Self Portrait (1970)
There’s a lot of stories about this album: that Dylan was sick of being claimed as the voice of his generation; that he was burned out; that he released the album to get the record label off his back; that he released it to get rid of unwanted fans. Never mind all of that right, is it any good? The answer is annoyingly, “yes and no”. On the one hand, it’s obviously not even close to the nine albums that preceded it and shows if anything that not everyone can produce greatness all the time. But on the other, it’s obviously not total shit either. Robert Christgau, a critic with whom I don’t always agree, has perhaps the most interesting take on this. “Conceptually,” writes Christgau, “this is a brilliant album which is organized, I think, by two central ideas. First that “self” is most accurately defined (and depicted) in terms of the artefacts — in this case pop tunes and folk songs claimed as personal property and semi-spontaneous renderings of past creations frozen for posterity on a piece of tape and (perhaps) even a couple of songs one has written oneself–to which one responds. Second, that the people’s music is the music people like, Mantovani strings and all.” His problem is that the music doesn’t hold up to the concept and that’s undoubtedly true. One problem is that the pacing of the songs and the instrumentation are often too languid. Take something like the cover of Tampa Red’s “It Hurts Me Too”, a great song that Bob somehow manages to suck the life out of here. The cover of Paul Simon’s “The Boxer” is, to put it frankly, shite; as is the pointless version of “Like a Rolling Stone”. Another problem is that there are too many of these throwaways — it’s simply too long. Despite all that, there are a few highlights: “All the Tired Horses” with its female vocalists is a curiosity, “Days of 49” would be thought of more highly if it was on a different album, and the performance of “The Mighty Quinn” from the Isle of Wight festival included is awesome. I’d recommend listening to those three and then not coming back to this album until you have listened to at least 25 others.
New Morning (1970)
This is more like the follow-up to Nashville Skyline you would have hoped for, even though the “crooner” voice is for the most-part ditched for the more familiar nasal tones we all know and love. This finds Bob hitting his 30s and retreating to family life – famously to a farm in North Dakota – it’s another exhibit for the case that Dylan truly has an album and a song for every occasion and every feeling. What is great about New Morning is that while he establishes a “home base” through love songs for his wife (the sweet single “If Not for You”, “New Morning”, “One More Weekend”) and scenes of domesticity and family life (“Time Passes Slowly”, “Winterlude”, “Sign on the Window”, “The Man in Me”), he has a number of “outings” or mental excursions from the family home. These say something about Dylan’s attempted retreat from public life: first we find him picking up his honorary degree from the University of Princeton on “Day of the Locusts” and he’s seldom been more scathing, cynical or full of loathing. On “Went to See the Gypsy” he imagines meeting Elvis (who he claims never to have met) in the knowledge – one of his more cryptic and enigmatic songs, which I’ve never really understood. There are five really good songs here: “If Not for You” is tender and catchy, “New Morning” finds Dylan full of genuine hope and love as he describes his new domestic bliss, “Sign on the Window” is one of the nicest songs he’d ever write, “The Man in Me” finds Bob trying to be a good husband, and “Father of Night” is a captivating first hint towards the religious themes that would dominate his writing in the early 80s. Great and often overlooked album.
Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973)
I never know what to do with soundtracks in these things, but officially this seems to count as Dylan’s twelfth studio album, so I’ll count it. Dylan was very quiet in the period between New Morning and this. He appeared at George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh in 1971, released the very seldom talked-about single “George Jackson” (a kind of throw back to his Times They Are A-Changin’ stuff) and that was about it. I am not totally sure how it came to be that Dylan wrote the soundtrack for and acted in Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, but he did. There is, of course, one towering stand-out track here: “Knocking on Heaven’s Door”, as good a song as he’d ever write as well as one of his best vocal performances. Dylan did not make many instrumentals in his career, but there are plenty of them here. The best of them is “Final Theme”, a haunting piece featuring a pretty ace recorder solo. This album is mostly an attempt to recapture the sound of the old west and within the context of the film, it all works very well. I think the three “Billy” songs are pretty throwaway. As a stand-alone piece, this is mildly diverting at best. A rather minor work in the Dylan canon.
In 1973, Dylan left Columbia records to join Asylum. So Columbia cobbled together this bunch of outtakes from Self-Portrait and New Morning and released it as an album with no input from Dylan himself as a kind of “punishment”. It’s mostly shambolic cover versions of old standards and the shittest version of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” you’ll ever hear. Although this is truly abysmal, it’s not impossible to listen to because it features pleasant poppy production. Some people like to listen to this for comedy’s sake, but there’s nothing funny here. Proper crap.
