It may be the one Bob Dylan album that’s more known for what’s not on it than for what is. Had Dylan included “Blind Willie McTell” and “Foot Of Pride” on 1983’s Infidels, it likely would enjoy a reputation much better than the muted one it currently holds. Even without those two songs that were recorded during the album’s sessions but were left on the cutting-room floor, the album is still an interesting mix of blunt excoriations and vague meditations with a modern sound at times too slick and at times sneakily soulful. Here is a song-by-song review.
8. “Union Sundown”- When Dylan is at his best, he brings insight to topical material that can’t be gleaned from just a cursory read of the morning paper. Alas, he comes off like a barroom loudmouth here, making obvious points about American jobs heading overseas. He gets points, however, for rhyming “El Salvador” with “dinosaur.”
7. “Neighborhood Bully”- As always, my barometer when judging Dylan’s topical songs isn’t the opinion he’s offering but rather how well he offers it. “Neighborhood Bully” makes its points about Israel’s isolation within the community of the world well enough, but it feels like it makes too many of them, so that one can become numb to it all by the end. The music chugs along all right, but with no more invention than a Dire Straits deep album cut.
6. “Don’t Fall Apart On Me Tonight”- The production is a shade or two too glossy, Dylan seems at times to be a singing a different song from what the band is playing, and the last verse is just plain bizarre. Yet when Bob goes all soulful on us, it’s always a bit hard to resist, especially when he’s doing it to convince some reticent girl to his point of view. It certainly gave folks a little preview of what was to come on Empire Burlesque.
5. “Man Of Peace”- This one is interesting in how it almost imperceptibly picks up steam, so what seems like a clever enough blues rant becomes practically epic in the coda as Mick Taylor and Mark Knopfler blast away with Dylan’s harmonica sandwiched between. The central conceit is as old as the whole wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing proverb, but Bob gets off some excellent one-liners, such as when he says that the sneaky main character “can ride down Niagara Falls in the barrels of your skull.” It’s not a classic by any stretch, but it’s a good bit of fun.
4. “I And I”- Dylan was a man trapped in this song: Between the past and present, between Christianity and Rastafarianism, between an unforgiving exterior world and a warm bed with a strange woman it, between himself and, well, himself. That’s a whole lot to try and convey in the span of a song, and “I And I” is indeed a bit elusive lyrically. It’s a good thing then that the music on this track is so subtly powerful, with Knopfler’s moody licks worming through the vast open spaces of the arrangement.
3. “Jokerman”- Those of you who read my original Top 200 list know that I excluded “Jokerman,” but the outpouring of support it received from commenters caused me to reconsider. I still don’t think the music quite rises to the stakes raised by the lyrics, and that may be why I gave those lyrics short shrift. But, on second thought, “Jokerman” turns out to be one of Dylan’s most fully-realized character sketches, a vivid portrait of a fellow with the world at his feet and a void within his heart. Spectacular imagery throughout, and Bob sings it all deftly. I still wish it had been placed in a more animated musical setting, but, hey, I admit I underrated this sucker originally.
2. “Sweetheart Like You”- There’s a serene soulfulness to this track, amped up by the lyrical lines that Taylor lays down on lead guitar. Dylan got ripped by some who claimed he was being sexist, but the lines about “Sweetheart” belonging in the home seem like the narrator’s way of saying that his own affection, along with the whole seedy world he inhabits, isn’t worthy of her, sort of like the way Bob would warn off “Sugar Baby” on “Love And Theft” a few years down the line. In my book, this one deserves a second listen from those who might have written it off.
1. “License To Kill”- Robbie Shakespeare’s bass work on this song is outstanding, conjuring up the understated menace that drips off Dylan’s lyrics. Of all the potshots Bob takes at space travel on the album, the catchiest one comes here: “Man has invented his doom/First step was touching the moon.” As ignorant machismo runs rampant and violent over the world, a lone woman watches it all, her prophecies of doom remaining unspoken because no one would listen anyway. Chilling stuff expertly rendered.
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter. For a more in-depth look at the songs of Bob Dylan, check out the Amazon link below to my upcoming book Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs, also available on all major book-selling sites.)
Some aficionados see Bob Dylan’s 1981 album Shot Of Love as the culmination of a religious trilogy that began with Slow Train Coming. Others see it as the beginning of his return to secular music. It’s probably a little of both, and it’s definitely a little unfocused in terms of its LA studio sound. Yet it also has one of Dylan’s finest songs ever and several others that show his less-heavenly muses exhibiting their pull over him once again. Here is a song-by-song review.
10. “Watered-Down Love”- One thing that you never want a Dylan recording to be is benign. This easy-listening exercise with cliché-ridden lyrics qualifies. Watered-down indeed.
9. “Heart Of Mine”- Ringo Starr is credited with playing the tom tom (apparently he didn’t bring the rest of his drum set) while Ronnie Wood is on guitar for this track. The recording actually ends up being a bit disheveled despite all the big names on tap, but the reason the song doesn’t ignite is that Dylan’s admonitions to his heart (a songwriting tactic used to better effect in the Jerry Vale chestnut “Pretend You Don’t See Her”) are downright bland.
8. “Trouble”- The lyrics aren’t too impressive by Dylan’s standards, just a laundry list of loosely-defined ills that mankind has little choice but to endure. It’s a good thing that the band works up an engaging stomp and Bob sings it with the kind of vigor that can push even mediocre blues lyrics up a notch or two.
