Tuesday, 1 September 2020

Bob Dylan (inc. latest album)




"The thing about rock'n'roll is that for me anyway it wasn't enough... There were great catch-phrases and driving pulse rhythms... but the songs weren't serious or didn't reflect life in a realistic way. I knew that when I got into folk music, it was more of a serious type of thing. The songs are filled with more despair, more sadness, more triumph, more faith in the supernatural, much deeper feelings" - Bob Dylan

My history with Bob Dylan begins with only a vague knowledge of him in the 1960s. I was brought up largely on British chart pop, so Dylan sort of passed me by, unlike The Tremeloes or Manfred Mann. I first became aware of him properly with the 1973 single Knockin' On Heaven's Door which I bought aged fourteen. Next up for me was On A Night Like This from Planet Waves. Thus began an exploration into his back catalogue that found me seeking out the single releases of Like A Rolling Stone and The Times They Are A-Changin'. I was hooked, line and sinker.


Lucky was I that Dylan's next release was Blood On The Tracks. You can't ask for much better for my proper introduction into Dylan's albums. Thereafter followed a wonderful journey into the great sixties albums, and Desire, Street Legal and Slow Train Coming. Pretty soon I had everything he had released to date and subsequently bought the new releases as they appeared. I have stuck with him all those years, not as long as some have, of course, but it still seems like a long time. There have, as anyone will tell you, been ups and downs along the way, but I can honestly say that on every album, there are always one or two tracks that really do it. It has been a great journey. The man's music has provided a recurring soundtrack in my life

Dylan may let one down here and there but let's be honest, the man is a genius, possibly the greatest lyricist popular music has ever known, certainly one of the most innovative, thoughtful, expressive and poetic. I can't actually find the words to do him and his work justice. It speaks for itself.

I am certainly no Dylanologist, or would ever claim to be. Most of what I say about Dylan is probably horse shit, to be honest. None of us really know what went on in his head, it is endless fun trying to figure it out through his words and music.



This is where a lifetime of albums began. The music speaks for itself.

THE FOLK YEARS (1962-1964)

Bob Dylan (1962)


You're No Good/Talkin' New York/In My Time Of Dyin'/Man Of Constant Sorrow/Fixin' To Die/Pretty Peggy-O/Highway 51 Blues/Gospel Plow/Baby, Let Me Follow You Down/House Of The Risin' Sun/Freight Train Blues/Song To Woody 

"Like Elvis Presley, what Dylan can sing, he quickly masters; what he can't, he twists to his own devices" - Tim Riley         

Yes, I know this is where it all started for Bob Dylan, but, as someone who owns all his albums (save the last two "crooning" ones - Fallen Angels and Triplicate) I have to admit that I rarely play this album and find it a slightly grating and, at times, difficult listen. It is largely made up of old blues covers, but they are sung nowhere near as appealingly as they are say, by the older Dylan, on Good As I Been To You or World Gone Wrong. I find Dylan's young voice just a little irritating on this album in places, although of course, I realise what an effect the album had, having been released by one so young. It is nowhere near as good an album as The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan or The Times They Are A-Changin', though. Though released not long after, they are light years ahead. This set him on his way, though, but the whole folk/protest movement thing came over the next year or so, with his next two albums and contributions from other artists in the Greenwich Village folk scene.

There are good moments though, it has to be said.  Some of the more bluesier numbers I quite like - the cutting Talkin' New York; the powerful bottleneck blues of In My Time Of Dyin' (also memorably covered by Led Zeppelin);  the pure blues of Highway 51; the moving Man Of Constant Sorrow; the acoustic, aggressive Fixin' To Die and my favourite, Baby Let Me Follow You Down. There is an almost punky, edgy, attack to Dylan's renditions of these songs, it has to be said, and his harmonica throughout  is revelatory. Dylan's mournful take on House Of The Rising Sun is actually very evocative, but it is completely different to that made famous by The Animals (which was apparently inspired by a version by Josh White, not Dylan's version). Freight Train Blues, with that ridiculously drawn-out high-pitched bit just annoys me. In fact all the wailing on that track just doesn't do it for me.

I do have time for Woody's Song, however, it was one of the few written by Dylan and in it you can hear hints of the two albums that would follow over the next year. See That My Grave Is Kept Clean has its good points too in its menacing, lamenting tone. The protest songs began with this one.  Dylan approaches it with a verve and vigour and a cynicism too.

Incidentally, the mono version is excellent, particularly In My Time Of Dyin' and Highway 51.

The non-album single, Mixed-Up Confusion, was a skiffle-esque piece of lively fun. It would have nice for it have been on this album.

The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963)


Blowin' In The Wind/Girl From The North Country/Masters Of War/Down The Highway/Bob Dylan's Blues/A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall/Don't Think Twice, It's Alright/Bob Dylan's Dream/Oxford Town/Talkin' World War III Blues/Corinna, Corinna/Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance/I Shall Be Free 

"How many years can some people exist before they're allowed to be free..."               

After a debut album that included only two original compositions, Bob Dylan effectively launched his singer/songwriter career from here. He still used traditional folk melodies but now he added his own unbelievably mature, prophetic and wise beyond his years lyrics. The cultural impact of this album simply cannot be overstated. Some of the songs on here became synonymous with the early sixties, the burgeoning folk scene, particularly in New York's Greenwich Village, and with an increased need in the young and intelligent to protest.

The songs embraced the Civil Rights movement, political corruption and the omnipresent early sixties paranoia about impending nuclear war. He also had love songs on here, but they were not "moon in June"/"baby I love you" odes - they were often cynical, bitter and accusatory, something continued for a fair few years. As fetching as the picture is on the front cover, I have always felt sorry for poor old Suze Rotolo, who must have been on the receiving end of Dylan's acerbic tongue on many occasions. You can somehow imagine him talking to her in a scathing manner when she failed to grasp whatever irony he was dabbling with or because she wasn't aware of a particular little-known author.

Blowin' In The Wind is, of course, an absolute classic, and has been recorded by many other artists, including Peter, Paul & Mary, Stevie Wonder and Neil Young. It is the daddy of all anti-war protest songs, articulating beautifully and starkly against an acoustic background Dylan's fears for the world's future. The line "how many years can some people exist before they're allowed to be free..." perfectly aligned the song with the Civil Rights movement too. Quite simply, this song, written by a twenty-one year-old, is one of the greatest songs of all time. The incredibly bleak Masters Of War is another whose subject is hard-hitting and obvious, although the apocalyptic A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall is a mysterious journey through all manner of imagery, biblical, poetic, mythological. It is a work of inspired genius.



Other classics are the vitriolic, leaving his lover song, Don't Think Twice, It's Alright; the far more yearningly beautiful original take of Girl From The North Country (later to be recorded with Johnny Cash) and the excursions into the blues tradition of the folky, harmonica-driven Bob Dylan's Blues, Down The Highway, the much-covered blues oldie Corinna Corinna and another old blues cover in Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance.

The pure folk tradition is there too in Bob Dylan's Dream and Oxford TownTalking World War III Blues shows Dylan's black humour at its most obvious, but, for me, it it has always been slightly irritating and dated. A lot of people love it, though, but I have never really gone for the humorous Dylan, preferring him riled up, reflective or mystical.

As I mentioned earlier, the impact of this remarkable album and its songs was immense, but, as someone who owns all Bob Dylan's albums, I rarely play it so there you go. I much prefer subsequent live, often bluesy or electric live versions performed by Dylan of the songs, or indeed, covers of them by different artists. Check out Dylan's storming full band, rocking version of Masters Of War on Real Live. It completely transforms the song. The same applies to many of his versions of Don't Think Twice, or Neil Young's blistering Blowin' In The Wind.

The Times They Are A-Changin' (1963)


The Times They Are A-Changin'/The Ballad Of Hollis Brown/With God On Our Side/One Too Many Mornings/North Country Blues/Only A Pawn In Their Game/Boots Of Spanish Leather/When The Ship Comes In/The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll/Restless Farewell 

"Well, you know - it seems to what the people like to hear" - Bob Dylan
                   
This is by far my favourite of Bob Dylan's folk "protest" albums. It is a spectacular masterpiece of the genre, written and delivered by a young man of barely twenty-two. Personally, I find the songs more melodic and less starkly bleak than those of the previous album's, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. The subject matter is pretty much the same - impending nuclear war, the Civil Rights movement, racism, oppression, social deprivation, poverty, religious hypocrisy, political corruption and wealth and, of course, the generation gap, as expressed in the magnificent, epoch-defining title track.

The Times They Are A Changin' is, frankly, a strong contender for being the greatest popular song ever written, albeit a protest one. It means something to every young generation as they collectively rail, passionately, but often naively, against their elders. It mattered so much in 1963, when there was an older generation that really could not comprehend the ideals and attitudes of the younger one. Today's older generation are much more understanding - many of them listen to rock music and Bob Dylan, of course something hardly anyone over twenty-five did in 1963. Even now, in my own middle-age I find I can listen to this and bristle with rebellious ire, imagining I am singing it to what were my actually quite tolerant, enlightened parents. Its effect is that strong.

The Ballad Of Hollis Brown is just one of the hardest-hitting, most depressing tales ever sung. It concerns an impoverished father who eventually kills himself and all his children, having reached the point of no hope, no way out. It is truly tragic. Incidentally, the seventies Scottish rock group Nazareth did an absolutely storming version of it in 1973. Similarly, The Neville BrothersWith God On Our Side is almost definitive. Dylan's delivery of the song is haunting and pins you to the spot. It is a marvellously evocative journey through the wars America has been involved in. A more apposite condemnation of war it would be hard to find. It is a simply mighty, portentous song.

One Too Many MorningsNorth Country BluesBoots Of Spanish Leather and Restless Farewell are all examples of Dylan's stark folky, acoustic blues that he mastered in at this time. Harsh, bleak, sombre and resonant.


Only A Pawn In The Game was a surprisingly cynical song about the murder of Medgar Evers, a black civil rights activist. The song suggests that yes, the killers are to blame, but the blame is everywhere and while poor whites clamour to blame poor blacks for their poverty, they should maybe look at the corrupt politicians exploiting them and wilfully keeping them poor. There are, indeed, many pawns in many corrupt, immoral games. A similar theme runs through the moving tale of The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll. These were difficult issues, and Bob Dylan, a young white man, was exceptionally brave to confront them head on in such a hard-hitting manner. This really was ground-breaking stuff.

My own personal favourite is the warning of the apocalypse that is When The Ship Comes In. It is as relevant today as it was then. To be honest, the whole album is.

Outtakes from this album's sessions are the gently rousing Lay Down Your Weary Tune and the folky, acoustic ballad Percy's Song.

Another Side Of Bob Dylan (1964)


All I Really Want To Do/Black Crow Blues/Spanish Harlem Incident/Chimes Of Freedom/I Shall Be Free #10/To Ramona/Motorpsycho Nitemare/My Back Pages/I Don't Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)/Ballad In Plain D/It Aint Me Babe  

"We talked to people in bars - miners - talking to people - that's where it's at, man" - Bob Dylan 

This, Bob Dylan's last all-acoustic "folk" album is one of those that I don't play so much, for some reason. I much prefer its predecessor, The Times They Are A-Changin'. I'm not quite sure why that is. I think I prefer the more blatant "protest" songs of that album and The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan  to the more tongue-in-cheek, or romantically bitter tunes on offer on this outing.

The opener All I Really Want To Do has Dylan in light-hearted mood, but I have to say I much prefer The Byrds' version. Black Crow Blues is a fine piano and harmonic driven blues, but in my opinion, it could really do with some bass and drums. Spanish Harlem Incident is a lyrically incomprehensible number but, as with the previous one, it cries out for a full band. Not so for the next number though, the starkness of a gently strummed, melodic acoustic guitar suits the apocalyptic warning of Chimes Of Freedom that has Dylan showing solidarity with the outcasts, the downtrodden and the oppressed. It is the one real "protest", socially aware song left here. It is, unsurprisingly, my favourite song on the album. Bruce Springsteen memorably covered it on the 1988-89 Amnesty International tour. It is simply a marvellous song.



I Shall Be Free No. 10 harks back to the sort of thing he was doing on the first two albums. It is amusing enough, actually pretty witty, but it wears off after a while. It is ok to listen to just once in a while. At least the studio version doesn't have an audience laughing at the funny parts. To Ramona is a gentle, tender number. Dylan is definitely a different animal on this album - less stridently protesting, more poetic, more romantic, more lyrical, more diverse, more whimsical. For many, it makes this album a more satisfying listen. For me, I preferred the more biting, aware numbers, but I totally understand what they mean. Motorpsycho Nitemare is a bluesy, witty stream of consciousness with some excellent amusing couplets, particularly the one about taking a shower.

My Back Pages is another great song made even better by The Byrds, showing what could be done with a band turned up high. It does, however, have a moving, plaintive appeal to it. Dylan is already sounding considerably world-weary in his tone and lyrics on this. I Don't Believe You is a staccato and beguiling number, while Ballad In Plain D has Dylan griping, tediously, about his girlfriend's sister. Just let it go, eh, Bob? It Ain't Me Babe is one of the best songs on the album, and it closes the set. It has Dylan again cynical about aspects of the heart.

There are undoubtedly some fine songs on here, and Dylan has certainly diversified his songwriting approach. There are other changes necessary too, though. These songs need more of an accompaniment - get yourself a band and strap on an electric guitar and play .....loud!

A non-album track from this album's sessions was Mama, You Been On My Mind. It is a track that has got occasional live airings, notably on the Rolling Thunder tour.

THE ELECTRIC YEARS (1965-1967)



Dylan's seismic shock to the cosy world of folk was only three studio albums, but their influence was immeasurable.

Bringing It All Back Home (1965)


Subterranean Homesick Blues/She Belongs To Me/Maggie's Farm/Love Minus Zero/No Limits/Outlaw Blues/On The Road Again/Bob Dylan's 115th Dream/Mr. Tambourine Man/Gates Of Eden/It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)/It's All Over Now Baby Blue

"Bob was really excited about what John Hammond was doing with electric blues. I talked to him in the Figaro in 1964 and he was telling me about John and his going to Chicago and playing with a band and so on …" - Danny Kalb

The album that alienated Bob Dylan's folk fans by "going electric" on the old "side one". It was, in many ways, an album that changed all sorts of things - Dylan's approach to songwriting and also that of The Beatles, who Dylan had recently met for the first time. Gone were the "protest songs" of 1962-1964 and in came the much-vaunted "stream of consciousness" lyrics and an electric guitar, rock 'n' roll influenced drum, bass and keyboard sounds.

The first track, Subterranean Homesick Blues, was one hell of a hit, right between the eyes - frantic, manically delivered, both vocally and instrumentally, it was a song that introduced a style that would be imitated even as far into the future as the punk rock explosion some twelve years or so later. Just listen to Elvis Costello's Pump It Up as an example. Dylan was influenced by Chuck Berry's Too Much Monkey Business in many ways in constructing this ground-breaking song, although it was very much his own, unique creation.

She Belongs To Me was lighter in content, more melodic and had a beautiful bass line on it, again, though, its lyrics were somewhat oblique and belied analysis despite the general romantic feel of the song. Maggie's Farm is a more traditional piece of harmonica-driven blues rock and apparently sees Dylan saying goodbye to the protest song movement as he had played folk songs on a farm back in 1963. Musically, though, it is a blues the like of which he would continue to use through the next two "electric" albums. The same applies to the frenetic Outlaw Blues, another with a real Chuck Berry influence. On The Road Again sounds like Canned Heat's late 60s track of the same name in many ways, although the latter is not a cover of this. It is an upbeat blues full of harmonica and twelve-bar structure.

Love Minus Zero/No Limit is simply a beautiful song. For many it is seen as dispensable. For me, it is my favourite track on the album. Lovely melody, appealing lyrics.

The "electric" part ends with Bob Dylan's 115th Dream which, for me, has hints of the track Highway 61 Revisited but most say it is similar to Motorpsycho Nitemare from the previous album. It is another fast-paced piece of blues rock with more rapidly-delivered stream of consciousness lyrics.


The iconic Mr. Tambourine Man opens "side two" with Dylan's laid-back acoustic version, with jangly guitar as The Byrds used on their huge hit version of the song. In my opinion, it is not about a drug dealer as some have suggested endlessly over the years. It's just about a tambourine. Maybe the lyrics were inspired by Dylan's increasing LSD use, but that's as far as as it goes. Whatever. It is a lovely, evocative atmospheric song and very 1960s. No drums are used on this "acoustic" side and the sombre acoustic guitar and harmonica-only Gates Of Eden is suited by this approach. It sounds like something off The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. Maybe the direct protest songs were gone, but not so the "grim warning" songs. This is one of those. As indeed too, to an extent is the cynical It's Alright Ma, I'm Only Bleeding with its political references. It is not as doom-laden as Gates Of Eden though.

The final song is the kiss-off to a lover of It's All Over Now Baby Blue, stark and baleful but with a subtle bass guitar backing Dylan's acoustic. The only other person to play on this side. The song was covered convincingly by a young Van Morrison with his group, Them, by Chris Farlowe and, of course, by The Byrds.

This album signalled a new era. Dylan was off on the electric tour and within a few years electric guitars, weird lyrics and psychedelia were everywhere. In many ways it started here although the UK blues rock groups were similarly genre-creating.

Outtakes from this album's sessions were the Rolling Stones-esque bluesy pop thump of If You Gotta Go, Go Now, the earlier recording of I'll Keep It With Mine and the superb acoustic ballad Farewell Angelina.

Highway 61 Revisited (1965)


Like A Rolling Stone/Tombstone Blues/It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry/From A Buick 6/Ballad Of A Thin Man/Queen Jane Approximately/Highway 61 Revisited/Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues/Desolation Row

"The first time that I heard Bob Dylan, I was in the car with my mother, and we were listening to, I think, WMCA, and on came that snare shot that sounded like somebody kicked open the door to your mind, from 'Like a Rolling Stone'. And my mother, who was no stiff with rock & roll, she said, 'That guy can’t sing'. But I knew she was wrong. I sat there, I didn’t say nothin’, but I knew that I was listening to the toughest voice that I had ever heard. It was lean, and it sounded somehow simultaneously young and adult, and I ran out and I bought the single. I played it, then I went out and I got 'Highway 61', and it was all I played for weeks. Bob’s voice somehow thrilled and scared me. It made me feel kind of irresponsibly innocent. And it still does. But it reached down and touched what little worldliness a 15-year-old kid in New Jersey had in him at the time" - Bruce Springsteen  

The album that blew the windows wide open. Yes, half of Bringing It All Back Home had introduced the “electric” element to Dylan’s sound with a colossal bang, but here it took it to the max and mixed it with some of his most evocative, cinematic, imagery-full lyrics. Indeed, some of the most adventurous lyrics popular music had ever seen. Remember, this was 1965. The Beatles were only just out of the covering of rock n roll standards on half their albums, The Rolling Stones of covering blues standards and The Beach Boys were still singing about surfing, cars and girls. What Dylan achieved on this album was just remarkable.

He spoke of the album thus in his later recollections -

"...Highway 61, the main thoroughfare of the country blues, begins about where I began. I always felt like I'd started on it, always had been on it and could go anywhere, even down in to the deep Delta country. It was the same road, full of the same contradictions, the same one-horse towns, the same spiritual ancestors ... It was my place in the universe, always felt like it was in my blood..."

With that quote in mind, one may have expected a blues-oriented album, like his much later Love And Theft, from 2001, but, while here are obvious blues influences, this is something different. It is Dylan taking his influences and making something new, innovative and adventurous out of them. As the title suggests, Highway 61 is "revisited". "Re-worked" more like, with Dylan's supremely poetic, image-packed lyrics making Dylan's style of blues something completely unique.



The “bookend” tracks of the album are its two best - the sensational, six minute single, Like A Rolling Stone, from whose opening guitar notes so many were inspired, notably a young Bruce Springsteen, who said hearing it literally changed his life from that point onwards. Then there is the monumental, magnificent, mighty Desolation Row, eleven minutes of Dylan heaven, and my own personal favourite Dylan track of all time. It is so good, its verses so potent, it is virtually impossible to write about it. Its multifarious images demand years of analysis, and indeed many writers have delivered their explanations of the song over many years. 

My favourite of its many verses is this one -

“….Cinderella, she seems so easy, "It takes one to know one", she smiles/And puts her hands in her back pockets - Bette Davis style/And in comes Romeo, he's moaning "You Belong to Me I Believe"/And someone says, "You're in the wrong place, my friend, you'd better leave"/And the only sound that's left after the ambulances go/Is Cinderella sweeping up on Desolation Row…”

Pretty impossible to analyse, isn't it? Yet eternally fascinating and inspirational at the same time. Without knowing what the hell it is about, I am lifted up and enlivened by it every time.