Planet Waves (1974)
For whatever reason, Dylan’s only album for David Geffen’s Asylum label holds the least interest for me as a fan possibly of any album of his. This period around 73-4 in general is just a bit rubbish. Now some fans love this, but it holds very little appeal for me. The production is incredibly clean and MOR. It almost feels like “Dylan for the charts” at times; Dylan that fans of Dire Straits can like. He would never be as bland and uninteresting as this again. Furthermore, I am not much of a fan of The Band and they are all over this. “Forever Young” is a good song (although not one of my favourites). For some reason, there are two versions back-to-back on this: one slow (the one most people know) and one fast (the one remixed by Will i Am on that Pepsi ad). “Wedding Song” is also pretty good. One of my least favourite Dylan albums that usually gets positive reviews.
Blood on the Tracks (1975)
Dylan kissed and made up with Columbia and promptly left Asylum before coming back at his very best with his first album for Columbia. He had been on a pretty shitty run by his standards since New Morning in 1970. All that was to change with this, one of his most famous albums. This is possibly the most accessible and easy to “get” of his major albums and if you are a true Dylan newbie, it’s not a bad place to start at all. Dylan was going through a separation from his wife Sara when he was writing and recording this album and though he denies it, it’s almost impossible not to think that this is not forming the inspiration for these songs of love on the rocks and breakup. We start with one of the most amazing one-two punches in music history: “Tangled Up in Blue” is like an impressionist painting of a relationship, we get these snapshots from different moments, and it’s a true masterpiece. He gives a cool little shout out to Petrarch too the “Italian poet / From the 13th century” who established most of the conventions of courtly romance in Europe. “Simple Twist of Fate” takes this same elliptical snapshot approach and it’s the sort of song you can only get if you’ve been in a long-term relationship. He goes through the gamut of emotions now as he’s dealing with this breakup. He’s contemplative, confused and upset on “You’re a Big Girl Now”, but there’s still the hope to save things. He’s ballistic with rage on “Idiot Wind” – “You’re an idiot, babe / It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe”, ouch. According to Dylan himself these songs are about short stories of Anton Chekov. Pull the other one, Bob: “I couldn’t believe after all these years, you didn’t know me better than that / Sweet lady”. He seems to have a history of calling his wife “lady” in these songs. “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When you Go” is a lighter number, but one that sees him resigned to the fact that she’s going to be leaving. It is a moment where things are going well that he wants to hold on to, but she’s still “gonna have to leave”. “Meet Me in the Morning” is one of Dylan’s cooler 12-bar blues numbers with a killer sign-off “Look at the sun sinkin’ like a ship / Ain’t that just like my heart, babe / When you kissed my lips?”. I will skip “Lilly, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts” as I mostly do when listening – some people think it’s a really good song, I’m not one of them. But now the break up has truly happened … “If you See Her, Say Hello” is just heart breaking. “Shelter from the Storm” is one of Dylan’s special songs, but I prefer the acoustic and harmonica version (the one that featured on the Jerry Maguire soundtrack, you’ll also find it on The Essential Bob Dylan, I believe, but you’d have to check). And then the devastating “Buckets of Rain” with it’s odd tuning, which finds Dylan making one last desperate attempt to make things better. Knock-out masterpiece of an album on which he is able to channel raw emotion into art. Everything here is at once poetic but also somehow real and adult. And if you’re going through what he is, it’s also an album that can surely make you cry.
The Basement Tapes (1975)
Dylan’s second offical album upon re-signing for Columbia was actually recorded back in 1967 in-between the motorcycle accident and recording John Wesley Harding. Just a bunch of rough cuts with members of The Band, first at at Dylan’s house near Woodstock, then in the basement at the famous Big Pink. At these sessions, they recorded a lot of material. Lots and lots of it. A mixture of covers and new songs written by Dylan. In 1975, Columbia put together a compilation of 24 of these recordings and released them as The Basement Tapes. Now among the beard-y Dylanologists, there is some controversy over this release. For a start, there is less than a quarter of what was recorded here. Second, there are eight Band-only songs that don’t feature Dylan – and, to make matters worse – there is evidence that these eight songs were not even recorded at these sessions. And to make matters even worse still, there is evidence that said eight songs were actually doctored to sound more Basement-y. Naughty. If you want the “real deal”, the best complete collection I’ve come across is the bootleg A Tree With Roots. Just don’t let Columbia’s psycho legal team catch you!
