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Old 01-03-2015, 04:25 PM   #8 (permalink)
Josef K
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5. Bob Dylan - Bringing it All Back Home



So, I want to start not by talking about this album but by talking about the one that preceded it, Another Side of Bob Dylan. It's one of my favorite Dylan albums, but it's sort of awkward in his discography, sandwiched between the political folk of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan and The Times They Are a-Changing and the revelatory folk-rock hybrid of this album. Another Side is a very solid set of songs including some of Dylan's best-known work ("Chimes of Freedom", "To Ramona", "It Ain't Me Babe"), and it sees him subtly saying goodbye to the protest songs of his past - "I was so much older then / I'm younger than that now". It sets the stage perfectly for this album, one of his most acclaimed.

I'm not the world's biggest Dylan fan, but one of his strengths is artistic vision - I think that after some experimenting, exactly what he wanted from this album became clear to him, and the accounts I've read of the sessions for the album certainly bear this out. I'm reminded of what I've read about Alex Chilton during the recording process for Third - the producer's goal was to simulate "the band in his head" and that's how we ended up with songs like "Kangaroo". On this album, Dylan got what he wanted production-wise, and he did a lot with it. This is where he truly became more than just a protest singer.

The album opens with the iconic "Subterranean Homesick Blues", which is basically Dylan rewriting Chuck Berry. Despite the political lyrics, it must have been a bit of a shock to any fan of his listening to the album for the first time - that is, after all, an electric guitar. "She Belongs to Me" is gentle but bluesy. "Maggie's Farm" is a protest song... about how much Dylan hates the music industry and hates protest folk music. Musically it's the most aggressive song on the album, but while it's fun, I'm not too sympathetic to Dylan the famous artist complaining about people who are trying to make art that does good for the world. I understand him wanting to pursue his own muse and I wouldn't get in his way, but the idea that he's mistreated for wanting to write, um, silly love songs (because that godforsaken song is in some ways a sequel to this one) by people who want to him to continue to try to help people with his music? Please. He's a great musician and a great songwriter, and it's a good song, but I can't get behind the lyrics all the way.

Anyway, "Love Minus Zero/No Limit" is one of Dylan's sweetest love songs. It's one of the many songs that makes the move away from protest music seem justified. "Outlaw Blues" - well, I'm a big fan of his bluesier material, and the harmonica here is really great. This song also shows lyrically how much he wants to change his style - and continue to change styles, which he's done more than almost anyone else - and briefly addresses his feelings towards the old folk crowd ("I may look like Robert Ford / But I feel just like Jesse James"). Wikipedia tells me that the first time he played this song live was with Jack White. I don't doubt it, and it's definitely a song that fits pretty well with White's whole act. "On the Road Again" apparently has some deep interpretations, but I think it's just pretty silly on purpose - guy doesn't like his in-laws, they descend into absurd extremes. It's a perfectly good song, but a little inconsequential because of the lyrics. "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream" has my favorite fakeout opening ever - at first you think it's just Dylan and his guitar, but it turns out the band just screwed up, so they start again and it's a bluesier number with legitimately funny lyrics that reference Moby Dick and Christopher Columbus. I won't get into deep analysis because there have probably been whole books on the subject (some people are really bored, I guess), but it's the second-best song on the album, and that's side one.

So side two starts with "Mr. Tambourine Man". Good song, although the Byrds did it better. It sets the mood for the more stripped-down, though no less intense, second side. "The Gates of Eden" is the best slower song on the album, and it features some of Dylan's best lyrics. But the centerpiece of the album is "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)". It's this album's "A Day in the Life" - the album as a whole is weakened by how good the song is compared to the rest (although this album is nowhere near as inconsistent as Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band). For such a simple song with pretty obtuse lyrics (though for this album, they're quite direct), it's especially gripping. It's a song, like Suicide's "Frankie Teardrop", that I am unable to look away from (um, turn off?). "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" is one of Dylan's prettiest melodies, and it's a fantastic kiss-off to end the album.

This may be surprising, but this isn't a five star album for me (well, very few are, but it's like a four instead of a four and a half. You decide how meaningful that is). The last three songs are flawless, but I only love two of the other eight ("Subterranean Homesick Blues" and "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream"). He's an incredible lyricist throughout, but "On the Road Again" is sort of stupid, and I don't particularly care for "Love Minus Zero" or "She Belongs to Me". It's a great album, but I don't think it's consistently his best work. Still, very worthy of praise.
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