Bob Dylan has just announced a show at St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center on Oct. 25, with Mavis Staples. When Dylan last came to town, in 2014, The Current’s staff set out to review every one of Bob Dylan’s studio albums since his 1962 debut. Freshly updated with coverage of Dylan’s newest releases, written by Current staffers in 2014 and since, here’s our look at Dylan’s incomparable discography.
Jill Riley on Bob Dylan (1962)
Jill Riley on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963)
Jay Gabler on The Times They Are A-Changin’ (1964)
Jay Gabler on Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964)
Mary Lucia on Bringing It All Back Home (1965)
Jill Riley on Highway 61 Revisited (1965)
Jill Riley on Blonde on Blonde (1966)
Mac Wilson on John Wesley Harding (1967)
Bill DeVille on Nashville Skyline (1969)
Andrea Swensson on Self Portrait (1970)
Jay Gabler on New Morning (1970)
Jay Gabler on Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973)
Jay Gabler on Dylan (1973)
Walt Dizzo on Planet Waves (1974)
Andrea Swensson on Blood on the Tracks (1975)
David Campbell on The Basement Tapes (1975)
Bill DeVille on Desire (1976)
Luke Taylor on Street-Legal (1978)
Mark Wheat on Slow Train Coming (1979)
Jay Gabler on Saved (1980)
Jay Gabler on Shot of Love (1981)
Jay Gabler on Infidels (1983)
Walt Dizzo on Empire Burlesque (1985)
Mac Wilson on Knocked Out Loaded (1986)
Jay Gabler on Down in the Groove (1988)
Jay Gabler on Oh Mercy (1989)
Jay Gabler on Under the Red Sky (1990)
Jay Gabler on Good As I Been To You (1992) and World Gone Wrong (1993)
Andrea Swensson on Time Out of Mind (1997)
Jay Gabler on Love and Theft (2001)
Jay Gabler on Modern Times (2006)
Jay Gabler on Together Through Life (2009)
Jay Gabler on Christmas in the Heart (2009)
Mac Wilson on Tempest (2012)
Jay Gabler on Shadows in the Night (2015), Fallen Angels (2016), and Triplicate (2017)
Bob Dylan (1962)
Jill Riley: If you want a bare-bones Bob Dylan album, then you’ve come to the right place. The tall tale that’s been passed down over the years says that Bob Dylan’s self-titled debut was recorded at Columbia Records for just over $400. Dylan was armed with a harmonica, an acoustic guitar, a pile of traditional folk songs and a few originals like “Talkin New York” and “Song to Woody” (yes, his idol Woody Guthrie).
After Dylan made his way from Minnesota to New York, he was discovered by a big-time Columbia talent scout by the name of John Hammond, who believed in him even though this album was a commercial bust. Thank the Lord that Hammond convinced the record company big wigs to not drop Dylan from the label, otherwise there might not have been a Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Everyone has to start somewhere.
The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963)
Jill Riley: The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan was Bob Dylan’s breakout record. He was still focusing on folk traditions, but unlike his first record, he was writing more of the music. “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Girl From the North Country,” “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” and Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” are all songs found on this iconic Dylan album. The record is so significant to pop culture that the Library of Congress chose it for preservation when they started adding albums to their registry.
I’ve always been very drawn to the album cover. It’s a very simple, spontaneous snapshot of Bob Dylan and his girlfriend Suze Rotolo. It was a cold day, they were walking down a New York City street near their apartment; Dylan has a oversized jacket on, his hands in his pockets, trying to keep warm. His girlfriend in the green jacket, Rotolo, is squeezing on his arm. It was a simple photo. I’ve always been so drawn to it because the interpretation could be that it’s Bob Dylan and his clingy girlfriend — but she was so much more than that. His lyrics were socially conscious, and she was a big influence on him with her beliefs in equality, freedom, and political activism. Suze Rotolo wrote a great book I recommend reading called A Freewheelin’ Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties.
