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Thursday, March 15, 2012

Another Side of Bob Dylan

That's right! A brand spankin' new music review. Not a new album, you understand: it's damn near 50 years old, but a new review of an album that I never ever covered before - not even in my slightly embarrassing but enthusiastic Epinions days. And, despite being a fan of the dude for the last 8 (?) years and listening to him even longer, this is also my very first Bob Dylan review. What took me so long? Well, read on and you might get some idea...

Bob Dylan is the one great '60s musical acts that I have always been terrified to write about. I still kind of am, to be honest. Quite aside for the fact that this humble Jewish kid from Hibbing Minnesota has very probably been the subject of more articles, reviews, books and scholarly papers than any other 20th century pop-culture icon, coming to terms with the mercurial genius of Dylan's music is not something to be taken lightly. "Genius" is a word that is thrown around far too indiscriminately these days - a crime of which I am far from innocent - but, at least in a purely literary sense, it's a word that Dylan has more than earned. It's not just anyone who can compose such profoundly wise and perfectly crafted masterpieces like A Hard Rain's A Gonna Fall and Bob Dylan's Dream, after all, and certainly not when they're just a couple of years out of high school.  

And yet, for all of that, the unparalleled genius of Dylan's music is a lot harder to explain. He has a weird voice, his melodies are simplistic when they're not outright stolen from traditional folk songs, his shrill harmonica playing is atonal, his guitar playing is rudimentary, his lyrics often don't make any sense and he seldom pays any attention to the arrangements or production of his records. These are facts - or at least as close to facts as you can get when discussing something as subjective as music. There's a reason, after all,  why so many people can't stand the dude's music and they presumably play a large part in explaining why even I - a massive Dylan fan - have to be in the right mood to enjoy the output of the man once known as Robert Zimmerman.

There's no getting past it though: Dylan's music truly is every bit as good as the mountains of praise and adoration would suggest. Better yet, his music is that good because of his "faults", not in spite of them. This once-in-a-lifetime perfect alchemy of conflicting, flawed and bewildering parts making up a staggeringly great whole is present on all his classic albums and, even if Another Side of Bob Dylan is neither quintessential Dylan (that would be Bringing It All Back Home), nor as well known as most of the masterworks that surround it, it is every bit as blessed with that old Dylan magic as anything he has ever done.

(Oh and the other reason I resisted writing about Bob Dylan is, as you might have guessed, because it's impossible to write about his best stuff without giving in to the sort of flowery and seemingly hyperbolic effusive gushing that would make so humble an individual as Bob Dylan cringe with embarrassment. And here we are...)

As just about every review of the album has noted, Another Side of Bob Dylan may as well have been called All The Sides of Bob Dylan Except For That One That Made Up the Whole of His Last Album. Not exactly the catchiest of titles, I admit, but a perfectly accurate one nonetheless. I may not actually own this album's predecessor, The Times They Are A Changing but thanks to live performances, covers and Dylan documentaries, I am familiar with almost all of it and there really is no getting around it: like the album or not, The Times They Are A Changing is probably the most single-minded album Bob Dylan ever released. It is a protest album through and through. Nothing wrong with that, of course, except that it wrongly presented Dylan as little more than a talented "topical songwriter" when he is so, so much more than that. Enter Another Side of Bob Dylan. 

You can tell pretty much right off the bat that Another Side is going to be a radical departure from its predecessor. All I Really Want To Do would go on to be covered by the likes of The Byrds, The Hollies and Sonny and Cher and for good reason: it's such a jovial, friendly little ditty that it seems impossible that it wouldn't be a great big pop hit. And yet, no matter how good most of the covers are, no one beats Bob at his own game here. Other versions may be more fleshed out but they can't capture the delight of Dylan's giggly rendition with his slightly manic, falsetto on the chorus that never fails to make me smile.

Things get even more "anti-topical-songwriter" as Dylan pulls out two comedy songs that are less political and more randomly hilarious than even The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan's classics I Shall Be Free and Talking World War III Blues. The first, I Shall Be Free - No. 10 is clearly a followup to the Freewheelin' song as it uses the most basic of basic musical backing on which to layer verse after verse of stream-of-consciousness hilarity. After all, With God On Our Side is one thing, but only Dylan could come up with something like: "Well I set my monkey on the log/ And ordered him to do the dog/ He wagged his tail and shook his head/ And he went and did the cat instead/ He's a weird monkey, very funky". Not to be outdone Motorpsycho Nitemare is a story song about a young doctor seeking refuge in the house of a redneck farmer and his daughter is more focused and less weird but no less funny for it. 