7. “Dead Man, Dead Man”- As a contrast to “Trouble,” this one has fascinatingly dark lyrics, but I’m not sure if Dylan ever fully commits to the reggae groove eked out by the band. For the most part, there was a welcome feistiness that returned to Bob’s religious treatises on Shot Of Love, and “Dead Man, Dead Man” is emblematic of that. Here he suggests that the nonbelievers are already pushing up daisies; they just haven’t been told about it yet, and Dylan bears the bad tidings with a bit of barely-concealed triumph in his voice.
6. “Shot Of Love”- Again, the music, while forceful enough, isn’t all that memorable here, which is too bad, because Dylan is again careening down some intriguing lyrical alleyways in the title track. He alternately seems desperate and paranoid, ready to confront his persecutors yet trying to stay righteous all the way. Even his car is giving him trouble. The tension in the song comes from the fact that, for one of the first times since he started his religious odyssey, he doesn’t sound sure that the heavenly aid he’s requesting is definitely coming.
5. “In The Summertime”- Even though Dylan seems to still have his heart in the heavens on this track, it’s got the same kind of feel as wistful love songs from further on down the road like “Shooting Star” or “Born In Time.” The implication here is that the narrator’s time in the sunlight was brief, but the memories and the gifts he received are enough to sustain him in his long winter he’s living now. The strolling music is just right on this one, with Bob’s harmonica gliding beautifully over everything.
4. “Lenny Bruce”- There are very few people who have lived on this planet who could share a taxi with Bob and make a compelling case that they’re the most interesting person in the vehicle. Lenny Bruce would be on that short list. Dylan’s tribute might seem like faint praise at times, but his lines about Bruce not killing babies or robbing churches are Bob’s way of saying that what the comedian’s detractors had against him was ultimately trivial stuff. The skewed logic somehow begins to make sense at the end, especially when it’s married to Dylan’s deeply-felt piano work.
3. “Property Of Jesus”- Dylan has his dander up in this one, and the song is all the better for it. Although the song is ostensibly about a third-person believer that Bob defends by showing the weightlessness of his enemies’ slings and arrows, you could just as easily hear this song as what the songwriter has to say about the critics who would sneer at his religious conversion. And so “Property Of Jesus” can fall into line with songs like “Positively 4th Street” and “When The Ship Comes In” in this regard. I would even say that the music has a little of that 60’s thin, wild mercury about it, at least until the howling refrains break that spell with their pure force.
2. “The Groom’s Still Waiting At The Altar”- This one nearly became a casualty of Bob’s odd song selection for the album, a problem that would plague his next album, Infidels, even more. Luckily enough, this searing blues was added to the cassette version and was then included in the running order of all subsequent Shot Of Love releases. It’s an early example of a song framework to which Dylan would keep returning from the 80’s on: Richly-described, merciless landscapes inhabited by a resolute but wary narrator in pursuit of an elusive woman. We should all thank Claudette, whether she’s “respectably married or running a whorehouse in Buenos Aires” for adding the hellfire of desire to Bob’s serenely chaste outlook.
1.”Every Grain Of Sand”- Whatever peaks and valleys Dylan’s songwriting traversed in the Born Again period, it all culminated in this astoundingly lovely and unflinchingly honest ode to the difficulty of keeping faith when human frailty keeps pulling us stubbornly earthward. I actually prefer the barking-dog version on the Bootleg Series, if only because the higher octave Bob tackles brings out the anguish and deep feeling of his lyrics a little better. But this version has the harmonica solo at the end, so there’s that to consider as well. Let’s just say that this song soars no matter what, as Dylan’s poetic gifts are used to optimum effect. The final verse is one of the most powerful in his canon, as the narrator, who admits to weakness and temptation throughout, tries to maintain his sporadic hold on a divine light. He ultimately finds God in small gestures and subtle nuance, which, ironically enough, are the very things that his critics always claimed his religious-themed music lacked.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For a more in-depth look at Bob Dylan, check out the link below to my upcoming book Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs.)
Whereas Bob Dylan leavened his first foray into religious music with a Memphis soul bent on Slow Train Coming, his second paean to his faith, 1980’s Saved, leaned more towards traditional gospel music. As a result, many of the songs rely heavily upon the passion of Dylan’s performances to carry the day, especially since the songwriting wasn’t his most inspired. Here is a song-by-song review.
9. “A Satisfied Mind”- This is nothing more than a warm-up for the rest of the album, a table-setter for what’s to come. Dylan and his backing vocalists are pretty much all you have here on this cover of an old country hit, and it’s here and gone in two minutes, so it doesn’t have much time to leave much of an impression.
8. “Saved”- This is pretty standard up-tempo testifying. Dylan doesn’t always seem at home with the quick tempo, as he huffs through the lyrics and gets swallowed by the backing singers and frenzied arrangement. It might work on Sunday morning, but “Saved” falls a little flat the rest of the week, especially with lyrics that are heartfelt but boilerplate.
7. “In The Garden”- I’ve always felt like this one was on the precipice of something great, but it never quite gets there. Maybe it’s the woozy chord changes or the overblown soft-to-loud dynamics of the arrangement. Maybe it’s just that the questions Dylan raises in the lyrics are used mainly to regurgitate Biblical stories of Jesus being without unearthing any kind of insight from them. It’s probably all of the above. An interesting misfire in my book.
6. “Covenant Woman”- This is along the same lines as “Precious Angel” from Slow Train Coming, albeit it without the stirring music or the “You’re going to hell” aftertaste. The refrains meander a bit, but the verses are nice, especially when Dylan rounds out this tribute to the woman who holds his holy heart by revealing in the closing lines that he has made his own divine promise to love her, just as she has done for him.
