- the top 25 from albums of the decade lists by A.V. Club, New Music Express, Paste (the online inheritor of the legacy of the late, great Crawdaddy), Pitchfork, Rhapsody, and Rolling Stone
- the 2000-2009 entries from Spin’s 1985-2010 list of the 125 best albums of the past 25 years
- year-end top 5 lists from my two favorite rock critics, Chicago’s Jim Derogatis and Greg Kot
I’ve been (slowly) blogging an album-by album review of my favorite Bob Dylan albums. So far we’ve had Bob Dylan, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, The Times They Are A’ Changin, Another Side of Bob Dylan</em>, and Bringing It All Back Home, and Highway 61 Revisited. Which brings us now to what many regard as the jewel in the crown, Blonde on Blonde.
Blonde on Blonde is where the rubber hits the road. It’s the third album of the transcendent trio that includes Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited. It decidedly ups the ante on the album that came before it, as each of those two albums did. And it’s the last album before the motorcycle accident that marked a decisive break in both his music and his public person.
So, all that myth and legend aside, how well does it actually stand up? Really freaking well! The 14 tracks here have a lyrical richness and stunning musical diversity that by and large immunizes the whole from sounding dated even after 43 years.
I often think of the opener, “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” as kind of a one-joke novelty that loses its appeal after the shock of “everybody must get stoned” fades, and it’s surely pretty faded by now. That being said, it has a kind of driving stomping rhythm that won me over on this latest listen. This feeling flows into the thick rumbling blues of the next track “Pledging my Time”. “Visions of Johanna” then takes you somewhere entirely beyond, with it’s poetic paean delivered with a world-weary voice and slowly rising tempo of its ringing electric background. Here we the true flowering of an artistic vision, with Dylan adding self-reflection of his own part in the mess and a lovelorn vulnerability to the kind of bitter love song he had long ago mastered.
This song gets inside you and lingers, which could just be a lucky accident, except that it happens again on the next track “One of Us Must Know”. He tries to take himself off the hook by noting that he didn’t mean to do (her?) any harm, and that he was just doing what he was supposed to do, but the underlying melancholy of the song leavens the argument. Similarly, on “I Want You” he’s proud of being put down for not thinking about love, except the line is delivered in the midst of three minutes of yearning wooing of the object of his affection.
And then for something completely different there’s the next two songs… “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again” is one of several songs on the album that is called surrealist in its streaming imagery. And so it is on one level, but I think it’s plain enough on another as a portrayal of the derangement of being on the overboard train of fame in the mid-60s, a world where after mixing Texas medicine and railroad gin: It strangled up my mind/ An’ now people just get uglier/An’ I have no sense of time Followed by the ultimate reincarnation blues: Here I sit so patiently/ Waiting to find out what price/ You have to pay to get out of/ Going through all these things twice
“Leopard-skin Pill Box Hat” takes us on an equally bizarre romp, accompanied by ringing electric blues. We’re then back to a familiar misogynist and snide Dylan on “Just Like a Woman” and “Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine”, but you have to wonder if both aren’t symbols of a larger disillusionment, foreshadowing the break he was about to take from music. Witness: your long-time curse hurts/ But what’s worse/ Is this pain in here/ I can’t stay in here/ Ain’t it clear that–/ I just can’t fit/ Yes, I believe it’s time for us to quit And: I’m gonna let you pass/ And I’ll go last./ Then time will tell just who fell/ And who’s been left behind/ When you go your way and I go mine
Following this, “Temporary Like Achilles” slows us down and “Absolutely Sweet Marie” speeds us up in territory more obviously surreal and less obviously personal, but both continue a theme of wanting to drop out of a game the protagonist no longer feels like playing. “4th Time Around” then veers into territory where music and vocals almost achingly melancholy and romantic back lyrics that are alternately tongue-in-cheek and vulnerable. As if to shake the mood, “Obviously 5 Believers” launches into rapid blues rock, but this proves to be kind of a ringer, because the album’s finale “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” is the most disarmed and unabashed love song that Dylan had written up to this point. It’s slow saunter and profusion of cowboy and western imagery is also a prequel of the musical and lyrical space Dylan will be in a year and a half later when John Wesley Harding is released.