The Times They Are A-Changin’ (1964)
Jay Gabler: The outcry of protest when Dylan famously went electric at Newport in 1965 is usually — well, exaggerated, for one thing, but also painted as the whining of musical reactionaries who couldn’t understand that music might be about more than Jimmy cracking corn and bringing power to the people. This album, though, shows what the folk revivalists were afraid they were losing: a gifted songwriter who was as deft at quietly devastating personal songs (“Boots of Spanish Leather”) as at anthems of social protest (“The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” “Only a Pawn In Their Game”). Love and Theft was a name Dylan gave to an album four decades later, but it describes the themes of his third album as well.
Dylan would almost certainly be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame even if he’d stopped making music after this album. The title track and “With God on Our Side” became landmark statements of that watershed decade, the latter achieving prominence when Dylan performed it as a duet with Joan Baez — who invited Dylan on tour with her, their ill-fated and emotionally abusive relationship mirroring the disintegration of Dylan’s relationship with the folk scene generally. Though Dylan never lost his social conscience, he was never so consistently and explicitly engaged with politics as he was to such stinging effect on this aptly-titled body of work.
Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964)
Jay Gabler: Powerful as Bob Dylan’s early songs are, and often brilliant as his later material is, Dylan’s reputation as the most influential songwriter of the rock era essentially rests on four albums he released in less than two years’ time — starting with Another Side of Bob Dylan in August 1964. Bringing it All Back Home is Dylan’s first electric album, Highway 61 Revisited has “Like a Rolling Stone,” and Blonde on Blonde is most revered, but many Dylan enthusiasts argue that the solo acoustic Another Side is the purest distillation of Dylan’s genius.
Somewhere in the seven months that elapsed between The Times They Are A-Changin’ and Another Side, Dylan turned a critical creative corner, vaulting into uncharted lyrical realms. There are a few holdouts from his earlier style (“All I Really Want To Do” would have fit in on his debut, and “It Ain’t Me Babe” sounds like a Freewheelin‘ track), but compare the bulk of these songs to what went before.
From the straight-ahead protest narrative of “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” Dylan leaps to the cosmic “Chimes of Freedom”: “Through the mad mystic hammering of the wild ripping hail/ The sky cracked its poems in naked wonder.” Instead of tender but conventional ballads like “Boots of Spanish Leather,” we now get the likes of “To Ramona”: “The pangs of your sadness/ Shall pass as your senses will rise.” Perhaps the album’s greatest song, “My Back Pages,” is an epic and elusive composition that takes on new meanings every time it’s heard.
Inducting Dylan into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Bruce Springsteen famously recounted hearing “Like a Rolling Stone” on the radio: “On came that snare shot that sounded like somebody kicked open the door to your mind.” Listen closely to Another Side of Bob Dylan, and you’ll realize that door had already been much more quietly opened.
Bringing It All Back Home (1965)
Mary Lucia: Bringing It All Back Home was Bob Dylan’s fifth studio album. The record was divided into two sonic sides. One was — GASP! — electric, which as we all know alienated him from his peers and longtime fans. (Doesn’t that seem utterly ridiculous in retrospect? I mean, come on, he wasn’t kicking puppies through electric fans.) The other side was acoustic in sound, but in subject matter distancing himself from the protest songs which he had been so closely identified with.
This record contains three of my all-time favorite Dylan tunes, one being “Subterranean Home Sick Blues.” I can’t hear that tune without the visual of the black-and-white footage from the documentary Don’t Look Back, with Dylan cool as a cucumber standing in an alleyway holding and flipping cue cards with the lyrics scrawled by Alan Ginsburg — who is also seen in the video, standing in the background. Legend had it Dylan’s handwriting was too unreadable, so he asked his buddy poet Ginsberg to do the honors. “Subterranean Homesick Blues” was Dylan’s first song to chart in the U.S. Favorite lyric: “The pump don’t work, ’cause the vandals took the handles.”
