Parv’s Guide to Bob Dylan’s Albums

“Love and Theft” (2001)

If Time Out of Mind marked a critical and even commercial comeback for Dylan, this is the album where he really took the world by the scruff of the neck and said “You think I’m done? Like fuck I am!” Where the former album is mostly downbeat and resigned, here Dylan is back up and running, and having a blast with it. The ghostliness of the Lanois production gives way to a kickass backdrop of blues and rockabilly, and Dylan’s voice has changed again: it’s maybe an octave lower, more growl-y, less wispy, and somehow more sly and knowing. My theory is that the performer he is on this record – the wily  veteran commanding the club with a knowing nod and a wink, killer one-liners at the ready – is the performer he always wanted to be. I imagine that Dylan the 20-something dreamed of one day being this guy and he’s now living out his fantasy. And shit, why shouldn’t he, he’s Bob Dylan. The rollicking “Tweedle Dee and Tweelde Dum” bundles in to kick things off as if it’s rolled in from an ongoing party that’s taking place deep in the bowels of the earth. Next there’s one of Dylan’s very best songs, period: “Mississippi”. It’s actually a left over from Time Out of Mind, but much much better with this band and in this setting. But this album is all about the knock-out one-liners delivered with nonchalance and slyness – it’s a mode he’s been perfecting since the 1960s on all those blues “filler” tracks, but here he’s finally nailed it into a art form, and there are too many highlights of this sort to list. “Lonesome Day Blues” epitomises this mode, and so much of it is in the performance and how Dylan is using his new snarling, croaky voice to devastating effect. He’s defiant without being angry, upstanding without being proud, world-wise without being cynical. Another aspect of this new mode is the fleetingness of it all – it’s the half thought, the half-formed idea, the momentary impulse – and he jumps all over the place almost at random. To demonstrate all this, let me quote “Lonesome Day Blues” at length:

Samantha Brown lived in my house for about four or five months
Samantha Brown lived in my house for about four or five months
Don’t know how it looked to other people
I never slept with her even once

Well, the road’s washed out—weather not fit for man or beast
Yeah the road’s washed out—weather not fit for man or beast
Funny, how the things you have the hardest time parting with
Are the things you need the least

I’m forty miles from the mill—I’m droppin’ it into overdrive
I’m forty miles from the mill—I’m droppin’ it into overdrive
Settin’ my dial on the radio
I wish my mother was still alive

I see your lover-man comin’—comin’ ’cross the barren field
I see your lover-man comin’—comin’ ’cross the barren field
He’s not a gentleman at all—he’s rotten to the core
He’s a coward and he steals

Well my captain he’s decorated—he’s well schooled and he’s skilled
My captain, he’s decorated—he’s well schooled and he’s skilled
He’s not sentimental—don’t bother him at all
How many of his pals have been killed

Last night the wind was whisperin’, I was trying to make out what it was
Last night the wind was whisperin’ somethin’—I was trying to make out what it was
I tell myself something’s comin’
But it never does

I’m gonna spare the defeated—I’m gonna speak to the crowd
I’m gonna spare the defeated, boys, I’m going to speak to the crowd
I am goin’ to teach peace to the conquered
I’m gonna tame the proud

His mind his wandering and we’re just catching glimpses of his half-thoughts. The questions pile up for us: who the hell is Samantha Brown? What’s he parting with? Why does driving in the car with the radio on trigger the memory of his mother? Who the hell is this woman apparently sleeping with a “coward”? He’s giving rousing speeches to the troops now? You can see how the blues form lends itself well both to this “feeltingness” and to the throwaway one-liner, in fact it’s almost tailor-made for them. But all of this is also tightly inter-textual: he’s stealing images and lines left, right and centre (hence “Love and Theft”). And the allusions and references pile up with every new image or half-thought. It’s a truly remarkable writing technique that is hinted at earlier in Dylan, but only perfected on this album.  “Floated”,  “High Water”, “Honest With Me”,  “Po Boy” and “Cry a While” are all great songs written in this mode. They are really fantastic because you don’t know where they are going to turn, they consistently surprise you. He’ll go from making a cheap gag, to being randomly angry, to busting out Shakespeare references, to oddly tender moments of remembrances of his parents or grandparents, to throwing out bits of advice or witticisms. It’s one of my all-time favourite modes of writing, and I don’t know of anyone from any age who has been able to master it as completely as Dylan does on this album. For me, it’s a strong contender for the title of “Best Dylan Album” – and would recommend it as a starting place for exploring “Late Dylan”. This is awesome, and in my view a little slept on or at the very least underrated.

