Randomly choosing Bob Dylan’s songs and putting them in order was so successful, both in terms of the article I wrote and in terms of, you know, a fun album to listen to, that I’ve decided to go all the way and let random chance completely determine both the album and the songs from it (fair play: I realised too late that the list of albums I had was incomplete, but a) I was already halfway through buying the songs and b) it was still fifty-six goddamned albums so I thought it was acceptable). I’m gonna make a Dylan-esque shift in identity and take on the costume of a more traditional album reviewer, zooming in on each song individually and in order (Cornelius Thoroughgood‘s articles on Nirvana are my model here). My approach to essay-writing – which I followed with my previous article – is to more intuitively drift around from point to point; taking a more systematic and organised approach seems like a fun way to shake things up.
- “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”, Bringing It All Back Home, 1965
- “I’m A Fool To Want You”, Shadows In The Night, 2015
- “Silvio”, Down In The Groove, 1988
- “Sugar Baby”, Love And Theft, 2001
- “Emotionally Yours”, Empire Burlesque, 1985
- “My Wife’s Home Town”, Together Through Life, 2009
- “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright”, Bootleg Series Vol 7: No Direction Home Soundtrack, 2005 (though it was recorded in 1963)
- “I Shall Be Free”, The Free-Wheelin’ Bob Dylan, 1963
- “I’ll Remember You”, Empire Burlesque, 1985
- “Changing Of The Guards”, Street Legal, 1978
- “Forever Young”, Live At Budokan, 1979
I’m shocked and delighted to see that the Random Number God, bane of all Dungeons & Dragons players, is apparently a giant Bob Dylan fan, because all of this actually feels like a well-structured album where everything fits where it’s supposed to. I’m currently learning to drive by driving to work with my Dad in the passenger seat, and that makes this my first driving album; I think it really works as one, because Dylan hits with a broad emotional tone that still comes through a muffled car radio, constantly interrupted by conversation with Dad, and I often found coming back to them later in more intimate settings that they were that same emotion, but with greater musical and lyrical nuance.
“It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” is wonderful, and cements ‘Wandering Poet With A Guitar And Maybe A Harmonica’ as one of my favourite versions of him (though this particular recording also has William E. Lee on bass guitar). This is the Dylan who sounds the most out of time, the most like the recording just fell from the sky; the image of a mysterious stranger coming out of the fog to drop some wisdom and ownage with the same tools everyone else has is very cool. I often find his earliest works also have a simplicity to them that makes them more instantly accessible to me; maybe his later works are more weighed down by Dylan’s own history, the concepts that have taken on more emotional weight, the emotional weight itself taking on a greater complexity, or maybe one young person more easily recognises another. “Baby Blue” in particular is something I like because it’s a straightforward acknowledgement that something has come to its natural endpoint, no judgement or anger or relief or anything – Clinton Heylin and Q Magazine read it as bitter and toxic, but frankly I don’t read any emotion like that into it. All I read in it is comprehension.
“I’m A Fool To Want You” is a great example of the songs conveying a mood and gaining nuance when I listened more carefully; it’s clearly riffing on the crooners, a melancholic late-night reflection on one’s own heartbreak and unfulfilled desire, but Dylan is at least partially putting us on; I can imagine him delivering his lines sitting across from me in a bar, an ironic grin on his face as he realises he looks like a cliche but keeps going on anyway. It reminds me of what Umberto Eco said about postmodernism – Dylan puts on a costume and uses it to express yet another feeling, another side to himself.
I find it pretty incredible that Dylan wrote a song about a character from The Sopranos over a decade before the show aired – he really is from out of time! “Silvio” is some good, old-fashioned rock and roll; I have a deep love of any band that declares itself a rock ‘n’ roll band, even if it doesn’t fully fit comfortably in the genre (like how The Ramones kicked off punk and Motörhead straddles the line between heavy metal and punk), because to me it’s more of an attitude than anything – a sense of adventure, a sense that there’s something special out there we’re gonna go get, and anyone who declares themselves rock ‘n’ roll usually gets that, even if they wouldn’t express it the way I would.
“Silvio” has an extra layer of fun in that there’s a real ‘back to basics’ sense about it; the lyrics hint that we’re shaking off the recent events of the past and simplifying things. It reminds me of what beloved commentor and occasional Solute contributor wallflower says about Christopher Nolan, shifting from a usual complexity to something extremely streamlined in The Dark Knight; this shows why that kind of thing works, because having experimented with what does and does not happen when you do and do not do things, you can now do or not do those things in a more straightforward context (for example: parsing that sentence). A great example in this song is the use of the backing vocals; I’m pretty sure Dylan uses them in every possible way you can use them, but in order to draw the listener’s attention around and either underline or soften as appropriate.
“Sugar Baby” is, to my ear, a moment of emotional sincerity; it’s an emotional crash hard enough that he can barely be bothered to keep up the image he’s playing with (though perhaps that’s the costume). This is the song I have least to say about in any specific way, not because I don’t like it or because it’s low on substance but because I always assume Old Bob Dylan is operating on a level I can barely conceive of.