“It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” is another favorite and I also associate it visually with Don’t Look Back in which Dylan casually sits in a hotel room with an audience of Joan Baez and Donovan, among others, sitting in rapture while he performs this poignant, beautiful song. The look on Donovan’s face is priceless as he is “schooled by the master.” Is that drool on your chin, Sunshine Superman? Favorite lyric: “This sky too, is folding under you, and it’s all over now, baby blue.”
Perhaps my all-time favorite song of Dylan’s is “It’s Alright Ma, I’m only Bleeding,” a sharp stream-of-consciousness ramble that would be impossible to remember all the words to if on cold medicine, let alone drunk. Favorite lyric: “He not busy being born is busy dying.”
“Maggie’s Farm,” “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and other classics round out this stellar work of art. Not too shabby, Zimmy.
Highway 61 Revisited (1965)
Jill Riley: There was a lot of uproar in the folk community when, in 1965, Bob Dylan went electric at the Newport Folk Festival. Despite the disappointment from Dylan’s traditional folk fans, he had moved into such a spectacular growth period as a musician and songwriter. Bringing It All Back Home found Bob Dylan transitioning from acoustic to more electric sounds. His creative genius only blossomed more with the two records that followed: Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde. He really did make a trilogy of his best work during that time. If you’re new to Bob Dylan, start with the three records I’ve mentioned.
As a resident of St. Paul’s Eastside, I find it so cool that I live only about three miles from Highway 61. I find myself driving my out of town guests down Arcade Street in St. Paul, just so I can remind my passengers of what highway they are on at the moment. How many people can say that “the Blues Highway” runs right through their neighborhood? Have I ever blasted “Highway 61 Revisited” or “Like a Rolling Stone” in my car, while driving down Highway 61? Guilty.
Bob Dylan named Highway 61 Revisited after the U.S. Route 61, which ran from northern Minnesota (his birthplace of Duluth) all the way down the Mississippi River to New Orleans. (In the 90s, part of U.S. Route 61 became Minnesota Highway 61.) It was such a great name for a Dylan record. It’s as if he was tracing the path from his birthplace all the way through his roots and blues influences—Memphis, Mississippi, New Orleans.
Blonde on Blonde (1966)
“You don’t have it?! That is perverse. Don’t tell anyone you don’t own f—ing Blonde on Blonde!” –Barry, High Fidelity
Jill Riley: Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde are considered a rock trilogy of Bob Dylan albums. Blonde on Blonde was a hell of a way to wrap up a grand trilogy. If you’re going to sit down and listen to it in its entirely, you need to block off a good chunk of time. One of the first double albums in rock history, it clocks in at just under 73 minutes. Believe me when I say it is well worth your time.
This record is praised by Dylan fans and music critics as a masterpiece. I knew the song “Rainy Day Woman #12 & 35” quite well from hearing it on the radio and various soundtracks when I was growing up. In college, my music-head friends shamed me for not having listened to the entire Blonde on Blonde record. I was just like the guy in the record store in the film High Fidelity, when Jack Black’s character Barry is shocked when the patron doesn’t own Blonde on Blonde. Black’s character helps the patron save face by making him purchase this essential album. I laugh every time I watch that scene, because I was that patron at one time. Now I identify with Jack Black’s character in helping others see the error of their way. I love “Visions of Johanna,” “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again,” and “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat.”
I always say that if I didn’t love living in my home state of Minnesota so much, I would pick up and move to Nashville. When I found out that Bob Dylan recorded the majority of Blonde on Blonde in Nashville, my interest became even higher. Dylan was getting nowhere with the songs in New York, so he took members of his band, gathered some great Nashville session players, and finally felt like the songs were coming together.
I don’t know why it took me so long to finally sit down and listen to Blonde on Blonde. Maybe I was not sold on how much the music snobs (I say that lovingly) praised it. I guess I just needed friends with great taste in music to show me the way.
