songs; and best of all Dylan's loud and electric vocal performance. Even the female back-up singers--that help lift up the song in key moments--were nicely done.
“Dead Man, Dead Man” is a song that got a dreaded B+. But there's no particular reason for that apart from, perhaps, its reggae influences. (Call me a music-racist if you want, I guess; that's a kind of music I haven't totally been able to get into yet. But maybe that day shall come!) However, the tune is pretty good. I was about to give “In the Summertime” a B+, because it reminds me so much of The Rolling Stones' “Some Girls,” and it could only pale in comparison. However, it's played at such a mellow pace, and it's very laid back. Even the harmonica playing is interesting, rather resembling the sound of wind chimes. He gives the same sort of harmonica solo throughout “Every Grain of Sand,” which is a very lovely ballad that otherwise features some ringing arpeggiating guitar and a strikingly heartfelt vocal performance.
I've been somewhat alarmingly close to giving this album a 12, and maybe it actually deserves it? What holds me back is that I don't like it as much as I liked Slow Train Coming, which got a 12. So I guess the proper thing to do is go with an 11/15. Ah, this is Dylan. His discography can absorb an 11!
As we say farewell to the end of Dylan's Born-Again phase, we say hello to the '80s. It was said Dylan was originally interested in producing this thing himself, but the sound of contemporary music had changed so drastically since the '70s that he felt the need to enlist the help of someone to modernized his sound. And the person he'd enlisted was someone who'd already helped him before: Mark Knopfer, who played lead guitar on the excellent Slow Train Coming.
And don't worry. This album might sound like it comes out of the '80s, but you won't hear candy-coated synthesizers or hokey dance-pop drum rhythms. This is unmistakably Dylan. The main '80s enhancement are the electronically processed drums and a crystal clear bass guitar that juts about in fairly robotic patterns. And don't believe anyone who tells you that processed drums and robo-bass can't be awesome. Because they are awesome in the album's opening track, “Jokerman,” which is a mid-tempo, breezy number with a haunting atmosphere. You'll hear some Knopfer-inspired minimalist electric guitar noodling throughout and a tranquil electric organ playing in the background. Dylan's melody is also quite hooky, and it's passionately sung.
The lyrics, however, aren't particularly laid back as they do frequently conjure Old Testament imagery. (“You're a man of the mountains, you can walk on the clouds / Manipulator of crowds, you're a dream twister / You're goin' to Sodom and Gomorrah but what do you care? / Ain't nobody there would want to marry your sister / Friend to the martyr, a friend to the woman of shame”) This is often said to be Dylan's ultra-conservative, Zionist album. It's difficult to know what prompted him to make an album such as this, and I don't even feel creative/interested enough to come up with a theory. I'll just chalk that up as another piece of Dylan's mystique.
While “Jokerman” is an enjoyable song, it still doesn't even come close to matching anything he'd done in his peak period. I'm afraid that's the best it's gonna get, because I don't think another song even comes close to matching that. However, I hope such news wouldn't come as a shock to anyone; the '80s were a weak decade for pretty much every '60s pop star. (Except for Paul Simon. Somehow.) And perhaps Dylan's “low '80s” weren't really that bad? “License to Kill” has a sort of similar atmosphere as “Jokerman” except it's without the enticing hooks.
“Neighborhood Bully” is one of the closer things this album gets to dance-pop, and it does kind of annoy me. It is characterized with a blocky guitar groove, which admittedly is kind of catchy, but it also has a tendency to get monotonous. “Union Sundown” is similarly danceable. For sure the melody could have been better, but it isn't bad, and the danceable groove does manage to pick up quite a bit of steam. Maybe I also enjoy that sloppy electric guitar chugging away in the refrains.
“Man of Peace” has a swaggering country-western vibe to it that makes me tap my toes, and it features some excellent electric guitar crunches (in one ear) and some finger-pickin' guitar (in the other). Though maybe the best thing about it is Dylan's snarling vocal performance, in which he sings about the Devil. (“He got the sweet gift of gab, he got harmonious tongue / He know every song of love that ever has been sung / Good intentions can be evil, both hands can be full of grease / You know that sometimes Satan comes as a man of peace.”)