The album is packed with other gems too - The frenetic blues rock of Tombstone Blues ; the imagery of It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry; the madcap blues of From A Buick 6 and the religious overtones of the barnstorming title track. 

Then there is the lyrical poetry and swirling organ attack of Queen Jane Approximately and Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues with its great opening line  - “when you’re lost in the rain in Juarez, and it’s Easter time too…”.

Ballad Of A Thin Man sees Dylan spiting out invective at “Mr Jones” as only Dylan circa 1965 could do. Every track broke new boundaries. Simply one of the greatest albums of all time. “Sgt. who”? Two years before Pepper, Dylan was releasing material like this.

The few unused outtakes that date from this album's sessions include the upbeat, harmonica and organ-driven blues of Sitting On A Barbed-Wire Fence (which contains a few paraphrased lyrics from Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues), the lively non-album single and vaguely Stonesy Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window and the most well-known of the non-album singles, the beguiling, again organ-enhanced Positively 4th Street. Also knocking around from this period is the sub-one minute blues romp of Jet Pilot

   

Blonde On Blonde (1966)


Rainy Day Women #12 & #35/Pledging My Time/Visions Of Johanna/One Of Us Must Know (Sooner Or Later)/I Want You/Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues/Leopard-Sin Pill-Box Hat/Just Like A Woman/Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I'll Go Mine)/Temporary Like Achilles/Absolutely Sweet Marie/Fourth Time Around/Obviously Five Believers/Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands 

"That thin, wild mercury sound - metallic and bright gold" - Bob Dylan                      

Before Sgt Pepper had been conceived of came Dylan's double album masterpiece, Blonde On Blonde, his third consecutive "electric" album featuring what he described as "that wild, mercury sound" - a sort of guitar, swirling organ and crystal clear cymbal/percussion sound that is pretty much unique to this album alone, in all his works.

It is a magnificent, ground-breaking work of contemporary musical and lyrical art. For a start, double albums were virtually unheard of, let alone one side of a vinyl disc being taken up with one single track, as here in Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands. Indeed, this was the rock genre's first double album. Dylan's vocal delivery was as good as it had ever been, many of his lyrics were actual poems, full of intriguing imagery, the result of an imagination running wild and free. The connection with traditional blues musical conceits was a strong one too. There is some great blues material on here.

For many, this was/is Bob Dylan's crowning achievement. It is difficult to disagree. It is also very difficult to review because a) it is so damn good and b) so many people have offered so many opinions on it. Mine are just some more.

  

Anyway, here we go. For me, the album starts disappointingly, with one of my least favourite Dylan songs of all time and one I regularly skip, to be honest. Yes, Rainy Day Women #12 & #35 is a lively, brass-driven "oompah" of a opener, a Salvation Army band and a lyric urging the world and his wife to "get stoned". Right on, man. However, I have always found it tiresome and a trifle idiotic. It seems to be the product of a drunken or drug-addled bit of studio messing around that has no place on an album full of so much quality as this one. Many clearly still love it. I don't. Sorry.

Ok, enough of that faux good-time druggy nonsense, let's get down to playing some blues. Thankfully, the Chicago blues of Pledging My Time did just that. Guitar, drum and piano to the fore and a general sombre tone that sits far better with the album as a whole. It sets the one far more than the incongruous opener did. Some excellent harmonica from Dylan as well.

Now for the poetic genius to join the party. Visions Of Johanna - a great bass line and shuffling drum sound (not to forget that whistling organ) underpins some wonderful, epic, imagery-packed lyrics. One of those that is just pretty impossible to analyse. Who are Louise and Johanna? We don't need to know, really. Each time one listens, the images of them changes. Just one of Dylan's finest-ever compositions. Compare a song like this to those on Rubber Soul. It is one of night and day. "Inside the museums, infinity goes up on trial..". Could anyone match lines like that at the time? No. A huge no.

The line "jewels and binoculars hang from the head of a mule" was given life on the cover of The Rolling Stones' 1969 live album, Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out.

One Of Us Must Know (Sooner Or Later) apparently took ages to record, with many takes. You couldn't tell, it seemed totally perfect to me, with an addictive hook on the chorus with matching rat-a-tat drum rolls. As with all the material on the album, the sound is fantastic, particularly when considering it dates from 1966. I love this track - Dylan's affected vocals, the cymbal sound, the drums, the piano, the organ and that huge swell of musical majesty leading into the "sooner or later" chorus lines. Just perfect. Even more, perfect, unbelievably, is my favourite track on the album, the lovely, melodic I Want You with its heartfelt lyrics and beautifully descending guitar part. It is strangely short, though.

Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again was another dyed-in-the wool classic. Lively, fast-paced drum sound, organ blowing around and more imagery than in a complete works of Shakespeare. For a 1965-66 composition, this really is an utterly remarkable piece of work. To think that Sgt Pepper and songs like When I'm 64 were considered to be world-changing is almost incomprehensible when you listen to this. The song influenced so many mid-seventies rock artists, notably Cockney Rebel'Steve Harley (his What Ruthy Said paraphrased Dylan's lyric from this song) and Mott The Hoople's Ian Hunter (particularly on No Wheels To Ride and God (Take 1). On this album, it ends a run of four completely brilliant songs in a row. The crashing cymbals at the end seem to say "ok time for a brief interlude, how was that for starters?".

Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat sounds quite vapid in comparison - a simple, repeat verses chugging  Chicago-style blues. It is, however, a credible blues, with some searing guitar parts, particularly Robbie Robertson's solo two minutes in. Most Likely You Go Your Way And I'll Go Mine is a lively blues upbeat rocker, short, sharp and pretty dispensable in comparison with much of the other material. In between these two blues songs, though, is the sumptuous, beautiful Just Like A Woman - "with her fog, her amphetamine and her pearls". Accusations of lyrical misogyny tend to fall short, to be honest as pretty much any song written by a member of one sex about the idiosyncrasies of the other are almost bound to attract such accusations.



It was blues all the way for a while now, with the lengthy slow blues of the plaintive Temporary Like Achilles and the more up-tempo, organ-driven rocky Absolutely Sweet Marie, which has always reminded me of Queen Jane Approximately from Highway 61 Revisited.

4th Time Around is, of course, remarkably similar to John Lennon's Norwegian Wood - coincidence, a spiteful warning or a playful tease? I plump for the latter. Dylan got on with The Beatles and respected them too. There was never any real bad blood between The BeatlesThe StonesThe Beach BoysDylanElvis and so on. Certainly not as been suggested by some.

Obviously 5 Believers is probably the most authentic fast blues rocker on the album. It sounds as if it would have fitted well on to Highway 61 Revisited. Amongst all the cornerstones of genius - JohannaMemphisI Want YouOne Of Us Must KnowWoman and Lowlands this is very much a blues rock album. Take those tracks out of it and that is what you have got.

The blues is left behind, though, on the album's mighty, stately tour de forceSad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands, written for his wife, Sara. Apparently Dylan considered it the best song he had ever written at the time. It is lengthy - eleven minutes or so and once again full of all sorts of images and couplets that bely analysis. It captures that wild, mercury Sound as much as any song on the album.  For me, it is up there with Desolation Row and Like A Rolling Stone in my best Dylan songs. A wonderful end to a simply wonderful album.

Below is an old picture of New York's Chelsea Hotel, in which Dylan wrote Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands.

Two tracks that did not make it on to the final album are the potentially excellent, but frustratingly unfinished (even after six minutes plus) She's Your Lover Now, and I'll Keep It With Mine, that was initially recorded in 1964, for Bringing It All Back Home. The latter would not have suited this album at all, being very 1964 in its sound. There is also the rocking Beatles parody I Wanna Be Your Lover from 1966 sessions too.



THE COUNTRY ROCK YEARS (1968-1972)



Always willing to change, Bob Dylan did it again in this period, "going country" as many artists did at the same time, producing some of his most laid-back, unthreatening work.

The Basement Tapes (1967)


I have always had a bit of a problem with this sprawling album of largely "demo" songs being hailed as one of the greatest albums of all time, packed full of works of genius. While it is not quite in the execrable category as The Beach Boys' equivalent of studio buffoonery Smiley Smile, not by a long way, I still have difficulty in accepting the album as anything other than a reasonably interesting collection of loose, pressure-off, relatively light-hearted pieces of studio fun. "Open the door, Richard..." is no improvised slice of genius, to me.

Yes, there are some genuinely enjoyable tracks on here. Personally, I really enjoy Apple Sucking Tree in an odd way, with its melodic swirling organ and Dylan's enthusiastically-delivered vocal. The same applies to Please, Mrs. Henry. Another couple of favourites are the lively Orange Juice Blues and Million Dollar Bash (later covered by Fairport Convention). The Band's impossibly bluesy Yazoo Street Scandal is good too, but it is much better on Music From Big Pink. Similarly, I much prefer The Band's Tears Of Rage to this one here, which is decidedly lo-fi and Dylan's vocal somewhat more nasal than usual. Speaking of the sound, it has always been "bootleg" lo-fi and no amount of remastering will be able to completely change that. As the title suggests it was recorded in a basement and the sound will be thus adversely affected. For some, this ropey sound is part of the appeal and I can sort of understand that. Not quite for me. Just my personal taste. Played on a decent system, though, it sounds as good as it has ever done under its latest remastering. The opener, Odds And Ends sounds as good as I have heard it, to be fair. An interesting thing to me is also the fact that the sound on The Bootleg Series - Basement Tapes Raw is infinitely better than on the original Basement Tapes. Check out This Wheel's On Fire and You Aint Goin' Nowhere for convincing evidence.

I am writing this as a lifetime Dylan/Band fan (dating from the late sixties) in case you are wondering.


Too Much Of Nothing is ok in a Blonde On Blonde sort of way, but it is nowhere near up the standard of that album, let's be honest. Also, like many of the songs on here, I prefer another version, this time it is British folk group Fotheringay's take on it. There is, admittedly, an appeal in the loose, chilled-out enjoyment that is palpable in Dylan & The Band's delivery of fun material like Yea! Hey And A Bottle Of Bread. Yes, it is clear that they all had a great time the studio recording all this stuff and that comes across loud and clear but, personally, I prefer a perfect studio album that was painstakingly recorded, however difficult its genesis maybe had been. The sound on Tiny Montgomery is pretty awful, it has to be said. I have no desire to listen to it too often. I have to admit a weakness for the take on Long Distance Operator, though. Dylan's This Wheels On Fire is evocative, too. So, there is certainly good stuff to be found on the album, that cannot be denied, despite my other misgivings.


Also, I don't view this album as a treasure trove of "Americana" either, despite the presence of songs like the appealing Crash On The Levee (Down On The Flood) and The Band's Ruben Remus.  There is far more of that to be found on The Band's first two albums, or on late sixties material from The Byrds  and Crosby, Stills & Nash.  I would much rather listen to all that material before this one. That is not to say I cannot enjoy things like Don't Ya Tell Henry on occasions, however.

The musicians involved on the album have said many times over the years that the material was never intended to be released - they were just trying out a whole heap of songs and styles and having fun doing it. Robbie Robertson has expressed disappointment that the stuff got bootlegged. For me, it will always sound rough and ready, some guys having a good time in the studio, and were it not Bob Dylan & The Band, it would not have garnered 1% of the attention of that it subsequently did. But, because it was them, it does have an interest. Give me Music From Big Pink anyday, though. Sorry.

John Wesley Harding (1967)


John Wesley Harding/As I Went Out One Morning/I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine/All Along The Watchtower/The Ballad Of Frankie Lee And Judas Priest/Drifter's Escape/Dear Landlord/I Am A Lonesome Hobo/I Pity The Poor Immigrant/The Wicked Messenger/Down Along The Cove/I'll Be Your Baby Tonight  

"What I'm trying to do now is not use too many words" - Bob Dylan

John Wesley Harding was Bob Dylan’s somewhat low-key 1968 album release. After the glory that was Blonde On Blonde, from two years earlier, Dylan had suffered a motorcycle accident and had gone low profile for a year or so. He had recorded some material with The Band, but otherwise he had gone to ground, tired of the stresses of being incredibly famous. Briefly, he had had enough of the whole thing and it deemed his muse had deserted him, to a certain extent. He was back in 1968, after The BeatlesThe Rolling Stones and The Beach Boys had produced, or were in the process of producing, works of high quality, so he returned with an almost deliberately low-profile, laid-back album of folky songs. Based around acoustic guitar, a melodious bass, some trademark harmonica and a gentle drum sound, there were no extended works of genius on here, like Desolation Row or Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands. Just a collection of sensitive, often quiet, reflective songs with a fair amount of biblical references dotted around in the lyrics. It must be remembered that this album was released into a maelstrom of psychedelia and full-on electric stuff from Jimi HendrixCream and the like. To revert back to quieter, tuneful folky, country-influenced material was a huge move.  It also pretty much kick-started the “country rock” genre. Crosby, Stills and Nash were waiting in the wings.

I feel this album has been unfairly overlooked in many ways. It was as ground-breaking as any other album he produced, and more than that, it was simply a good album. It is certainly deserving of a place in any Dylan Top Ten Albums list.

John Wesley Harding was a mid-paced gentle beat song about a Western gunfighter with an addictive bass line that sounds great on the mono recording. As I Went Out One Morning also has a simply wonderful deep, tuneful bass line and an insistent drum sound and some mysterious lyrics, together with some trademark Dylan harmonica. This continues in the appealing slow paced I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine, which saw Dylan in good lyrical form and a delivery similar to “that wild mercury sound” aimed for on Blonde On Blonde. It is one of the album’s best tracks, full of imagery, mystery and intrigue. Up next is the iconic All Along The Watchtower. Everyone seems to prefer Jimi Hendrix’s version, even Dylan, but I like the stark, bleak, storm-gathering portentous feel of the original as presented here. It is a great big cynical warning of doom and its contemporary effect cannot be underestimated.


The high quality continues with the album’s big narrative tale , that of The Ballad Of Frankie Lee And Judas Priest. Full of great lyrics, Western imagery and wonderful characterisation. A forerunner, in many ways, of Lily, Rosemary & The Jack Of Hearts from 1974’s Blood On The Tracks. Again, an impressive thumping bass on this. Drifter's Escape is a harmonica and shuffling drums-dominated number, with, again, some perplexing lyrics. Dear Landlord is a piano-driven “Mr Jones” style slow, well-delivered ballad with crystal clear sound throughout. Yet again, I have to say that the bass is phenomenal.

I Am A Lonesome Hobo is a superb, bass-driven, lyrically sharp and musically uplifting number, one of the album’s best. Insistent, questioning, wise - Dylan on top form all round. I Pity The Poor Immigrant is a plaintive, sensitive song that harks back to the “protest” songs of the early sixties. It would not have sounded out of place on The Times They Are A-Changing.

The Wicked Messenger is an upbeat, rocky number with echoes of the “stream of consciousness” lyrics and electric sound of Subterranean Homesick Blues and Chuck Berry's You Can't Catch MeDown Along The Cove is another faster-paced bluesy number slightly reminiscent of Van Morrison’s Them with jazzy hints of Georgie Fame’s Yeh Yeh.  It finds Dylan in unusually playful mode, musically and vocally. The most “fun” track on the album.

I'll Be Your Baby Tonight is a gentle, country style romantic number that hinted at the material that would populate future albums like Self Portrait and New Morning.

Regarding the sound, the album sounds great in stereo,  but it is the only one of the “electric” era Dylan albums that has a very good case for sounding better in mono. The mono really brings the bass to the fore. It sounds great. I prefer Highway 61 and Blonde in stereo. This one, I am not so sure. There is a real power, clarity and attack on the mono version. The bass is just beautiful. The Wicked Messenger is a good example, on the stereo, the descending bass “riff” bit is, for some inexplicable reason, much quieter. Pretty unforgivable, to be honest.

The stereo is more subtle, more melodic, but for me, I think, on this occasion, the mono wins.

Nashville Skyline (1969)


Girl From The North Country/Nashville Skyline/To Be Alone With You/I Threw It All Away/Peggy Day/Lay Lady Lay/One More Night/Tell Me That It Isn't True/Country/Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You  

"Our generation owes him our artistic lives" - Kris Kristofferson
 
I've always found it a strange little album, Nashville Skyline. Consistent to his seemingly perverse nature around this time, in early 1969, Bob Dylan gave his impatiently waiting fans, who were expecting the next work of genius, less than half an hour’s worth of light country music. The album has to be viewed individually and objectively, in order to get the positives out of it and comparisons with Blonde On BlondeHighway 61 Revisted, or even with the more country-influenced John Wesley Harding are futile. The latter still had songs like All Along The Watchtower and The Ballad Of Frankie Lee And Judas Priest on it, there was certainly nothing like that on here.

Neither was there any of the psychedelic or blues rock that was de rigeur in 1968-69 around. “Country Rock” was starting to become the thing to delve into in the late sixties/early seventies. The Byrds were heading that way, as were The BandCrosby Stills & Nash would put out their eponymous album a month later. As if to emphasise the light-hearted, easy-going country nature of the recording Dylan appeared grinning on the cover, in a cowboy-style hat and holding an acoustic guitar.

Girl From The North Country is a wonderful country duet with Johnny Cash, whose resonant voice adds a real timbre to the song. Dylan’s voice is obviously much weaker, but not to the detriment of the song.

Nashville Skyline is an energetic, finger-picking instrumental that is pleasant enough. “Is it Rolling, Bob?” Is the voice from the studio that introduces the tuneful and bassy, almost rocky To Be Alone With You. It was a fun workout, but hardly Like A Rolling Stone. People had to get used to the fact that Dylan wanted to do this sort of material now and that was that. The best cut on the album, in my opinion, is the sad and yearning I Threw It All Away. A gentle, laid-back piece of country rock.

Peggy Day is another jaunty, pleasant song. There is nothing dark or sombre about this album, despite some of the sad-sounding vocal deliveries. The album simply does not bear to much over-analysis. To me it is simply a pleasurable half hour.

The rhythmic Lay Lady Lay is the best known track. It has an addictive percussion sound and a witheringly endearing vocal from Dylan.

One More Night is spirited and uplifting. Some great instrumentation on it. Who would have thought Dylan would release gentle toe-tappers like this? The album had a charming, laid-back, homely feel, as indeed had Dylan’s crooning-style country voice, affected for this album. This would continue into parts of Self Portrait and New Morning too. Indeed, the sneering, urban drawl of those classic sixties recordings had gone forever, which was a shame but it was what it was.

Tell Me That It Isn't True is underpinned by some lovely acoustic guitar, piano and organ, it was another gentle, harmless melody. Quite how Dylan fans got their heads round this at the time is unclear.

Country Pie is a lively country romp, enlivened by some excellent guitar licks and a entrancing bass sound. It finishes, unfortunately, all too soon. The brief half hour was over with the steel guitar backed and wistfully romantic Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With YouKris Kristofferson is quoted as saying that himself and many other artists “owed their careers” to this album, as it opened many more eyes to country music, which previously had been a conservative, closed shop. With the release of this album, it became “cool” to dig country, man.

Travelin' Thru: The Bootleg Series Vol. 15 (1967-1969)

                                                                       
Session material from 1967-1969

Another year, another release in the consistently excellent Bootleg Series of Bob Dylan's alternate takes and session outtakes. This time it covers material from 1967-1969, which includes the John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline albums. Most of the tracks are included in some form or another, apart from Tonight I'l Be Staying Here With You from Nashville Skyline and The Ballad Of Frankie Lee And Judas PriestDear LandlordWicked MessengerDown Along The Cove and I'll Be Your Baby Tonight from JWH.

The Dylan session cuts are lovely, full of gentle, bassy warmth as exemplified on Tell Me That It Isn't True and a beautiful take of Lay Lady Lay. The latter is performed without the rhythmic percussion, leaving just the bass and is totally disarming. Country Pie is excellent too, somehow better than the version that was eventually used. The same can be said of To Be Alone With You. From JWH, I Pity The Poor Immigrant and I Am A Lonesome Hobo are similarly appealing in their understated, warm delivery. All Along The Watchtower (Take 3) is great, with a big rumbling bass line and killer wailing harmonica. It is not to different to the eventual version, to be honest. I just love it anyway. Drifter's Escape (Take 1) is given a more upbeat, military-style drumbeat to the more regular, metronomic one that was eventually used. It is a slightly quicker rendition. I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine (Take 2) is slightly faster and probably not quite the equal of the final album version. John Wesley Harding (Take 1) is also a bit more pacy but the actual album take was so good that it takes some beating.