5. “What Can I Do For You?”- Lyrically, this is pretty standard stuff, as the narrator wonders how he can possibly repay all that his Lord has given him. That’s all fine and good, but it can’t compare to the power of Dylan’s harmonica-playing in the song. The coda, which features Bob blowing high and lonesome above a church organ, effortlessly captures the pain of unworthiness and the steadfastness of devotion that the lyrics labor to express. It almost makes you wish, for maybe the only time in the Dylan catalog, that he had just clammed up and let his music do the talking.
4. “Are You Ready?”- If there is a single overarching emotion that hangs over much of Saved, it’s the vulnerability of a lone man laying himself before God’s might and wisdom. The closing track paints a much tougher picture though, as it brings back the bluesy sound of Slow Train Coming and dares non-believers to knock a battery off God’s shoulder. Dylan also wins points here by not sparing himself the tough interrogation: “Have I surrendered to the will of God/Or am I still acting like the boss?” His final verdict is that judgment is coming one way or the other, so you best get your soul right.
3. “Solid Rock”- The gospel song as riff-rocker, “Solid Rock” is an ingenious recording that keeps things pretty spare lyrically but gets its point across by the fervor with which it is performed by Dylan and his cohorts. That refrain is fantastic; by reiterating how much he’s “hanging on,” Bob is stressing the perseverance that it takes to maintain faith. The verses are also strong and pointed, showing that Dylan is always at his best as a writer when he’s laying down what he truly feels, even if you don’t agree with it, than when he equivocates.
2. “Saving Grace”- Yes, the sentiment is as clichéd as it gets, but there is something in Dylan’s performance that is undeniably touching, wobbly vocals and all. It’s also one of the better-realized recordings on the album, which wrings a little extra emotion out of Bob’s affecting gospel melody. Dylan’s incredulity at making it to this point in his life feels truthful. He also adds some interesting quirks to his confession, such as when he states, “But to search for love, that ain’t no more than vanity.” By the end, even the most steadfast cynics will have a hard time denying Bob his hard-earned, redemptive triumph.
1.”Pressing On”- Dylan must have understood early on that he had a whopper of a chorus on his hands here, which is why he relies on it so heavily to deliver this song to exalted status among his religious material. And, although he overrelied on female backing vocalists for a good part of the middle portion of his career, the singers on board here really bring some needed power to the mix. Add in Jim Keltner’s incredible feel on the drums and Dylan’s inspirational piano work, and you’ve got an irresistible slice of musical heaven about the relentless effort it takes to get to the one in the sky.
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For more on Bob Dylan, check out the link below to my upcoming book Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs.)
When it came out in 1979, it was practically impossible for anyone to separate the musical quality of Bob Dylan’s Slow Train Coming from the content of the album. It is the LP that heralded Dylan’s so-called “Born Again” period, in which his music often preached to the choir and scolded everyone else. Yet it’s easy to forget Slow Train Coming features one of Bob’s top backing bands ever, giving a soulful spin on his with-us-or-against-us proselytizing. Here is a song-by-song review.
9. “Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking”- And, lo, the Lord spoke unto Bob and said, “Bring forth plentiful cowbell.” Or something to that effect. The groove is more “Mississippi Queen” than Virgin Mary, but it hasn’t held up that well over time, and Bob’s lyrics are a little too humorless here.
8. “Man Gave Names To All The Animals”- If I’m not mistaken, someone wrote a children’s book based on this song, and that’s the right spirit in which to enjoy it. Think of it as his “Yellow Submarine.” Plus, it’s Bob’s first foray into reggae, and not a bad one at that.
7. “When You Gonna Wake Up”- There is a dichotomy at play between the lyrics, which sometimes come off like they were written by a member of the PMRC, and the music, which gets gritty in the verses and flirts with disco in the chorus. That interesting contrast is all over Slow Train Coming, and part of what makes it a great deal better than its less musically-vibrant follow-up, Saved.
6. “Do Right To Me Baby (Do Unto Others)”- Using the same kind of word games that propelled “Gotta Serve Somebody,” this retelling of the Golden Rule benefits from that subtle playfulness and Dylan’s funky delivery. The music helps a lot here as well, with special kudos to Barry Beckett’s burbling keyboards.
5. “I Believe In You”- The lyrics to this song, which borrows it’s opening phrasing from “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” almost seem to anticipate the skepticism which would greet Dylan’s transformation once it was made public. His vocals get exposed in points, but that’s part of the charm. Mark Knopfler, whose work as unofficial bandleader on the album must be commended, provides some lovely fills as well.
4. “When He Returns”- Anyone who might have doubted Dylan’s commitment to his faith need only listen to his impassioned vocal performance on this lovely closing track. Again, Beckett is fantastic here, and the melody allows Bob’s vulnerability to show through. The God awaited here is a bit more benevolent and less vengeful than at other parts of the album, and the narrator’s doubts about his own worthiness and strength also make this one softer somehow, and better for it.
3. “Precious Angel”- Dylan had use of the marvelous Muscle Shoals horns on the record, and they were utilized to perfection here. They soar in the refrains, buoying the narrator heavenward as he beckons divine light. The lyrics are part love song, part devotional, part harrowing prophecy for any non-believers, but all parts are powerfully written by Bob.
2. “Slow Train”- The hardest thing to reconcile about this period of Dylan’s career was his seeming reluctance to allow any opposing views into the picture. That kind of single-minded philosophy is all over this menacing track, yet the lyrics are so persuasive and limber that it’s hard to resist it. Dylan aims here more at societal ills than at the religiously wayward, although his point is that the two walk hand in hand. Regardless of all that, the track is stellar, with a groove that Stevie Wonder would envy and tear-stained licks from Knopfler that burn with emotion.