If these songs are a bit low on melody, they're hardly the worse off for it as they are the sort of songs that are more about the lyrics and, perhaps more importantly, the delivery of the lyrics than about catchy vocal hooks or memorable riffs. The same certainly can't be said about the rest of the album though, because for those of us starved for great melodies, the rest of the album delivers in spades. So many of the songs play out like fully formed pop/ rock songs, in fact, that it's easy to forget that, like its three predecessor's Another Side of Bob Dylan is the work of a lone artist, armed with nothing but his voice, an acoustic guitar and that nefarious harmonica. 

The Turtles had a huge hit with It Ain't Me Babe and deservedly so - it has an extremely catchy melody and interesting, slightly ambiguous (is the singer angry, dismissive or self-deprecating?)  lyrics - but it's interesting to note that the full-band treatment adds next to nothing to Dylan's threadbare original. And, as is usually the case, no one quite sings a Bob Dylan song like Bob Dylan. Forget the weird voice, Dylan's ability to vocally express the meaning of a song remains, to this very day, unmatched. 

On the other hand The Byrds' cover of My Back Pages is one of the few Dylan covers that actually improves on the original. By fully extracting the considerable melodic promise of the original song, they manage to take what is already this album's best track and improve on it, without ever losing sight of what makes the song so special in the first place. This is the beginning of the Bob Dylan of the mid-sixties, the Bob Dylan of Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde. Dylan at his very best in other words. From first word to last, My Back Pages is filled with some truly awe-inspiring imagery that are dam-near indecipherable on their own terms but are brought together by the song's chief lyrical and melodic hook "I was so much older then/ I'm younger than that now".

Dylan has always had a knack for playing with the English language and using in it ways that most other writers could only dream of but it's songs like My Back Pages that can bring meaning to even the most obscure of references, the most outlandish of images, that truly cements his unparalleled genius (yup, there's that word again) of lyricists. Without even looking forward to Desolation Row or It's Alright Ma, I'm Only Bleeding, another example of Dylan's upcoming lyrical transformation can also be found on this album's second major masterpiece. 

Chimes of Freedom (another song covered by the Byrds) is similar to My Back Pages in that its central melodic and lyrical hook - this time including the title itself: "As we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing" - acts as a focusing point for the rest of the song. The difference, though, is that Chimes of Freedom is universal, while My Back Pages is more personal but, though the former's lyrics are therefor less obscure, it would be a mistake to classify it as a mere "protest/topical song" when it's obviously so much bigger than that. 

With these monoliths, hits and comedy songs out of the way, the rest of the album may seem to be more slight and less important, but, in a way, it's the minor songs on which much of the album's charm rests. Well, all that is, except for Ballad In Plain D, which suffers from being too long (8 minutes!) and for containing some truly vitriolic, pointed lyrics aimed at the sister of his ex-girlfriend Suze Rotollo that seems out of place in the context of the rest of the album. Dylan himself has regretted writing it and, though it's a perfectly fine song if you simply let it flow over you, it's easy to understand why.  

As for the rest, though, it's just one small, slightly unpolished gem after another. To Ramona is a simple love song with not such simple lyrics but it's main charm is it's warm atmosphere and quietly lilting melody. Even better though is I Don't Believe You - which as a heart-break song is pretty much To Ramona's opposite. With its relatively faster tempo and higher sense of energy than anything else on the album, it was an obvious choice for a reinvention into a full-on rock and roll song when Dylan went electric a few months later. Best of all though, it probably has the catchiest, if not flat out best, melody of the entire album and is easily my pick for the album's most overlooked lost treasure - a title which could almost have been taken by the similarly terrific-yet-low-key Spanish Harlem Incident, which is especially easy to overlook as it comes right before Chimes of Freedom. I can't quite say the same about Black Crow Blues whose only real distinguishing mark is that it's based on an electric piano, but it's a terrifically fun little throwaway nonetheless.

Another Side of Bob Dylan might be a transitional album and it might not be quite the masterpiece that something like Highway 61 Revisited is, but it is still one of the great man's finest works. And, aside for The Beatles' A Hard Days Night (their own biggest breakthrough at the time), I can't think of any other album released in 1964 that comes close to it. A true masterpiece.

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