The JWH outtakes are probably not particularly interesting or different, however, in the way that the Blood On The Tracks ones from the previous Bootleg Series release were, but I have to say I enjoyed the Nashville Skyline session versions a lot.

Much of the second half of the box set is taken up with material from the sessions Dylan recorded with Johnny Cash. These are really good, unearthing some impressive and highly listenable songs like I Still Miss Someone and the bluesy country romp of Matchbox. Once more, the sound quality is superb and the bass smoulders in a most attractive, comforting manner. Big River is healthily vibrant with great vocals from both artists and infectious backing. Unfortunately, the pair's rehearsal of Girl From The North Country has an awful vocal from Dylan, particularly when compared to Cash's. It is almost as if Cash is teaching Dylan how to sing, the difference between the two is so clear. Thankfully things improve a bit on Take 1 of the song.

The country-ish Guess Things Happen That Way is a much better duet, full of melody and enthusiasm. The same can be said of the delightful western fun of Wanted Man. Cash's iconic Ring Of Fire is sung solo by Dylan and I really like it. It is given a bluesy makeover that I much prefer to its original country sound. Great harmonica in it too. The two of them do a good job on Cash's classic, I Walk The Line and that is also true of the lengthy Careless LoveArthur "Big Boy" Crudup/Elvis Presley's That's All Right is a pile of fun and really enjoyable to listen to and this vibe continues on Mystery Train.


East Virginia Blues (with Earl Scruggs) was recorded in mono for some reason but it has a winsome country blues, guitar-pickin' appeal. The live material from the Johnny Cash Show is good too. Overall, this is shorter box than some of the other Bootleg Series offerings, largely due to the fact that a) there weren't that many outtakes from the John Wesley Harding sessions in particular and b) much of the session material from the period 1967-69 has subsequently been lost.

The Cash sessions were possibly recorded with a view to releasing a duet album but for whatever reason it never happened, only Girl From The North Country saw the light of day, which was a shame because there was some excellent stuff here.

Self Portrait (1970)


All The Tired Horses/Alberta #1/I Forgot More Than You'll Ever Know/Days Of '49/Early Mornin' Rain/In Search Of Little Sadie/Let It Be Me/Little Sadie/Woogie Boogie/Belle Isle/Living The Blues/Like A Rolling Stone (Live)/Copper Kettle/Gotta Travel On/Blue Moon/The Boxer/Quinn The Eskimo (The Mghty Quinn)/Take Me As I Am Or Let Me Go/Take A Message To Mary/It Hurts Me Too/Minstrel Boy/She Belongs To Me/Wigwam/Alberta #2 

"At the time, I was in Woodstock, and I was getting a great degree of notoriety for doing nothing. Then I had that motorcycle accident [in 1966], which put me out of commission. Then, when I woke up and caught my senses, I realised that I was workin' for all these leeches. And I didn't wanna do that. Plus, I had a family, and I just wanted to see my kids" - Bob Dylan   

Bob Dylan, infuriated by the public’s desire for him to produce works of genius every year or so, supposedly released this album in 1970 as a throwaway work of rubbish, just to spite the ever-expectant public. The perceived wisdom is that it is drivel, much like The Beach Boys’ dreadful Smiley Smile. Over the years, however, opinions have softened regarding it. I, personally, have always quite liked it. Taken as an extension of the country style introduced on its predecessor, Nashville Skyline, it is not a bad album at all. Indeed, I consider a better album than the previous one. It is longer and its instrumentation more varied and the song's diversity is far greater. The music played is excellent and the sound quality superb.
                                                  
All The Tired Horses with its gospel voices and nothing more, is a bit throwaway, admittedly, but Alberta is laid-back and sweetly romantic, very much in a Nashville Skyline way, and I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know is a twangy and appealing country lament. Days of ’49, strong, insistent and bluesy, is a historical tale delivered in confident fashion by Dylan, as indeed is the next track, Gordon Lightfoot’s delightful Early Morning Rain. These don’t sound like an artist producing rubbish for the sake of it, to annoy people. He actually sounds as if he is enjoying playing this sort of material, as indeed he had on Nashville Skyline. The intensity in which he attacks the sad tale of In Search Of Little Sadie can’t really be questioned, in my book. Dylan’s cover of the ballad Let It Be Me may have appalled some, but I have always fund it charming and disarming.

Little Sadie is a fun slice of country, acoustic boogie, while Woogie Boogie is the real thing - some upbeat barroom rocking piano. Damn, I am enjoying listening to this again. In many parts it matches the similarly sprawling and country-style experimentation of The Basement Tapes, which is much-lauded by pretty much everyone. Furthermore, everyone loved The ByrdsSweetheart Of The Rodeo, from 1968, so why not parts of this?

Belle Isle is just endearingly lovely. Just take these songs in isolation, if you have to, forget they are Bob Dylan, the composer of Desolation Row and so on. Just enjoy them for what they are. Living The Blues is, as would imagine, bluesy. The sound on it is superb, bassy and captivating. Dylan’s vocal is sleepily appealing, as are the Elvis-style “a-ha” backing vocals. The band are top notch. None of this album sounds half-baked or throwaway to me. What the heck, if some embittered “musos” disagree with me, or moaned and griped in 1970 - who cares?

Copper Kettle could easily have been a track from New Morning, to be honest. If it had been, it would have garnered praise. “We an’t paid no whiskey tax since 1792” is a line I have always liked. Gotta Travel On has some intoxicating percussion rhythms and some bluesy slide guitar. This is a very Beggars’ Banquet-style song. That album was loved by everyone. If Mick Jagger had wrapped his tonsils around this, it would have been loved, so why not this? It’s great.


The quality does admittedly suffer a little as the double album continues on its way. I have not commented on the live tracks, as I feel they were superfluous to the album. Blue Moon is veering into Elvis territory and also the sort of thing Dylan unfortunately records nowadays. Dylan’s cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s The Boxer doesn’t work as well as their version and Dylan’s lazy-ish vocal here does him no favours.

 Take Me As I Am Or Let Me Go is a steel guitar country crooner. Take A Message To Mary certainly would not have sounded out of place on Nashville Skyline. Again, though, it is perfectly enjoyable, taken for what it is. It Hurts Me Too is a relaxing country ballad. Minstrel Boy is bluesy and somewhat drunken in deliver. Wigwam certainly is a waste of time, a rather discordant brassy instrumental, rather like a New Orleans funeral. Alberta 2 is a nice, rhythmic and bassy end to the album, raising the quality back up a bit.

By its end, the album does start to lose its appeal a little. A single album would have been far preferable and could have contained quite a few tracks, as they are quite short. It would not have been criticised as much, take out the live tracks and some of these at the end and you have a reasonable album. Go up to Gotta Travel On (leaving out the Tired Horses), add Alberta 2. That’s thirteen shortish tracks of good quality. It was the adding on of too much sprawling filler that did for this album, not the first half of it.

New Morning (1970)


If Not For You/Day Of The Locusts/Time Passes Slowly/Went To See The Gypsy/Winterlude/If Dogs Run Free/New Morning/Sign On The Window/One More Weekend/The Man In Me/Three Angels/Father Of Night  

"I didn't say, 'Oh my God, they don't like this, let me do another one,' it wasn't like that. It just happened coincidentally that one came out and then the other one did as soon as it did. The 'Self Portrait' LP laid around for I think a year. We were working on 'New Morning' when the 'Self Portrait' album got put together"  - Bob Dylan
  
Around 1970-72 was the time many artists put out laid-back, contemplative, rustic country rock - Van Morrison's Tupelo HoneyCrosby, Stills, Nash and Young's Deja Vu and this, from Bob Dylan. It is a beguiling piece of work. It has been praised a lot, especially in comparison with Self Portrait, which I feel is wide of the mark, slightly. Personally, I much prefer the latter. This album I find somewhat stark and unrealised. It came only four months after the reviled Self Portrait, yet it avoided the brickbats and was hailed as a refreshing breath of fresh air. I am not quite sure why. It has always seemed throwaway and lightweight, to me.

If Not For You (covered by George Harrison on All Things Must Pass and made a hit single by Olivia Newton-John is appealing and country-ish. Day Of The Locusts was a bit of a bizarre, staccato song about Dylan receiving an honorary degree, while Time Passes Slowly is very much in the Nashville Skyline country vein.

Went To See The Gypsy is one of the best cuts, a full, bassy, pounding tale of Dylan visiting Elvis Presley in concert in Las Vegas. There is a better version of it on Another Self Portrait, however. Winterlude has a waltz beat and sounds like an old country song from the 1940s. If Dogs Run Free is  quite a rarity among Dylan songs - it is a piano-driven jazzy number with Dylan throatily croaking some cod-philosophy while backed by some intensely irritating "Scooby-doo-dooo, bah, bah, bah..." "scat" vocals. At times, this really is quite awful, yet it has a strange vibrancy of sound about it the gives it a sort of perverse appeal.


New Morning features some excellent organ and bass work and has a lively, upbeat refrain. One of the album's best tracks. Sign On The Window is very much a Self Portrait type song - a plaintive piano-driven ballad, featuring some intrusive "woo-woo" backing vocals at times. It has Dylan ruminating about living in a cabin in Utah, catching rainbow trout and having a bunch of kids who all him "Pa". All very relaxed.

The best (and only) blues rocker on the album is the punchy One More Weekend, this is probably my favourite and is a throwback to the mid sixties. It is good to hear him rock and sing about seduction, as opposed to bucolic pleasures, for the first time in a while. The Man In Me is not at all bad either - a slow soulful groove. Less of the country, more of the Band-style rock ballad.

Three Angels is a bizarre oddity. Dylan narrates some surreal lyrics about what, I am not really sure. Father Of Night is one of Dylan's first devotional sons, a precursor to his 79-82 "born again" material, but, as yet, he had not seen the light.

A non-album track dating from 1971 is the country ballad, Wallflower, which is an ordinary-enough song not to trouble one either way wondering whether it should have been on the album or not. There is also the version of If Not For You that was recorded with George Harrison. Harrison recorded his own version for his triple album, All Things Must Pass.

Watching The River Flow was a 1971 blues rock single recorded with Leon Russell.


Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid (1973)


Main Title Theme/Cantina Theme/Billy 1/Bunkhouse Theme/River Theme/Turkey Chase/Knockin' On Heaven's Door/Final Theme/Billy 4/Billy 7 

"It is every bit as inept, amateurish and embarrassing as 'Self Portrait'. And it has all the earmarks of a deliberate courting of commercial disaster, a flirtation that is apparently part of an attempt to free himself from previously imposed obligations derived from his audience"   - Jon Landau  
I am not sure I agree with Landau's somewhat sour comment above. This is obviously a movie soundtrack album, as opposed to a regular album release, so there are not really quite as many observations to be made. There are some good tracks on the album, though, making it more credible than many think, particularly as it was Dylan's first material for three years.
                                             
The Main Title Theme is an appealing piece of Mexican-influenced guitar and rhythm with some addictive, full bass lines coming in half way through. It is actually a really nice piece. The bongos and acoustic guitar of Cantina Theme are attractive too. A notable thing to this album is just how good the sound is. Billy 1 is a harmonica-drenched, Latin-tinged track with some Dylan vocals. Again, it is not a bad song with echoes of the later Romance In DurangoBunkhouse Theme is a few minutes of slow finger picking guitar, slightly affected by some strange scratchy background noises. River Theme is more of the same, but without the noises and Turkey Chase is a lively piece of country fiddle and guitar fun.


The big track on here, of course, is the mournful and solemnly wonderful Knockin' On Heaven's Door. I have always loved it and still do. It has a great bass line to it too, which is continued in Final Theme, enhanced by some fetching flute passages. Billy 4 is a fine, evocative song too, telling a tale in typical Dylan narrative style, and featuring some trademark harmonica. Billy 7 is shorter but still an atmospheric song.

The presence of the three Billy songs and Heaven's Door make this more than just an album of background music. It is a worthwhile occasional listen.


Dylan (1973)


Lily Of The West/Can't Help Falling In Love/Sarah Jane/The Ballad Of Ira Hayes/Mr. Bojangles/Mary Ann/Big Yellow Taxi/A Fool Such As I/Spanish Is The Loving Tongue 

"These were songs not to be used - I thought that was understood" -  Bob Dylan
                               
It is time that this long-reviled album got a reassessment. It has long since been withdrawn. I remember it coming out, though, and getting bad reviews. It is now available on the Bob Dylan Complete Works Box Set, which is how I obtained it. Expecting the worst, I was pleasantly surprised upon hearing it. Expecting it to be absolutely execrable, I found it to be probably two thirds dreadful, which has to be taken as a positive. It is an album of mainly cover versions recorded as warm-ups for Self Portrait in 1970 and released as part of a legal dispute between record labels in 1973. Something to do with Columbia and Asylum. I can't actually be bothered to research the minutiae behind it.

Anyway, on to the music. Lily Of The West is a jaunty, tuneful and attractive Wild West tale and Dylan's take on Elvis's Can't Help Falling In Love is nowhere near as bad as has been said. Sarah Jane suffers from poor production, and Dylan's insistence of singing "Sar-oh" instead of "Sarah", it is the only Dylan original composition on the album. The backing singers sound louder that Dylan, so it doesn't really come off. The Ballad Of Ira Hayes is a heartbreaking narrative about the Native American-descended soldier who was one of those who raised the US flag on Iwo Jima and died a penniless drunk. It again is the victim of a hissy production.

I have to say, Mr Bojangles doesn't really come off, but it is again, nowhere near as bad as many have said. The problem was with this album was that it was a record label "kiss off" of mostly sub-standard, throwaway semi-demos, when so much unreleased high quality material still lay in the vaults. Personally, I had just got into Bob Dylan at the time, at the age of fourteen, and considered getting this album. I had no real concept of how far down the scale of influence he had fallen from his position of eminence in the sixties. The same with The Rolling Stones and the members of The Beatles. I was fourteen, I loved them all and lapped up what they released with no disappointment or cynicism. I bought Knockin' On Heaven's DoorAngie and Red Rose Speedway and loved them.

Mary Ann is an acceptable country ballad that would have been ok on Self Portrait, but Dylan's cover of Joni Mitchell's iconic ecological anthem Big Yellow Taxi sounds as if he was just having a bit of fun the studio. The cover of Elvis's A Fool Such As I is just about acceptable. Spanish Is The Loving Tongue is very hissy and Dylan sounding like a slightly drunken restaurant Mariachi singer. The backing singers come "la-la-la" ing in and its becomes a bit of a joke. Actually, I guess the reviewers were correct all those years ago. This was an abomination. It has to be said, in defence, however, that none of it was Dylan's fault.

Never mind, Planet Waves was only two months away.

MAKING WAVES (1973-1978)



This was a classic phase in Bob Dylan's career. For many, it was the best. Anyway, on to the music.

Planet Waves (1973)


On A Night Like This/Going. Going, Gone/Tough Mama/Hazel/Something There Is About You/Forever Young/Forever Young (fast version)/Dirge/You Angel You/Never Say Goodbye/Wedding Song 

"Cast-iron songs and torch ballads" - Bob Dylan                   
Early 1974's Planet Waves was the bridging album between the folky/country material of the late sixties/early seventies and the acoustic-driven rock poetry that was Blood On The Tracks. It is also as emotionally complex as that album too, no lightweight country pie on here. It is an album that grows on you with each listen, as I listen to it now, I am thinking that the album is better than I had previously thought. The overall sound quality is excellent, by the way, unlike the rather harsh sounding New Morning, but the album itself, as opposed to its hi-fi, is somewhat brutal and tough in its sound, particularly in comparison to the next release, Blood On The Tracks. For this reason it has never been an album that I have particularly warmed to. There are many others that are much more endearing, both lyrically and musically. Many aficionados love it, however, possibly because of Dylan's reunion with The Band for the recording and subsequent tour. It was actually the only studio album Dylan ever recorded with them.

Despite my ambiguous thoughts about it, though, it is definitely Dylan's most confident, "in your face" and confrontational offering since Blonde On Blonde, eight long years previous.
            
On A Night Like This is an energetic, swirling throwback to the days of 1966, with The Band on top form backing Dylan once again and his delivery enthusiastically upbeat. It has an upbeat country rock feel to it.

A beautiful, melodic, deep bass underpins the gorgeous Going, Going, Gone. This is definitely a precursor to Blood On The Tracks, musically, lyrically and atmospherically. It is a dignified, sombre track with a great sound to the backing on it. Robbie Robertson comes up with one hell of a guitar solo to finish the track.

The vibrant, muscular Tough Mama is a Basement Tapes-style bluesy romp, with Garth Hudson's organ blowing and circling around all over the place, like an idiot wind. Hazel with her "dirty blonde hair" is a love song from Dylan to another mercurial woman and most entrancing it is too. There are very slight shades of 1983's Licence To Kill in there somewhere, just before the "touch of your love" part. Dylan delivers a delicious harmonica too. He certainly hadn't laid down a track as suitably "tough" as this since 1966.

Something There Is About You has Dylan being nostalgic about the "old Duluth" of his youth. This is harmonica-driven blues rock song that wouldn't have sounded out of place on either Blood On The Tracks or, indeed, Desire. Tracks like this remind one that Dylan hadn't really laid down anything this powerful since John Wesley Harding and possibly Blonde On Blonde. Forget all that country twanging and folk odes, this was proper Dylan, although there is a harshness to the song's sound that is to its detriment, for me.

Talking of proper Dylan. Forever Young is next. Uplifting inspiring, heartbreaking. One of my favourite Dylan songs of all time. It never fails to get me all emotional. Superb. I remember seeing Dylan in concert with Mark Knopfler at the Hammersmith Odeon a few years back and Knopfler sang this as the encore, with Dylan sitting regally behind the keyboards. Mark turned to him to deliver the line "may your song always be sung" and the great man, just nodded, like The Queen waving to her subjects. A priceless moment. The faster version of the same song that comes next doesn't do it for me. The slow version is the definitive one, in my opinion. This slightly rockabilly version of it deprives of of its soul, its emotion. It should have stayed on the cutting room floor, maybe replaced by Nobody 'Cept You (see end of the review). Incidentally, on the slow version the only just in his thirties Dylan now sounds, vocally, like a wise old man of much more advanced age.

Only Dylan could title his own song Dirge. Here he is backed by Robertson, while he plays piano. It is a stark, emotions bared song that, at the time people presumed was about his marriage. Robertson's guitar is sumptuous and while the song is stark and bleak, it is no dirge, certainly musically. Listening to it, though, you definitely realise Blood On The Tracks is on the way. Many Dylanlogists have used it to exemplify the beginnings of the relationship angst that would dominate the next album. Opening line of "I hate myself for loving you and the weakness it showed..." helped considerably in such analyses. The next three songs see Dylan in a disarmingly loved-up mood, however, so things had not gone bad just yet.

You Angel You is a most appealing Band-style mid-tempo rocker. "If this is love give me more, more, more" pleads a romantically-rejuvenated Dylan over another magnificent, typically Band organ break. It is the album's most instantly attractive number. Never Say Goodbye starts with some searing guitar, fine deep bass too and is a beguiling, romantic slow burner with Dylan clearly in love  - once again, musically, it is very Band-like. It is so good to have this type of Dylan back, so to speak, listening to this. We had missed him. Wedding Song is a stark, acoustic guitar and harmonica folky love song that is very much in the acoustic part of Blood On The Tracks style.

As I said earlier, personal ambivalence put to one side, there is no real question that this is, by far, Bob Dylan's most credible album since John Wesley Harding. He was now entering a four year halcyon period, the third great one of his career.

The one notable exclusion from the album's sessions was Nobody 'Cept You, omitted in favour of Wedding Song as Dylan was not happy with the song. It is surprising as the recording is gently appealing, enhanced by some subtle wah-wah guitar and an ambience that looks forward to the feel of Blood On The Tracks. I have always liked the track and it would have easily fitted on to the album, as I said earlier, replacing the fast version of Forever Young, if necessary.



Before The Flood (with The Band) (1974)


Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I'll Go Mine)/Lay Lady Lay/Knockin' On Heaven's Door/It Ain't Me Babe/Ballad Of A Thin Man/Up On Cripple Creek (The Band)/I Shall Be Released (The Band)/Endless Highway (The Band)/The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down (The Band)/Stage Fright (The Band)/Don't Think Twice, It's Alright/Just Like A Woman/It's Alright Ma, I'm Only Bleeding/The Shape I'm In (The Band)/When You Awake (The Band)/The Weight (The Band)/All Along The Watchtower/Highway 61 Revisited/Like A Rolling Stone/Blowin' In The Wind  

This is possibly Bob Dylan's greatest live album and it is also considered to be one of rock music's greatest live albums of all time. In 1974, however, Dylan had been in something of a rut and The Band had seen their better days pass by. Dylan reunited with his old Band(mates) and conjured up a vibrant set of songs dripping in nostalgia (most of them are from the mid-sixties), even in 1974, but also what were often reinterpretations. The instinctive interaction between Dylan and The Band is clear for all to hear. The remastered sound on the latest edition (in the Complete Works box set) is superb.
                                
Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I'll Go Mine) is an effervescent, rocking opener with Garth Hudson's organ swirling all over the place and Dylan on enthusiastic vocal form. Lay Lady Lay has a typical Band backing. Knockin On Heaven's Door is just perfect. Dylan's vocal is yearning and sad and The Band are just superb. Excellent, crystal clear percussion, drums and keyboards. It Ain't Me Babe is given a radical country-ish rock makeover, with some Cajun undertones. This would develop into a reggae style backing in 1975's Rolling Thunder tour. The seeds of the future pacier renderings of the song were sown here. Ballad Of A Thin Man is just sumptuous, with more addictive backing. The Band are just so damn good on this album.


Now it is time for The Band's brand of retrospective rustic rock. Up On Cripple Creek has a funky, wah-wah guitar and organ backing and a soulful vocal. I Shall Be Released is evocative and plaintively delivered. Endless Highway has a great bass line and another Cajun-sounding organ riff. It rocks, solidly. I have always loved the Civil War-based song The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down (covered by Joan Baez). Actually I prefer Baez's version, but I don't dislike this one. It is their song after all. Stage Fright has a great drum/piano and organ intro and another slightly funky feeling to it.

Dylan is back now, for an acoustic Don't Think Twice, It's Alright. The solo acoustic numbers continue with the wonderful Just Like A Woman and It's Alright Ma, I'm Only Bleeding. He sounds so vocally committed on these tracks. The Band return with the delicious bluesily soulful The Shape I'm In. The melodic When You Awake and the iconic The Weight conclude their solo stuff without Dylan. The great man returns to join them for a barnstorming ending to the album.

All Along The Watchtower is energetically superb, with some guitar that Dire Straits made a career out of a few years later, and an appealing Highway 61 Revisited has a slower, bassier groove than the original. It is again slightly funky. I really like this version. Like A Rolling Stone is positively incendiary, maybe the definitive Dylan live version of the track. He is on fire. Garth Hudson's organ is sublime too, even giving us some playful stuff after the "tricks for you" line. The closer, Blowin' In The Wind is given a rockier backing than usual - a Band groove rather than an acoustic one. It has a great guitar solo in it too.

It is an enjoyable experience listening to this album, with the Dylan stuff and Band performances side by side. Full of variety. No need to recommend it, is there? It speaks for itself.



Blood On The Tracks (1975)


Tangled Up In Blue*/A Simple Twist Of Fate#/You're A Big Girl Now*/Idiot Wind*/You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go#/Meet Me In The Morning#/Lily, Rosemary & The Jack Of Hearts*/If You See Her, Say Hello*/Shelter From The Room#/Buckets Of Rain#                                                      
* December 1974 sessions (Minneapolis)
# September 1974 sessions (New York City)


"Sometimes he will have several bars, and in the next version, he will change his mind about how many bars there should be in between a verse. Or eliminate a verse. Or add a chorus when you don't expect" - Phil Ramone

This was the beginning of the third classic phase of Bob Dylan's career, for many, after the early acoustic protest years, then the "wild mercury sound" of 1965-67's switch to electric era. Yes, there was the laid-back country stuff, but that didn't really merit "classic" status. This did, however. The foundations laid on Planet Waves were fully built on here on one of the finest "relationship break-up" albums of all time. I remember first hearing it as a teenager in March 1975 and being totally blown away by it. In many ways, it is an album so familiar to me that I find it a bit difficult to review. I know the songs so well. It is far easier to review a new album you have just become excited about rather than what has become something of a "comfy old chair" of an album for me. It is an album I love so dearly, but it is one that has been a companion for so long that I am maybe too set in my opinions. Bear with me though.

Anyway, firstly, whatever format one buys this album in, the sound is pretty much uniformly excellent. I have the current remaster from The Complete Album Collection box set. Those crystal clear, razor sharp acoustic guitar parts (check out the intro to You're A Big Girl); that lovely, melodious, gently rumbling bass; that great drum/percussion sound and then Dylan's voice (and also his harmonica) as good as it ever sounded. Just spectacular sound. 

 

I have learnt, over the years, as many have, that the album was initially recorded as a stripped-back, acoustic and bass creation, and that Dylan re-recorded five songs a few months later, in Minneapolis, using a new, full session band. I remember, when I first enjoyed the album, in 1975, automatically thinking that those five songs were the "fuller", more powerful-sounding numbers, without knowing the reason why. Not that I didn't enjoy the stark beauty of the other five, augmented wonderfully as they are by Tony Brown's sumptuous bass lines. I didn't, back in 1975, know about the album's recording history yet the feel of two styles within the one album was one that came over loud and clear. 

I have to say that the original version of the album has an understated, most appealing atmosphere to it that makes it a serious competitor to the eventual release even for those of us who have lived with the album for so long. I love both of them, but there is a mellowness to the original that makes it a most engaging creation, one worthy of considerable attention which the wonders of digital arranging/customising can facilitate. Oh, and the original Meet Me In The Morning has a great - and most surprising - guitar solo at the end. I am not sure why this was omitted from the final release.

Asterisked above are the "full band" songs from the later sessions in December 1974 and the more acoustic ones from September 1974's New York sessions. Now, more takes from the sessions can be enjoyed thanks to the release of the excellent More Blood, More Tracks box set. There is some seriously good stuff on there - alternate versions, slightly different ones and the like. Also, the five afore-mentioned Minneapolis songs have been newly remixed and have a beautifully warm sound quality to them. It also gives you the experience of listening to these five songs as they were presented on the album's "first pressing", recorded acoustically during the New York sessions, resulting in an album which was an offering that CBS executives thought was way too bleak and it is said that Dylan, in consultation with his confidantes, agreed, as he subsequently re-recorded the songs. (Odd though, considering that Planet Waves had been pretty sparse too, yet a more "commercial sound" was being sought after). As for the said songs - If You See Her Say Hello in its initial form is beautiful, with a deep, warm, melodic bass line; Lily, Rosemary & The Jack Of Hearts is slower, acoustic and fits in better with the rest of the album, not being in possession of its later, faster country drum beat; Idiot Wind is also more acoustic and its lyrics are clearer, making them possibly more pointed; You're A Big Girl Now has a gentler, more homegrown, slightly country appeal enhanced by some subtle steel guitar and organ backing; Tangled Up In Blue, however, has some slight differences in the lyrics and delivery that make it one that was probably improved in its later form, for me.


Finally on to my second main point, and this is most important to me, I want to make a case for the often-maligned Lily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts. It is one of my favourite Dylan songs of all time. It was the first song I heard from this album, back in 1975 and I bought the album as a result. Ok, I accept that it sits rather strangely amidst the soul-searching, lyrical poetry of much of the album's other material. However, it is a truly great Dylan "narrative poem" in the same style as Brownsville GirlHurricane and, latterly, Tempest (another one that divides fans). I guess you either like Dylan's "story songs" or you don't. Yes, it is repetitive, musically and in the fact that it is verse after verse irritates some people. However, I love the characterisation, the story, the cinematic atmosphere, Dylan's delivery. It is perfect in every way as far as I'm concerned. I absolutely love it and always have done.



Of, course, I love the rest of the album too - the great poetic songs of Tangled Up In Blue, with its marvellous imagery, about "Italian poets" and so on and the lovely Shelter From The Storm; the tortured and tender love songs - the beguiling Simple Twist Of Fate, the sensitive You're A Big Girl Now and the lovelorn If You See Her Say Hello with their spectacular turns of phrase.

Then there are the slow, insistent blues of Meet Me In The Morning and the two folky "short songs" that end each of the old "sides" - the folky blues of Buckets Of Rain and Dylan trying to be thoughtful and sensitive on You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go. All marvellous in their own pure, simplistic way. These were not tracks of particular wordsmithery but therein lies their appeal when compared to the poetic shimmering of the other songs.

The thing about the album which is often overlooked is that it is not all made up of embittered, heartbroken "break-up blues", lyrically. There are several lovely, tender moments - You're A Big GirlSimple Twist Of Fate and the winsome country of You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go. Even the lover's lament of If You See Her Say Hello is a gentle, affectionate song - these are genuinely touching love songs. A song like the simply gorgeous Shelter From The Storm is certainly not a bitter, resentful one, either. It is one that misses better times gone by. There is only one truly vituperative number, isn't there - lest we forget, the titanic Idiot Wind - Dylan spitting out invective left, right and centre bemoaning his broken relationship, the press and the state of the country/world in general. Even in his criticism though, his use of language is magnificent. I don't have words to describe it sufficiently, I'm afraid. Much as I have declared my love for Lily, Idiot has to be the jewel in the crown.

Another counter to the "bitter, divorce. vitriol..." clichés trotted out about the album is that it ends with two quite tender songs in the reassuring loyalty of Shelter From The Storm and the melodic, unthreatening, almost throwaway country vibe of the short Buckets Of Rain. Nothing about Dylan is clear, though, is it?

This was one of the century's greatest albums. No question. Dylan was finally shedding the burden of his classic 1964-1966 period and proving that he could once again produce a spectacular piece of work. Even at the time I remember feeling that this was an artist re-discovering his greatness. Not all contemporary journalists took that view, though, and notable names such as NME's Nick Kent, who called it "trashy" and soon to be Springsteen champion Jon Landau, who said it had been "made with typical shoddiness", wrote reviews that they presumably felt embarrassed about in later years. It took a few months for its greatness to be slowly acknowledged, which was a noteworthy oddity.

As for me, I'm no journalist but I never tire of listening to it, all these years later. I feel I should have written more about it but for some reason I can't (the same applied to Blonde On Blonde). Maybe Dylan's compositions say all that is needed. Of course they do. 

The two notable excluded tracks from the album's sessions were the bassy, typical Dylan blues of Call Letter Blues, which was probably too close to Meet Me In The Morning to be included and Up To Me, a song very similar to both Tangled Up In Blue and Shelter From The Storm, just with different lyrics. It is actually a lyrical goldmine in its six minutes plus and is a strong contender in the "great forgotten, not included on albums gems" stakes. Both of these are fine songs, but their similarity to others on the album means that their omission was probably the correct call. The entrancing, mysterious Up To Me will always spark discussion and debate, however. There are around five or six versions of it, I think, all of which have a slightly different feel to them, which adds to its considerable intrigue.



Rolling Thunder Live: The Bootleg Series Vol. 6 (1975)


Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You/It Ain't Me Babe/A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall/The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll/Romance In Durango/Isis/Mr. Tambourine Man/Simple Twist Of Fate/Blowin' In The Wind/Mama, You Been On My Mind/I Shall Be Released/It's All Over Now, Baby Blue/Love Minus Zero/No Limit/Tangled Up In Blue/The Water Is Wide/It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry/Oh Sister/Hurricane/One More Cup Of Coffee/Sara/Just Like A Woman/Knockin' On Heaven's Door  
  
Recorded at various locations on the first half of 1975's Rolling Thunder tour.

This is my preferred live recording from the Rolling Thunder tour. Although it is not one complete concert, neither does it replicate a set list it does sort of play as if it were a concert. The recordings are from a fair few different venues and are from the widely accepted superior first half of the tour. The venues are all indoors, and consequently the sound is much better than the muffled outdoor venue sound to be found on Hard Rain, the other live recording from this tour, from the second half.

The sound is pretty good on here throughout and Dylan and the band are on fine form overall, with an early tour freshness and vitality about them.


Highlights are a slightly reggae-ish It Ain't Me Babe; a rocking, guitar-driven A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall; a bassy, shuffling The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll; (good to hear those older tracks given a run out); and the Desire tracks, which are all done excellently, augmented by Scarlet Rivera's unique violin. Check out her contributions to Oh Sister and Hurricane too. Isis and Romance In Durango are also delivered superbly, full of attack and enthusiasm. Dylan seems to be enjoying himself immensely. Later in the collection, Hurricane and Sara are equally impressive.

Simple Twist Of Fate is performed in the original, acoustic Blood On The Tracks style, which is nice to hear. Love Minus Zero/No Limit is done beautifully, also faithful to the original. The same applies to Tangled Up In Blue. Dylan is often the great re-interpreter of his material, and while some of the songs on here are given new makeovers, I like the fact that some of them are played straight. It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry is played with a verve and vitality as if it were a new track, as opposed to being recorded ten years previously. There is a lot of energy and enthusiasm on this album. There is some quality too, such as the intoxicating percussion intro to the beguiling One More Cup Of Coffee.




Desire (1976)


Hurricane/Isis/Mozambique/One More Cup Of Coffee/Oh, Sister/Joey/Romance In Durango/Black Diamond Bay/Sara

"If I had crossed the street seconds earlier" - Scarlet Rivera              

Following on from Bob Dylan's successful Rolling Thunder tour this album utilises the same large group of musicians that had troubadoured around with Dylan the previous year. It is one of his most "collaborative" albums, musicians-wise and began its genesis only a few months after the release of Blood On The Tracks. It is, however, a completely different album in its overall sound, is ambience and its lyrics. Its sound is more upbeat, heavily-centred around the use of a violin and its lyrics not influenced by the previous one's emotional angst.

There is a strange story emanating from the early months of the creation of this violin-dominated 1976 album - apparently Dylan was being driven around Manhattan and saw violinist Scarlet Rivera carrying violin around Greenwich Village in a case. Dylan stopped to talk to her and she ended up playing a huge part on this album, contributing a great deal to the unique sound. Rivera herself has said that if she had been a few seconds earlier or later, the whole thing would never have happened. Such is fate, and, indeed, musical mythology. I would like to think it is true. She says it is.

 
                                  
I am a big fan of Dylan's "story songs" and there are two great ones here - the tale of wrongly accused boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter in the iconic Hurricane (which also features Emmylou Harris on backing vocals) and Joey, an extremely over-romanticised tale, based on true events, of an Italian-American mobster, Joey Gallo, who met his end in a "clam bar in New York". Apparently the real Gallo was not the kindly, avuncular old chap who didn't deserve to be "blown away", as Dylan's song positively portrays him. Despite that, it is still a superb narrative song though, full of atmosphere.

For many, Hurricane stood as obvious proof that the old sixties protestor had got his fist-pumping mojo back but it stands pretty much alone in this period as a lone, surprising song about injustice. It didn't really represent any sort of change - in fact the opposite - it still remains a bit of an incongruity. Either way, it is just an iconic narrative song, a wonderful tale of Carter's stitch-up by the police and the corrupt, racist nature of the legal system. Again, like Joey, it is overflowing with great Dylan characterisation.

Incidentally, I went to the restaurant in New York's Little Italy where Gallo's shooting took place and posed outside for a photo which I have now, infuriatingly, mislaid.

Other songs with something of an evocative, cinematic quality are the Mexican-flavoured Romance In Durango ("...hot chilli peppers in the blistering sun..." - what a great opening line, it takes to right there in one line) and Dylan's heartfelt plea for forgiveness to his wife, (soon to be ex-wife), Sara. It contains the legendary line "staying up for days in the Chelsea hotel, writing "Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands" for you...". It is one of Dylan's greatest love songs, and contains none of the vitriol contained in something like Idiot Wind from Blood On The Tracks. Whatever irked him enough to write Idiot Wind had long blown away on that very wind and he was now well and truly gushing all over Sara again. 

Also very atmospheric are the beguiling Mozambique and the very Eastern/Sufi-influenced One More Cup Of Coffee evoke many different images. The latter was, along with the rejected track Abandoned Love, the first material written for the album and was apparently inspired by a visit to a gypsy festival in the Camargue area of south-west France. 

Isis is packed full of all sorts of images too, as are many of Dylan's songs, as we know. This one has its roots in Egyptian mythology and carries hints of Mexican folklore too. Dylan liked a few Mexican references in the seventies, Romance In Durango containing many more. Dylan sings in the first person as the male character in the song, ending when Isis asks him if he is going to say and he replies "if you want me to, yes...". I have always liked the apparently offhand tenderness of that line. 

Black Diamond Bay is a captivating, lively and rhythmic song about an earthquake on a small island and the outside, larger world's general level of apathy and disassociation towards it. It was inspired, apparently, by the often nautically-based work of Jospeh Conrad.

Overall, the album is a tuneful, interesting one, musically, with debts to Middle Eastern music. Mexican music and Caribbean melodies. There is an overall air of summer heat about it, for me. Lyrically it is packed with all sorts of images and characters and it is one of Dylan's best albums for that. The use of violin is a unique masterstroke, but not one that would be repeated. Next up, on Street Legal, it would be the saxophone taking centre stage.


I have to say that the run of albums from 1974 to 1979 - Blood On The TracksDesireStreet Legal and Slow Train Coming is up there with Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 RevisitedBlonde On Blonde and John Wesley Harding as one of the two great Dylan quartets.

The sound on the edition I have is excellent, it is the one from the Complete Albums Collection but the SACD release from 2004 is similarly impressive.

There are there songs that were recorded during this album's sessions that didn't make the final cut. Indeed, the very first track laid down for the album was the winsome, violin-driven Abandoned Love that features Scarlet Rivera's talents to the max, together with a nice bass line, acoustic melody and an impressive harmonica at the end too. It is a fine song which would have fitted in well on the album. There was really no need to have omitted it, but that was Dylan for you. Only Springsteen has come close to as many incomprehensible omissions. Catfish was a slow bluesy, sleepy number about a baseball player, Jim "Catfish" Hunter, apparently. It would have been a bit incongruous on the album. The slightly folky Golden Looms has more of the album's typical violin and drums sound.



Hard Rain (1976)


Maggie's Farm/One Too Many Mornings/Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again*/Oh Sister*/Lady Lady Lay*/Shelter From The Storm/You're A Big Girl Now/I Threw It All Away*/Idiot Wind

It is what it is, Hard Rain. Maybe messy. Maybe magnificent. Maybe messily magnificent. Despite its remastering for the Complete Works box set, there are still a few problems with the somewhat muddy sound, for me. On the other hand, there is definitely an ad hoc energy about it. Personally, I prefer the Rolling Thunder Bootleg Series from the same period, by far. This does catch an artist and a band just "going for it" in a slightly shambolic but enthusiastic manner though. It is raw and edgy and, as many have commented in the years since it was released, Dylan was going through a bit of an angry, relationship breakdown period and this undoubtedly affected his gritted teeth, committed performance. Of course, it is a vitally important album, chronologically, in Dylan's career. More so than its musical worth, probably.

It is worth noting that the tracks are taken from two concerts - Fort Collins Colorado and Fort Worth, Texas (the performances from the latter are asterisked * below). So, there is not the continuity of a single show. This adds to the disorganised feel of the album. Another observation is that Dylan wore a biblical style head-dress for the Fort Collins show of the sort worn by children in nativity plays. His appearance was, intentional or not, very Messiah-like.


Maggie's Farm is rocking and ramshackle, full of unrestrained vitality. One Too Many Mornings is enhanced by some excellent violin from Scarlet RiveraStuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again is done vibrantly, with a catchy bass line from Rob Stoner. Dylan is on fine form, vocally, on this too, doing the wordy song justice, thankfully.

Oh Sister again features that lovely violin and a strong delivery from Dylan. Lady Lady Lay is a bit muffled, sound-wise, with a bit of background hiss. Maybe it was chucking it down at the time. Shelter From The Storm is given a slightly reggae-ish makeover on its verses and it positively bristles with an almost punky anger as Dylan spits and bellows out the lyrics. It is a radical re-working of the reflective number we all know from Blood On The Tracks. It is quite visceral in places.



You're A Big Girl Now has a fetching guitar backing and Dylan's delivery is suitably respectful of the sombre, plaintive original. Nice piano on it too. One of the album's best interpretations. I Threw It All Away is the only live performance of it that I have. Unfortunately it is a slightly grating, at times, delivery of one of Nashville Skyline's best songs. Dylan's voice is jarring, as is the unnecessarily clashing guitar sound. Then, of course, there is Idiot Wind. For many, this is the definitive performance of the song. As far as I know it is the only official live cut of the track. It is certainly the only one I have. It is a snarling, incredibly wired rendition of the song, and by far the best track on the album. Not only is an irked Dylan "up for it" but the band are too. When he sings "I can't feel you anymore..." he sounds close to tears. All his raging glory, indeed.

