CK Retro Review: Bringing It All Back Home by Bob DylanPosted: May 22, 2013
He could have sung acoustic folk-based songs for time immemorial and he would have been just fine. But that wouldn’t have been Bob Dylan, right? His 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home was the first of many 180-degree turn he made in his career as he shifted into electric-based blues music and trippy surrealistic lyrics and came out with a stunning triumph. Here is a track-by-track review.
11. “Outlaw Blues”- Being the weakest song on this album holds no shame whatsoever. Something had to be at the bottom, and this well-executed blues, probably the hardest-rocking cut on the whole disc, suffers only in comparison to the rest of this outstanding bunch of songs.
10. “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream”- Dylan intersperses heroes fictional (Captain Ahab, or, in Bob’s telling, “Captain Arab”) and non-fictional (Columbus) as a way of framing this bizarre story, but otherwise it’s just one of his typical surreal comedies, which is to say there is nothing typical about it. From the false start at the beginning to the jumbled electric mess accompanying the wild action, this is inspired lunacy.
9. “On The Road Again”- Out of the three outlying electric-based songs at the end of Side 1 featuring material meant more to amuse rather than to amaze, this one is probably the tightest musically and the catchiest of the group. Give credit to a strutting bass line that seems straight out of a 50’s cop show. When you add in the narrator’s hilarious descriptions of his girlfriend’s horrendous family, you’ve got a track that makes you laugh and groove all at once.
8. “Maggie’s Farm”- As a personal statement of purpose, it ranks among Dylan’s very best, as he suggests that doing what people expect him to do is essentially manual labor. You can apply that to where he was in his career, but the song works as a rallying cry for anyone who feels marginalized by expectations. As music, it tiptoes the line between joyously unkempt and downright sloppy, but it lands on the right side more often than not.
7. “She Belongs To Me”- There is a real sweetness in the music here, with Dylan’s acoustic strumming accompanied by some flickering electric guitars, that helps to get this song across. It’s a beguiling character study of a girl who is clearly beyond the narrator’s grasp, which earns in him equal parts admiration and exasperation, even though Dylan’s vocal plays it cool. In a lot of ways this song is like the girl it depicts: Alluring and elusive.
6. “Love Minus Zero/No Limit”- You can look at this and “She Belongs To Me” as musical and lyrical first cousins, but this one gets the edge because of the melody, one of Dylan’s prettiest. His tribute to this girl is interesting in that the qualities that he values in her are the passive ones, how she seems to be at peace in a world full of scramblers and hustlers. Bob claimed once that the title was meant as a mathematical equation. Let’s just say it all adds up beautifully.
5. “Mr. Tambourine Man”- It certainly has a five-star reputation, but there’s something bloodless about Dylan’s own recording of it, as if it’s too perfect. The poetry is jaw-dropping indeed, and Dylan plays it off Bruce Langhorne’s breezy electric guitar nicely. I’ve always took the simplest route here and assumed that the “Mr. Tambourine Man” is his muse, but it really could be a stand-in for anything that takes you away from the routine and humdrum.
4. “Gates Of Eden”- This may be the end-all, be-all of complicated lyrics from Dylan. There are those out there who will follow those lyrics down all of their labyrinthine paths, and each of those probably has his or her own competing interpretation. Maybe it’s better to let the brazenness of Bob’s imagery wash over you and do its work. That imagery is often downright harrowing, making it seem like the titular gates are forever receding from our grasp. Dylan seems to suggest that the first step to living within his apocalyptic vision is accepting its reality.
3. “Subterranean Homesick Blues”- The worldview in this famous album-opener is similar to the one in “Gates Of Eden,” only now the enemies are in plain view and their tactics are laid bare in farcical fashion. This was the world’s introduction to Dylan’s electric sound, and it’s a chaotic jumble that barrels its way forward with brute force past any civility or restraint. Bob would fine-tune this sound for future albums, but those subsequent efforts all owe this invigorating track a debt of gratitude for clearing the way in such anarchic fashion.
2. “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”- Most classic Dylan albums have killer closing tracks, and Bringing It All Back Home has a doozy in “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” The tendency is for people to read this as a kiss-off kind of a thing, but I think it’s gentler than that. While the narrator doesn’t pull any punches about the malleable situation Baby Blue in which finds herself (or himself), he also implores her to roll with the changing times. His parting advice: “Strike another match, go start anew.” Again, this one works as a statement on Dylan’s shifting musical focus, but it’s even better as a wistful, one-sided conversation.
1. “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”- It tells the truth better than perhaps any song in history by relating in great detail how “all is phony.” Yet it’s never a downer, because it’s somehow perversely thrilling how Dylan lays it all on the line for us. Our jobs, our governments, our relationships: It’s all one big game “that you got to dodge.” The scope of this insane deluge is probably too vast to completely avoid, but Bob seems to be hinting that identifying the deceptions is a victory in itself. Simply a staggering piece of work.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For more on Dylan, check out the link below to my upcoming book Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs.)