Best of Non-Studio Album Bob Dylan, Part IIPosted: December 19, 2016
Our countdown continues today with #20-11 on the list. Again, the rules here are that these songs do not appear on a Dylan studio album. (By the way, I’m including The Basement Tapes as a studio album, since I did do a CK-style review of that, which you can find in the archives.)
20. “Cant Escape From You”- Singing over an elegant doo-wop melody that would have suited Dion, Dylan craggily cogitates about the one love out of them all that stubbornly clings. He’s neither sad nor sorry, yet he states as a self-evident fact that this woman is tied to him till the end. There is a nimbleness to the singing here that matches the sprightly sorrow of the tune, and an overall effortlessness that has no right being in a song with such impressive lyrical displays.
19. “Abandoned Love”- It has the sound of Desire and the sentiment of Blood On The Tracks, so, at a time when Dylan seemed more committed to thematic unity on his albums than normal, it fell through the cracks. But, man, does it hit home as a clear-eyed dissection of crumbling romance. Both his patron saint and his inner ghosts have betrayed him, so Dylan’s narrator is clearly in no shape to sustain this relationship. But what really kills you is the way he asks for one more moment at the end before it all goes to pieces.
18. “Up To Me”- This is a bit of a soundalike to “Shelter From The Storm,” so Dylan probably decided that Blood On The Tracks wasn’t big enough for both of them. And really, how can you complain about that album? But still, this song deserves a spot somewhere. The narrator bears the burden at the end of every verse, a burden that slowly squeezes the life out of his ability to carry on in this romance. The settings and characters change drastically from verse to verse, but what it comes down to is fickle, frail human nature, as evidenced by lines like “She’s everything I need and love but I can’t be swayed by that.” And in that lovely last verse, Dylan literally brings his guitar and harmonica into the song and melts our hearts.
17. “John Brown”- Dylan’s Unplugged session at MTV is a prime document of how his live skills were still Ginsu-sharp in the early 90’s, even as people were questioning if he’d ever do anything of note in the studio again. (Boy, were those folks in for a surprise.) But the standout track was this out-of-left-field choice of a song he’d only demoed back when he wrote it in the early 60’s. How relevant its thoughts on the horrors of war stayed, and Dylan’s searing performance of it for Unplugged really makes them stick.
16. “Farewell, Angelina”- All you need to do to time-stamp this song is to listen to the surrealistic flow of the lyrics, which clearly places it in the same class with wordy wonders like “Gates Of Eden” and “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” from Bringing It All Back Home. Dylan gives a restrained reading of the song in the version that made it to the Bootleg Series, perfect for the song’s story of a drastic change that the narrator matter-of-factly abides. His exhortations to Angelina (more on her in a moment) urge her to prepare for the transformation, because it’s coming whether she wants to accept it or not.
15. “‘Cross The Green Mountain”- Dylan knows his Civil War stuff, but the war that he depicts here isn’t romanticized in the least. It’s a brutal, ugly thing, only leavened somewhat by the weary beauty of the martial music his band plays and the dignity of his lyrics. His narrator is dying, if not already dead, and he surveys both the abomination of reality and the sweeter scenery of the spirit world he hopes to enter. Maybe the narrator is a soldier, or maybe he represents the hope of humanity, snuffed out by war’s atrocities. In any case, the tragedy is, as the man says, monstrous.
14. “Angelina”- At the end of the Born Again period, Dylan was kind of all over the place, his secular musings trying to muscle their way back into the picture over the proselytizing nature of Slow Train and Saved. “Angelina” was recorded in the midst of this tumult and is all the more fascinating for it. Dylan switches back and forth from random scenes encountered by his lonely wanderer archetype and direct conversations with the titular character. Anybody who tells you for sure that they know what’s going on here is either lying or in over their heads, but getting lost in it is half the fun. And quite impressive how many rhymes he has for “Angelina,” right?
13. “Caribbean Wind”- Dylan lamented that all his rewrites of this song kind of diluted the original meaning, which he could never quite recover. Yet, somewhat like “Angelina,” the messiness of it is part of its charm, as each verse sets a new, thrilling scene and makes an insightful observation or two before its on to the next one. And the huffing rock arrangement is buoyed by Dylan’s absolute commitment in the vocals; his whine has rarely sounded more urgent. Autobiographical details sit next to shaggy-dog tales, and all of it lives within the “furnace of desire.” Who cares what he originally meant? This will do just fine, thanks.
12. “I Shall Be Released”- Let’s be clear here: Dylan’s off-the-cuff recording of the song for a greatest hits package (upon which this ranking is based) doesn’t come close to the takes he did with with The Band that eventually found their way to light. If he was trying to take some of the sonority out of the song in the version he recorded with Happy Traum, he succeeded, turning the song into more of a shrug of the shoulders. Still, it’s hard to erase the soaring ache in Richard Manuel’s voice from your head while listening; that’s your definitive take, right there. As for the song itself, well, it’s a matter of Dylan proving that he didn’t need verbal gymnastics to deliver profound truths.
11. “Rambling, Gambling Willie”- Keep in mind that this tale was concocted by Dylan at the very outset of his songwriting career, which makes the level of craft somehow more impressive. The gambler with a heart of gold is a tale as old as the hills, and still this song wrings something new out of it. Bob even gets away with giving us a moral to the story to wrap it all in a neat bow. Plus he blows some mean harmonica throughout. I’d go to see a movie made out of this song in a heartbeat.
(For more on these and many other Bob Dylan classics, check out my book Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs, now available in paperback. You can get it in the link below or find it at your local bookstore.)