Whatever the truth or not of the seriousness of the motorcycle accident that sidelined him for this period, if nothing else he’d earned a break. From his eponymous debut in 1962 through Blonde on Blonde, Dylan had released 7 albums in a roughly four-year space, progressing from largely-derivative eager young folkie to massively talented pop-rock icon. To paraphrase Passover, if he had stopped there, it would have been enough. But as we’ll see next, how bountiful that he did not…
I haven’t done this since May! I hereby pledge to pick up the pace, and publish at least two more before the end of the year. In the mean time, thus far in my sequential overview of my favorite Bob Dylan albums we’ve had Bob Dylan, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, The Times They Are A’ Changin, Another Side of Bob Dylan</em>, and Bringing It All Back Home. Which leads us to Highway 61 Revisited…
I’d like to start this review with a confession: my whole life I’ve heard music critics fawning about how rocking “Like a Rolling Stone” is, and I just don’t get it. Don’t get me wrong; it’s a great song, one of the exemplars of Dylan’s “bitter and snarky telling off of a woman” vein of song writing. And I understand the historical significance of his going electric here and what that did to rock and folk from that point forward. But to say it flat out rocks? Compared to other things from the same time period by the Who, the Kinks and the Stones? Or even Dylan himself in many places on the previous album Bringing It All Back Home or here in songs like “Tombstone Blues”?
Regardless, in terms of being a vessel for free-floating resentment, serving dual purpose as an attack on a person and a personification of mainstream society due for a richly deserved fall, and prominently featuring the cheesy rock organ, it’s a strong way to open an album, and a pretty incendiary thing to have reach number 2 on the pop charts in 1965. “Tombstone Blues” then knocks it up to a whole other level. The take on this era of Dylan is that he’s moved from the political to the personal, and is now expressing things in absurdist poetry. Listen to this song though, and see if amidst all the joking references to John the Baptist, Galileo and Cecil B. DeMille it isn’t serving as the ultimate protest, a deconstruction of the society itself that results in: Mama’s in the fact’ry/ She ain’t got no shoes/ Daddy’s in the alley/ He’s lookin’ for food/ I’m in the kitchen/ With the tombstone blues
Dylan is also aces in track arrangement here, slowing us down after the initial one-two punch of the opening with the down tempo of “It Takes a Train to Cry” bringing us back up with rocking electric blues on “From a Buick 6” and then just weirding everything out with “Ballad of a Thin Man”. On the surface, he’s telling off a critic, and it’s enough of a joke that he actually cracks up at the beginning. Underneath, though, the weird whistling of the organ and slow building tempo of each lyrical turn charges you up and disorients you, the perfect compliment to a song that point-blank tells you it’s attacking your imagination. So personal, yes, but it lends itself to social critique as well, and not for nothing did the Black Panthers listen to this song repeatedly while drafting their manifesto.
Being so firmly tied to an era by these kinds of associations, “Thin Man” can sound dated. The next track, “Queen Jane Approximately” sounds perennially contemporary with its perfect pop song pitch and balance of angry snide that dismisses the subject and weary compassion that invites them back. If this song sound contemporary, then the track that follows, “Highway 61 Revisited” enters the realm of timeless. Listening to it, it’s possible to make a case that it’s poetic horsing around with archetypes of the road, an indictment of the angry tribal gods and cynical commercialism that are pushing society toward a next world war, or both at once. That is what playing in mythic space can do for you, and he goes even further into it on “Desolation Row” where Cinderella, Bettie Davis, Einstein and Robin Hood all have their identities scrambled together in a land where everybody’s making love or else expecting rain.
The other thing that I can’t help but hear in this album is Dylan the person struggling with Dylan the myth (in which wise it’s mind-blowing to realize that he was only 24 when this was recorded). “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” makes clear the weariness and disillusionment that would have him dropping out of the game, and coming back forever altered, after his next album, Blonde on Blonde:
I cannot move/ My fingers are all in a knot/ I don’t have the strength, To get up and take another shot
It’s either fortune or fame/ You must pick up one or the other/ Though neither of them are to be what they claim
Everybody said they’d stand behind me/ When the game got rough
But the joke was on me/ There was nobody even there to call my bluff/ I’m going back to New York City/ I do believe I’ve had enough
After a shameful break, I’m back with “Project Dylan”, my sequential overview of my favorite Bob Dylan albums. So far I’ve covered Bob Dylan, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, The Times They Are A’ Changin, and Another Side of Bob Dylan. Now on to Bringing It All Back Home…
In standard Dylan exegesis, Bringing It All Back Home is where Dylan breaks with the folkie/protest singer identity of his earlier work. Not only is he already turning electric here, well before he gets to “Like a Rolling Stone”, but his artistic focus turns to an inner symbolic world where his vision reaches the surreal new levels that mark him as the poet of his generation. I suppose that’s all true as far as it goes, but what I hear throughout this album is seething protest. The protest is now bigger, and more fundamental, than civil rights or the anti-war movement. It’s nothing less than a repudiation of the way things are, the entire way society is organized.