Probably the second best song of the album is the ballad “I and I,” and that's purely because of its melody. If you subscribe to the notion that a melody is good if and only if you can make it sound interesting on a lone piano, then that song certainly qualifies. Some of the other ballads, “Sweetheart Like You” and “Don't Fall Apart On Me Tonight” are quite good, but they have nothing in particular about them that makes me sit up and take notice. Other than the '80s electronic drums are cool. Yes, I am sticking with that proclamation.
This might not be one of Dylan's peak albums, but it's not bad. The only reason to ignore this is if still haven't listened to or connected with his classic albums. Otherwise, don't be afraid to give 'er a whirl. 11/15
Real Live (1984)
Good thing Bob Dylan wasn't fake live, because then he'd be a zombie. Nope, Dylan was very much flesh-and-blood, and here's the live album to prove it. (OK I might be confusing matters when I say he would release another live album later in the '80s called Dylan and The Dead. Just when we thought that was supposed to refer to The Grateful Dead.) This album also marks--brace yourselves--his fourth live album in 10 years. And just like the live albums that came before it, there's not much reason for YOU--oh, reader--to own it unless you're a major Dylan collector. So, I guess this marks yet another one of my totally irrelevant reviews. (But this is what I do.)
Dylan might have been releasing many, many live albums, but at least this one's different from the others. This is the story so far: 1974's Before the Flood was a slop-tastic collaboration with The Band; 1976's was a slop-tastic collaboration without The Band; 1979's At Budokan was shockingly prim-and-polished and elaborately orchestrated. This is the first live Bob Dylan album that shows him putting on a pretty standard rock concert. There were only five instrumentalists here who were doing standard rock 'n' roll things. Although the lead guitarist happened to be pretty notable: That is, Mick Taylor, formerly of The Rolling Stones.
Now, go take a look at the track-list and note that Dylan's playing some solid material here. The first two songs are, of course, indisputable masterpieces, and I'll like them just about anytime anywhere as long as he's not butchering them. And he doesn't here--not by a long shot. The first is “Highway 61 Revisited” and the other is “Maggie's Farm.” They're performed as raucous and loose old rhythm 'n' blues numbers. Or, in other words, they're played similarly to the originals except they seem far more wistfully tossed-off. Naturally, they don't even come close to topping the originals, but they didn't try to. This was a live concert that people were just supposed to have fun at.
Maybe the worst thing about this album was that Dylan was touring at the time to promote Infidels. While that's not a terrible album at all, it's pretty obvious that its two song selections, “I and I” and “Licence to Kill,” don't even come close to measuring up to the other time tested classics he also performs. The former song has an OK melody but it seems to get stuck in its groove forever, and the only thing that keeps us occupied is an extended solo from Mick Taylor. The latter actually seems to improve upon the lackadaisical original, but that's only because it's grittier. Even then, I'd still say it's the worst thing here.
“Masters of War” might be the most entertaining variation of a classic song here. The original from The Freewheelin' was of course a folk classic that stung my heart. This version is 6.5 minutes long with a walking bass-line, a danceable drum beat, a grooving Hammond organ, and an electric guitar solo! ...Hey! Don't roll your eyes! Have you forgotten so quickly that grooves are fun, and this was Mick Taylor doing the solo? Another especially fun moment is this rendition of “Tombstone Blues,” which turns out to be infectiously danceable. Also, that's none other than Carlos Santana who guests on electric guitar.
Dylan does perform a few songs here with only his voice and an acoustic guitar. His rendition of “It Ain't Me Babe” is taken on with a furiously strummed acoustic guitar, and his singing voice is wheezy 'n' slurry. But it's also highly spirited, and I like hearing that crowd sing en masse with the chorus. He keeps the frantic strumming going for the follow-up song, “Tangled Up in Blue,” which apparently the crowd doesn't know so well. There's nothing that comes off more tossed-off and messy than those two songs, but I'd say they're still appealing as energetic variations of classic songs. “Girl From the North Country” isn't too remarkable, although I find those brief though sort of picked-at harmonica solos in there kind of interesting.