1. “Gotta Serve Somebody”- This is another song that has an insinuating rhythm that carries it a long way. It’s probably the reason the song was an unlikely chart smash, although Dylan’s slyly humorously lyrics are pretty memorable as well. As the first single from this new Bob that perplexed many fans, the song often gets maligned for being something it really isn’t. Nowhere in the song does Bob come forth and say how people should act or what they should believe. The refrain simply posits that, one way or the other, our actions reveal our character.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For more on Bob Dylan, check out the link below to my upcoming book Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs.)
1978’s Street Legal doesn’t hold the highest reputation among Bob Dylan releases. The last stop before his religious period, it took a critical beating upon its release for its poor sound quality and the slick urban rock arrangements. Yet the sound quality issues have long since been solved in reissues, and the album contains several undeniable classics as well as some unjustly overlooked beauties. Here is a song-by-song review.
9. “We Better Talk This Over”- Short of “It’s not you, it’s me,” Bob trots out every possible cliché that one might use to separate from a relationship that has run its course. Still, the lyrics would suffice if not for the clunky arrangement and guitar riff that sounds like it was on loan from the Marshall Tucker band.
8. “No Time To Think”- There’s a lot of interesting stuff going on in the narrative, with Dylan addressing a protagonist beset on all sides by every manner of existential calamity. Yet, for once, he offers a long song that tends to drag. Part of the problem is that the music doesn’t have the mesmeric quality of some of his other epic offerings. The lyrics lack a real core to them as well, so whatever good lines Bob gets off, and there are a few in here, they tend to lose their impact.
7. “True Love Tends To Forget”- Dylan would favor a blue-eyed soul approach a few years down the road on Empire Burlesque, but the early evidence of it can be found on a few Street Legal tracks like this one. The title of this song is one of the most interesting parts about it, suggesting, depending on your mood about the subject, that love can either be beneficially forgetful or harmfully ignorant. I wish that the musical backing had been a bit less blandly professional and presented a few rough edges that would have better suited Dylan’s interesting lyrics.
6. “New Pony”- Even at the most discombobulated points of his career, and this would seem to be one of them even if Street Legal turned out much better than its reputation suggests, Dylan could always fall back on a lusty blues song when in doubt. “New Pony” fills that bill on this album. Bob sings it with the kind of abandon that shows he’s really comfortable with the material, and the band feels cut free as well from the just-so arrangements of the other songs.
5. “Baby, Stop Crying”- The lyrics are pretty direct here, as the narrator implores a girl in a world of hurt to quit her tears. What really sells this song is the thoughtfulness of the arrangement and the songcraft, how it builds from Dylan’s low drone in the verses to the impassioned singing of the chorus. Little things like that can carry a song a long way, especially when you’re operating in the more contemporary idiom Bob chose for Street Legal.
4. “Changing Of The Guards”- The idea of a coming transformative event has long been a theme in Dylan’s work, but never has it seemed to drip with more portent and import than as it does here. The narrator slyly moves amidst the tumult all around him hoping to come out on the right side of the fence when the change occurs. Bob’s lyrics have a wild and powerful eloquence about them, and every time that saxophone riff revs up again, it’s like a fanfare calling the lyrics onto the field of battle.
3. “Is Your Love In Vain?”- This was one of the Street Legal songs that took a critical beating in some corners, in part because of the line asking the woman if she can cook or sew, which some took as sexist. The song is, in truth, anything but; the narrator is just a wary dude who wants to be sure that his new love is really in it for all the right reasons, so he can be excused for making sure that all his bases are covered. It’s an ingratiating melody and Dylan evokes vulnerability in surprisingly touching ways. If you’ve already decided on this one in a negative way, you should really give it another listen.
2. “Where Are You Tonight? (Journey Through Dark Heat)”- Think of this masterful closing track as a latter-day “Visions Of Johanna.” In each song, a narrator tumbles through an urban noir scene, addled by all that he witnesses and experiences, but mostly bad off because he misses the one person who can help it all make sense. The earlier song was much more surreal; this one inhabits a much more gritty landscape. Dylan’s wordplay is so visceral that you feel like you’re right there taking the punches (and doling out the kicks) with him.
1. “Senor (Tales Of Yankee Power)”- The song is a bit of an outlier in terms of its music from the rest of the album, in that the instrumentation is essentially the same but there are far more open spaces in the arrangement. Dylan sends a pair of drifters out on an unforgiving journey, and they contemplate their moment of truth at one of their pit stops. “Senor” is forever silent, if he even exists and isn’t a figment of the narrator’s imagination, while the narrator peppers him with questions about what action they should take to end their torment one way or the other. You can read the lyrics literally or as the paranoid manifestations of the narrator’s damaged psyche and weary heart. Either way, it’s spooky, powerful, wondrous stuff from Bob on this one.
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For more on Bob Dylan, check out the link below to my upcoming book Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs.)
Bob Dylan’s 1976 album Desire was notable for its exotic, violin-tinged, gypsy sound and its ambitious, sprawling story-songs. The bold gambit paid off in spades for Dylan, as the album turned out to be one of his biggest commercial successes. Here is a song-by-song review.
9. “Mozambique”- I understand that this was meant as a change of pace. But I think the album could have handled another epic, specifically the sublime “Abandoned Love,” which was recorded for these sessions but bumped off by this breezy, melody-free lark.
8. “Oh Sister”- You could argue that Dylan was singing to a love interest, a nun, or a sibling here. I’ve always heard it as a plea for a rapprochement in the battle of the sexes. Whatever the case, the great Emmylou Harris, whose vocals throughout gave Desire some of its extra-special flavor, lifts the tune into a place of tenderness and warmth with vocals that weave all around Bob’s steadfast croak.