Overall, despite its cultural importance, for me it is nowhere near his best live work. For a lot of people it is, though, and that is fair enough. I can sort of see why, but I can never get past the less-than-perfect sound.


Street-Legal (1978)


Changing Of The Guards/New Pony/No Time To Think/Baby Please Stop Crying/Is Your Love In Vain?/Señor (Tales Of Yankee Power)/True Love Tends To Forget/We Better Talk This Over/Where Are You Tonight (Journey Through Dark Heat)

"I brought my steel guitar and I had it in rehearsal and every time I'd go to start unpacking it, Bob would go, 'We don't need that.' All of a sudden the instrument that I played all over the place in the previous band, he didn't want to see it, let alone hear it" - David Mansfield

This review is for the fantastic remastering of the 2003 Greg Calbi release and not the remastering that appeared in 2013’s Complete Works box set. For some reason, that remaster is infinitely inferior to the 2003 one, in my opinion. This one blows the more recent one out of the water. It is full, bassy, punchy and brings songs like New Pony and No Time To Think to new life.

Back to the album. Released in 1978, following from Blood On The Tracks and Desire. Hmmm. Tough ask. In many ways, though, this is my favourite Dylan album. As a young punk in 1978 I loved it. I loved the saxophone-based sound, played by Spector (and Mink De Ville) veteran Steve Douglas. I loved the romance of many of the songs and also the urgency in Dylan's delivery. Many find the album too dominated by the saxophone, too sort of poppy in its approach and that it utilises too many gospelly female backing vocalists. They criticise another of my favourites, the same year’s Live At Budokan for the same reasons. Personally, these are some of the reasons I like it. Dylan, heavily in debt due to his mess divorce from Sara, however, was at his most irascible during the hurried recording of the album. You would never have known, though, as it comes over as breezy, accessible and vibrant, surprisingly.

 

Changing Of The Guards is a stormer of an opener - “on midsummer’s eve, near the tower”- then that thrilling saxophone riff. I love this song, its glorious imagery and its celebratory tone. There is a notorious mistake left in the recording at one point when Dylan fails to come in at the right place but it doesn't affect the song's infectious ambience much. 


New Pony is a repetitive, slightly pedestrian but still appealing, familiar Dylan blues and it now sounds great. Check out that guitar sound.

No Time To Think is an eight minute, piano driven masterpiece. Again it is packed with imagery and enhanced, in my opinion, by the female backing vocalists (as I said, I know that there are many do not share that opinion). Baby Please Stop Crying was a surprise hit in the summer of 1978. It shouldn’t really be a surprise, as it had a laid-back radio-friendly sound. I remember at the time that it sounded odd hearing Dylan played on daytime pop radio.

The old “side two” began with the beautiful saxophone and yearning lyrics of Is Your Love In Vain? (a track dismissed by many as too poppy and shallow, but not by me) before we progress to another of the album’s cornerstones - Señor (Tales Of Yankee Power) - with its much-quoted line of “tell me where is it you're heading, Lincoln County Road or Armageddon?”. Great percussion backing on this and Dylan’s mysterious, questioning vocal. It is the track that most Dylanologists claim saved the album. I can accept that to an extent but there are definitely several other fine tracks on there.



True Love Tends To Forget is another lovely, romantic, saxophone-dominated goodie, again, many dislike it but I, perversely I guess, love it. We Better Talk This Over is a melodious, laid back piece of soulful easy rock and the closer, the magnificent Where Are You Tonight (Journey Through Dark Heat), with its insistent Paul Simon-esque rhythms and New York references. I once walked along Elizabeth Street one evening just because Dylan mentions it in this song. Unfortunately, it proved to be just an unremarkable, busy city street. In the song, though, there is a wonderful atmosphere and it is full of evocative images. It is one of my favourites on what is a favourite album of all time. In contrast to 99.9% of Dylan aficionados I feel there is not a duff track on the album.

Regarding popular analysis, many will say that there are deep religious references buried in the lyrics of songs like Señor and possibly Changing Of The Guard and No Time To Think that would provide a pointer to Dylan’s new direction - a shock salvation that would pre-occupy him for the next four years. There was a slow train coming.


Interestingly, between Desire and the sessions for this album, a track was recorded called Seven Days, that was probably far more likely the first sign of Dylan's increasing spirituality. It is a lively, bassy groove in the Desire style. I can understand why it didn't make this album, though, it wouldn't quite have fitted in.



Live At Budokan (1978)


Mr. Tambourine Man/Shelter From The Storm/Love Minus Zero/No Limits/Ballad Of A Thin Man/Don't Twice Twice, It's Alright/Maggie's Farm/One More Cup Of Coffee/Like A Rolling Stone/I Shall Be Released/Is Your Love In Vain?/Going, Going, Gone/Blowin' In The Wind/Just Like A Woman/Oh Sister/Simple Twist Of Fate/All Along The Watchtower/I Want You/All I Really Want To Do/Knockin' On Heaven's Door/It's Alright Ma, (I'm Only Bleeding)/Forever Young/The Times They Are A-Changin' 

"The fire and brimstone are behind Dylan, but this hardly means the fight has gone out of him: Bob Dylan at 'Budokan' is a very contentious effort—and, for the most part, a victorious one" - Janet Maslin - Rolling Stone

It may surprise readers of this review when I reveal that this is my favourite Bob Dylan live album. For pretty much everyone else, it would seem to be the exact opposite! It was recorded during Dylan's tour to Japan in 1978, where, to please the Japanese audience, he agreed to play quite a few of his "greatest hits". Also, he assembled a large band that interpreted the material in a light, commercial, almost singalong way. There was lots of melodious flute and Phil Spector session veteran Steve Douglas provided some magnificent saxophone, both of those things are to my taste, particularly the saxophone. The way the material is played appals many Dylan aficionados, despising its "crowd-pleasing" nuances. Many prefer the muffled, scratchy intense sound of Hard Rain, an album I personally cannot warm to at all. I do like the Rolling Thunder live material from 1976, however, and, of course, Before The Flood. Despite the excellence of those two, I still prefer this one. Yes, I know, I know.

 
             
Highlights for me are many - a delicious Love Minus Zero/No Limits, a mysterious One More Cup Of CoffeeIs Your Love In VainGoing, Going, Gone, a version of I Want You that is actually close to that done by Bruce Springsteen in 1975, and fantastic versions of Blowin' In The WindKnockin' On Heaven's Door and a tear-jerking Forever Young to end. The latter is the best version of the song I have heard Dylan do - clearly enunciated, emotional and just beautiful. One of his finest live performances. The Times They Are A Changin' is great too. Personally, I love hearing Dylan so keen to please. Give this a listen and give it a bit of a reassessment.


THE YEARS OF FAITH (1979-1983)



One of the most controversial phases of Bob Dylan's career - I have also included Infidels along with the three overtly Christian-themed albums.

Slow Train Coming (1979)


Gotta Serve Somebody/Precious Angel/I Believe In You/Slow Train/Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking/Do Right To Me Baby (Do Unto Others)/When You Gonna Wake Up/Man Gave Names To All The Animals/When He Returns  

"Towards the end of the show someone out in the crowd ... knew I wasn't feeling too well  - I think they could see that. And they threw a silver cross on the stage. Now usually I don't pick things up in front of the stage. Once in a while I do. Sometimes I don't. But I looked down at that cross. I said, 'I gotta pick that up.' So I picked up the cross and I put it in my pocket ... And I brought it backstage and I brought it with me to the next town, which was out in Arizona ... I was feeling even worse than I'd felt when I was in San Diego. I said, 'Well, I need something tonight.' I didn't know what it was. I was used to all kinds of things. I said, 'I need something tonight that I didn't have before.' And I looked in my pocket and I had this cross" - Bob Dylan

Sometime in 1978, Bob Dylan "saw the light" and became a born-again Christian. It is easy to deride the three explicitly devotional albums he released in the subsequent years. Some of the criticism is justified, some of it is completely unfair. This is the best of the albums. Its sound quality is superb, for a start. Mark Knopfler is on the album and it was produced by soul veteran Jerry Wexler. It has a rich, bassy warmth to it, and, while the lyrics are undoubtedly preachy and dogmatic, personally, I always find the album a pleasure to listen to and do not find any aspects of it remotely off-putting.
                                    
Gotta Serve Somebody has a great laid-back but melodically addictive feel to it and some wryly appealing lyrics. Whatever many may say, there is a great soul and a disarming ambience to the song.

The country-ish, gospel-influenced tones of Precious Angel render it one of the best tracks on the album - extended and soulful in delivery, while I Believe In You is sincere in its message and tender in its feel.


Slow Train is another gospelly blues-influenced track, with some punchy horns and killer guitar. Its lyrics are quasi-political as well as sermonising, which can grate somewhat, but the general groove of the track is a stimulating one which means that I, for one, overlook the message condemning "non-believers" and ranting about foreign trade and the cost of storing food. Dylan runs theirs of sounding parochial and prejudiced times, his opinions even seem that of a zealot. There is no room for questioning in this new world of his. It is what The Lord said in the good book, and that's it. The rear cover of the album showed Bible-black thunder clouds, gathering to warn us, although there was a bit of light between them. A good photo, to be fair.

Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking is a cowbell-driven, driving slow burning rocker, again didactic in its message. The only way of achieving redemption was, it seems by going through purgatory. "I got a God-fearing woman..." sings Dylan and "who is not for me is against me" (quoting Jesus). He sings these songs as someone freshly converted, warning us, telling us how it is and is going to be.

A beautiful, gentle bass intro brings us into the shuffling Do Right To Me Baby (Do Unto Others)  but the zeal and the fire burns as brightly on this as on  the previous track. These two, and the next song, When You Gonna Wake Up are three of the most determined, evangelical songs on the album. Indeed, Dylan's vocals are as strong and totally committed as they had been for many a year. The latter track has a captivating, evocative groove to it, however. Whatever the lyrics, I find these tracks difficult to resist. In amongst the preaching, however, there are some fine, wise, cynical points made in this song - "you got gangsters in power and law-breakers making the rules...". Hmmm. What's new, I wonder? As Dylan asks - when are we gonna wake up?


Whatever Dylan's motivations behind his Christian phase, there is no doubting his total commitment and powerful, potent attack on this material. Whatever he believes, he does appear to believe in something, and is forcefully expressing it. Good for him, in many ways.

Man Gave Names To All The Animals is widely-derided by all who hear it. Not me. I have always had a soft spot for it. So what. I like it and that's that. It is infuriatingly catchy - yes, I know Dylan also wrote Desolation Row.

When He Returns is an almost hymnal ending to this devout album, Dylan singing starkly against a solo piano backing as we all troop out of church....See you next week.

There are three outtakes that didn't make the cut and they are all excellent - the powerful Ain't No Man Righteous, Not OneTrouble In Mind and Ye Shall Be Changed. They are all enhanced by gospelly backing vocals and have the same chugging rock beat as the material on the eventual album. The tracks can all be found on the Trouble No More box set.



Saved (1980)


A Satisfied Mind/Saved/Covenant Woman/What Can I Do For You/Solid Rock/Pressing On/In The Garden/Saving Grace/Are You Ready  

"Behold, the days come, sayeth the Lord, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah" - Jeremiah 31:31             
  
The second of Bob Dylan's Christian albums, I have always found Saved, from 1980, far less appealing than its predecessor, the vivacious, dynamic Slow Train Coming. Firstly, despite its supposed remastering, the sound has aways been far more muffled than the previous album. It is somewhat muddy, the instruments far less defined. Dylan's fervour has lost its initial zeal, to be honest, he is saying the same things again - warning of damnation, of purgatory and cautioning us against sin, willing us to accept the Lord - or else. He played a 100 date tour delivering such on stage sermons, which wasn't his best move (although some of the live recordings from that period are surprisingly good - (see The Bootleg Series Vol 13). The songs played from this album actually sound much better in concert than they do here.
                             
The album opens with a short vocal track, A Satisfied Mind, before kicking into the rocky, powerful Saved, full of loud female gospel-style backing vocals and a solid drum, guitar and piano backing. It rocks averagely well, and I always enjoy it when I hear it.

 

Covenant Woman is a slower-paced, lengthy rock ballad that doesn't really get anywhere, comparatively. What Can I Do For You? is a yearning number in the same sow temp, lifted in the middle by a gorgeous harmonica solo. There is a powerful guitar, drum and bass guitar ending to the song as well.

Solid Rock has always sounded far too muffled to me, and again it sounds much better played live. It is has an insistent, rocking beat, though, although the vocals are far too down in the mix, as is the bass. You cannot convince me this has been remastered, I'm afraid.

On Pressing On, a tired-sounding Dylan tells us how he is indeed pressing on, as if to say "I'm gonna carry on doing this, whatever, it's too late to stop now..." to coin a phrase. Again, it is a track dominated by the vocal backing, it almost drowns out Dylan, in  a way that it didn't on Slow Train Coming. As with all the material on the album, I and it somewhat half-baked, as if with a bit more attention, it could have been much better. The same applies to the potentially potent In The Garden.

Saving Grace raises the bar a bit, it is probably my favourite on the album. Slow, dignified and moving. Lovely organ backing on it, and guitar too. Dylan's voice on this one is as convincing as it was on Slow Train Coming. Nice one. The pure gospel of Are You Ready very much sounds like an outtake from the previous album. It grinds and plods and again the backing vocalists dominate but it also features a searing guitar solo, mid-point.

The problem for Dylan was, that as an artist who had always trod his own path, oblivious to trends and fashions, he had previously always taken multitudes with him on his journey. Here, though, with this album selling really poorly, he was like a saviour in the wilderness.

Two songs that were not included on the album were the superb Making A Liar Out Of Me, which was very much in the Slow Train Coming album's style and the gospelly vocal number Stand By Faith. Certainly the first one should have been on the album.



NB - despite being supposedly "remastered" for the Complete Works Box Set, the sound still sounds slightly under par to me, a bit bassier but that's it. For me the only truly decent Dylan remasters are those released as "HDCD" remasters. They all have wonderful clarity and warmth of sound.

Shot Of Love (1981)


Shot Of Love/Heart Of Mine/Property Of Jesus/Lenny Bruce/Watered-Down Love/The Groom's Still Waiting At The Altar/Dead Man, Dead Man/In The Summertime/TroubleEvery Grain Of Sand  

"The purpose of music is to elevate and inspire the spirit" - Bob Dylan      

After two devoutly Christian-themed albums, Dylan slightly tempered down the devotional message with this third in the supposed trilogy. It is accepted by many to be the best of the three. It is certainly superior to Saved, but personally I prefer Slow Train Coming. A problem I have always had with the album is in regard to the sound. It has supposedly been remastered, but it certainly doesn't sound like it to me, certainly not in comparison with Slow Train Coming. There is a harshness to the sound that I have always found off-putting. I can never truly "get into" the album because of this. The next album, Infidels, sounded so much better.
                 
Never mind, on with the music. Shot Of Love opens the album on a devotional note, with some excellent gospelly backing and Dylan's convincing, passionate vocal delivered over an insistent, pounding mid-paced beat.

Heart Of Mine is a secular ballad, for the first time since 1978, and a good one is too - tuneful and tender. Some cynics have said that these non-religious songs were included on here to bring sales back up. I'm not sure about, personally I just feel Dylan's religious fervour was slightly waning. Subsequent albums would seem to back this up.

Property Of Jesus was clearly a return to the Christian theme. It is sonically muffled and the beat is grinding and uninspired, sounding very much like track from Saved, to be honest. It has some excellent guitar at the end, though. The stark, slightly hissy, piano-led Lenny Bruce is a mournful paean from Dylan to the "alternative" New York comedian. It was hailed by many as a "return to form". It has to be said it is a very moving, atmospheric song. Dylan gets all nostalgic for those old Greenwich Village days, and, for the first time, his voice shows real sings of the ageing croaky tone that would be with him for the rest of his recording career. It is a much "older" voice now, certainly even from that on Slow Train Coming. Funnily enough, Dylan's relating of the tale of Bruce was remarkably similar to that which he had been telling about Jesus Christ for the last few years.

Watered-Down Love featured some funky-style guitar and a lively tune and vocal from Dylan. It was another "regular" song, and another good one. It suffers from poor production, but it certainly was a bit of a relief to hear Dylan singing this sort of stuff again. He sounded lively and as if he were enjoying himself. He had started interjecting more and more non-religious material into his live shows too. Check out Trouble No More. Another good thing was to hear him delivering a storming, searing slice of blues rock again, and he did this with the vibrant, rocking The Groom's Still Waiting At The Altar, which features some great bluesy slide guitar. "She could be respectably married, or running a whorehouse in Buenos Aires..." was a thankful return to those great classic Dylan couplets of the past.


Dead Man, Dead Man was a religious, gospelly number with reggae tinges, parping saxophones, swirling organ breaks and an infectious, catchy beat. Yes, it is a devotional song, but, like the title track, was a damn good one. Again, Dylan sounds as if he is enjoying himself as opposed to fingerprinting and didactically preaching. I really like this one.

In The Summertime is just gorgeous. A harmonica gives us our Dylan back as his voice comes in - mournful, sad, yearning, meaningful. Listening to this, it is as if the last three or fours year had never happened. I don't like the "return to form" cliche, but this really was one. "You were closer to me than my next of kin" - Dylan's voice just sounds so good at that point. One then knows why one sticks with him, through thick and thin.

Trouble is a warning of damnation, but again is an appealing one - big, powerful, bluesy and potent.   It has an exhilarating, thumping beat and more convincing backing vocals. It has a power to the sound and the delivery which is good to hear.

Like Van Morrison, there is always a moment on each Dylan album when you think "wow". On this one it is with the beautiful Every Grain Of Sand. Yes, it is devotional and hymnal, but is dignified, stately, soulful and deeply moving. Dylan's voice is resonant and the backing melodic and uplifting. As his harmonica comes in half way through, your soul rises. Dylan still has the power to do that.

Dating from this album's sessions are the gospel of Rise Again, the robust rock of Yonder Comes Sin and the very Slow Train Coming-style piety of You Changed My Life. None of these were chosen for the album, rightly or wrongly. There are also several excellent outtakes of songs that did appear on the album on the Trouble No More box set. They are all the match, or maybe the superior, to the ones eventually used. The tracks are Shot Of LoveDead Man, Dead ManWatered-Down Love and Every Grain Of Sand. Strangely, they all have better sound quality too.

Also notable songs from the time that showed Dylan going secular again were the wonderfully atmospheric Caribbean Wind (that admittedly contained the line "I told her about Jesus...") that contains references to Mexico and Curaçao that hint that Dylan the great traveller is back. There are two versions - a lovely pedal steel one on the Trouble No More box and the better known one from Biograph. On balance, I think I prefer the former. Then there is the popular, much-bootlegged piano-backed ballad Angelina. This is what people think of as a "proper" Dylan song, full of intriguing lyrics and all that Dylan atmosphere - "...his eyes were two slits, make any snake proud...". You get the idea, lots of Western-esque images. It is an underrated classic. Need A Woman is also from 1981 and is a most appealing, almost funky slow groover powered along by solid drums and some killer organ riffs. It would have been a great addition to the album, in my opinion. It is another real unearthed gem. Imagine what an album this would have been with these three on it.

NB - despite being supposedly "remastered" for the Complete Works Box Set, the sound still sounds slightly under par to me, a bit bassier but that's it. For me the only truly decent Dylan remasters are those released as "HDCD" remasters. They all have wonderful clarity and warmth of sound.



Trouble No More: The Bootleg Series Vol. 13


Recorded live from 1979-1982

Whatever Dylan's motivation/inspirations were during the "Christian years" of 1979-1982 he absolutely played it as if he meant it, which is something he does not always do. He was on fire here. A fervent fire. It shows in his vocal delivery, his interaction with his top notch band and just the general "feel" on the performances. It is really good to hear Dylan so enthusiastic, and to hear performances from this often ignored period in his long career.

The live shows are great. A bit of variation in sound quality between them as is to be expected given the years they were recorded in, but overall I was pleasantly surprised by the excellent, warm, full sound quality. The Toronto gig has a lovely bassy sound. the London show is great too. I would give the former the edge for sound quality, however, sounding more like a “proper” live album in comparison with a very, very good bootleg.   


When he kicks off with Slow Train and Gotta Serve Somebody on the earlier dates there is a vibrancy about the renditions rare in Dylan live cuts since Hard Rain. Whereas the complete Toronto show that you get is totally taken up with "born again" material, by the 1981 Wembley show, Bob had deigned to put Like A Rolling StoneMr. Tambourine ManForever YoungJust Like A Woman and several other old favourites into the set and included only eight songs from the Christian trio.