Again, nobody who isn't a major Dylan fan has much reason to own this. But I can imagine a Dylan fan pulling this out every so often just to remind himself/herself what his shows were like in the mid-'80s. And perhaps even to someone attended one of his later shows. For example, I went to one of his concerts in 2004, and this more resembles what I saw far more than the previous three live albums. (Except he was far less intelligible in 2004!) Of course the most important thing to mention about this live album is that it's overall entertaining. Exactly as I think you'd expect it to be. 11/15
Empire Burlesque (1985)
This album showed Bob Dylan continuing down the same road he'd started trekking in Infidels. That is, he uses very contemporary (i.e., 1980s) production standards. Before you dismiss this as a misguided attempt at getting radio hits or something, just note one thing: There are some good songs on here. The best of them is probably the first one, “Tight Connection to My Heart,” a pleasantly mid-tempo track with a melody that is genuinely catchy. (Albeit we probably wouldn't have been able to discern its melody if it weren't for the small army of female back-up singers he employs there. Dylan's lead vocals are more like talking than anything else.) The song also contains all the hallmarks of contemporary '80s production including keyboards, electronic drums, and squeaky clean rhythm guitars. However, these instruments, dislike them as much as you might, do help create an appealingly slick atmosphere.
But don't count me as someone who would call Empire Burlesque a masterpiece of '80s pop production! There are plenty of other instances here when this production style hindered things. “I'll Remember You,” for example, is a nicely written ballad, but those HUGE drums in that chorus don't really do much other than reverberate through my ear canals, distracting me from what otherwise might have been a quietly brilliant song. ...I have a feeling given more of a '60s and '70s production treatment, that song would've been utterly heart-wrenching.
“Clean Cut Kid” is a pretty good blues number with some nice lead guitar work. But as always with these types of numbers, they're hindered by a generic melody. And this is to whomever had the idea to make those electronic drums way louder than the flurry of guitars that I hear making magic in the background: For shame! (I'm reading on Wikipedia that Dylan was very passive with regards to how this album was mixed. I guess he figured a contemporary sound mixer would know best how to make his music relevant with the '80s. ...Blech!)
One thing this album does have going for it is a ballad, “Emotionally Yours,” which is one of the finest he's written in years. I find it to be surprisingly touching and uplifting. The instrumentation continues to feature those '80s frills--loud drums and keyboards--but the star of that show is the electric guitar, which chugs about thoughtfully as Dylan sings in his wheezy voice. Of course the lyrics are a far cry from his glory days in the '60s, but they still manage to work their way into my heart. (“It's like my whole life never happened / When I see you, it's as if I never had a thought / I know this dream, it might be crazy / But it's the only one I got.”) One of the more enjoyable upbeat songs of the disc is “Seeing the Real You,” which features an especially memorable motif from a saxophone, and Dylan gives a particularly spirited spoken-sung vocal performance. ...And if you liked that song, you might also like “Trust Yourself,” which has more of a subdued, menacing groove and a catchy melody that Dylan actually sings! (The '80s-issue drum machines are amazingly a beneficial thing there, because they help add layers to its tightly knit texture as the song progresses.)
I've listened to this album a few times over the last week or so, and I always seem to get taken aback whenever I get to “When the Night Comes Falling From the Sky,” which is an all-out dance song that's 7.5 minutes long and has a pumping robotic synth-beat. I'd say it's not too far removed from Bonnie Tyler's “Holding Out for a Hero,” except instead of hearing Tyler's operatic and powerful chops, we hear Dylan's ragged and whining vocals. When I listen to it, all I can do is picture some Rocky montage going on. Or maybe a parody of a Rocky montage theme, given that Dylan's vocals are unconventional for the style. ...But while that's a misfired song on many levels, to its credit, my foot always seems to be tapping with it by the time I'm midway through.
While Empire Burlesque rightfully isn't considered one of Bob Dylan's finer albums, it's a perfectly decent one. The '80s contemporary production standards weren't usually on-target, and I'm also not the first person to say that Dylan shouldn't have let the album be orchestrated like that. Nevertheless, this makes an overall enjoyable listen, and I'm sure Dylan fans all around the world enjoy taking out the album from time to time. 11/15
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