7. “Joey”- If you’re one to be offended by songs that may stretch the truth a bit (or, let’s face it, a lot), you’ll never believe this one is worth anything. My take is that Hollywood romanticizes gangsters all the time, so why not Bob? My deciding factor on the song’s effectiveness is how well Bob, and co-songwriter Jacques Levy, tell their version of the story of Joe Gallo, and “Joey” passes muster and then some by that standard. If anything holds the song back, it’s the staggering tempo of the music, which seems to make the tale drag in parts. But like a Scorcese or Coppola movie with a little too much exposition, you can sit through it because the good parts are worth it.
6. “Romance In Durango”- Dylan really gets inside the skin of this Mexican bandit on the run, even laying the accent on a bit thick (check out the way he exaggerates the long “e” in “people.”) What carries the song is the ingenious way the story is told, as this outlaw tries to calm his Magdalena with soothing visions of their idyllic future together, even as his enemies close in on them. The narrative ends with him wounded and yielding his gun to his lover; the final chorus might as well be our hero’s final, death-addled vision of the life he won’t get to lead.
5. “One More Cup Of Coffee (Valley Below)”- The recording sessions for Desire were famously chaotic, but out of that craziness some really vibrant performances emerged. “One More Cup Of Coffee (Valley Below)” would have been fine with just Bob on his guitar singing this tribute to a girl of exceeding beauty and mystery whom he’s about to leave behind. When Dylan’s wild melody is coupled with the sinewy violin lines of Scarlet Rivera, the song really haunts.
4. “Hurricane”- The influence of Levy’s theatre-trained knack for shaping a story really comes to the fore on this plea for the innocence of Rubin Carter. Note how the choice of short, impactful words evokes a pulp fiction tale and how some of the lines seem like stage directions. It also helps that the music really kicks, with Rivera’s violin lurking in dark corners behind the rumbling drums of Howie Wyeth before Bob blows everything away with an impassioned harmonica solo. Dylan belts the chorus out like an ironic ring announcer. The fact that the song has sustained as one of Bob’s most popular long after Carter’s case has been settled by the courts says something about its enduring power.
3. “Isis”- In the midst of all the tomb-raiding, there is something deep going on in Dylan and Levy’s lyrics, something about how self-destructive tendencies can wreck a relationship and how some couples are brought together by the combustibility which will inevitably cause them to part. It’s all rendered in thrilling fashion thanks to Dylan’s wondrous vocal, which finesses the quirkier aspects of the story and brims with ravenous emotion when describing “Isis.” One of those songs with a high degree of difficulty that few even attempt, let alone pull it off like Bob does here.
2. “Black Diamond Bay”- Let’s just consider for the moment the main story of this song, in which the inhabitants of a doomed island play out their final moments in dramatic and sometimes idiosyncratic fashion. Had the song ended with the evisceration of “Black Diamond Bay” and all the fascinating characters on it, it would have been an excellent effort. But Dylan and Levy push things up a notch with the trick ending, as the narrator enters the song and tells of seeing a brief news item about the sinking island. Bob may state at the end that there are a lot of “hard-luck” stories being told, but very few are told with the cleverness on display here.
1. “Sara”- Dylan laid it all on the line in this immense, album-closing tribute to his wife, but the shadows that creep into the song are what make it more than just another rocker writing a love song. For one thing the song keeps returning to pesky minor keys every time a ray of sunlight breaks through. For another, the eloquent and heartfelt testimonials that make up the bulk of the song are bookended by a pair of telling scenes on a beach. In the opening verse, that beach is filled with the sights and sounds of a happy family; in the last verse, it’s deserted. Sara Dylan has maintained her privacy throughout the years, and good for her for managing that, but this song, and all the woeful love-lost songs that Bob has written since Desire, tells us all we need to know about her specialness to him.
Coming on the heels of the triumphant Blood On The Tracks, the release of The Basement Tapes of 1975 was a double-whammy of brilliance for Bob Dylan. These mythic recordings had been bootlegged for years, but the official release confirmed that the music that Dylan and The Band made in Woodstock in 1967 sounded timeless and ahead of its time all at once, summing up everything good about American music in the 20th century. Here is a song-by-song review. (Just the Dylan-performed tunes, since he seems to have only a tenuous connection on The Band-led songs at best.)
16. “Tiny Montgomery”- All of the whimsy of the lyrics falls a bit flat without a little musical spark. I’m not sure if we should welcome Tiny’s arrival or fear it. Gas that dog, indeed!
15. “Yea! Heavy And A Bottle Of Bread”- I know this one has its defenders, but there’s no real tune on which Dylan can hang the Mad-Lib lyrics. It’s only funny the first time really, and then all you’re left with is silliness.
14. “Please, Mrs. Henry”- A drunken plea for some kind of mercy from the titular missus, this track has so many double-entendres that even Dylan has to laugh at song’s end about it. The stop-and-start nature of the recording is comical in its own way.
13. “Lo And Behold”- A round trip from San Antonio to Pittsburgh featuring Ferris Wheel taxis and flying moose? On The Basement Tapes, it somehow all makes perfect sense. Richard Manuel gives the song just the right bit of locomotive energy on piano, chugging it along like a rickety old train.
12. “Apple Suckling Tree”- The Band was known for shuffling instruments between themselves; on this track, Robbie Robertson plays drums and provides a crazed, hiccupping beat. The real star is Garth Hudson, whose organ solo at the end is worth the price of admission alone. “Underneath that tree” sounds like the funkiest place in the world to be.
11. “Crash On The Levee”- When they tackled it in concert years later, Dylan and The Band turned this one into a real barn-burner. On The Basement Tapes, it’s more of a relaxed stroll that fits into a long line of Dylan songs about ominous floods. The matter-of-fact way in which he delivers the news suggests that he knows “Mama” is doomed, so she might as well dance her way into the deluge.