It is all just very enjoyable. Great to hear other material rather than Watchtower or Thin Man again (although the latter is played in 1981 at Wembley).

I am not always a big fan of "outtakes" but those contained here are very impressive. Indeed, for the both the live cuts and the outtakes, I am finding I prefer listening to them to the studio originals. This is particularly true of the material from Saved and Shot Of Love. Songs like Covenant WomanIn The Garden, Pressing On and Solid Rock really come to life in a way just not heard on the somewhat dull originals. What Can I Do For You? features some stonking backing vocals and a killer harmonica solo from Dylan. It is twice the track it is on the original album. Check out the horn-enhanced version of Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking too, or indeed the equally horn-improved Slow Train

Ain't No Man Righteous, Not One is an impressive, previously unreleased outtake as is the evocative, organ-driven, soulful Making A Liar Out Of Me. What a superb hidden diamond this one is. The same applies to the muscular, pounding rock of Yonder Comes Sin. The gospelly, acoustic tones of Rise Again hark back to parts of the Rolling Thunder tour (The Water Is Wide). Three more previously unreleased good ones are Ye Shall Be ChangedTrouble In Mind and You Changed My Life

I guess as many of these "bootleg series" box sets have proved, there are outtakes and there are Dylan outtakes. The great re-inventor often leaves an absolute gem of a version of a song on the cutting room floor, only to show up on these sets years later.

Infidels (1983)


Jokerman/Sweetheart Like You/Neighbourhood Bully/License To Kill/Man Of Peace/Union Sundown/I And I/Don't Fall Apart On Me Tonight  

"You see people working in different ways, and it's good for you. You have to learn to adapt to the way different people work. Yes, it was strange at times with Bob. One of the great parts about production is that it demonstrates to you that you have to be flexible. Each song has its own secret that's different from another song, and each has its own life. Sometimes it has to be teased out, whereas other times it might come fast. There are no laws about songwriting or producing. It depends on what you're doing, not just who you're doing. You have to be sensitive and flexible, and it's fun. I'd say I was more disciplined. But I think Bob is much more disciplined as a writer of lyrics, as a poet. He's an absolute genius. As a singer—absolute genius. But musically, I think it’s a lot more basic. The music just tends to be a vehicle for that poetry" - Mark Knopfler      

Along with 1989's Oh Mercy, 1997's Time Out Of Mind and, of course, 1974's Blood On The Tracks, this was hailed as one of Bob Dylan's great "comeback" and "return to form" albums. Rightly so, in many ways, despite the hackneyed cliches (that  am also using!). After the comparative "wilderness years" of his spiritual quest between 1978 and 1982, Dylan widened his appeal somewhat, employing Mark Knopfler, widely respected reggae rhythm section Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare and ex-rolling Stones guitar genius Mick Taylor - this was certainly an improvement, all round, on the previous couple of slightly patchy albums. Yes, the Biblical imagery was still there in places, but the full-on, in your face proselytism of Slow Train ComingSaved and Shot Of Love was not nearly as dominant. There was also a warmth to the sound - excellent quality, sumptuous guitar and infectious rhythms, not surprising given the personnel. It was the best sounding Dylan album since Slow Train Coming.

Jokerman is one of my favourite Dylan songs of all time, without a doubt. It is jam-packed to overflowing with Biblical imagery and all sorts of other images too. Couplet after marvellous couplet abound. I could quote the whole bloody lot, it is so good. There is an addictive, understated rhythm and a gently lilting guitar sound and Dylan's voice is intuitive and seductive as he spews out the stream of consciousness lyrics. One of the most memorable lyrical passages is this :-

"...You're going 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, you look into the fiery furnace, see the rich man without any name..."

Wonderful, peerless stuff, to be sure. Quite what it means, though, is, as always, unclear.

 

Sweetheart Like You sees Dylan at his tender, romantic and sensitive but world weary best. Dylan asks what his love is doing in a place like this. Warnings of the evils of Satan still prevail in the ambience of this album, but it is not as much of a preachy piece of work. It was nt so blatantly devotional.

License To Kill is in a similar vein. Beautiful, melodious and sanctifying, with another addictive rhythm and guitar, plus harmonica from the man. This is as good as anything Dylan had done for several years. Neighbourhood Bully has Dylan rocking and ranting, maybe about Israel over a solid blues rock beat, as also does the grinding, pumping rock of Man Of Peace. "Sometimes Satan comes as a man of peace" warns Dylan. Are we back into Saved mode? Yes, to a certain extent, but the quality of the backing and of Dylan's vibrant vocal delivery raises it above the slightly muffled material from that album. It rocks, big time. There is a fervour that is hard to resist on here that maybe wasn't there on the preceding few albums.

Union Sundown certainly continues the rocking feel - an upbeat, bluesy rock number that sees Dylan railing about buying goods coming from   overseas. Reading the lyrics, I am really not sure exactly what his gripe is, to be honest. Similar to Neighbourhood Bully, when Dylan gets political, his lyrics and general approaches are often contradictory and oblique, as most of his lyrics are that way, they don't fit well with "single issue" political themes. As a rocker, it sounds ok, though. Many critics have questioned its inclusion on the album at the expense of songs that were left off, like the blues of Blind Willie McTell  or the mysterious Foot Of Pride. It is an argument that it is virtually impossible to counter, save by saying that Dylan wrote the material, therefore ultimately it is his choice. It is also a valid criticism to make, however, that Dylan seems to have considerable difficulty rating his own work. Bruce Springsteen has the same problem, and Van MorrisonDavid Bowie too. They all do, probably, one's work is a personal thing.

Back to this album. I And I is excellent - driving, bluesy, slight reggae influences in the lyrics and vaguely in the drum backing, subtle, mysterious piano, excellent guitar and one hell of a vocal delivery from Dylan. For me, it is one of the best racks on the album, along with JokermanLicense To KillMan Of Peace and Sweetheart Like You. All up there with some of Dylan's finest eighties/nineties material.

Then, there is the lovely album closer, the simply beautiful and romantic Don't Fall Apart On Me Tonight, with its yearning, sad Dylan vocal, country-ish slide guitar. This is as soulful as Dylan has got, in any era.

There are a lot of similarities with Van Morrison's output from the same period - spiritual quests, soulful songs, impassioned delivery. Listening to this again has been a pleasure. I won't leave it so long next time.

The two notoriously omitted songs from the album's sessions are the tribute to the blues legend Blind Willie McTell and Foot Of Pride. The latter has a slow-burning bluesy beat similar to many of the tracks on Slow Train Coming and also has a parable-like message about meeting those on the way down you abused on the way up. It is a good track that would have not been out of place on the album at all. The former is one that everyone says should have been on the album, and it certainly would have added a different ambience with its stark, acoustic narrative. I have to admit, however shameful it might sound, that I have never been that big a fan of it. It is a great song too, I also have to concede, and its presence on the album would have changed its reputation instantly.

A fine early version of Tight Connection To My Heart was recorded in 1983 under the slightly different title of Someone's Got A Hold Of My Heart. It is actually the superior version and would have definitely enhanced Infidels.

Also written in 1983 was the summery, vaguely reggae-tinged Tell Me and the moving, immaculately-backed Lord Protect My Child. Once more, both these songs would have enhanced the album considerably, particularly the latter. All these tracks would have made it on to a CD length album in the nineties and it would have been given "classic" status, no doubt.



THE EIGHTIES AND BEYOND (1984-1995)



This era in Bob Dylan's career began with some questionable eighties-style synthesiser-drenched albums but ended with some rootsy folk and some signs pointing to a coming renaissance. Hidden in there too is a classic Dylan album.

Empire Burlesque (1985)


Tight Connection To My Heart/Seeing The Real You/I'll Remember You/Clean Cut Kid/Never Gonna Be The Same Again/Trust Yourself/Emotionally Yours/When The Night Comes Falling From The Sky/Something's Burning Baby/Dark Eyes  

"I just put down the songs that I felt as I wanted to put them down. Then I'd listen and decide if I liked them. And if I didn't like them I'd either rerecord them or change something about them"  - Bob Dylan              
The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Rod Stewart, Paul McCartney.....they all succumbed to the synthesised curse that was mid-eighties music. Bob Dylan, seemingly, was no different, and this album has been roundly criticised ever since for being an appalling, over-synthesised waste of time. Every time I listen to it, I expect the worst because of this, and I am always pleasantly surprised, to be honest. Yes, it is not the match of 1983's Infidels, but it is nowhere near as bad as some say, nor even quite as synthesiser-dominated as it has been accused of being, either. He did don an awful eighties jacket for the cover though!
                                  
Tight Connection To My Heart is a lengthy, gospelly call-and-response number with hints of the previous album, Infidels. The upbeat Seeing The Real You is also a bluesy reminder of some of that album, while I'll Remember You is a delicious, yearning love song with some excellent piano and organ breaks, big drum sound, addictive bass and Dylan on fine vocal form.

Clean Cut Kid is a barroom bluesy rocker that has Dylan sounding as if he is having a good time. The sound is good, crystal clear and the backing vocals and lead guitar are top notch. Dylan could still rock and here was the proof. This is not a bad track, by any stretch of the imagination. I really like it. An enjoyable, underrated song. Never Gonna Be The Same Again is, admittedly, though, pretty blighted by its eighties keyboards. It is a bit of a throwaway, both musically and lyrically, unfortunately. Elton John put out a lot of material like this in the same period.

 

Trust Yourself is no lyrical masterpiece but it does have a big, bassy insistent groove and another strong, impassioned Dylan vocal, like something from his "preaching" years of 1979-1981. There is an intoxicating bass line that runs throughout it, too. Because I don't listen to this as much as other Dylan albums, listening to it now I am almost enjoying it as I would a new album. That can only be a good thing. Emotionally Yours is an orchestrated, tender love song apparently written for Elizabeth Taylor(?). Its chorus definitely taps into Forever Young but it does suffer from over-the-top eighties production.

When The Night Comes Falling From The Sky is the album's tour de force. Again, though, its contemporary production overshadows it somewhat. A far better version of it can be found on The Bootleg Series 1-3, where Dylan is backed by Steve Van Zandt on guitar and Roy Bittan on piano from Bruce Springsteen's E St. Band. They truly rock it up E St. style and you can almost sense Dylan feeding off it and really enjoying himself. The version on here is far more trundling and, in comparison, lifeless. Not that it is bad, but that version just cooks, big time. There are some excellent percussion parts at the end of this one, though.

Something's Burning, Baby is another hark back to the devotional material, even though it is a love song. Dylan's vocal is good and the electric guitar chops are good, but there is another production problem, it has to be said. Given a starker, less melodramatic backing, it may have been a much better song, there are some great lyrics in it. I have to admit that by the end of the album, the production is beginning to get a tad tiresome. It is still a good song though with an anthem build up.

Dark Eyes, though, is completely different - a stark, folky song that sounds like the set of material he would do seven or eight years later on Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong. A pointer to the future, perhaps?

A fine early version of Tight Connection To My Heart was recorded in 1983 under the slightly different title of Someone's Got A Hold Of My Heart. It is actually the superior version and would have definitely enhanced Infidels.

NB - despite being supposedly "remastered" for the Complete Works Box Set, the sound still sounds slightly under par to me, a bit bassier but that's it. For me the only truly decent Dylan remasters are those released as "HDCD" remasters. They all have wonderful clarity and warmth of sound.



Knocked Out Loaded (1986)


You Wanna Ramble/They Killed Him/Driftin' Too Far From Shore/Precious Memories/Maybe Someday/Brownsville Girl/Got My Mind Made Up/Under Your Spell   

"There were some really wonderful things cut at those sessions" - Al Kooper
      
After treading water somewhat with the eighties production-blighted Empire Burlesque, Dylan couldn’t really get away with it twice, and he certainly didn’t with this comparatively average album. If there were great things cut as the album's sessions, as Al Kooper suggested, then Dylan didn't seem to have used many of them.
                             
You Wanna Ramble is a regulation upbeat gospelly blues, full of backing vocals and a repetitive riff. It is lively and pleasant enough, but certainly no work of genius.

They Killed Him is a cover of a Kris Kristofferson song and has a strange appeal, a deep drum sound and a blasting gospel chorus. The backing sounds great on this one, but Dylan’s voice is strangely distant. The use of a children’s choir is a bit incongruous, to be honest.

Driftin' Too Far From Shore is again a lively one, with those backing vocals turned up to the max. Again, it is an ok track, but nothing remarkable. The ”filler” on this album is not as impressive as the previous album’s “filler”. Precious Memories is a reggae-influenced number, but nowhere near as convincing as the reggae he dabbled in on InfidelsMaybe Someday is another somewhat half-baked number, dominated by the backing vocals once more and just not seeming to get anywhere. A few listens, however, and you find that it has hidden lyrical depths in its Biblical imagery and you get into it a bit more.

Then there is Brownsville Girl - eleven minutes of cinematic Dylan narrative majesty in the Lily, Rosemary & The Jack Of Hearts tradition. I love these lengthy, image-packed Dylan songs. This one is jam packed with Western imagery about Mexico, The Rockies, Amarillo, The Panhandle, someone called Henry Porter and a Gregory Peck movie. The album is worth it for this bona fide gem alone. The rest of the material just doesn’t really pass muster in comparison, I’m afraid. Empire Burlesque was a much better album.

The last two are not too bad, however. Got My Mind Made Up is actually quite a rousing, rocking number, with lots of  “woohs” from those girls again, and a kind of shuffling, upbeat Not Fade Away rhythm.

Under Your Spell is the usual laid-back romantic number to close the album. It has the same full, pounding backing as They Killed Him, with a strong bass and an equally strong Dylan vocal. It has to be said it is nothing special, though. Neither is the album, really. Certainly not dislikable, but just not anything inspirational, save Brownsville Girl.

NB - despite being supposedly "remastered" for the Complete Works Box Set, the sound still sounds slightly under par to me, a bit bassier but that's it. For me the only truly decent Dylan remasters are those released as "HDCD" remasters. They all have wonderful clarity and warmth of sound.



Dylan & The Dead (1987)


Slow Train/I Want You/Gotta Serve Somebody/Queen Jane Approximately/Joey/All Along The Watchtower/Knockin' On Heaven's Door

"If these were the stadium tour's best performances, pity anyone who actually sat through one of these concerts with a clear head" - Steve Appleford - amazon.com

Now, here is how the well-trodden narrative goes - "this is the worst Dylan album ever....the worst live album ever...the worst Grateful Dead album ever...." and so on. Four years now it had been roundly slagged off as dreadful. I have (until recently) no knowledge of The Grateful Dead at all, like Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart, their music has never appealed to me (or I thought it didn't), so I cannot speak with any authority with regard to their music. However, I have all the Dylan live albums and, personally, I always find this a good listen - so send me for therapy.

Firstly, the sound quality is excellent and, for me, The Grateful Dead provide an excellent backing, with impressive piano and guitar work throughout the album's seven tracks. Dylan's performance is, admittedly, shall we say "loose" at times, but it always has been. There is not a Dylan live performance that doesn't have the listener raising an eyebrow at some point as Bob reinvents one song after another or at times, sounds as if he can't be bothered. That is just an eternal frustration that goes hand in hand with being a Bob Dylan fan. It is just the way it is.

Anyway, I don't mind the deliveries on here at all. The epic narrative Joey is done well, pretty straight to the original, and is a surprising inclusion. Queen Jane Approximately is slowed-down in appealing fashion for its first-ever live performance and I Want You is done is the slow style first attempted, ironically, by Bruce Springsteen in 1975. The two tracks from Slow Train Coming are enhanced by some fine guitar, as you would expect from the originals. All Along The Watchtower  and Knockin' On Heaven's Door are also given fetching, melodic makeovers.

Look, I like the album and, blasphemous as it no doubt will sound to many, I much prefer it to Hard Rain, for example.


Down In The Groove (1988)


Let's Stick Together/When Did You Leave Heaven/Sally Sue Brown/Death Is Not The End/Had A Dream About You, Baby/Ugliest Girl In The World/Silvio/Ninety Miles An Hour (Down A Dead End Street)/Shenandoah/Rank Strangers To Me 

"As it is, Dylan's intent all along may have been to show the rich vein of music he listened to when growing up in Hibbing"  - Clinton Heylin   

After two eighties-production, synthesiser-drenched albums in Empire Burlesque and Knocked Out Loaded, Dylan tried to get back to a more bluesy, rootsy sound with some of the material on this almost universally-panned failure of an album in 1988.
                                 
So, is it time for a reassessment? The first track Let's Stick Together, previously done by Canned Heat and Bryan Ferry certainly rocks a fair bit, in an upbeat, guitar-driven, chunky riff blues style. I like it and it is certainly a relief after some of the keyboard-dominated, backing vocal-drowned songs from the last two albums. This is, at least, a down 'n' dirty blues. Bryan Ferry used a similar riff on his version of The Times They Are A-Changin' on his Dylanesque album.

When Did You Leave Heaven? is a laid-back devotional song that would not have been out of place on Shot Of LoveSally Sue Brown is a blues cover dealt with in a rousing, enthusiastic fashion. Death Is Not The End is the first Dylan original on the album. It begins with a lovely, evocative harmonica and has a fetching, quiet tender as Dylan tells us, sonorously, that "death is not the end". It has a nice sound to it, and a certain laid-back beauty. There are all sorts of assorted musicians on this album, almost too many to mention, but it does ensure that the music is of a high quality throughout.

Had A Dream About You Baby is an organ-driven rocking blues that, had it appeared on Blonde On Blonde would have been hailed as a work of genius. To me, it is not too dissimilar to some of the  upbeat bluesy numbers from that 1965-66 period. Ugliest Girl In The World is another fast tempo number with clearly throwaway, tongue-in-cheek lyric. I really haven't got a problem with this album.  It is the superior product to the previous two. I think most people seem to accept that the shuffling, rhythmic, gospelly fun of Silvio is a good track that begs more than one listen, for sure. Dylan sounds confident and enthusiastic on the track and the backing vocals add their own vitality to it.






















It seemed to be de rigeur to slate pretty much every second Dylan release as being an "embarrassment" and praise every other one as being "a return to form". This is a myopic view in my opinion. Ninety Miles An Hour (Down A Dead End Street) is a soulful piece of gospel. Sure, it's not Tangled Up In Blue but what the heck, I like it anyway. Similarly, if Dylan wants to record Shenandoah in a folky, gospel style, so what? Again, I actually really like it. Springsteen gets away with it, why not Dylan? I think it's great. The closing track of this short album, Rank Strangers To Me has Dylan at his bleakest. It is a slow-tempo, haunting ballad of the sort that the afore-mentioned Springsteen would do over the next few years too. It is a bit of a hidden gem, with a sumptuous bass line.

Many have cited this as a nadir in Dylan's career. I would beg to disagree a little, I do not mind the album as much as they seem to. It is certainly nowhere near as bad as "Dylan" and, personally, I much prefer it to the strange New Morning. Whenever I listen to it, I am always pleasantly surprised.

Oh Mercy (1989)


Political World/Where Teardrops Fall/Everything Is Broken/Ring Them Bells/Man In The Long Black Coat/Most Of The Time/What Good Am I?/Disease Of Conceit/What Was It You Wanted/Shooting Star  

"One of my favourites is 'Man in the Long Black Coat,' which was written in the studio, and recorded in one take"  - Daniel Lanois                           

After two poorly-received eighties-style synthesiser-dominated albums in Empire Burlesque (1985) and Knocked Out Loaded (1986), plus another critically-panned one in the bluesy Down In The Groove (1988), Bob Dylan, supposedly washed-out and past it, surprised everyone by coming up with a classic. After this album, came another comparative clunker in Under The Red Sky (1990). All very odd. It was, indisputably, though, his finest album since 1983's Infidels.
 
Dylan employed the services of Daniel Lanois, who had produced the phenomenally successful The Joshua Tree for U2. The production was quite deep, bassy and haunting and matched Dylan's mostly sombre-ish, introspective material. Conversely, however it kicks off with the toe-tapping, lively, rhythmic romp of Political World, which sees Dylan's band on top form, at a frantic rocking pace. The sound quality is also excellent, having been remastered as part of the HDCD series.

Where Teardrops Fall is a beautiful, yearning slow tempo song with a country twang to it. Everything Is Broken sees a return to the bassy, almost Cajun rocking tempo and it is a most addictive song. The bass is a big and thumping, there is also some superb harmonica and Dylan's voice is strong and confident, as he tells us how "everything is" indeed, "broken". Lanois's production has brought a warmth of sound and a powerhouse solidity of a backbeat. There is nothing muddy or undercooked about it. A personal favourite of mine is the plaintive New Morning-esque, piano and organ backed Ring Them Bells. Dylan's voice is sad throughout the song and developing that appealing ageing croak by now.