John Wesley Harding (1967)
Mac Wilson: When I was 22, I apparently wrote a capsule review of Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding; I know this because I rediscovered the review when I booted up my old computer for the first time in almost a decade. My temptation was to post that review verbatim, since my impressions of John Wesley Harding are largely the same: it is a simple but confounding record, plainly readable, yet seemingly bottomless in its implications.
The songs of John Wesley Harding play like the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. Dylan’s characters find themselves in strange situations, act fittingly strange themselves, and reach strange fates in strange ways — all the while feeling like everything is adding up to something far greater that we can scarcely comprehend. John Wesley Harding provides a skeleton upon which millennia worth of human archetypes are hung, and show to us for the briefest of moments. Most of Dylan’s catalog is either willfully titanic or intimately familiar; John Wesley Harding escapes both classifications, remaining inpenetrable and alien.
It’s fitting that the record’s most famous song, “All Along the Watchtower,” had its own plotline on the Battlestar Galactica reboot as being a song that’s infinite: it has no origin, no beginning, no conclusion, and will exist for all of eternity. Dylan’s music will be remembered, some of it more than the rest, but John Wesley Harding may live on the longest, as a testament not only to his own strangeness, but ours as well.
Nashville Skyline (1969)
Bill DeVille: I’m a big fan of Nashville Skyline! What’s there not to like about this one? It’s such a charming album. Dylan rolled into Music City to record some new songs with talented session cats like Norman Blake and Charlie McCoy. You have a strong lead track in the new version of “Girl From the North Country,” featuring Dylan’s pal Johnny Cash and his band. You also have “Lay Lady Lay,” which features one of Dylan’s most impressive vocals. It’s almost as if he really tried to sing pretty in almost a crooning style. Can’t forget the closer, the sneaky good love song “Tonight I’ll Be Stayin’ Here With You.” It’s enjoyable listen start to finish. Dylan also showed he was ahead of the curve by predating the “country rock” scene that was to come by a couple of years. I get the impression Dylan wasn’t trying to change the world with Nashville Skyline — he was just having fun.
Self Portrait (1970)
Andrea Swensson: Self Portrait is my favorite Bob Dylan mixtape: an erratic mish-mash of leftover country ballads from Nashville Skyline, little gospel ditties that seem to foreshadow his work that would come in the 80s, a funky “Woogie Boogie” that would have fit in with what was happening on the West Bank of the Twin Cities in 1970, and even a Simon & Garfunkel cover. I love that he got away with releasing this as an album. I love that it came sandwiched between two far-more straight-laced releases, like he slipped it in hoping no one would notice. I love that there are 24 tracks, and that none of them make any sense played side-by-side. I love how unapologetically weird it is. And I love that the first line in the Rolling Stone review of the album, written by revered critic Greil Marcus, began with a head-scratch and a simple question: “What is this s–t?’”
New Morning (1970)
Jay Gabler: I’ll always associate New Morning with my parents. My aunt and some friends formed an ad hoc folk ensemble to play “If Not For You” at my parents’ 1974 wedding in my grandparents’ living room. I imagine Mom and Dad lounging around on a Sunday morning with this album on the stereo, sipping Maxwell House and reading about the Rumble in the Jungle.
New Morning is aptly named: it’s an easy Sunday listen, a welcome balm after the strange detours of Self Portrait and the genre exercise of Nashville Skyline. Not that New Morning is without its genre exercises, but somehow the record’s eclectic songs — some of them originally written for a theatrical collaboration with poet Archibald MacLeish that Dylan ended up leaving over creative differences — hold together as a coherent set, thanks to Dylan editing more tightly than he had with the sprawling Self Portrait. (The “Mr. Bojangles” cover that later turned up on Dylan, for example, was considered for inclusion on New Morning.)