10. “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”- The gentility of the music, a sweet country lope that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Nashville Skyline, belies the harshness of the wintertime setting that Dylan suggests. Everything sounds just fine once Dylan gets into nonsensical ramblings about Genghis Khan, especially when Rick Danko and Richard Manuel join in on the memorable chorus.
9. “Clothes Line Saga”- One of the funniest songs Dylan has ever delivered was allegedly a parody of Bobbie Gentry’s huge smash hit “Ode To Billie Joe.” What Bob really seems to be satirizing is a kind of linear approach to folk-song writing which, when taken to its extreme as it is here, can make the most trivial occurrences, like washing and drying clothes, sound strangely riveting. Meanwhile, the insanity of the vice president can’t compare to the necessity of getting those damn clothes off the line.
8. “Too Much Of Nothing”- Robbie Robertson had precious few leads on The Basement Tapes tracks, but he made the most of his chance here, delivering efficient, stinging licks. This is one of the more serious tracks on the collection, with Dylan warning of the dangers of wanting things that ultimately lack substance. An overload of such nothingness can lead to disastrous results, Bob suggests, and the intensity of the tune shows he’s not kidding around. Plus, one of my favorite rhymes in the Dylan canon: “Vivian” and “oblivion.”
7. “Open The Door, Homer”- The off-kilter wisdom that Dylan spins in this lilting track featuring Hudson’s swirling organ may not seem to make much sense on first listen, but it has a way of sinking into your consciousness if you let it. No word on when Homer got replaced with Richard in Bob’s refrains, but who cares when things turn out as charming as this one does.
6. “Nothing Was Delivered”- Richard Manuel delivers for sure on this one, in terms of the Fats Domino-inspired piano that leads the way and great backing vocals with Rick Danko. Dylan sings woefully throughout, a tear in his voice as he expresses indignation at the person who hasn’t come through. As with so much of the Basement Tapes, there is a bit of mystery to the proceedings, making this one worthy of revisiting again and again.
5. “Odds And Ends”- For all of its wild wonder, there aren’t too many times when The Basement Tapes truly rocks. The album-opener is a rollicking good time though, with The Band sinking into a Chuck Berry groove so that Dylan can cut loose with a tirade against his loose-juiced lover. The refrain’s profound warning that “Lost time is not found again” sort of sneaks into the craziness, adding a touch of weight to the inspired lightness around it.
4. “This Wheel’s On Fire”- I’ve always felt like this song was too much of a loner to truly corral, so that both The Basement Tapes version and that the one knocked out by The Band on their debut album come up just short of its true potential. The portent is practically stifling as the titular wheel prepares to blow and take all of the participants with it. Another one with layers upon layers of mystery, it’s still fantastic even if it hasn’t quite been solved by any of its performances.
3. “Goin’ To Acapulco”- Perhaps the greatest example of the mystical qualities of The Basement Tapes, this song reads a bit silly on the page. When Dylan sings it against the backdrop of Garth Hudson’s mournful organ and Robbie Robertson’s soulful licks, “Goin’ To Acapulco” practically oozes import. It’s a fantastic melody sung beautifully by Bob as The Band’s rhythm section of Danko on bass and Manuel on drums suspends the song in midair. Calling it haunting doesn’t do it justice, but there are really are no words for what went down in Big Pink anyway.
2. “Million Dollar Bash”- The singular achievement of The Basement Tapes might be the way Dylan and The Band made light-hearted music that still managed to have lasting impact. For example, “Million Dollar Bash” is at heart a surreal depiction of a wild party full of suspect characters. Yet the chorus provides an irresistible hook to keep the events from spinning too far out of control, the “whoo-wee” vocals of Dylan, Manuel, and Danko bringing a flash of beauty to the lunacy. You’d be a fool to sit out this bash.
1. “Tears Of Rage”- Richard Manuel didn’t write too often, but the songs he did write were always beautiful in undeniably sad ways. Dylan took Manuel’s wistful chords and delivered lyrics of understated, aching tenderness, telling a gut-wrenching tale of a father estranged from his daughter. The hurt and the anger are there in the verses, but those gorgeous refrains, abetted by Manuel and Danko’s ethereal backing vocals, clearly long for reconciliation. “Life Is brief” are the last words uttered, an urgent reminder that the generational gap shouldn’t be left to widen for too long a time.
With 1975’s Blood On The Tracks, Bob Dylan shoved it in the craw of anyone who doubted that he could return to his mid-60’s peak. He somehow juggled recordings done with studio pros in New York with another batch completed with an ad hoc group thrown together by his brother in Minnesota, resulting in his most thematically cohesive and profoundly cutting album ever, a treatise on the deterioration of love in all “its ragin’ glory.” Here is a song-by-song review.
10. “Buckets Of Rain”- In its context, it is the perfect album-closer, Dylan ending up an album full of recriminations and regret with a soft-hearted promise of devotion no matter what. On its own, it’s still fine, even if it pales a bit in comparison with the monumental stuff preceding it.
9. “Meet Me In The Morning”- Dylan’s narrator is hoping against hope that his lover will meet him at “56th and Wabasha,” but his tenor throughout the song suggests that he’s still out there waiting. This song is bluesy and funky, and, on an album largely known for the lyrics, it’s probably got the most going for it musically.
8. “Shelter From The Storm”- Dylan’s songwriting pen was so hot at this time that he left the similar and arguably superior “Up To Me” off the album in favor of this one and still ended up with a classic track. Proving that he could beat the sensitive singer-songwriters at their own game, Dylan rambles over a lovely blend of acoustic guitar and bass and follows a relationship up to its peak before tracing its unfortunate backslide.
