CK Retro Review: Good As I Been To You by Bob DylanPosted: July 12, 2013
Bob Dylan’s decision in 1992 to release an album of traditional songs was a signal to some doubters that his creative juices were spent. Yet Good As I Been To You actually shows that Dylan’s interpretive and performing skills were as heightened as ever, even as the songwriting portion of his brain took a hiatus. Bob finds unexpected levels of heart and sorrow in these well-selected evergreens, reminding everyone what a compelling performer he could be with just acoustic guitar, occasional harmonica, and a voice that seems to intuitively understand the material. Here is a song-by-song review.
13. “Pretty Maggie”- There’s a little bit of a rockabilly feel to Dylan’s guitar work here. The song has the disjointed quality of one of Bob’s own narratives in that one verse seems to spring in a completely different direction than the one that preceded it. Yet, unlike one of Bob’s, it doesn’t quite come together as well.
12. “You’re Gonna Quit Me”- It’s got a nice, loping feel to it, suggesting that the threats the narrator makes to his wayward love might not get carried out after all. Certainly one of the simpler songs on the collection, but not without its charms.
11. “Arthur McBride”- The arcane language lends this one a bit of flair, and it’s somewhat interesting how the benign melody contrasts with the pitch-black tale of young ruffians beating the tar out of military recruiters. Maybe it would have worked better in a rousing arrangement, but Dylan’s unruffled version does cast a strange spell.
10. “Blackjack Davey”- It’s a pretty chilling tale in its way, in that the wife coldly leaves her husband and child to follow her passion and the charming titular rogue. We get some Dylan déjà vu when we hear of footwear made of Spanish leather. He pretty much stays out of the way of the song here, letting it work its murky magic. Bob would concoct an even darker version of this scenario, with a few more twists and a lot more death, on Tempest with the song “Tin Angel.”
9. “Sittin’ On Top Of The World”- Some great interplay between Dylan’s woeful harmonica, bluesy guitar, and resilient vocal shows highlight this one. Bob not only nails all the themes effortlessly, he may even lend the song a few more layers than it actually possesses.
8. “Step It Up And Go”- Yeah, man, indeed. Dylan drops into a croaky lower register to bring out all the rough edges in this jumping number that serves as a fun wake-up call after all the somber numbers that precede it. I love the little interjections Bob gives at the start of his rollicking final solo.
7. “Diamond Joe”- These traditional songs really have a way with words, don’t they? When the narrator sings that Diamond Joe “never took much trouble/With the process of the law,” it’s a polite way of saying that he was a degenerate crook. And yet the narrator seems powerless to resist Joe’s entreaties, though it causes him a lifetime of hardship. I like the punch line at the end too, which Dylan delivers without a wink or a nod, the funniest way to do it.
6. “Froggie Went A-Courtin’”- As someone who first heard this song on a Tom & Jerry cartoon, it was revelatory to hear Dylan perform it and lend each of these animal characters dignity. You can practically imagine a bunch of kids sitting at Bob’s feet eagerly awaiting each funny new verse.
5. “Canadee-I-O”- The intriguing thing is how this song sets you up for one of those typical folk-song tragic endings and then happily pulls the rug out from under you with a nifty little twist. Come to think of it, it is a bit of a tragic turn for the sailor boy who gets dumped in favor of the captain, but at least the heroine comes out OK. Dylan soars out of his monotone occasionally here to deliver a strong performance.
4. “Frankie And Albert”- The mistake that an interpreter might make with this age-old tale of a vengeful woman would be to overplay it and make it too melodramatic. Dylan is way too savvy for that, refusing to judge either party in his measured yet still spirited take. The way he sings that matter-of-fact refrain (“He was her man but he done her wrong”) solves all the song’s mysteries and answers any questions about Frankie’s motivation. Attention must also be paid to Bob’s nimble guitar work.
3. “Tomorrow Night”- By stripping away the finesse of this song’s Tin Pan Alley, Big Band-era origins, Dylan makes it somehow lonelier and more haunting. He sings it with just the right amount of doubt in his voice that he’s going to get a positive response to his questions for his temporary lover. The long harmonica notes really bring home the pain of a guy in romantic limbo.
2. “Hard Times”- Dylan is one of the most empathetic songwriters of any era, so it’s easy to hear why he would take to this touching Stephen Foster ballad. Foster never specifies just what ills befall those suffering in the song, but that’s not really the important part. What’s important is that we don’t turn away from the mournful song of the oppressed. Dylan compositions from “Chimes Of Freedom” to “Ring Them Bells” would echo those sentiments in more dazzling fashion, but Foster’s simple plea is potent in its own special way.
1.“Jim Jones”- While the titular prisoner may have delusions of escape from and vengeance on the Australian penal colony to which he is sentenced, Dylan’s tender, vulnerable delivery betrays the fear and desperation of what life in such a brutal environment must have been like. The song is expertly structured, allowing Dylan to seize on its sturdiness and give a humane and moving reading. It’s equal parts beautiful and powerful.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For a more in-depth look at the songs of Bob Dylan, check out the link below to my upcoming book Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs, available now at all major online booksellers.)