Nothing feels forced here, from the easy waltz of “Winterlude” (“Winterlude, this dude thinks you’re fine”) to the jazzy “If Dogs Run Free,” with Dylan’s awkward post-beatnik mumbling complemented by Maeretha Stewart’s breezy scatting. “The Man in Me” later played over the opening credits of The Big Lebowski, the perfect way to set the scene for the laconic attitude of another Dude.
My parents are now divorced — and so is Dylan — but this winningly understated album from the dawn of the Nixon Administration retains all of its charm.
Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973)
Jay Gabler: Though he’s contributed individual songs to a number of soundtracks — most notably Wonder Boys (2000), winning an Oscar for “Things Have Changed” — Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is his only complete soundtrack, including songs and instrumental score. It’s best-known for producing the mournful “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” which Dylan rarely omits from any live set list.
The Pat Garrett sessions also produced the song “Wagon Wheel,” albeit very indirectly. Dylan wrote the melody and chorus and recorded a demo of the unfinished song while he was working on Pat Garrett; years later, the song was completed by Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show, who turned the song into their signature anthem.
Though whether Pat Garrett is objectively a great film is a matter of hot debate among film buffs — director Sam Peckinpah tried to have his name removed from the movie after it was recut by the producers — the western is a must-see for any Dylan fan: not only does it put the music into powerful context, Dylan himself has a supporting role as the mysterious “Alias.” My favorite scene is the one where Dylan is sent to a saloon’s back room to be out of earshot of an important conversation; to make sure he doesn’t run away, he’s made to read the labels of the canned goods. Throughout the tense scene, Dylan is heard in the background: “Beans. Beans. Corn. Corn. Beans.”
Jay Gabler: Until Christmas in the Heart, this was the strangest entry in the Bob Dylan discography: the Dylan album, called Dylan, that Dylan never wanted released. (It’s also the only Dylan album besides the holiday set to include only cover songs.) When Dylan left Columbia Records to sign with Asylum, a piqued Columbia exercised its right to release Dylan’s material without the artist’s approval. Thus the world got Dylan, an album exclusively for those of us (including me, and very possibly you too if you’re actually reading this) who will basically buy anything with Bob Dylan’s name on it.
Critics were, of course, disgusted — both by the label’s shamelessness and by Dylan’s decision to record soupy covers of songs like “Mr. Bojangles” and “Spanish is the Loving Tongue.” (Most of these songs were recorded in the New Morning sessions, with a couple from the Self Portrait sessions.) Once the album was out, though, it more or less stayed out — while Columbia acceded to the artist’s request not to release Dylan on CD in the U.S. after he re-signed with the label, it’s since been released digitally and is now on Spotify in a remastered (!) edition.
The decades have been kind to this album, if only because some of the weight of expectations has been lifted: in the early 70s, people were still waiting for the next Blonde On Blonde and couldn’t understand why Dylan kept wasting his time on the efforts of lesser songwriters. A lot of people still can’t understand that — but really, only “Can’t Help Falling In Love” is a clunker in comparison with other covers Dylan was recording in this era. Phrasing is one of Dylan’s underrated gifts, and whatever you think about Dylan’s decision to record these covers, he’s fully engaged with the material. “Lily of the West” is rich and atmospheric, and “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” is appropriately doomy.
The album’s Rolling Stone review was written by Jon Landau (who later became famous for declaring that Bruce Springsteen represented “rock and roll future” and went on to be Springsteen’s career-long manager). Though he allowed that Dylan “provides no basis for new criticism” (“it contains only those flaws in evidence” on Self Portrait), Landau concluded that “this inept package of a great artist’s weaker moments” is “best left forgotten.” I don’t know about that. I’d say, give Dylan a listen — if you dare.
