News and Commentary – Dylan Picks Up His Nobel (II – The Albums)

Recently we took the occasion of Dylan’s Nobel Prize as an opportunity to “consider some things Dylan,” motivated by our position that The Bob is not well understood beyond that circle of those who follow him rather closely.  We must immediately emphasize, following the Prime Directive, that we don’t know Bob, and make no claims to understand him personally—rather, it is simply that he is one of the singular artists of the twentieth century, and one whose output and experience is intimately enmeshed with all things Mid Century Cinema.

Dylan was once revered by most of those on the hip side of history, but many hopped off the Bob train somewhere along the years (popular stops included 1965, 1970, 1979 and 1986), often explaining that they preferred “the earlier stuff” for one reason or another. But as we noted last time, those who left missed out on a lot of extraordinary material.  So on this occasion we’re going to take a lightning trip through the albums (a user’s guide follows at the end). Good resources to help fill in our thumbnail sketch include the official Dylan site and the most recent edition of the Lyrics book. And with all the appropriate qualifiers regarding the inevitable costs of brevity and idiosyncrasies of individual taste assumed to be in place and understood, in one deep breath:

Dylan’s first four albums are usually seen collectively, but the first one was mostly covers of old blues standards and traditional material, the next couple were filled with his famous “finger-pointing” songs, and the fourth represented a radical shift in tone (Bob even considered electric arrangements for this album, a year before he “went electric”). There are easily a dozen millennial songs on these albums; we find “North Country Blues” essential, and have a soft spot for “To Ramona.”  This period is nicely supplemented by two entries from Dylan’s official “Bootleg Series”: Volume Seven (No Direction Home) and Volume Nine (The Witmark Demos).

These efforts were of course followed by The Three Albums That Changed The World; we will only add here the possibly provocative claim that every song on Blonde on Blonde sounds better live than it does on the album. Bob’s legendary motorcycle accident followed, the recovery from which yielded the spectacular Basement Tapes (held back until 1975 and finally given a definitive edition in 2014) and the minimalist John Wesley Harding.  A somewhat fallow period ensued; Self Portrait has its defenders (we are not among them), but New Morning is a fine album, and Greatest Hits Volume II featured some unreleased material, including the rather special “Tomorrow is a Long Time.” More silence (some speculated Bob was waiting out a contract obligation) was followed by another fertile period, at the center of which was The Greatest Album That Ever Was, Blood on the Tracks, bookended by Planet Waves and Desire, two more albums filled with songs that really shine in live performances. 

From 1978, it is fair to say Dylan’s albums were more uneven than those which came before.  But the high notes soared.  His three overtly religious albums were vilified by secular liberals, but Slow Train Coming has some outstanding material, the songs on Saved were performed spectacularly in concert (we will address this more fully in a future post on the concert tours) and Shot of Love yielded "The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Alter" and "Every Grain of Sand."  So stop complaining. Continuing into the eighties, every studio album included some gems (even the train wreck Knocked Out Loaded, had "Under Your Spell" and "Brownsville Girl")—moreover, the stunning unreleased material on Biograph (1985) and the first installment of The Bootleg Series (1991) revealed, among many thrills ("Up to Me" anybody?), that Dylan repeatedly made the characteristically inscrutable decision to withhold many of the best songs recorded at various sessions from their respective albums.

The 1990s featured still more albums—and often, more complaining from the peanut gallery.  But Good As I Been To You is a terrific record, and “Lone Pilgrim” from World Gone Wrong is simply ethereal.  Later in that decade, and for a decade, Dylan would, to the surprise of many, deliver a truckload of new material: three strong albums, the single “Things Have Changed,” and a jaw-dropping three-disc Bootleg Series set that drew from the same period, Tell Tale Signs.  Our favorites from Love and Theft include the gentle “Po’ Boy,” as well as “Sugar Baby” (which has the irresistible line “I’m staying with Aunt Sally/but you know, she’s not really my aunt”); the version of “Can’t Wait” on Tell Tale Signs (the song originally appeared on Time Out of Mind), is one of our all-time favorites.    

And from there the albums kept on coming, as always, some better than others; but again, the good stuff . . . is really good.  In 2012 a Dylan-in-his-eighth-decade released Tempest, another important addition to the catalogue. Two cuts on this album, "Scarlet Town" and "Tin Angel," offer dark, tough, Jim Thompson-inflected noir tales unlike anything Bob had previously attempted. Overall Tempest is as charged and bracing a late career statement as any I can think of by any artist—Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows Your Dead is the only comparable referent that comes to mind. Lumet made more than half a dozen better films earlier in his career. But what a thrill it was to see Devil. Which is basically our main point. 

Our Album guide follows below.  Records are listed by approximate recording date. Live albums are not included here (we will consider them in a later post); compilations are only listed if they feature previously unreleased material. Note as always we follow a version of the Halliwell system: stars are not ratings, but designations of merit.  Which also means that there can be good things on an un-starred album, but as a whole we did not find it worthy of special attention. 

Bob at Newport

Bob Dylan (1962) *

The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963) ***

The Times They Are A-Changin (1963) **

Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964) **

                The Bootleg Series Volume 9: The Whitmark Demos (2010) **

                The Bootleg Series Volume 7: No Direction Home (2005) **

Bringing it All Back Home (1965) ***

Highway 61 Revisited (1965) ***

Blonde on Blonde (1966) ***

The Basement Tapes (1975) ***

                The Bootleg Series Volume 11: The Basement Tapes Complete (2014) ***

John Wesley Harding (1967) ***

Nashville Skyline (1969)

Self Portrait (1970)

                The Bootleg Series Volume 10: Another Self-Portrait (2013) *

New Morning (1971) *

Greatest Hits Volume II (1971) *

Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973) *

Planet Waves (1974) **

Blood on the Tracks (1975) ***

Desire (1976) **

Street Legal (1978) *

Slow Train Coming (1979) *

Saved (1980)

Shot of Love (1981) *

Infidels (1983) *

Empire Burlesque (1985) *

Biograph (1985) ***

Knocked Out Loaded (1986)

Down in the Groove (1988)

Oh Mercy (1989) **

Under the Red Sky (1990)

The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 (1991) ***

Good As I Been To You (1992) **

World Gone Wrong (1993) *

Time Out of Mind (1997) ***

Love and Theft (2001) **

Modern Times (2006) *

The Bootleg Series, Volume 8: Tell Tale Signs (2008) ***

Together Through Life (2009) *

Christmas in the Heart (2009)

Tempest (2012) **

Shadows in the Night (2015)

Fallen Angels (2016)

Triplicate (2017)