Instead of listening to Bob Dylan album-by-album, I’ve decided to take advantage of streaming and make up my own Dylan albums, and here’s my first, done semi-randomly. I chose the albums and the order, and used a random number generator to pick which specific song to lift off the album; I created a slight sense of story and continuity, trying to get a broad sense of Dylan’s career but leaving room to be really surprised by something.
- “Day In, Day Out”, Triplicate, 2017 [Dylan’s most recent album, a triple album of standards from the Great American Songbook with a strong crooner approach]
- “House Of The Risin’ Sun”, Bob Dylan, 1962 [Dylan’s least recent album]
- “One Too Many Mornings”, The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert, 1966 [The concert famous for not taking place at the Royal Albert Hall]
- “Ragged And Dirty”, World Gone Wrong, 1993 [An album of covers of traditional folk songs, responsible for one of the funniest Wikipedia sentences I’ve ever read: “It had been decades since Dylan had written his own liner notes, and they were always surrealistic; these notes, while still playfully written, were actually informative.”]
- “2 Dollars And 99 Cents”, The Basement Tapes, 1967 [I was pretty much just bouncing back and forth between famous albums from each end of his career at this point]
- “I Threw It All Away”, Hard Rain, 1976 [And then jumping to a live album from ’76, because I thought some of his stuff from that era was cool]
- “Take A Message To Mary”, Self Portrait, 1970 [Famous for being terrible and for being an attempt to shake off the whole ‘voice of a generation’ label, though beloved commentor silverwheel challenged that narrative]
- “Like A Rolling Stone”, Highway 61 Revisited, 1965 [Figured I might as well put a Famously Good album inbetween two Famously Bad ones, and to be honest I was kind of banking on the random number generator landing on “Highway 61” because I can never find that song on Youtube and I like it]
- “Man Gave Names To All The Animals”, Slow Train Coming, 1979 [The album Dylan recorded after converting to Christianity]
- “With God On Our Side”, The Times They Are A-Changin’, 1964 [If you had to pick an album I considered The Dylan album before this project, that would be it]
I managed to luck out with the order of this thing. There’s one really great connection here, with “Ragged And Dirty” fitting so perfectly together with “2 Dollars And 99 Cents” that it feels like they were always supposed to be together; both are playful and extremely bluesy songs, with the full-band of the latter building on the simple acoustic guitar of the former. Sadly, “I Threw It All Away” following “2 Dollars” only makes it feel more plodding and repetitive, making it the only song that looks worse in this context. Also, I think it probably would have been better to end the whole thing on “House Of The Risin’ Sun”, seeing as it sketches out in proto-form all different aspects of Dylan’s identity.
A common criticism of Quentin Tarantino’s movies is that you have to have seen the same movies as him to get something out of them, which I always thought was horseshit because I fell in love with Kill Bill despite not even knowing what David Carradine looked like the first time I saw it; but I sense a connection to Dylan in that I notice the Dylan songs I like best remind me of other songs, even ones that didn’t exist at the time he recorded his. “House Of The Risin’ Sun” really reminds me of Kurt Cobain’s performance of Lead Belly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” in how it starts out pretty normal and takes on an extraordinary intensity about halfway through; “With God On Our Side” has a very similar theme and even refrain to Doug Anthony All-Stars’ “Warsong” (I think they may have been riffing on/ripping off Dylan there, actually). I think the actual way to put it for Dylan and Tarantino is that the more movies you’ve seen and music you’ve listened to, the more you can see how their art both draws on and fits into the Mythology.
The main thing I get from Dylan is his sense of play, of trying on different identities – in this context, “Take A Message To Mary” is both a perfectly fine diversion and a clear demonstration of why his selfish-country-music-loving phase mustn’t have worked, because it’s the only one that sounds exactly like what it’s trying to be. “Day In, Day Out” is Dylan putting on the facade of Sinatra’s swagger, but his rusty, seven decade voice lends the performance a genuine gravitas and authentic Dylanness, while “Take A Message” just sounds like an alright country song. It’s interesting that what I hope for from Dylan is a certain inauthenticity, a sense of him putting on a costume and not quite nailing the impression, the ‘real’ him bubbling up from beneath his masquerade.
In fact, I think it’s what’s drawing me into him, because it really matches up to how I listen to music. Probably because I don’t know much about music theory and definitely because I lack a discerning ear, music is the one art form I only really respond to on a basic visceral level; before melody, before harmony, long before lyrics, I have to click into a song’s vibe, and I slowly learn more about the song as I listen to it more – for example, I clicked immediately onto the kinda-funky kinda-edgy tone of “Man Gave Names To All The Animals”, and it took me like three days to pick up on what the premise of the lyrics was (the precise line was “Wasn’t too small and he wasn’t too big/Think I’ll call it a pig”, and the suddenness of the realisation crossed with the absurdity of the line cracked me up). Dylan’s commitment to a persona also means commitment to a tone, which means he immediately grabs my attention; his core values and personal taste reward repeat listens.
The other side of this is that I get the impression that Dylan really gets into a thing over the course of a whole album – to paraphrase beloved commentor Rosy Fingers, he devours a genre, digests it, and pounds out a whole lot of ideas at once. Jumping about like I am suits my attention span, like Cowboy Bebop‘s genre games; we get to play at being Sinatra and we get to play at being an old-timey blues singer and we get to play at being a Biblical storyteller (and sometimes we get to play at being an old-timey blues singer when we’re old) and I suspect that, like half of all good Vines, what could become fatiguing over a longer period is vivid and interesting in a random tiny slice, especially surrounded by lots of other random tiny slices from other periods of inspiration.
In this respect, it’s appropriate to end with “With God On Our Side”. I chose to end on The Times They Are A-Changin’ because I wanted to end on Dylan at his most Iconic, but I seem to have accidentally stumbled onto Dylan at his most raw and personal, putting aside games to put his raw feelings out there, studying his specific moment in time and how it’s an extension of history, and his sense of frustration and anger. Although now that I write it down, I see he’s tapping into the archetype of musician-as-social-commentator, so I guess he is still playing a game.