The mysterious and laid-back swamp blues-ish Man In The Long Black Coat is an excellent track, full of that musical homage to Americana so loved by Dylan, complete with Southern crickets chirping in the background. It is a superbly atmospheric song, overflowing with imagery and marvellous characterisation. It is as good as some of the material on Blood On The Tracks, the first time that could be said for a while.

Most Of The Time continues the low-key but portentous feeling and has Dylan self-contemplating and philosophical, staring into that deep, dark mirror. Some U2-style reverb, bass and guitar licks in halfway through. This is such a reflective album, very much in the Blood On The Tracks style. The gorgeous, evocative, lyrically cutting The Disease Of Conceit is possibly the best track on the album. Superb. Dylan is almost back into his late seventies preacher mode here. There is lots of religious imagery throughout the album, but it lacks the often off-putting didacticism of the "Christian albums". The same applies to the self-analytical What Good Am I? 


What Was It You Wanted is a shuffling, bassy, throbbing wonderfully atmospheric number once more. This is as good as Dylan had been for six long years. It had all briefly come together on this one. The romantic and utterly beautiful Shooting Star ends what had been an excellent album on a positive note. "Return to form" is a much-used, irritating cliche that, for once, held true here.

A notable omission from this album's sessions was the rolling drums-backed grind of Series Of Dreams. It is an impressive, insistent track that is overflowing with atmosphere and really should have been on the album. Also dating from the same time is the truly under-valued Dignity. This catchy, wry melodic romp is really appealing and again, should have made the cut.



Under The Red Sky (1990)


Wiggle Wiggle/Under The Red Sky/Unbelievable/Born In Time/TV Talkin' Song/10,000 Men/2 x 2/God Knows/Handy Dandy/Cat's In The Well 

"The album's shortcomings resulted from hurried and unfocused recording sessions" - Bob Dylan  
    
After the glory that was Oh Mercy, Bob Dylan unfortunately attracted the brickbats once again with this (comparatively) half-baked effort, released the following year. It has always reminded me somewhat of 1988's Down In The Groove in that it was considered to be awful, but isn't actually that bad, but is certainly no work of genius. There are a host of cameo musicians on the album however - Elton JohnBruce HornsbyGeorge HarrisonDavid Crosby and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
                          
The opener Wiggle Wiggle attracted derision because of its inane lyrics - "wiggle, wiggle like a bowl of soup", however, if you ignore that, it is just a lively, pounding piece of upbeat bluesy rock, such as Dylan had been trotting out in this sleep. Under The Red Sky tried to reprise the piano and organ sound from Like A Rolling Stone, even using original keyboard man Al KooperUnbelievable  is actually an enjoyable rocking romp, with a sixties Animals sort of sound at times and some killer harmonica. I really like it. Nothing wrong with this track at all. If it had been on Oh Mercy nobody would have batted an eyelid. Similarly, the sombre, beautifully bassy Born In Time has real echoes of that album, (unsurprising as it dates from the sessions for that album), although Dylan's voice at times falters, it has to be said. It has a great guitar solo on it, too, though. What the hell, I like this too. I'm not a blind devotee who simply likes everything, but I seriously do like it. I like Bob Dylan, and I like most of what he has recorded. That's just the way it is.

TV Talkin' Song is another fast-paced rocker. In it he refers to Elvis shooting his TV set. Bruce Springsteen referred to the same incident a year later in 57 Channels And Nothing On. Coincidence? Bruce has always been a bit of a magpie. There are hints of his track in this one, it has to be said, although it is a tad faster. 10,000 Men ploughs the same blues furrow. These sort of tracks were all lauded on Together Through Life or Tempest. I have to admit, though, that the material on there is more fulfilled. On here, most of the bluesy tracks end at bit too soon. 2 x 2 isn't particularly great, it has to be said, although it has a great piano backing (probably Elton John or Bruce Hornsby). God Knows harks back to the late seventies/early eighties Christian albums and it only a so-so track, but when the rock bit kicks in it pounds pretty hard, with some impressive guitar and drums. In many ways, the instrumental sound on the album is better than the songs itself. The song's refrain sounds a hell of a lot like John Lennon's Tight A$.


Handy Dandy has a swirling organ  intro just like some of the live recordings of Like A Rolling Stone. Even the verse structure, drum rolls and guitar parts sound like it too, which is all a bit bizarre. Although again I quite like it, you have to wonder what was in Dylan's mind when he decided to try and write a carbon copy of one of his most famous songs, twenty-five years later. Cat's In The Well is a rockabilly meets Cajun, upbeat and thoroughly enjoyable number to finish with.

Yes, this album undoubtedly is nowhere near the quality of Bob Dylan's best albums, not by a long way. Indeed it is probably in the batch of those considered his worst. Yes, there are critics who deride the album, largely because of Wiggle Wiggle. Despite all that, I had a pleasant half hour or so listening to it and will do again next year when I dig it out again.



Good As I Been To You (1992)


Frankie And Albert/Jim Jones/Black Jack Davey/Canadee-I-O/Sittin' On Top Of The World/Little Maggie/Hard Times/Step It Up And Go/Tomorrow Night/Arthur McBride/You're Gonna Quit Me/Diamond Joe/Froggie Went A-Courtin'   

"The music that's true for me" - Bob Dylan  

This was Bob Dylan's first all-acoustic album, just him and a finger-pickin' guitar (and occasional harmonica), since 1964's Another Side Of Bob Dylan. It is certainly no commercially-appealing album, being full of traditional folk material, but, taken in its proper context, it is a very good album. As someone who enjoys this sort of music, it suits me fine, albeit every now and again. It is a breath of fresh air to hear him doing this sort of material. Bruce Springsteen was not averse to doing these type of songs and Dylan was becoming increasing interested in America's musical history. Some of these songs are UK/Celtic in derivation but some are old US folk songs and blues songs.

Frankie And Albert is a bluesy, evocative opener, while Jim Jones is a song about deportation to Australia's Botany BayBlack Jack Davey is a song concerning marital infidelity, covered in the seventies by Steeleye Span on their All Around My Hat album. Here. Dylan delivers it in a quiet, mournful croak, which carries considerable homespun appeal, actually. Canadee-I-O is an appealing melody from the days of emigration to Canada, again delivered by Dylan most fetchingly. He is exploring his roots and appears to be enjoying doing so. It is an understated, unassuming album from an artist who was quite happy to plough his own furrow.



The often-covered blues Sittin' On Top Of The World is delivered in a pure blues, sittin' on the porch, fashion, complete with a killer harmonica enhancing the authenticism. Little Maggie is a folky lament from a over to his hard-drinking woman, while Hard Times was written by US songwriter Stephen Foster in 1854 and is a well-known protest against extreme poverty. Step It Up And Go is a rockabilly type upbeat song and is as lively as it gets on this album. It would sound good given a full rocking band treatment. Tomorrow Night is a gentle folky ballad and Arthur McBride is an old Celtic folk song about being forcefully conscripted into the army, it has been covered by many folk singers over the years. Dylan is returning here to the old "protest song" tradition that shot him to fame all those years previously.

You're Gonna Quit Me is an old spiritual-style blues delivered authentically once again. Diamond Joe is an old West song about a corrupt landowner and the traditional children's song Froggie Went A-Courtin' is nowhere near as bad as you may imagine it to be. If you want a quick blast of traditional folk, nostalgic rural US-style, give this a listen.

World Gone Wrong (1993)


World Gone Wrong/Love Henry/Ragged And Dirty/Blood In My Eyes/Broke Down Engine/Delia/Stack A Lee/Two Soldiers/Jack-A-Roe/Lone Pilgrim   

"Dylan's second attempt to revive the folk music revival while laying down a new record without writing any new songs is eerie and enticing"  - Robert Christgau          

This was a straight up follow on from the previous year's Good As I Been To You - Dylan with his acoustic guitar and harmonica, singing traditional folk and blues songs, enhancing them with his nasally, croaky ageing voice. He would have seemed to have been made for this material at this point in his life. The songs on both albums actually sound like Dylan songs in many ways, so they don't ever really seem like covers albums.

The songs on here are more rural blues than eighteenth century folk airs, more sombre perhaps than the previous album's folky narratives. The sound quality, as it has been on the previous album, is clear and sharp, as is Dylan's voice.
                    
World Gone Wrong is a mournful blues, immaculately sung with dignity and gravitas. Love Henry is one of the folkier songs. It is no surprise. however, upon listening to the lyrics, that it is about a woman murdering her lover. Most of the songs on the album are dark in nature, but, thinking about it, most folk/blues songs are. Ragged And Dirty has a finger-pickin' guitar backing and a real blues lyric of extreme poverty. Blood In My Eyes is another mournful blues, with some strong, melodic guitar. There is something that seems more essential about the choice of songs on this album, it has to be said, although it has proved not to have been as popular as its predecessor.

Broke Down Engine has a guitar intro that briefly sounds like Elvis's Guitar Man. Elvis loved Southern blues, so he no doubt used his love of them when composing the song. It is a "Lordy, Lordy" upbeat but yearning blues sung out of desperation and deprivation. Delia is a song of a "gambling girl, who laid her money down....". It is a song of the old West as opposed to a Delta blues.  Again, the guitar work is crystal clear and the vocal suitably sad and evocative. You feel this is a real labour of love for Dylan. His love and respect for the songs is clear to hear. Stack-A-Lee is another Western gambling tale, one that has been sung by many over the years.

Two Soldiers is probably the song that is derived most from the folk ballad tradition. Jack-A-Roe and Lone Pilgrim are both folky blues, bleak in nature, as has been the whole album.

As with Dylan's recordings of "Great American Songbook" crooners, he ran the risk of producing one too many albums in the same style and of covers as opposed to his own material. As good and interesting as these two albums were, he was wise to leave it at that after the two albums. Unfortunately, with the crooners, as I write, he has yet to behave as wisely.

Unplugged (1995)


Tombstone Blues/Shooting Star/All Along The Watchtower/The Times They Are A-Changin'/John Brown/Desolation Row/Rainy Day Women #12 & 35/Love Minus Zero/No Limit/Dignity/Knockin' On Heaven's Door/Like A Rolling Stone/With God On Our Side     

This is Bob Dylan's contribution to the "unplugged" craze. As with most of them, "unplugged" was a bit of a misnomer, because his band features a drummer, a bassist, organist and a country style steel guitar as opposed to merely acoustic guitars. A lot of the tracks have a warm, full sound to them. It really is a most appealing album in the canon of Dylan's live stuff. There is a warm, homely atmosphere to it and you really get the sense that Dylan is enjoying himself. It is one of my favourite Dylan live albums. There is a looseness to it that is uplifting.
                              
The album kicks off with a robust, country, twangy take on Tombstone Blues. Dylan's voice was at the outset of the soon to be increasingly slurred, incomprehensible phase, but here it is just about still ok. It is a bit nasal and some words are overlooked, but the versions on here are eminently listenable. Shooting Star is lovely. Dylan's voice and diction are fine, with a moving crack in his ageing voice. The backing is excellent too - substantial and powerful in a stately way. The cheer when Dylan plays his harmonic solo is a nice moment. The bass, drum and guitar interplay is impressive, as is the bit when the organ comes in. It is always a pleasure to hear him play lesser-aired songs like this.

All Along The Watchtower is given an organ-driven, quirky makeover with Dylan croaking mysteriously away. Once more, the sound from the band is superb. The Times They Are A-Changin' features some beguiling bluesy slide guitar, when Dylan comes in on vocals I just can't help from being moved. It is a lovely version - powerful drums, swirling, melodic organ, slide guitar and Dylan just sounding great. The spiritual blues, John Brown fits the acoustic bill, being just Dylan, an acoustic and the bass. It is full of atmosphere.


Then we get my favourite Dylan track of all time, Desolation Row. He murdered it in 2011 when I saw him sing it live for the only time at Hammersmith Odeon. Thankfully, on here he does it pretty well. He loses a couple of verses, but it still stands up. It has a subtle but urgent acoustic, bass and slide guitar backing. Dylan's delivery of the song's many words is good, as it always should be.

I have never been a great fan of Rainy Day Women #12 & 35 but it is lusty and ebullient here, as I guess it always is.

  

Another big favourite of mine, though, is up next - the beautiful Love Minus Zero/No Limits. Once again, justice is done on a lovely acoustic and bass rendering. There is a truly entrancing guitar and slide passage in the middle. Then Dylan's harmonica comes in at the end. Enough said.

It is great to hear Dignity get an energetic, enthusiastic airing. The full band with the drums are back for this one and Dylan rocks on reliably, with Prince Philip at the home of the blues. Knockin' On Heaven's Door is given a full-on rock makeover, full of power, although still including a great acoustic solo at the end. Then it's Like A Rolling Stone time. Dylan delivers a solid version, organ to the fore, drums pounding, one of his best. Not quite Before The Flood but pretty damn good all the same.

This excellent concert concludes with the always evocative With God On Our Side, Dylan on acoustic singing his always-relevant anti-war anthem. A fine end to a fine album.

THE RENAISSANCE (1997-2020)



An ageing Bob Dylan produced some of his best work for a long time in this, the final creative period of his career. It ended, possibly underwhelmingly, with cover versions of standard easy listening ballads.

Time Out Of Mind (1997)


Love Sick/Dirt Road Blues/Standing In The Doorway/Million Miles/Trying To Get To Heaven/Till I Fell In Love With You/Not Dark Yet/Cold Irons Bound/Make You Feel My Love/Can't Wait/Highlands  

"There was a time when the songs would come three or four at the same time, but those days are long gone...Once in a while, the odd song will come to me like a bulldog at the garden gate and demand to be written. But most of them are rejected out of my mind right away. You get caught up in wondering if anyone really needs to hear it. Maybe a person gets to the point where they have written enough songs. Let someone else write them"   - Bob Dylan             
This is one of Bob Dylan's darkest albums. He had not released an album of new material in seven years, and 1990's Under The Red Sky contained largely good-time pieces of bluesy fun. Here, we have a Dylan accepting and expressing awareness of his own mortality. He again uses Oh Mercy producer Daniel Lanois, who is a producer with a liking for a deep, sombre sound. This production seems to fit with Dylan's often reflective, deep lyrics. However, it has a bit of an intransigent feel to it. It doesn't breathe much. Critically, however, it was an album that had many purring and reclaiming Dylan as their Messiah after a long sojourn. The washed-out old has-been was now the wise old sage.
            
The tracks seem to follow a slow track/upbeat blues track pattern. The reflective, shuffling Love Sick is followed by the lively Dirt Road Blues and then we get the walking pace, dead slow, mournful Standing In The Doorway, which sounds like Dylan is about to give up on it all. "I can hear the church bells ringing in the yard, I wonder who they're ringing for...". He sounds tired and old. Ironically, many of the albums he has produced in the wake of this one have found him in a much livelier frame of mind. Million Miles is a mysterious-sounding, swampy blues, with an addictive bass sound and a convincing, croaky Dylan vocal. It was on this album that we saw that gruff old man's vocal appear that would dominate all his albums post this one. There was a different perception of Bob Dylan after this album. He was now credible again.

Trying To Get To Heaven is an update on Knocking' On Heaven's Door and is a moving, melodic slow burner with tones of the Oh Mercy material about it. "I'm trying to get to Heaven before they close the door..." sings a sad-sounding Dylan. It is a most evocative, emotional track. Time for some more blues in the grinding, insistent Till I Fell In Love With You. Juxtaposing the yearning, sad songs with the more bluesy, upbeat ones is a good idea. Not Dark Yet is the album's finest track, for me. A deeply moving, dignified song reflecting Dylan's feelings upon ageing. "It's not dark yet, but it's getting there...". As I write, twenty-one years later, Bob Dylan is still here. When he wrote that song, he was four years younger than I am now.


Cold Irons Bound is an electric, rocking blues full of intense atmosphere. Make You Feel My Love is now well known to many due its being covered by Adele. Dylan's original is a beautiful haunting love song and seems destined to be a much-covered classic. It does, however, sit somewhat incongruously with the rest of the album's material. Can't Wait has an appealing guitar underpinning its slow rhythm. The final track is the longest track ever recorded by Dylan, the sixteen minute Highlands. It is a slow, regular paced song with a reflective mood to it. It just keeps going. There is no real story to it, though, unlike some of Dylan's other longer songs. Despite its length, I don't tire of it as it goes on its way, possibly because it is absolutely jam-packed with memorable couplets.

This album proved to be a real turning point into the final creative phase of Dylan's career. Strangely enough, despite its strong reputation among critics, it is not an album I return to as much as I do others. That doesn't mean it lacks quality, though. Far from it.

Love And Theft (2001)


Tweedle Dee And Tweedle Dum/Mississippi/Summer Days/Bye And Bye/Lonesome Day Blues/Floater (Too Much To Ask)/High Water/Moonlight/Honest With Me/Po' Boy/Cry A While/Sugar Baby 

"These so-called connoisseurs of Bob Dylan music... I don't feel they know a thing, or have any inkling of who I am and what I'm about. I know they think they do, and yet it's ludicrous, it's humorous, and sad. That such people have spent so much of their time thinking about who? Me? Get a life, please. It's not something any one person should do about another. You're not serving your own life well. You’re wasting your life" - Bob Dylan

Well, let's hope I'm not wasting my life writing this review. This is a Bob Dylan album packed full of nostalgic Americana - it is folky, bluesy, cajun, swampy, country, rockabilly. All of those things make for a nice gumbo of an album, very much influenced by a Louisiana Southernness, more so than on any other Dylan album. It is also part of the HDCD remaster series so the sound is top notch.
                                         
Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum attracted much derision upon release many expressing incredulity that the man who wrote Desolation Row or Like A Rolling Stone could have lowered himself so far down as to write a song with such a title. The title is an easy target, however. The song is a lively, rollicking almost rockabilly romp, with some beguiling lyrics and Dylan's croaky voice rising above the rapid, shuffling beat. It has real instant, catchy appeal to it. Just forget the title.


Mississippi sees the great ageing genius applying his now stately growl to a beautiful, slow-paced and emotive number. I love this one. Dylan's voice is just so appealing here and the song is both sad and uplifting, simultaneously.

Summer Days is just an upbeat, toe-tapping joyful delight. Nobody can fail to enjoy this. Dylan sounds as if he is positively enjoying himself, his singing matching the guitar-picking, frantic rockabilly, Cajun-ish beat throughout. He packs words into the music - "what do you mean you can't of course you can..." he crams into a split second, effortlessly.

Bye And Bye is a slow-paced fetching song, with and air of 1920s-1930s sleepiness about it. It is a song from days gone by, sung by a man who by now is already starting to seem ageless. The messiah has become Methuselah.

Despite the relaxing, pleasant nature of a lot of the songs, Dylan still finds time for some acerbic, wry, cutting lyrics. Any tenderness, and there is lots of it, is often tempered by a dark gallows humour  and a constant awareness of mortality.

Lonesome Day Blues is a magnificent, chugging blues rock number, with a repeated guitar-driven blues riff and the usual blues thing of repeating the first two verses of each stanza. "Settin' my dial on my radioI wish my mother was still alive..." Dylan suddenly emotively announces at the end of one of the verses. You believe him too. There are so many other wonderful couplets throughout the song - "he's not a gentleman at all, he's rotten to the core, he's a coward and he steals..." he spits out, Idiot Wind-style. Great stuff.


Floater (Too Much To Ask) is a country-style, fiddle and steel guitar number which has Dylan declaring "I'm in love with my second cousin, I tell myself could be happy forever with her..." possibly taking the backwoods thing a bit too far! Again, the song is packed full of wonderful lyrical images. The period coincided with Dylan starting to present radio shows full of Americana recordings, so the direction on this album was no surprise.

High Water is a banjo-led ominously prescient tale of a flood, several years before Hurricane Katrina. It is a dark song, with dark images and a sonorously portentous vocal from Dylan.

Moonlight sounds like one of those "Great American Songbook" crooners that Dylan now records. It is a slow country ballad, with a delicious slide guitar and a lively vocal.

It is back to the blues with the powerful, rhythmic Honest With Me, more wonderful, exhilarating fare. I know a lot of people feel that 1997's Time Out Of Mind was Dylan's finest later-era album. Personally, I prefer this one.

Po' Boy is another swampy, bluesy country-style romp and Cry A While is a copper-bottomed, grinding blues. Sugar Baby is a walking-pace, slow and mournful closer to what is a most enjoyable, highly-recommended album. "These bootleggers, they make pretty good stuff.." croaks Bob. So do, you old man, so do you.