Planet Waves (1974)
Walt Dizzo: After more than three years without a proper Dylan album, Planet Waves was released with much anticipation and an aggressive publicity campaign. This 14th Dylan record re-teams Bob with longtime collaborators the Band, with whom he embarked on a major reunion tour following this release. This record is the only album-length formal studio collaboration with the Band, and it provides for a roller-coaster ride of emotions. This is mostly due to the album’s sometimes awkward pacing, and the album probably could have benefited from a reconsidered track order.
Planet Waves kicks off with the upbeat folk dance “On A Night Like This,” featuring Garth Hudson’s dazzling accordion and then we take our first big detour as the record dives straight into one of my favorite Dylan songs, the brilliant “Going, Going, Gone.” And this is indeed a nosedive, as the record leads you from a feel-good romp right into one of Dylan’s darkest numbers (though maybe not the darkest song on this record). The song’s desperate tone and autobiographical lyrics, alluding to an unhappy ending, certainly make for a different experience than we’d expect following the album’s opening track. This song, though, deserves all the praise I can offer, as it features some stupendous stifled guitar work by Robbie Robertson whose playing pairs perfectly with Dylan’s reflective lyrics. If you’re a fan of the darker side of Wilco, you should revisit this Dylan album.
Another highlight is the anthemic last song on side one, “Forever Young.” The track actually appears twice on the record (a sped-up take without the chorus kicks off side two), but there’s little argument against the first appearance being the preferred version. Stretching nearly five minutes, Dylan cleverly crafts a song that sounds both hopeful and tragic — reflecting on love, sadness, affection, desperation, and acceptance. The second half of the album features a highlight in “Dirge” (featuring Dylan on piano and Robertson on acoustic guitar) and the album’s closer, “Wedding Song,” but also includes some lighter fare that I’d refer to more as filler.
Planet Waves features some of Dylan’s most straightforward and self-reflective lyrics with allusions to his childhood (the Duluth shout-out in “Something There Is About You”; and “Hazel,” which is rumored to be about Dylan’s Hibbing sweetheart Echo Helstrom) as well as more timely lyrics touching on some of the difficulties in Dylan’s family life at the time of the recording. It’s a record that shakes off a little of that early Dylan brashness for nuanced insight into the man himself.
Blood on the Tracks (1975)
Andrea Swensson: This was the first Bob Dylan CD I bought with my own money, one of the first records I owned on vinyl, and still to this day one of my “default” records I put on when I have people over and don’t want to think too hard about the soundtrack. But over the years I’ve also come to appreciate Blood on the Tracks on a deeper level as I learned more about how it came together.
Part of the album was re-recorded in the Twin Cities at the historic but short-lived Sound 80 studios with Minnesota musicians who are still active today, including keyboard player Greg Inhofer, bassist Billy Peterson, drummer Bill Berg, and mandolin player Peter Ostroushko. Five of the best tracks in the collection — including the iconic “Tangled Up in the Blue” and the merciless “Idiot Wind” — were recorded by this crew, and they help Dylan to convey the disappointment, tension, and sadness of these ultimate breakup songs.
Though he swears the album isn’t autobiographical, Blood on the Tracks is at least one of Dylan’s most literal and accessible records — which is why I often recommend it to someone when they’re looking for an entry point into his decades-long career.