But I’m not here to tell you all of that. Allowing for all of the mythos and shenanigans: is The Basement Tapes any good? The first thing to note is that it is utterly unique in the Dylan canon. There is a truly ramshackle quality to everything. Dylan sings in this half-baked almost drunk-sounding voice, and behind him there’s an organ, a tambourine, a guitar or two and just a general feeling that they are having a knees up. Lyrically Dylan seems to be evoking Depression-era America, talking about “a bottle of bread” and “sweet bourbon Daddies” who “ain’t got a dime”. There’s a real rogues gallery of strange people to meet here from “Mrs. Henry” from “Please, Mrs. Henry” to “Tiny Montgomery”. There’s also this absurd sense of the utterly mundane running through everything. “Clothes Line Saga” is literally a song about having a chat while putting the washing out, at one point his neighbour blows his nose. If there are hidden meanings to the seemingly random “Million Dollar Bash”, I’ve never been aware of them. During “Lo! and Behold” he buys a girl a “herd of moose”. “Apple Suckling Tree” and “Yea! Heavy and a bottle of bread” are similarly playful and silly. All of that stuff is great and fun. However, there are some more serious songs too: “Tears of Rage” has some strong echoes of King Lear as a daughter betrays her father; “Too Much of Nothing” seems to be facing the void or as Dylan puts it the “waters of oblivion”; “Crash on the Levee (Down in the Flood)” is a reworking of an old standard about the Mississippi floods of the 1920s, but given a distinctly Old Testament feel here that makes it sound like God is flooding the whole world again; and finally “This Wheel’s on Fire”, which has this foreboding, ominous and even threatening feel – some have postulated that it’s the wheel of his motorbike, but I like to imagine it’s something more classical. Yet another allusion to King Lear of course, and coincidentally the name of G. Wilson Knight’s classic work of Shakespeare criticism The Wheel of Fire. So what about those eight tracks by The Band then? Well, they are a bit annoying. Robbie Robertson has a high and whiny voice. But for me they don’t do enough to disrupt the flow to stop this from getting the highest rating, essential and unique Dylan. The bootlegs are always there for the purists.
Shortly after releasing Blood on the Tracks, Dylan went on a mad, wild tour called the Rolling Thunder Revue where he performed with a whole ragtag of different performers (there’s a fantastic video of him doing “Isis” from this tour that captures the spirit of it pretty well). It’s easy to see how this tour inspired the sound and feel of Desire. I should also mention that the poet Jacques Levy has writing credit on most of the lyrics here. First though, let’s get “Hurricane” out of the way: it’s his first overtly political song since the mid-60s and famously concerns the incarceration of the boxer Rubin Carter. The first 50 times you listen to it, you’ll love it I’m sure. I tend to feel these days that it’s a little crude by Dylan’s standards. “Isis”, on the other hand, is a majestic, swashbuckling, and completely awesome song that I never tire of. The version on the album is great and is actually enhanced by looking at the photo on the front cover and imagining him riding around digging up tombs and looking for treasure. Although “Isis” and “Pyramids” suggests Egypt, I prefer to imagine Arizona or New Mexico. There are a number of fast versions of “Isis” from the Rolling Thunder tour you should seek out too, my favourite one appears on Biograph (he says “This is a song about marriage, it’s called Isis … it’s for Leonard [Cohen] if he’s still here” at the start) – just awesome awesomeness. There’s a distinctly world-travelling feel on Desire, not just in the subject matter but in the sound, most explicitly on “Mozambique”, “Romance in Durango” and “Black Diamond Bay”. Aside from those tracks, “One More Cup of Coffee” is a great song about a girl who is an outlaw or drifter who is about to head to the ominous “valley below”. It is all very vividly outdoors-y, you can picture plains, prairies, mountains and starry skies. “Oh, Sister” is a strange love song, but a good one. “Joey” is one of the worst songs Bob ever wrote – I really hate it. “Sara” is one of his most personal and direct songs and he’s asking her to stay with him. He admits that “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” was about her too. And just like that long, personal closer, I’m also not a big fan of “Sara”, it’s possibly too earnest. Desire often gets given five stars, but honestly, it’s probably my least favourite of his “major” albums. I don’t like the idea of Bob going travelling, “finding himself” and coming back with a bunch of wooden beads around his wrist – and at times this is the aural equivalent of that. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s still a brilliant album, but just not quite there for me.
