Posted in Album Reviews

Bob Dylan – Blonde on Blonde (1966)

By the time he was 25 years old, the former Robert Zimmerman had already released at least 2 classic albums and several more stellar ones.  A few weeks after his birthday in 1966, he released yet another classic with the double album Blonde on Blonde. The famous album cover shows a slightly out of focus Bob Dylan wearing a checkered brown scarf. The 14 tracks contain several of his most loved songs plus a slew of stellar album tracks to boot.

The album starts with the ruckus marching band sound of single “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” with its hollering and laughing where “everyone must get stoned”. “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” has the really nice organ sound of Al Kooper and the chorus that gets punctuated by the smart drumming of Kenneth Buttrey. The upbeat “Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine” is powered by the military drumming of Buttrey and further organ theatrics on a track about an end of a relationship and wondering who comes out better for it. “Absolutely Sweet Marie” sees Dylan pen the oft quoted line – “to live outside the law, you must be honest” while “I Want You” takes things a bit slower with a direct chorus on a song that hit the top 20 in the US.

Dylan takes pop music to its zenith several times on Blonde on Blonde.  The seven minutes of “Visions of Johanna’ are stunning with the bass groove of Joe South and Dylan complaining that “it’s so hard to get on/And these visions of Johanna kept me up past dawn”.  The piano and organ work to a dazzling effect on “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)” where Dylan tells a lover, “I didn’t know that you were sayin’ goodbye for good”.

A couple comes together from different worlds on “Just Like a Woman” that delivers the devasting line, “she aches just like a woman/but she breaks like a little girl”.  “4th Time Around” brings Dylan to The Beatles by way of “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” that borrows liberally from that song’s tune. On the original album, the eleven-minute country harmonica of “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” about his first wife takes up all of side 4.  Another stunning track on an album full of them, it’s a heartbreaking song about the woman who would give Dylan four children. 

The towering achievements of Bob Dylan albums from the sixties cannot be understated with Blonde on Blonde arguably being the most impressive.  It expertly mixes folk, rock, pop, and poetry on an album head and shoulders above his peers. The album would go top ten in the US and hit #3 in the UK.  It’s a record that has been passed down from generation to generation and is one that even non-Dylan fans would find much to like.

10/10

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Bob Dylan – Highway 61 Revisited (1965)

Released mere months after his last album, Bringing It All Back Home, 1965 saw Bob Dylan issue one of his seminal albums in Highway 61 Revisited. Though the album is not chock-a-block with Dylan hits, it is widely regarded as one of the greatest records ever made.  Recording took place in two blocks with the first being in mid June and the second in late July.  In between recordings is the infamous electric set that took place at that year’s Newport Folk Festival which was a signal of what was to come.

Recording with a band on virtually every track for the first time in his career, Hwy 61 often has the feeling of a great band swinging behind Dylan with their heads down while he presents his vignettes. With six verses in six minutes, “Tombstone Blues” is a sped up number where “mama’s in the factory, she ain’t got no shoes”. The mysterious and atmospheric “Ballad of a Thin Man” questions that, “something is happening here/but ya don’t know what it is/do you, Mr. Jones?”

With the accompanying band, organ and piano play a key role on several tracks. “Queen Jane Approximately” has great piano/organ lines courtesy of Al Kooper and Paul Griffin. While Hwy 61 references the road that travels from his old home in Minnesota through to New Orleans, “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” first line, “When you’re lost in the rain in Jarez” shows we’re not in Duluth anymore. The album is bookended by two epic tracks, the last being “Desolation Road”.  The eleven minute song is the only one delivered here acoustically and touches on historical figures of Einstein and Cinderella among a cavalcade of others. 

The most famous song on the album is the first track, “Like a Rolling Stone”. Introduced by it’s instantly recognizable drum shot from Bobby Gregg. The song is also musically notable for it’s improvised organ riff courtesy of Al Kooper. The celebratory chorus sees Dylan ask several times, “How does it feel?”.  It’s a song that is near impossible not to get swept away in. By 1965, Bob Dylan had already released a couple classic albums but in Highway 61 Revisited, he released an album that blasted him past rock and roll luminaries who had to quickly accelerate just to keep up.

10/10

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Bob Dylan – Bringing It All Back Home (1965)

Bringing It All Back Home by Bob Dylan

Bringing It All Back Home is the fifth Bob Dylan album and continues his departure away from focusing on mainly protest songs.  Another Side of Bob Dylan released in 1964 presented more personal lyrics, here Dylan explores surreal imagery along with a touch of psychedelia thrown in.  Controversially, the first side is devoted to electric songs played with a band while the second side is where longtime fans would find the mainly acoustic songs. 

Dylan gives a nod to the beat poets with a blast of bluesy rock and roll on the opener “Subterranean Homesick Blues”.  His first charting single in the US saw Dylan film a highly influential video for the track where he holds up cardboard cue cards with the lyrics written on them including the classic line, “Johnny’s in the basement, mixin’ up the medicine/I’m on the pavement, thinkin’ about the government”. “Maggie’s Farm” is a furious blast that was recorded in just one take as Dylan spits out the lyrics of working for little pay and no respect while you drive yourself insane.