“Emotionally Yours” is a delight for me on so many levels. I live in Tasmania, where the Eighties kept going until about 1997, so I’m very familiar with the kind of music he’s playing with here, and it’s a thrill to hear familiar ideas and techniques infused with his wisdom and intelligence. It’s the same kind of fun as seeing Community play with trashy sitcom conventions; this doesn’t so much transcend the genre of chintzy Eighties love ballads so much as it follows their basic principles but bringing everything Dylan has along with it. Everything feels perfectly chosen, right down to the title; Dylan brings that same nerdiness beloved commentor Rosy Fingers described to the concept of romantic love. He’s capable of telling the difference between puppy love, trite attraction, and true passion, and he knows the person he’s singing to is someone he wants to wake up to every morning, someone he connects with on a deeper level than anyone else. To paraphrase Don Draper, he makes the choices and he’s chosen them.
Musically, too, Dylan brings his wisdom. I absolutely delight in the way he leads the listener’s ear around with musical flourishes, always drifting you from one hook to another in ways that are unpredictable but satisfying; it never drifts up its own ass but it never gets stale either, with him pulling all sorts of different sounds out of the synths. I also love how he ends on a massive instrumental verse; this is something he always does (early in his career he often ends on a harmonica solo) but it really serves the 80s love ballad in that these kind of songs often end on repetition of the title of the song, and by finishing with a massive instrumental section, it’s as if Dylan has said everything he’s needed to say and all that’s left is to feel the feeling.
“My Wife’s Home Town” is Dylan at his most playful in the whole album. This isn’t just a blues song, it’s a specific kind of blues song, the ‘I really hate my wife’ subgenre (also popular in sitcoms, movies, stand-up, and jokes). This kind of thing can range from vaguely sexist and stupid to outright misogynistic, but this song works for me because it’s clear Dylan isn’t taking it the remotest bit seriously. Listening to it confirmed for me that Bob Dylan is the person least upset by the degradation of Bob Dylan’s voice, because now he can fully commit to the Old Blues Singer act with total conviction. I think Dylan, like Don Draper, like Quentin Tarantino, like me, gets a real thrill out of being a Type of person – I’ve read that in recording his first album, he refused to record second takes because it didn’t seem like the sort of thing he would do, and I think that’s the question he keeps asking himself his whole career. What kind of country music would I record? What kind of protest songs would I write? What kind of old rock star would I be?
At this point, I’m mostly measuring his versions of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” against themselves. This one is the most bitter I’ve heard so far, not venomously angry but certainly not feeling any sense of humour about the situation – you can take the temperature of a performance by the line ‘you just kinda wasted my precious time’, and here it’s delivered with a slight sneer. I absolutely love the extended opening, and I could picture a live performer delighting an audience by sneaking up on the song that way.
“I Shall Be Free” is more playful Dylan. He has a reputation for his lyrics being meaningless nonsense designed to sound meaningful, and that’s exactly the game he’s playing here, throwing together sounds and concepts just to see what comes out. This is the work he does before something like “Silvio”, the experiments. Like all wannabe artists, I used to have the rather stupid idea that you can have control over your artistic legacy, and I came to learn that you can treat each individual work both as something worthy of doing in its own right and as the thing that let you make something down the road, and for whatever reason I guess Dylan managed to skip to the end of that.
“I Remember You” confirms wallflower’s instincts that randomly jumping from one end of Dylan’s career to the other is the better way for me to explore him. It’s a variation on the same thing “Emotionally Yours” was about (naturally, being from the same album), and I don’t really have much to say about it that I didn’t about that song. I apparently have a very specific attention span; Cowboy Bebop is the model I usually have for my personal taste in this respect, because each episode is held together by both the central premise of bounty hunting and the specific techniques the crew use to make the show, but each episode is wildly tonally and aesthetically different. Bob Dylan is exactly the opposite, getting into a tonal and aesthetic groove over the course of an album and jumping around in technique, and I have to take a really, really long view to see the techniques that stick from one aesthetic to another.
In spite of his (in)famously elliptical lyrics, I can usually figure out what Dylan’s songs are about on an emotional level, partially because they’re, you know, set to music, but also because it’s usually clear from the title and refrain, and one of Dylan’s underrated skills is his knack for choosing a phrase that perfectly balances clarity and flexibility; phrases like “The Times They Are A-Changin'”, “High water everywhere”, and “Things Have Changed” are all iconic in their simplicity, but aren’t tied to a single concept or emotion, so Dylan can filter them through different ideas, but their meaning is always perfectly clear and significant. “Changing Of The Guard” has no refrain and only drops its title once, which has a cool ‘saying the title of the movie in the movie’ effect but means the meaning is less clear to me.
Musically, it’s awesome, a kind of driving force that leads me to take it more seriously than “I Shall Be Free”. If I were to pretend I don’t know English and guess what this was about based just on the music, the title, and Dylan’s performance, I would say it’s about trying to carve a path forward in the face of tremendous strain, the changing of the guard from the perspective of the new guy clawing his way into the position he wants. I can’t help but consider that Dylan was thirty-seven when he recorded it; this isn’t the Young, Dumb, And Full Of Cum forging his own identity, this is someone a little older, a little more grounded, a guy who’s seen some shit and been forced to make decisions and live with them. From this perspective, the lyrics, uh, still make absolutely no sense to me. Maybe when I’m older.
It’s really cheeky of the Random Number God to end on a song that opens with Dylan remarking “Well, it’s that time of the hour where you really have to run,” but it’s also appropriate as an epic rocker with a melodramatic emotional core, as if to say, “We’ve had fun, but I wanted to get something serious out before we go home”. Having known someone who died way too young, I can only hear this song as something grief-stricken but not somber. It’s two steps past shock and one step past incomprehension; acceptance this person will be forever young. This is helped by the slow, funereal march of the performance; I heard another version of this song before this and didn’t care for it as much as I did this.