Street Legal (1978)
Closing out Dylan’s “70s trilogy” is a real change of pace now. Street Legal adds gospel-style backing singers (get used to them, they are sticking around for a while) and a saxophone to the mix plus all this cool tarot-card imagery everywhere. It truly sounds unlike any other record he’s made, it’s kinda hot and steamy but also claustrophobic, sometimes a little too humid and dark. His voice seems to be a bit different too. Sometimes music comes to represent moments in your life, and when I first got this I was in my first undergraduate year of university going through some relationship troubles and this almost always seems to take me back to those days. The theme of Street Legal is undoubtedly change. “Changing of the Guards” seems to signal a change of women (from Sara to whoever he is talking about for most of this album) and a change of direction (seemingly towards God and religion or spiritual rebirth). “New Pony” continues the theme, and has some really nasty imagery, raunchy by Bob’s standards:
Well, I got a new pony, she knows how to fox-trot, lope and pace
She got great big hind legs
And long black shaggy hair above her face
There is no doubt in my mind that Bob is hitting rebound action here. The critic Michael Gray (whose book Song and Dance Man is really worth getting if you’re into Dylan) is a massive fan of the song “No Time to Think”, with its odd waltzing rhythm and crazy rhyme scheme, but I’ve never liked it. “Baby Stop Crying” is a great single. “Is Your Love in Vain?” has the great some great I’M A MAN DAMMIT lines, especially this:
Are you so fast that you cannot see that I must have solitude?
When I am in the darkness, why do you intrude?
Do you know my world, do you know my kind
Or must I explain?
We all need our time to stare into the fire, right boys? “True Love Tends to Forget” has a kickass refrian “I was lyin’ down in the reeds without any oxygen / I saw you in the wilderness among the men”. There’s not much not to like here. The best song here though is the closer, “Where Are You Tonight (Journey Through Dark Heat)” is just a tour de force of a track. It’s has a magnificent, audacious rhyme scheme:
There’s a long-distance train rolling through the rain AA
Tears on the letter I write B
There’s a woman I long to touch and I miss her so much CC
But she’s drifting like a satellite B
There’s a neon light ablaze in this green smoky haze DD
Laughter down on Elizabeth Street E
And a lonesome bell tone in that valley of stone FF
Where she bathed in a stream of pure heat E
Her father would emphasize you got to be more than streetwise GG
But he practiced what he preached from the heart H
A full-blooded Cherokee, he predicted to me II
The time and the place that the trouble would start H
There’s a babe in the arms of a woman in a rage J
And a longtime golden-haired stripper onstage J
And she winds back the clock and she turns back the page J
Of a book that no one can write B
Oh, where are you tonight? B
Those internal rhymes give everything a great sense of urgency. And this is one of Dylan’s greatest vocal performances on record. It’s a sort of greatest hits of all of Dylan’s song-writing techniques to date all in one song. The directness and the subject matter owe something to Blood on the Tracks, the sprawling locations and Cherokee are right out of Desire, the piling up of increasingly complex images wouldn’t be out of place on Bringing It All Back Home, and this line – “I left town at dawn, with Marcel and St. John / Strong men belittled by doubt” – could easily be on John Wesley Harding. This is such a good song. And taken with all the other great tracks here, in my view Street Legal is probably Bob’s most underrated album. Critics are often down on it and for the wrong reasons, most often decrying the slick production and backing singers as evidence that Dylan was lost for direction. Or else saying that Dylan needs to stop talking about his divorce now (seems to me he has!). Robert Christgau’s review, for example, is hopelessly off the mark. It’s one of Dylan’s best albums and I wouldn’t skip it under any circumstances.
Slow Train Coming (1979)
This is where Dylan officially “went Christian” and if the production on Street Legal was slick, this is positively sleek – not least because Dire Straits were on hand to provide backing, you’ll hear Mark Knopfler’s guitar everywhere. And it’s also great. Bob is obviously refreshed here and sings with real conviction. “Gotta Serve Somebody” is quite funky but also has the harsh fire and brimstone Old Testament tone would mark Dylan’s Christian period. I am not a Christian or am I religious in any way, but to my mind the cool stuff in the Bible is all the violent imagery. Dylan’s God doesn’t seem to be turning any cheeks, he’s that vengeful one causing floods and whatnot. “Precious Angel”, “I Believe in You” and “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking” are all straight-up declarations of faith that find their power in their impassioned earnestness. It’s almost impossible to imagine the snarling hipster 1966 Dylan writing or singing this stuff, but in a way that’s what makes it great. “Slow Train” gets a bit jingoistic, but I don’t really care about that. “When You Gonna Wake Up” has some of that evangelical fire and brimstone stuff, and “When He Returns” is an elegy to God you could file alongside those by John Donne or Gerard Manly Hopkins. There is no need to mark this down simply because it’s about his religious conversion and in fairness, most critics these days don’t.
Next up: The 80s