“Subterranean Homesick Blues” kicks in to it with full tilt electrified blues, rock and roll by any other name, that in just over two minutes flat of rapid-fire verse paints a picture of a society that one can only hide out from in basements as it seeks to put you on the day shift. And what else is it but the whole system of expectations itself that he doesn’t want to labor for anymore in “Maggie’s Farm”: Well, I try my best/ To be just like I am/ But everybody wants you/ To be just like them/ They sing while you slave and I just get bored/ I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more? The pervasive rebellion reaches a high point on “Outlaw Blues”, an echoing steely blues song that warns off all comers: Don’t ask me nothin’ about nothin’/ I just might tell you the truth.
The whole argument comes to a conclusion in the masterful incisive poetic stream of consciousness that is “It’s Alright Ma’ (I’m Only Bleeding)”. I won’t go into its rich detail here except to note that the poet, even while admitting: If my thought-dreams could be seen/ They’d probably put my head in a guillotine, still asserts: Although the masters make the rules/ For the wise men and the fools/ I got nothing, Ma, to live up to. Read the rest when you have a chance, and see if it doesn’t ring even more true in the aftermath of financial and consumer collapse in 2009 than it did in 1965.
Even a song that is clearly comedic, like “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream”, where Dylan actually busts up laughing at the beginning, uses absurdism and rhyme to lay bare the genocide and thievery at the heart of the founding of the country. The joking “On the Road Again” similarly insists on opting out of the great big out-of-control American nightmare: You ask why I don’t live here?/ Honey how come you don’t move? So too with the seemingly abstract poetry of “Mister Tambourine Man” and “Gates of Eden” which nonetheless seek out realms beyond the straightjacket of everyday life.
There are more personal moments too, including what I think is one of the most beautiful love songs ever written, “Love Minus Zero/No Limit”. My heart aches every time I hear the lines: My love she speaks like silence/ Without ideals or violence/ She doesn’t have to say she’s faithful/ Yet she’s true, like ice, like fire, not least because I know nothing I write will ever touch it. “She Belongs to Me” shimmers with line after line of beautiful poetry subtly undercut by the servitude to the woman it portrays. Words also fail to describe the bitter beauty of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”, a breakup song that assigns longing and melancholy regret for the breakup to the other party, surely a neat trick if there every was one. It also seems a kind of bridge to the albums larger theme of protest, the bereft woman as American society itself, told to leave failed excess behind and begin again:
Leave your stepping stones behind, something calls for you.
Forget the dead you’ve left, they will not follow you.
The vagabond who’s rapping at your door
Is standing in the clothes that you once wore.
Strike another match, go start anew
And it’s all over now, Baby Blue.
While it’s not standard for year-end countdowns, I’ve decided that a top eight albums is the best approach to take for 2008. What can I say? I’m a sucker for numbers and symmetry. Here, in alphabetical order, are my top picks:
1. Get Awkward (Be Your Own Pet)- They’re punk and garage with a dash of metal. Their songs are simultaneously tongue-in cheek and brash, slapping you to the mat from the start and keeping you there throughout. They’re fronted by a brash blonde girl. They’re from Nashville. What on Earth is not to like?
2. Brighter Than Creation’s Dark (Drive-By Truckers)- This album has it all. Male lead vocals. Female lead vocals. Straight-up country. Rock that reminds one of the Seventies in a good way. Music that sounds like storm clouds brooding. And as good as it is musically, it’s even better lyrically. The 19 tracks herein include heartfelt paeans to family, subtle evocations of domestic discontent, a soldier musing on the unknown life of the unnamed foe he’s just killed, and a song from the viewpoint of someone who has had it with a friend’s (family member’s? spouses?) crystal meth addiction.
3. Lust, Lust, Lust (the Raveonettes) There was a good case to be made with their previous album, Pretty in Black, that the Raveonettes had lost their mind. On this album they find it again and the lust, menace, and shimmering clouds of guitar feedback are ours to enjoy.
4. Narrow Stairs (Death Cab for Cutie)- I’ve been a late convert to Death Cab, but like many an infatuation acquired in later life, I’ve made up for it by falling hard. A song like “I Will Posses Your Heart” that starts with a four minute drum intro shouldn’t hold your attention, but in their hands it keeps you rapt, and brings a shiver when the lyrics finally kicks in with their mixture of romanticism and dark obsession. And really, at the end of the day, anybody who writes a bleak, piercing song about searching for Kerouac’s ghost can call me their bitch.