Rating: *****

Modern Times (2006)

As is often the case with these things, the awesomeness of “Love and Theft” had caught some publications on the hop. While some did give the album its just deserts, there were plenty of four-star reviews going around – sometimes critics miss the boat. So of course, none of them could let this happen again, especially since Dylan’s first album in five years, backed by an iTunes ad campaign, was destined to go straight in at number 1 on the US Billboard charts. So of course, this time it was healthy doses of five-stars and “album of the year” all round for his Bobness. There hadn’t been this much anticipation for a new Bob Dylan album arguably since the 60s, and to be fair, it didn’t disappoint. Dylan had found a groove with his new voice and new on-record persona. This continues in the same mode at “Love and Theft”, although the tone is slightly mellower and the songs are a little more melodically driven. But from “Thunder on the Mountain” you get the same elliptical jumping from image to image and from tone to tone. One minute he’s wondering “where in the world Alicia Keys could be”, the next he’s raising an army of orphans or righteously lambasting someone for their “wicked schemes”. “Rollin’ and Tumblin’”, “Someday Baby” and “The Levee’s Gonna Break” all follow this formula, which at times seem so easy for Dylan to knock out that you could accuse him of laziness where he not so absolutely awesome at nailing songs written in this mode. For sure, Modern Times feels like a sequel, “more of the same”, but it’s a very good sequel that is almost as good as the original – more Rocky II or Superman II  than Exorcist II. He’s also much more crooner-y here than he is on “Love and Theft”, we see some of the softer sides of this new Dylan on songs like “Spirit on the Water”, “Workingman’s Blues #2”, and “Beyond the Horizon”. On “Nettie Moore” and “Ain’t Talkin’”, we also get a starkness and creeping sense of doom that we don’t get on “Love and Theft”. There isn’t a weak track on this one and taken together it certainly has the feel of another masterpiece confirming that fact that Dylan was on yet another monster run at this point. When people start talking about “Greatest of All Time”, this is the sort of things I’d point to in the case for Dylan: how many artists have THREE mesmerising critical peaks that scale these sorts of heights in three separate decades? I’d put this run of albums from World Gone Wrong to Modern Times up there with any four-album run in Dylan’s own career or anyone else’s.

Rating: *****

Together Through Life (2009)

Bob_Dylan_-_Together_Through_Life

And then came this. His voice was a bit more cracked and torn by 2009, Spanish guitars and horns were added to the mix. But by this stage the formula that had been so tremendous on the past two albums was starting to wear a little bit thin. The pace is slower here, fewer blues-y rockers and more numbers that feel like a pleasant stroll through the park. In fact, if I was to put an image to this whole album it would be the scene in The Godfather in which Vito Corleone is playing with the kid in the vineyard by putting the orange in his mouth just moments before he dies.  This feels like the mood of Vito playing with that kid in that moment. It’s a good and enjoyable enough album, but it’s light and ultimately a bit inconsequential – a little bit like Under the Red Sky only in the context of his late career and a better than that.  My favourite tracks here are “Life is Hard” and the closer “It’s All Good”.

Rating: ***1/2

Christmas in the Heart (2009)

Never one to be second guessed by his fans, later in the same year that he released Together Through Life, Dylan shocked the music world by releasing this completely ramshackle collection of Christmas songs. Sending DJs and comedians everywhere – but most notably here in the UK, Adam and Joe – running to perfect their impressions of the frog-voiced old-man Dylan doing renditions of “Silver Bells” and “Little Drummer Boy”. This does somewhat capture the spirit of Christmas though, and Dylan comes across like your grizzled old grandfather having fun with these festive songs. The highlight is probably “Must Be Santa”. As with any Christmas album though, the novelty factor and replay value are limited to just the one month per year. It’s fun enough but Slade and co probably don’t have much to worry about.