The Basement Tapes (1975)
David Campbell: In the interest of authenticity, I’m going to go ahead and get something off my chest right out of the gate. The truth is that although I’m a fan of Bob Dylan and a fan of the Band, and I own many records by both — including this one — I’ve never really given much time or attention to The Basement Tapes. There. I’ve said it. I’ve no idea why this might be, as it is really the crack of the starter’s pistol for my favorite period of Bob’s career. It also formally announces the arrival of the Band, who are one of my top 10 favorite — uh, bands of all time, without question. Their debut Music from Big Pink came out in 1968 and The Basement Tapes was pretty much the blueprint for that album. All signs indicate that this album should be right up my alley/in my wheelhouse/totes mah jam, but for some reason or another, it never has been. Maybe it has something to do with the album’s unique chronology? Let me explain…
Released on June 26, 1975, Bob Dylan’s 16th studio album is unique in that it’s actually an audio snapshot of what he was up to eight years earlier. By July of 1966, Dylan had released seven albums, most recently Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde. After a motorcycle accident sidelined him from his previously inhuman pace touring and recording and interviewing and generally being Bob Dylan: Voice of the Generation (say this out loud in movie guy voice), he was living with his family in Woodstock, New York. His band for the last few years, the Hawks, had joined him in Woodstock. Robbie Robertson, Garth Hudson, Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, and Rick Danko (a.k.a. the Band) had backed Dylan when he went electric. These guys (minus Helm, who quit in late 1965) stood on stage with Bob each night and took the heat as the slightly confused, mostly hostile, and definitely divided audience loved and hated his new direction. Road-weary and disillusioned with the industry, hippie culture, and the fame, Dylan retreated to Woodstock to be with his family and slowly work at playing music again in a way that worked for him. He was dropping out, and that was that. In this way, The Basement Tapes are his Walden.
The sessions for The Basement Tapes occurred between June and October of 1967. Starting in the basement of Dylan’s home and then moving to Big Pink (yes, that Big Pink), a house that members of the band rented, the sessions are said to have been a loose combination of trying out new Dylan compositions, playing covers and traditionals, and generally just enjoying playing together and making music as the guys pleased on their own timetable. Dylan taught the members of the Band loads about folk music and shared some of his favorite songs. This was a key sonic ingredient to their landmark 1968 debut Music From Big Pink. The Band showed Dylan how to groove, and sang with him beautifully. In the end, they recorded more than 100 tracks including 30 new Dylan compositions, and rediscovered their own identity and sound in the face of the day-glo psychedelic production that was favored at the time. That sound was Americana, and these recordings are arguably the first in that style.
Although the idyllic musical experience of The Basement Tapes sessions ultimately gave birth to a hugely important double LP from Bob Dylan and the Band in 1975, one might say the original “soft” release was in the form of a 14-song demo that made its way around the industry in an effort to lure other artists into recording Bob’s songs. This is the explanation for the arrival of Manfred Mann’s “Quinn the Eskimo” in January of 1968, a full two years before the song’s author, Bob Dylan, released a live version he recorded with the Band at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1969 on his album Self Portrait in 1970. Originally, the song was recorded at The Basement Tapes sessions — though it doesn’t appear on the official release in 1975 but on the 1985 Biograph box set. Confused? It’s totally confusing. The point is that Dylan’s manager was shopping the new Dylan compositions from The Basement Tapes sessions around. People started to hear the songs and the arrangements he’d worked up with the Band, and wondered why he wasn’t releasing them as his own. Bootlegs were made. Rolling Stone wrote an article demanding the release of “Dylan’s Basement Tape.” For eight years the legend spread and grew, as did the popularity of both Dylan and the Band. On the heels of the release of Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, which is without question one of his finest moments, and a two-month tour with the Band in 1974 — his first in eight years — The Basement Tapes was finally officially released.
One of my favorite things about The Basement Tapes now is how low-fi they kept the album. Even though there were overdubs in 1975 and some of the Band’s songs were recorded later without Dylan present, before the record came out someone on the other end of what you hear through your speakers made a decision to keep this project sounding simple. Liner notes from the 2009 rerelease claim the songs were “cut live on a home tape recorder with from one to three mics.” The remasters sound like a slightly touched-up version of that, in the most charming way. Although I’m not certain as I wasn’t alive to really take the cultural temperature when the album was released, it does appear slightly sonically out of place between Blood on the Tracks and Desire when I listen in sequence now without context. However, if you know the story behind the album, it’s almost like Dylan decided to stop for a second and explain to the world exactly where all the music he’d been releasing since John Wesley Harding came from sonically. He gave the recipe to all of his fans. Here you go! Here’s my secret. It was clearly a popular dish. The Basement Tapes peaked at number seven on the Billboard chart in the U.S.