Aside - strangely, Dylan looks considerably older on the back cover than he does on the front.

An interesting non-album track dating from 1999 is the bluesy grind of Things Have Changed, which was written for a movie soundtrack, but would have suited this album nicely.



Modern Times (2006)


Thunder On The Mountain/Spirit On The Water/Rollin' And Tumblin'/When The Deal Goes Down/Someday Baby/Workingman's Blues/Beyond The Horizon/Nettie Moore/The Levee's Gonna Break/Ain't Talkin'   

"What happens is, I'll take a song in my head I know and simply start playing it in my head" - Bob Dylan 

Five years after the delicious, Americana-influenced Love And Theft, Bob Dylan gave us pretty much more of the same with this uplifting, often exhilarating album, which had a real ad hoc, almost live feel to it. His band were on top form and they just got on with it, or it certainly seemed like it, listening to its loose, ready groove. Apparently, several lines in some of the songs were ones that had appeared earlier in old blues songs, sparking a bit of controversy. You know what? I don't care. I didn't care when Led Zeppelin did it and I don't care when Dylan does it. He is influenced by these songs so he goes somewhat jackdaw-like when writing new ones. I guess he should have credited the original writers of those lines, but I'm not going to lose any sleep over it. Dylan loves Americana and he uses it wherever he can to enhance his songs. That is what he is all about in this later phase of his career. The whole album has hints of songs and artists all over it.

Dylan had this to say about the kerfuffle:-

"Well, you have to understand that I'm not a melodist... My songs are either based on old Protestant hymns or Carter Family songs or variations of the blues form. What happens is, I'll take a song I know and simply start playing it in my head. That's the way I meditate. A lot of people will look at a crack on the wall and meditate, or count sheep or angels or money or something, and it's a proven fact that it'll help them relax. I don't meditate on any of that stuff. I meditate on a song. I'll be playing Bob Nolan's 'Tumbling Tumbleweeds', for instance, in my head constantly—while I'm driving a car or talking to a person or sitting around or whatever. People will think they are talking to me and I'm talking back, but I'm not. I'm listening to a song in my head. At a certain point, some words will change and I'll start writing a song"
                                
Thunder On The Mountain is a lively, appealing bluesy rocker with a namecheck for Alicia Keys, who Dylan was thinking about, apparently. There is some excellent rocking blues guitar on the track and just a great vibe to it. It just gets you going. Spirit On The Water sounds like it is straight off Love And Theft, with that laid-back, swampy, jazzy guitar and shuffling, appealing beat. Dylan softly croaks away and it just sounds so reassuring and comforting, even. Rollin' And Tumblin' is an upbeat, Muddy Waters-influenced rocking blues of the style we have come to expect from Dylan now, particularly since Time Out Of Mind. I really like these later-era Dylan albums - they are invigorating, enthusiastically played and just most enjoyable. When The Deal Goes Down is a slow, yearning song with Dylan actually crooning, a style he would come to utilise in later years when he covered that sort of material. This is more a piece of old time, bluesy slow swinging jazz.

Someday Baby recycles that old six note blues riff that Dylan and many, many other artists have used before - Muddy WatersSleepy John Estes (originally) and The Allman Brothers Band, to name just a few. Now, the mighty Workingman's Blues is up there in my top ten Dylan songs of all times - it is a slow-burning, sad-sounding song, jam-packed with great lines and Dylan's voice just makes me feel tearful when I hear it on this song. I can't express just how much I love it."Sleep is like a temporary death..." is just one of the lines that really does it for me.


Beyond The Horizon is another old-time crooning, shuffling jazzy slowie with some lovely jazz guitar at the end. Nettie Moore is a re-working of an old nineteenth-century folk ballad. It is performed here over a thumping, funereal drum backing as Dylan's grizzled old voice delivers the tale of his devotion to Nettie Moore despite his struggle and strife. A sombre violin backs him as he launches into the growled chorus. "The world has gone berserk - too much paperwork..." he tells us. Indeed.

The Levee's Gonna Break is a lively blues romp with some killer rockabilly guitar, throbbing bass and Dylan on enthusiastic vocal form. Finally, Ain't Talkin' is a solemn, extended number to end upon. It is reflective, thoughtful and dignified. As with all the post-Time Out Of Mind albums, this has been an impressive outing.

Together Through Life (2009)


Beyond Here Lies Nothing/Life Is Hard/My Wife's Home Town/If You Ever Go To Houston/Forgetful Heart/Jolene/This Dream Of You/Shake Shake Mama/I Feel A Change Comin' On/It's All Good  

“Hunter is an old buddy, we could probably write a hundred songs together if we thought it was important or the right reasons were there... He's got a way with words and I do too. We both write a different type of song than what passes today for songwriting" - Bob Dylan       

This is a blues rock album from Bob Dylan, played straight and without frills by a tight as a gnat's chuff band and by a Dylan sounding lively and committed. It was, apparently, recorded very quickly, but therein lies its appeal. It sounds almost "live" and is all the better for it. Dylan collaborated on the songwriting with The Grateful Dead's Robert Hunter, with whom he had written a couple of good songs on 1988's Down In The Groove
                                     
Beyond Here Lies Nothing is a harmonica, bass, guitar and rums-driven industrial chugging blues with some great instrumental breaks and Dylan's croaky old voice strangely powerful and charismatic. Dylan's pre-occupation with "Americana" music from the pre-rock'n'roll days (something begun strongly in "Time Out Of Mind and Love And Theft is exemplified in the slow, folky, croony ballad Life Is Hard.

My Wife's Home Town is a very stark, bluesy number in the style of which continued on the next album, Tempest"Hell's my Wife's home town..." sings a cynical, world-weary Dylan over a classic four-note blues riff. If You Ever Go To Houston is another one sung over a repeated riff, this time played on an accordion (or something similar). This is an album very much rooted in the past, in both musical and lyrical history, speaking of an almost mythical American past, a seemingly forever stuck in the 1950s sort of groove.

  

Forgetful Heart starts with lots of hissy, crackling noise in the background, as if it were an old blues record. Dylan's ageing but strangely comforting voice suits the slow grinding melody down to the ground. There is some great scratchy guitar on here. Jolene is not the Dolly Parton number, but another copper-bottomed blues with some seriously top notch guitar riffery. This album cooks, big time. This Dream Of You has Dylan going all Tex-Mex, complete with accordion and yearning lovelorn Latin vocal. It is a quite endearing, most enjoyable song.

A lot of people didn't seem to like this album, as they didn't like Tempest either. They don't seem to like an old man continuing his career singing bluesy songs based in style on a time long gone by, yet they also seem to want him to come out with stuff that matched his material from forty-five years previous to the recording of this album. Not going to happen. A blues like Shake Shake Mama would have been perfectly acceptable on Blonde On Blonde, given the "wild mercury" treatment, so why not accept it here, with its down 'n' dirty guitar sound and gruff vocal. None of these artists can re-create their genius from their twenties - not Dylan, Springsteen, Morrison, Costello, The Stones, McCartney, Elton John, Paul Simon - any of them. It does not mean what they do in later years is not worthy of attention, in my opinion. I really like this album.

I Feel A Change Coming On again has some essential accordion, some searing guitar and yet another wise-sounding Dylan vocal about "reading James Joyce...". He was always good for a literary name-drop, like Van MorrisonIt's All Good sings a wry Dylan above another classic, often used blues riff on the energetic, shuffling closer. It has all been good, Bob. All of it.

Tempest (2012)


Duquesne Whistle/Soon After Midnight/Narrow Way/Long And Wasted Years/Pay In Blood/Scarlet Town/Early Roman Kings/Tin Angel/Tempest/Roll On John  

"Shakespeare's last play was called 'The Tempest'. It wasn't called just plain 'Tempest'. The name of my record is just plain Tempest. It's two different titles"  - Bob Dylan 

Like most of Bob Dylan’s “later period” albums - Time Out Of MindLove And TheftModern Times and Together Through LifeTempest is very much and album chock full of Americana - folky blues, railroad blues, country, folk, rockabilly and bluegrass influences and the usual perplexing lyrics often dark, sometimes mournful, mischievous and disarmingly tender at times. Basically, it is 21st century Bob Dylan.

Something that is constant with these five albums is that Dylan seems to have found musicians he is happy with, whom he can go into a studio with, and quickly thrash out this music, played to an extremely high standard. He draws, like he does in his “Radio Hour” show, on the American folk music of his youth and constructs songs in that style but played to contemporary standards.

I am certainly no Dylanologist, so I do not spend hours poring over his lyrics trying to decipher Biblical or Shakespearean oblique references, neither do I hail every album he contemporarily puts out as a “return to form”. I listen to it, and I decide whether I like the sound of it or not. It is that simple. I don’t compare it to Blonde On Blonde or Blood On The Tracks. I just take it at face value. It sounds like a good album of songs to me.

 
                     
Duquesne Whistle is an infectious, slightly rockabilly, lively country-style opener. It has a captivating “brush” drum sound and Dylan’s old man’s throaty voice is so vibrant, so vivid. It gives great gravitas to the song, like an old bluesman would. It also has that rubber band, jazzy bass sound. I love this track. The sound quality on this, and all the tracks, is excellent and the band are top notch, as always.

Soon After Midnight is a gentle, reflective, almost walking beat sad ballad with a steel guitar quietly sounding away in the background. Narrow Way has an archetypal blues harmonica repetitive rhythm that stays at the same pace throughout while Dylan confidently delivers his words of warning. “Even Death has washed its hands of you”, bemoans Dylan, portentously. Only Dylan comes up with this sort of stuff, even now. “I got a heavy stacked woman, with a smile on her face…”. Although the tune never diverts from its metronomic beat, you stay with it all the way, as the lyrics never fail to fascinate.

Long And Wasted Years has another constant musical refrain, a melodious tune and another excellent vocal. Pay In Blood  has Dylan railing and growling about paying in blood, but not his own, over a truly gorgeous bass line. “I’ll give you justice…” croaks an angry Dylan. He sounds as if he means it.

Scarlet Town is a slow burning, solid piece of country rock, with a slow banjo accompaniment.  Early Roman Kings revisits that “da-dah da-dah” repeated harmonica riff again, and Dylan’s lyrics are a stream of invective. “I ain’t dead yet….my bell still rings…I keep my fingers crossed… like the early Roman Kings….”. There is some really dark, “house of death” imagery on this one, it is full of it. Dylan cuts a frustrated, world-weary figure as indeed he does on the somnolent, chugging Tin Angel. Insistent and potent, this is one of my favourite songs on the album.



Tempest, the fourteen minute song about the sinking of The Titanic has been derided by many. I don’t really understand why. Myself, I love these long Dylan narratives - Lily, Rosemary & The Jack Of HeartsJoeyBrownsville Girl - they are superb story songs and nobody tells them better than Dylan. Tempest is my favourite song on the album. It is full to the brim with marvellous characterisation, narrative and imagery. Nobody does this sort of thing better than Dylan. If people don’t like this, then what attracted them to Bob Dylan in the first place?

The John Lennon tribute, Roll On John, is also very evocative and atmospheric and displays a real sensitivity and tenderness towards Lennon. It is almost surprising to hear Dylan so personal in his tribute.

So, there you go. No real analysis or gushing “return to form” stuff. I enjoy this album every time I listen to it, and that is good enough for me.



Shadows In The Night (2015)


I'm A Fool To Want You/The Night We Called It A Day/Stay With Me/Autumn Leaves/Why Try To Change Me Now/Some Enchanted Evening/Full Moon And Empty Arms/Where Are You?/What'll I Do/That Lucky Old Sun  

"I don't see myself as covering these songs in any way. They've been covered enough. Buried, as a matter a fact. What me and my band are basically doing is uncovering them. Lifting them out of the grave and bringing them into the light of day" - Bob Dylan                
Bob Dylan has always liked a cover version, even from way back in his folk days (his first album was full of them). He has always liked to dip into what Van Morrison would call "the days before rock 'n' roll" and the "Americana" from the fifties, and sometimes from even earlier - the Delta blues standards, of course and nineteenth-century folk songs.  Here, he covers songs sung by Frank Sinatra. These are not "big band", It Had To be YouNew York, New York songs, however. They are "torch" style songs from Sinatra's "dark of the night" period from the late fifties - songs intended to be played in the dark of night after an evening hitting the saloon bars, alone, your girl having gone God knows where, with God knows who.

It is not, in any way, like the more common Sinatra covers album that TV stars put out for the Christmas market. It is a sombre, highly evocative, atmospheric collection of sad, reflective songs. They suit Dylan's croaky, ageing voice perfectly. Yes, Sinatra purists will say that they do not want to hear anyone sing these songs but Sinatra, and, in many ways, I can understand that, but, as a Dylan aficionado, I can derive considerable pleasure from this. Yes, this was the artist who defined the change from when artists covered other people's songs to writing their own songs, and, of course, he is possibly the greatest lyricist popular music has ever known, but, as I said before, he always likes a cover. He respects music that has gone before. He wanted to do this album, and he does it well.



















My personal highlights are The Night We Called It A DayAutumn Leaves, the heartbreaking Where Are You and That Lucky Old Sun. The backing on the album is understated and sparse, subtle enough to concentrate on the lyrics, as indeed the originals were. As mentioned earlier, these were not big band-backed songs. I find this an ideal late evening album. I have the Sinatra albums too, but sometimes I like to play this. I do feel, however, that the subsequent albums of "Great American Songbook" crooners were a couple of steps too far from Dylan.


Rough And Rowdy Ways (2020)


I Contain Multitudes/False Prophet/My Own Version Of You/I've Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You/Black Rider/Goodbye Jimmy Reed/Mother Of Muses/Crossing The Rubicon/Key West (Philosopher Pirate)/Murder Most Foul

"Equal parts death-haunted and cantankerous" - Jon Pareles - The New York Times

In the middle of a pandemic of Biblical proportions, guess what? Bob Dylan, music's grand old Methuselah, puts out his first album of self-penned material since 2012's Tempest. There is something hauntingly apt about that, isn't there?

The album is a good one - a mix of lengthy, quiet, acoustic, often mortality-haunted lyric-fests and a few (three) tougher, industrial-strength blues workouts. This has been Dylan's way for a fair few decades now, so those who don't like it should stay away. Those who are ok with it are guaranteed to get some pleasure from this surprise release.

I Contain Multitudes starts the album off with a slow, growled acoustic number in the style of some of the material on Modern TimesLove And Theft and Time Out Of Mind amongst others. The song contains instantly recognisable rhyme schemes and a suitable multitude of references - Edgar Allan Poe, All The Young Dudes, Anne Frank, The Rolling Stones, William Blake, Beethoven, Chopin - that show, indeed, that he and his thinking contains multitudes. It is a low-key but thoughtful and intellectually invigorating song. It sounds like the sort of material Dylan played on his radio show, full of folky, Americana feel. "I'm a man of contradictions, I'm a man of many moods..." he tells us - I think we knew that, Bob.

 

Like the Time Out Of Mind album, this one vacillates between slow acoustic narratives and stonking, big bluesers. Firmly in the latter category is the chugging, powerful False Prophet, which is one of Dylan's finest blues cuts for a fair time. Since 2012 in fact. It brings to mind the material from Together Through Life as well as that contained on TempestMy Own Version Of You sees the beat toned down but it still retains a deep, bluesy chug of a bass line as it backs Dylan's endlessly intriguing lyrics. "What would Julius Caesar do?" asks Dylan. He still has that ability to come up with simple but interesting lines. "I've studied Sanskrit and Arabic to improve my mind" is another good one. The old Biblical references he always loved are resurrected for this song too, lots of them. I can't keep quoting them. Musically it flows on like a gentle river that one can rely on to flow in the same fashion, year in, year out. Bob Dylan has been doing that for years too. You can still depend on him.

I've Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You is a beautiful, tender number with subtle, repeated “ooh”. backing vocals and lyrics concerning mortality, something that has been on Dylan’s mind for years. The subject is dealt with in even more direct, uncompromising style on the stark, haunting Black Rider. Dylan also gets unusually graphic when he says “the size of your cock will get you nowhere”. In fact, I don't think I can recall Dylan ever getting sexually graphic. The song has a haunting beauty to it, however.



Goodbye Jimmy Reed is a solid, muscular return to the blues. Dylan likes to remember old bluesmen occasionally, remember Blind Willie McTell.

Mother Of Muses puts me in mind of Ring Them Bells from Oh Mercy. It is chock full of historical references - Sherman, Patton, Presley, Luther King Jr. “I’ve already outlived my life by far” croaks a baleful Dylan, most movingly. I challenge anyone who has followed this man’s music for many decades not to feel a bit tearful on hearing this.

“Three miles north of purgatory, one step from the great beyond” says Dylan on the slow blues of Crossing The Rubicon. Once again, this is a track overloaded with wonderful imagery and couplets that show why Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature. It sounds childishly simplistic to say something like that, doesn't it? But nobody does it like this. Dylan is just so special.

Key West (Philosopher Pirate) has a lovely subtle accordion backing and some decidedly Van Morrison-esque lyrics about old radio stations and frequency bands. It is a marvellous, lengthy and quietly intoxicating song once more giving up many classic Dylan lines - “at twelve years old they put me in a suit and forced me to marry a prostitute” - what a line - that old Western fantasy imagery still coming through strong.

Then, of course, there is what may be Dylan's final track on his final album (then again, people have been saying that for years). Either way, Murder Most Foul goes down as his longest individual song, beating the slightly similar Highlands and the narrative Tempest. It is already notable for over fifty name-checks, again Van Morrison style, as Dylan quietly evokes all sorts of cultural and historical memories over a steady, metronomically regular bass, strings and gentle percussion backing. Dylan's reminiscences are inspired initially by the 1963 murder of John F. Kennedy, but as it progresses it becomes something much bigger, something that seems to act as a mirror to Dylan's whole life. It is a great achievement and yes, I am sure that I won't be constantly sitting through its sixteen minutes plus, but you can be assured that whenever I do, I will appreciate it. It is a veritable cornucopia of beguiling wordsmithery. Hell, it's an incredibly moving work of genius - indeed, the same can be said of this album.






BOB DYLAN IN MONO BOX SET



This a truly wonderful release of essential mono recordings, let me put that out there right at the beginning. There is so much pleasure to be gained from listening to these recordings (some of which I am used to hearing in stereo for all my listening life). There are a few points about Dylan's mono recordings in general that I wish to make, however.

Firstly, I believe it is a bit of myth that the stereo recordings of the early albums were "guitar out of one channel and Dylan's voice out of the other", Taxman style, rudimentary stereo. I have all the albums in their remastered stereo versions and, with this box set in their remastered mono versions. To me, the first four all albums sound pretty much the same. There is no bass to benefit from the centralised mono punch or multi-instrumentation to sound good in stereo. These four albums sound acceptable in either format, as the stereo doesn't really kick in at all, to be honest, they just sound  mono to me, anyway. Maybe this is just me, and my ears just can't detect. Either way it doesn't really matter, either version does the job for me.

It is on the next four albums that some serious differences can be found, particularly on John Wesley Harding and Blonde On Blonde. The latter sounds ok in stereo, but there is a bit of a Taxman 60s stereo feel about the masterings, in my opinion. The mono, on the other hand, is a revelation. Listen to that massive bass on Obviously 5 Believers punching right out centre field on your speakers. On the stereo version, the bass is barely discernible, comparatively. Visions Of Johanna also has a magnificent bass reproduction in mono, as does Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again and Brand New Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat. The stereo is much weaker, more lightweight. Play these mono recordings mega-loud and you will love it, like being in the studio with The Band. The percussion intro to Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands is crystal clear and razor sharp, like a bell. The stereo version, on the other hand, has the same sound restricted to the right channel and doesn't sound anywhere near as convincing.

A couple that, in my opinion, sound better in stereo are Pledging My Time and You Most Likely Go Your Way And I'll Go Mine, which are just a little muffled in mono.

The wonderful descending bass line on John Wesley Harding's The Wicked Messenger is huge in mono. In stereo it is almost deliberately quiet, inexplicably and unforgivably.

Highway 61 Revisited has superb mono bass on Tombstone Blues and the title track. From A Buick 6 is great too. Desolation Row benefits from the centralisation of the acoustic guitar, but I am yet to be convinced about Like A Rolling Stone.

Bringing It All Back Home's manic Subterranean Homesick Blues is, as one might expect, magnificent in its mono attack and power.

Overall, these mono recordings are an excellent listening experience that you will not regret investing in. If you like big, powerful, booming bass making your floor shake you will love it.


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