Rating: ***

Tempest (2012)

On this his 35th studio album, the ever unpredictable Dylan took a big departure from the mode he established on “Love and Theft”. Whereas Together Through Life sounded comfortable and even a little tired as if that particular vein had been mined out, this is a different persona again and a distinctly different mode of writing. At times, Tempest is almost un-Dylan-y  and closer to being something you’d imagine Tom Waits might write. Some of the songs have that sort of hypnotic / chant-y quality that Waits does. Tempest is truly a strange album with which I’m still getting to grips. There are a lot of monotonically repetitive almost ritualistic and chanting songs here – “Tin Angel” just goes on and on like a piston. The album is full of surprises: the opener, “Duqunesque Whistle” has a lovely warm, swinging vibe, but the words are full of hidden menace and destruction. The closer, “Roll On John” – ostensibly a song eulogising John Lennon – seems oddly removed from any real relationship Dylan and Lennon might have had. Indeed, the “John” in this song feels as distant and mythical as St. Augustine or “Marcel and St. John” or any number of symbolic figures who have populated his songs over the years. And by the end of the song he’s evoking not The Beatles, but William Blake (“Tyger, Tyger burning bright”). And perhaps most surprisingly of all, Tempest is probably Dylan’s most violent album. It’s positively blood-soaked at times, even crudely so. He even calls someone a “bastard” at one point. There are some pretty nasty verses. Consider this from one of the stand-out tracks “Pay It In Blood”:

Another politician, pumping out the piss
Another angry begger blowin you a kiss
You’ve got the same eyes that your mother does
If only you could prove who your father was
Someone must have slipped a drug in your wine
You’ve gulped it down and you crossed the line
Man can’t live by bread alone
I pay in blood, but not my own.

Dylan has never really talked in this way before. There’s a bluntness to it and a certain coarseness. There’s also a strong political voice coming through here, but not one that is necessarily Dylan’s own. I am told that in the US, there was a lot of controversy about Barrack Obama’s father, especially from those on the right. The second half of “Pay It In Blood” aligns Obama with Jesus, possibly seeing him as a false prophet. The “angry beggar” and suggestion that “Man can’t live by bread alone” signals people are starving in the US.  It has been suggested that the whole song is written from the point of view of a psychopath right-wing Tea Party activist, as a kind of satire of the far right. This is view buttressed by a line elsewhere in the song (“My head’s so hard, must be made of stone”). One thing is plain to see: the speaker isn’t Dylan himself, this isn’t some latter-day rehash of Infidels crap. It’s one of his more interesting songs: at once a revenge-murder ballad, and a song about the current state of US politics, with tons of sly literary allusions to Shakespeare and the Bible. I’d venture to call it one of Dylan’s best ever songs. Also, it must be said, it features a bat-shit insane vocal performance. And all this is what makes Tempest quite an interesting and complex work: perhaps echoing Shakespeare, Dylan is putting on different masks with each of these songs, he’s playing a gamut of different roles, and, for whatever reason, these characters are full of violence and brutality. Consider this from “Early Roman Kings”:

I can dress up your wounds
With a blood-clotted rag
I ain’t afraid to make love
To a bitch or a hag
If you see me comin’

And you’re standing there
Wave your handkerchief
In the air

I ain’t dead yet
My bell still rings
I keep my fingers crossed
Like them early roman kings

I can strip you of life
Strip you of breath
Ship you down
To the house of death

Who is this person? What’s he trying to prove to us, or himself? Another great song is “Narrow Way”, where he channels all his tricks from  the “Love and Theft” era to new effect on a stomping blues number  – no one can flit effortlessly from the Bible to Alain Ginsberg to some obscure blues song from the 1930s to the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam like “late period” Dylan. He’s truly a master of intertextual inflection. This isn’t quite on the level of Dylan’s best work, there are too much unevenness and too many long tracks that end up going nowhere, but it’s definitely one of his most interesting that seems to demand further investigation. Since Dylan is now 72, it’s perfectly possible that this will be his last album (though I very much doubt it), it wouldn’t be a bad way at all to go out.

Rating: ****