5. & 6. Nouns (No Age), Rip It Off (Times New Viking)- These two bands are probably tired of being mentioned in the same breath, but they really are two peas in one wonderful lo-fi pod. Of the two, No Age brings more melody and traditional pop structure in their navigations of ragged walls of sonic distortion. This makes Nouns more consistently listenable, but Rip It Off more exciting and challenging.
7. Stop Drop and Roll! (the Foxboro Hot Tubs)- Yes, okay, it’s really Greenday in musical drag buying time while they try to figure out how to follow American Idiot. But what glorious drag it is! Their roaring, rocking success at producing rock in the Kinks/Who/Hollies et al vein makes me wonder why rock ever stopped sounding like that.
8. We Started Nothing (the Ting Tings)- Dance music with the form and attitude of rock, this album is just good clean fun from start to finish.
Those are my picks, but in the interest of full disclosure, Bruce Springsteen’s Magic only made honorable mention on my 2007 list, and it’s turned out to be one of the few albums from that year that I still regularly listen to. I reserve the right to listen further… And so should you!
For a long time I thought Bringing it All Back Home was the next album after The Times They Are A-Changin’. I knew the title of Another Side, but I thought it was from somewhere in the uneven early 70s stretch of Dylan output and so avoided it.
When I finally got it sorted out, not only did I repent of my earlier avoidance, it answered many questions I had about classic songs that I knew were from Dylan’s prime but that I couldn’t place on any of the albums I knew about. “My Back Pages” would be chief among these. That song, and this whole album in general, seems like a repudiation of the topical political tone of the album that preceded it: Good and bad, I define these terms/Quite clear, no doubt, somehow./Ah, but I was so much older then,/I’m younger than that now. Dylan isn’t disavowing his positions here, but instead signaling a turn into a realm of inner exploration.
And indeed, political commentary does show up in the songs here, but shot through with humor and satire. In fact, there are three tracks on the album that would qualify for my fantasy “Dylan cracks up” play list, songs in which he can’t quite deliver a line straight and ends up laughing.
Overall, the sense the album conveys is one of restless rambling through his range, from an “I Shall be Free No. 10” that could have fit on Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan to the surreal “Motorpsycho Nitemare” that’s like a preview of the next three albums. Along the way, we get the poetic blues of “Black Crow Blues”, the folk ballad “Ramona”, one of the classic bitter breakup songs (and is he breaking up with just Joan Baez here, or the folk scene in general?) “It Ain’t Me Babe” and one of my all-time favorites, the aching romantic searching of the “Spanish Harlem Incident”: I am homeless, come and take me/Into reach of your rattling drums./Let me know, babe, about my fortune/Down along my restless palms.
It’s almost like Dylan is surveying the ground he built up in his first three albums, and trying to spy the direction for a bold new breakout. Which will bring us to our next review…
This was my favorite Dylan album when I was 20. It’s easy now for me to see why- the album is full of anthems, stirring statements about the issues of the day, with good and evil clearly drawn in black and white. Granted the day was more than twenty-five years old by the time I got to it, but in the era of Rodney King and the first Gulf War it rang just as true. You never doubt who’s side you’re supposed to be on in “Only a Pawn in Their Game”, “With God On Our Side” or “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” and I needed that conviction, along with the certainty that right will eventually prevail that the title track conveys.
Listening to it now, I’m stuck by the poignancy of that song. The times had changed after he wrote it, and then changed back by the time I first listened to it. And since then they changed and changed back and may now be changing back again. The song itself hints at the humility that comes form a long historical view: “don’t speak too soon/ For the wheel’s still in spin/ And there’s no tellin’ who/That it’s namin’/ For the loser now/ Will be later to win” And then win and lose again.
Which is not to say, even now, that I’m immune to the prophetic notion that the time is at hand and the order is about to be fundamentally recast. And anyone who has ever burned with the sense that their time will come can’t help but respond to the bitter defiance of “When the Ship Comes In” (which Dylan himself wrote after being snubbed by a hotel clerk while touring with the then much more famous Joan Baez). But it’s the more personal moments of this album that endure for me now.
Whereas the relationship songs on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan have a kind of pro-forma quality, the real feeling behind “Boots of Spanish Leather” and “One Too Many Mornings” is obvious and moving. As is the sound of the man beginning to struggle against the constrictions of his own public image in “Restless Farewell”. On “North Country Blues” the politics is still there, but subsumed by the personal in the story of the bleak lives of those left behind in a small mining town when the business moves south of the border. And then there’s the “Ballad of Hollis Brown”. The spareness, poetry and driving power of the song that ends with seven shots ringing out “like the ocean’s pounding roar” wowed me when I was twenty and continues to do so today.