7. “You’re A Big Girl Now”- Bob’s vocals are wonderful here, with every anguished cry seeming just a little bit more painful. The recording is delicate and bruised, mirroring the narrator, who wavers between letting the girl go and trying to find his way back to her, even when she’s “in somebody’s room.” The closing harmonica solo tries to wash away the pain, but the relationship purgatory in which our hero finds himself is far too unforgiving for that.
6. “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”- Even the song that gives off the sunniest vibes on the album betrays its unhappy ending in the title. As great as this affair was, the protagonist knows it’s doomed to end. Before that occurs, Dylan celebrates it in simple and moving language, so that the song seems tossed off even as he’s comparing the relationship to one of doomed poets or rhyming Ashtabula with “Honolula.” His parting words (“But I’ll see you in the sky above/In the tall grass, in the ones I love”) are among the sweetest he ever wrote.
5. “If You See Her, Say Hello”- Bob slowed the tempo down and filled out the recording when he re-recorded this in Minnesota. Those changes amp up the sorrow in this song about learning to live in the aftermath of a damaging breakup. The narrator tries to play it cool as he chats up a mutual acquaintance of his ex, but his emotions keep bubbling to the surface. His final wish for her to look him up is a real heartbreaker, because we the listeners know from the desperation in Bob’s voice that the chances of reunion are nil.
4. “Simple Twist Of Fate”- The ingenuity of Dylan’s creation here is startling. Much of the song is devoted to a chance meeting between a lonely stranger and a woman who humors him and moves on into the night. Bob fills out just enough of the story’s details, but, like a great short story writer, makes sure the devastating emotions can be felt. In the final verse, the narrator breaks down the fourth wall and tells briefly of his own bit of romantic disaster, subtly linking himself with the protagonist in the process and laying bare the depth of his delusion.
3. “Lily, Rosemary And The Jack of Hearts”- It may take you a while to figure out who did what to whom, but the song is an enjoyable hoedown even when the story seems murky. Once it becomes clear, you’re free to marvel at Dylan’s brilliance. As an Old West-style suspense story, it’s unbeatable. Yet it cuts deeper than that, as Bob creates well-rounded characters in Lily and Rosemary who lean on the Jack to give them the courage to make impossible choices in the demise of Big Jim. Everybody ends up with scars or worse except for The Jack of Hearts, who scuttles away to pull the whole thing off again in another unsuspecting town.
2. “Tangled Up In Blue”- Not only is it the perfect table-setter for the album, but it is a towering achievement all on its own, a skewed portrait of a tumultuous relationship painted by a narrator whose painful memories come at him altered and all out of sequence as he tries to sleep it all off. At the core of this fascinating tableau is a deep, undying love and an unquenchable desire to get back to the girl and get it right the next time around, even if the pursuit takes him into the next life. All that, and a colossal harmonica solo as the capper.
1. “Idiot Wind”- First of all, it may be the greatest vocal performance Dylan has ever delivered, raging way beyond good taste into red-line emotional levels. That’s only fitting, because the lyrics go into some pretty dark places as well, as Bob rails against those who misunderstand him. The press takes a glancing blow, but most of his bile is reserved for the woman who has let him down. Had it just been an angry rant, “Idiot Wind” would still have been great if a bit one-note. When the narrator admits his own culpability in the closing moments, confessing that he’s an idiot too, it humanizes him and makes us feel the pain and regret along with the anger and bitterness. It’s probably the best and most accurate song about fractured love ever written.
1974’s Planet Waves found Bob Dylan reuniting with The Band, his old buddies from the incendiary electric shows of the mid-60’s and the bucolic mystery music they made together in Woodstock subsequent to that. It marked a return to Dylan being a full-time rock star, as he scored his first ever #1 album and put together a huge arena tour with The Band behind it. While many of the songs still harkened back to the simpler pleasures of his previous few albums, a few pointed in the direction of the masterpieces to come. Here is a song-by-song review.
11. “Forever Young” (Side Two Version)- Even for Dylan, the decision to start Side Two of the album with a charmless, country-rock version of a song that he and The Band had done just about to perfection to send Side One was a bizarre one. The producers of the NBC drama Parenthood use this version for a theme song; they must have been in possession of a one-sided copy of Planet Waves growing up and missed out on the good one.
10. “Never Say Goodbye”- Each of the instrumentalists have nice individual moments but the music never quite coheres, while Dylan’s lyrics feel like an unfinished sketch. Somewhat interesting, but ultimately a bit of a misfire.
9. “Tough Mama”- There is a bit of an uneasy mix here between heady, impressive lyrics and the chunky rock conjured by The Band for the song. Dylan feels hemmed in and, as a result, this one never takes off like it might. Plus the phrase “a-hotter than a crotch” should have stayed within the bounds of Bob’s imagination.
8. “Hazel”- The sentiments are nice enough, but they are rendered in lyrics that sound like they could have come from a Dr. Hook single. The good news is that The Band would take the slow-song arrangement of “Hazel” and build on it for their classic “It Takes No Difference” a few years later.
7. “You Angel You”- Planet Waves might be Dylan’s most lovestruck album; at least six of the songs can be considered odes to captivating women. There’s not too much fancy going on in this one, but the players all sound so at ease on the recording that it’s hard not to get swept up in the effortlessness of it all.
