When presented with 52 years of living packed into 35 studio and six live albums, it’s almost impossible to know where to start when whole books have been written about a single Bob Dylan song. There’s been so much water under the bridge, so many cultural movements, wars, presidents, assassinations, disasters—man-made and natural—that have spanned the years of Dylan’s creative career that it’s dizzying to even consider putting his work into context. How do you reconcile an artist whose song “Blowin’ in the Wind” was sung at The March On Washington before Martin Luther King gave his “I Have A Dream” speech in 1963 with the man who gave his blessing for “Love Sick” to be used in a Victoria’s Secret television commercial? Does it even matter? Obviously, Dylan’s is a music that has permeated every level and machination of society from the sacred to the political to the outrageously commercial. It is likely that no other living artist’s work and life has been so thoroughly examined and distorted with so many cloaks thrown over his body of work in an attempt to encapsulate and make sense of it.
It’s almost too much to house so much music together under a single cover, and my greatest worry with sets like this—if there are any other sets like this—is that the sheer volume of output listeners are presented with will overwhelm them and prevent them from absorbing all that is on offer. It is also true that the prevalence of illegal downloading and the emergence of services like Spotify have taken away the pleasure and diminished the nearly sacred experience that purchasing, unwrapping and listening to a new recording once had. It’s too easy now to simply acquire music en masse and not give any of it the time that it deserves to slowly unfold and insinuate itself into our hearts and ears. So, as a remedy to this kind of sensory overload and the subsequent numbing that it brings, I started listening to all of Bob Dylan’s albums in order, one or two a day, to really prepare for writing this piece.
In many ways, it’s been a musical journey like no other. Like anyone reading this, I have my favorite Dylan songs and can remember vividly the times, situations and people I was with when I heard them or when they were especially important to me. As was the case for so many other people I’ve met, the songs on Blood on The Tracks and Desire steered me through disastrous breakups. Positively Fourth Street was the perfect evocation of how I felt during any number of adolescent betrayals. I’m sure you could write down a dozen memories and associations of your own that would be every bit as biting, poignant and triumphant as anything I could come up with.
For the record, here are a few notes I made while listening again through Dylan’s albums—some of which I hadn’t really sat down and paid attention to for decades:
“Song To Woody” from the debut album is a song that I will never tire of. It is one of those rare campfire tunes that I have never heard performed badly.
“Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” is a song that always sounds true no matter how many times I hear it. The sound of the back gate creaking as the singer makes a break and hits the road before dawn gets sadder as the years pass.
The music on Bringing It All Back Home and Blonde On Blonde still sounds like it comes from another planet. In a thousand years, it will still be just as driven, singular and weird.
“Sara” is one of the saddest, most ripping songs every recorded. It still brings hurt when I listen to it 30 years later. I can understand how would be impossible for him to sing this song in concert. I have felt uncomfortable over the years when drunks in the crowd have screamed to hear it.
Street-Legal is so much better than anyone thought at the time. “New Pony” and “Changing Of The Guards” can stand with any of Dylan’s other work.
Live At Budokan doesn’t suck nearly as much as I thought it did when I first bought it. I was 16 and wanted all of the songs to sound like it was 1964. Listening to it again for the first time in 30 years, it sounds brave, rich and accomplished. I played it through twice.
Slow Train Coming is Dylan’s most beautifully recorded album. Mark Knopfler, Pick Withers and The Muscle Shoals elevate the sounds of the coming apocalypse like no one this side of Mahalia Jackson could. Dylan’s conversion to Christianity that seemed like a sell-out to my 18-year-old self is so much more understandable now that I’ve lived through my own dark nights of the soul.
Infidels is almost a great album. Sly and Robbie should have been on a much longer tether. They could have exploded all of these songs into very daring rhythmic territory that would have made so many people take a second listen. Dylan knew this, but he second-guessed himself. “I and I” still sounds piercing and deep.
“Brownsville Girl” does not save Knocked Out Loaded, though it is one of his best songs. It is the only one of Dylan’s albums I truly cannot listen to all the way through without getting restless and agitated.
Empire Burlesque is better than you remember. Future compilations shouldn’t play it safe and only select “Dark Eyes” from this set. “Trust Yourself” and “I’ll Remember You” are very good songs.
Thanks to Daniel Lanois’ persistence, Oh Mercy is full of great songs that received the care and attention they deserved in the studio. I played it to death when it came out. I still love “Everything Is Broken.”
Dylan has been on a winning streak since Time Out Of Mind was released in 1997, though Together Through Life was rather slight. Accusations of plagiarism have perhaps muted the enthusiasm that these albums—Time Out Of Mind, Love And Theft, Modern Times and Tempest—have received, but anyone who understands how roots musicians have appropriated and reshaped songs for centuries hasn’t been too bothered. The work speaks for itself and needs no defense, though personally I would love to hear Bob move away from the blues paradigm he’s been in for so long and play around with the high lonesome hillbilly sounds of his late ‘90s/turn-of-the-century live concerts.
Love him or hate him—and many do as decades of groans from some old friends attest whenever I put his music on—there’s never been another popular artist like Bob Dylan. If there is a single theme that emerges from such a diverse body of work, it is that life is at once flawed and perfect, and that to be awake and truly alive also implies a willingness to be hurt again and again. If Woody Guthrie was the gift of America to the world’s social conscience, Dylan’s artistry is a testament to the frailty of the individual human soul as it struggles through the mud and toil of daily existence, aware of its potential but knowing that it may never be reached.
The Complete Albums Collection by Bob Dylan is something everyone should hear. Start at the beginning and listen all the way through. There’s no other musical trip like it.