The pace is slowed down on the love song “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” and the midtempo “She Belongs to Me” that speaks of a bohemian who is “an artist, she don’t look back/she can take the dark out of the nighttime and paint the daytime black”. Side one closes with the six plus minutes of “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” that breaks down into guffaws before the surreal track talks of the discovery of America. 

Side two opens with one of Dylan’s most beloved songs in “Mr. Tambourine Man” that was later taken to #1 in the US by The Byrds. Originally intended for the previous year’s Another Side of Bob Dylan, the song regularly features on best of lists and countless Dylan compilations. The acoustic side closes with two very different tracks – the first being the seven minute “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”. The intense song is one that demands attention as Dylan tells us that “he not busy being born is busy dying” and that “I got nothing, Ma, to live up to”.  Side two closes with “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”, another track that is widely covered by other artists. Accompanied by the bass of Bill Lee, Dylan’s voice rises and falls with the music as he speaks about a love that is over or perhaps a goodbye to his younger self.

Dylan’s world was expanding during this time period as he met The Beatles for the first time, tried LSD, and in the summer of 1965 of would famously be booed at the Newport Folk Festival. Refusing to be just one type of songwriter that some want him to stay as, Dylan keeps growing and expanding his sound and lyrical inspiration. Bringing It All Back Home is another extraordinary album just three years and five albums into his then brief recording career.

10/10

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Bob Dylan – Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964)

Another Side Of Bob Dylan

A mere 8 months after releasing The Times They Are A-Changin‘, Bob Dylan returned with his fourth studio release, Another Side of Bob Dylan.  The album title is appropriate.  While Dylan continued to mostly feature just guitar and harmonica, all of which were played by himself, the songs take on a more personal nature versus the politically charged folk songs of previous efforts. All the tracks were recorded in just one day of recording with Producer Tom Wilson.

“All I Really Want to Do” is more of his new style as he sings and yodels, “…is baby be friends with you”. Dylan adds piano to “Black Crow Blues” that has a 50s rock and roll mixed with a bit of blues. Lighter tracks like “I Shall be Free No. 10” and “Motorpsyco Nitemare” add a dose of humour to the album. Even though it’s just played with an acoustic guitar, “Spanish Harlem Incident” could be a garage rocker where Dylan sings of a girl who’s “temperature is too hot for taming”. “I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We never Have Met)” describes the morning after the night before with a lover where the “morning’s clear/It’s like I ain’t here/She acts like we never met”. The refrain really brings “My Back Pages” home with its earworm lyric, “Ah, but I was so much older then/I’m younger than that now”.

Dylan returns to his political folk song roots on the seven minute “Chimes of Freedom” where he watches a rain storm that tolls “for the luckless, they abandoned and forsaked”. The only track here that appears on most compilations is the vulnerable, “It Ain’t Me Babe”.  Here Dylan tells a girl that he’s not the one for her and that she should find someone else.  It’s one of his classics that has endured to present day and was later covered by The Turtles and Johnny Cash.  Many other tracks here were covered by The Byrds and popularized through their folk rock movement including “Chimes of Freedom”. While Another Side of Bob Dylan may not be as beloved as some of his other massive albums from the 60s, it is one that newcomers to Dylan may be able to get into easier as it mixes some of the political with love, humour and a healthy dose of genius.

10/10

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Bob Dylan – Rough and Rowdy Ways (2020)

Rough And Rowdy Ways

Back in late March, Bob Dylan released the nearly 17 minute single “Murder Most Foul”.  The track acts as an elegy for John F Kennedy as it focuses on his assassination.  “Right there in front of everyone’s eyes/Greatest magic trick ever under the sun/Perfectly executed, skillfully done”  The song then touches on pop culture that was occurring at that moment including The Beatles, the British Invasion, Thelonius Monk, etc. Similar in tone to Van Morrison with just piano and strings, the song has a dreamy quality of a man looking back upon his life. 

In several places on Rough and Rowdy, Dylan’s 39th studio album, he mentions his contemporaries and other historical figures including Anne Frank and The Rolling Stones on “I Contain Multitudes”.  The lead track is about living a life of contradictions with multiple layers. A phlegmy growl powers the bluesy “False Prophet” where the man sings, “I’m first among equals/Second to none/The last of the best/You can bury the rest”. Most of the 70 minute album has a slow to mid tempo speed.  “My Own Version of You” adds a bit of jazz noir to the proceedings in a track about putting body parts together to create something new.

Dylan’s voice is clear on “Crossing the Rubicon” and follows the a style that appears on a few other songs of having many verses with the name of the song featured in the last line of the verse. “Goodbye Jimmy Reed” mentions the blues legend on a rollicking track about religion. Lyrically the album is a dense lyrical wonderland but tracks like “Mother Of Muses” give the listener the chance to listen to the legend strum and sing a lovely little tune.  Similar in tone, “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” mentions “Ginsberg, Corso and Kerouac” and that the “radio signal, clear as can be/‪I’m so deep in love that I can hardly see”. 

On a personal level, I’m familiar with most of Bob Dylan’s 60s albums plus a few others. This is the first Dylan album that I’ve purchased when it actually came out. Upon purchasing the The Complete Albums Collection Volume 1, I’ve gone back and started to review his albums in order, with a long way yet to go. As Dylan turns 80, he makes it all seem effortless on a collection that is a wonderful addition to his discography. Rough and Rowdy Ways is one that will endure beyond just being a late period footnote. 

9/10