6. “Something There Is About You”- At times awkward, at times revelatory, this song is intriguing for the unique ways that it pays tribute to the object of the narrator’s affection. The references to childhood in Minnesota in the wonderful second verse would seem to indicate autobiography. Dylan never makes it that easy though, muddying things up by making metaphorical references to sabres and batons that sound more like something from Don Quixote. The Band provides one of their inimitable, weightless performances that encase the singer in a gorgeous glow.
5. “On A Night Like This”- On the surface, it’s not all that different from songs like “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” or “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” in that it’s about shutting out the world and enjoying some alone time with a significant other. But swathed in Garth Hudson’s joyous accordion and containing references to reminiscences and déjà vu, it’s easy to hear this one as a celebration of the reunion of Bob and The Band, especially considering it’s the album’s opening track.
4. “Wedding Song”- Bob let The Band take five for the closing track, dusting off the acoustic and the harmonica and going to town on this testimonial to an all-encompassing love. There are just enough hints of darkness to keep this one from being sappy, and the focused intensity of the vocal is potent almost to the point of being harrowingly so.
3. “Dirge”- Whether Dylan is signing to a woman or to a drug, the intent is the same: To cast out the presence that is haunting him and revealing his worst self. Much of the song’s success comes from the mesmerizing duet between Robbie Robertson’s acoustic guitar and Dylan’s stutter-stepping, intuitive piano chords. Bob also provides a terrific vocal, all stark howls that strive for catharsis but end up simply baring more wounds. In its way, this song, perhaps more than any other on the album, signals the ultimate return to elite form that Dylan’s lyrics would take on his next album, Blood On The Tracks.
2. “Forever Young”- Now this is more like it. The magical, improvisational chemistry of The Basement Tapes met its logical, mature conclusion in this expertly-crafted, undeniably moving musical performance that can convey the intended message without a single word. Dylan steps up and delivers one of his most heartfelt set of lyrics. The placid wisdom of the verses is contrasted by the wailing vocals in the refrain, desperate and fearing like any sane father who sends his children into this unforgiving world rightfully should be.
1. “Going Going Gone”- This is one of Dylan’s most underrated classics, with nary an ounce of flab on it. The Band’s performance is both pristine and powerful, with special props going to both the herky-jerky rhythm section of Rick Danko and Levon Helm and to Robbie Robertson’s stinging licks that punctuate each verse. Dylan’s narrator seems to have reached a metaphorical point of no return, possibly driven by a break-up, but there is a certain amount of freedom in his banishment of all hope. (After all, as a wise man once said, “When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose.”) That home-run call refrain could either be a final lament or a new beginning, or maybe both somehow.
Bob Dylan’s lifelong fascination with Westerns probably made the offer to score and write songs for 1973’s Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid impossible to refuse. Most of the tracks on the soundtrack were instrumentals, but Dylan did squeeze in a trio of affecting odes to the movie’s hero and one of his most-loved songs when he stepped up to the mike. Here is a song-by-song review.
10. “Cantina Theme (Workin’ For The Law)”- That’s West Coast studio legend Russ Kunkel playing the bongos on this track. It’s a bit repetitive, as movie music can tend to be, but otherwise an inoffensive piece of atmospherics.
9. “River Theme”- The moaning backing vocals would be put to better effect on “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door.” The best part of this otherwise forgettable piece of music is the bass work of the legendary Booker T. Jones from Booker T. & The M.G.’s.
8. “Turkey Chase”- Something tells me that Dylan just wrote some chord changes and cut old buddy Roger McGuinn and Byron Berline loose on banjo and fiddle, respectively. Good choice on his part.
7. “Main Title Theme (Billy)”- Dylan’s scene-setting acoustic pastiche conjures the vast open spaces that seemed rarely available to Billy The Kid as his pursuers enveloped him.
6. “Bunkhouse Theme”- It’s just a short bit of an instrumental, but it’s quite a lovely melody turned out by the walled acoustic guitars, providing just a bit of hope amidst the foreboding music found elsewhere on the soundtrack.
5. “Billy 7”- The final of the “Billy” tracks has Dylan singing an octave lower to mirror the weary travails of the film’s anti-hero. While the other takes might have left some hope of Billy returning home, this one seems resigned to the fact that there’s no happy ending on the horizon.
4. “Final Theme”- This one sets up with the same chord patterns that have been utilized throughout the soundtrack, but the diversity provided by the long flute solo and the momentum that the song subtly builds make it the best of the instrumentals. While Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid may have a lot of flaws as a film, Dylan’s unassuming but quietly powerful score isn’t one of them.
3. “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”- It’s become something of an evergreen, probably due to the simplicity of the music and the chant-along chorus, making it something akin to Dylan’s “Hey Jude.” I’ve long since given up trying to figure out why some songs break through while others falter with bigger audiences. Let’s just say that “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” works in the scene in the movie for which it was meant, it works on classic rock radio, and it works as a mantra for those contemplating what awaits beyond. For such a relatively simple song (at least compared to Bob’s other work), that’s a pretty impressive set of accomplishments.
2. “Billy 1”- There’s a nice contrast at work here between the inviting, Spanish-tinged music and Dylan’s descriptions of all the forces lining up to bring Billy down. Around every corner lurks a new threat for the outlaw, from mysterious women with murky motives to would-be gunslingers wanting to prove their skills against the best. It’s the loneliness of that life that might be the biggest, baddest enemy that Bob conjures here.
1. “Billy 4”- This is the sparest of the “Billy” songs, so there’s not much to hang your hat on except the melody (which was later borrowed by Neil Young for “Powderfinger”), Dylan’s lyrics, and his acoustic guitar and harmonica. Of course, that’s always been more than enough. Bob’s vocal is appropriately sympathetic toward his doomed subject matter, even as it projects enough wonder to suggest that the romance of his lifestyle compensates for the downside.