The official release of The Basement Tapes gave us 16 songs featuring Dylan and the Band, and eight more recorded by the Band without Dylan. Some argued that this was one of the double album’s shortcomings, and that the Band’s songs disrupted Bob Dylan’s album. It’s my opinion that The Basement Tapes is as much a record by the Band as it is a record by Bob Dylan. Yes, Dylan wrote and sang lead on most of the songs, but that warm sonic ocean of Americana that those lyrics and that lead vocal swim in is 100% the Band. These guys had been creating and performing together for the better part of a decade, longer than most bands exist. In their own way, they were a unit. I make up that during those sessions, they collectively healed from the public lashing they took out on the road in ’65 and ’66, “went to the woods to live deliberately,” and found a sound that paved the way for records like the Grateful Dead’s American Beauty, Wilco’s Being There, and the entire Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver catalogs. You can argue about the purity of the process, but there’s not too much that can be said about the work. The true magnitude of the impact of this album cannot be overstated.
On Nov. 4, the same day Dylan is scheduled to perform the first of a three-night stand at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Minneapolis, Columbia/Legacy will release The Bootleg Series Vol. 11: The Basement Tapes Complete, a monstrous six CDs with all useable and available recordings from the original sessions, including 30 songs which have never found their way onto any of the bootleg releases. They’ll also release a two-disc companion compilation containing highlights from the complete session entitled The Basement Tapes Raw. The 2009 remastered version of the original double album The Basement Tapes is still in print, available, and totally awesome.
Bill DeVille: I’ve always enjoyed Desire. To me, it’s an underrated gem. It’s loaded with strong story-songs like the protest classic “Hurricane,” Dylan’s passionate account of boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter’s murder charges. It also features the symbolic travelogue “Isis” and the mobster tale “Joey.” Emmylou Harris’s voice and Scarlet Rivera’s gypsy fiddle are lovely companions on tracks like “Mozambique” and “Black Diamond Bay.”
Luke Taylor: Bob Dylan’s 18th studio album, Street-Legal, is a very different kind of Dylan record. Released against the ubiquitous pop and disco of 1978, Street-Legal borrows heavily from pop and soul, with a full band, saxophone and a trio of female backing vocalists on each track.
Although the overall sound of Street-Legal is a departure, there are tunes on here that are recognizably Dylanesque, like “No Time to Think,” with its substrate of guitar-led chord progression and a political undercurrent to the lyrics. “Baby Stop Crying” seems an evolved “Like a Rolling Stone”, as if it somehow emerged from the fadeout of that song some 13 years on, gathering no moss but collecting sax and singers along the way. Other songs drift pretty far afield; the track “Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)”, for instance, seems a cousin to Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard’s cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty.”
If anything, Street-Legal is an interesting study in differing trans-Atlantic tastes. The album was generally panned in the U.S., with a few critics unfairly pinning what they saw as substandard work to financial obligations in Dylan’s personal life. Conversely, Street-Legal earned praise in the U.K., with “Baby Stop Crying” ending up high in the charts and the record itself eventually becoming Dylan’s best-selling album in Britain.
Bringing it back to The Current, Street-Legal reminds me of a photo shoot in April 2009 where photographer John Nicholson and I met David Campbell and David Safar in the alley behind the Fitzgerald Theater to shoot some photos for the recast Local Show. The location was chosen because John and I were going for an earnest, urban look. David Campbell laughed and said, “Oh — like the cover of Street-Legal!”
Slow Train Coming (1979)
Mark Wheat: I had never had a “Dylan phase” in my musical evolution as a teenager. In the U.K., we were more detached from his legacy.
Released in the summer of my first year at college, amid the heavy onslaught of punk that I was a big fan of, it’s strange to me that this was the first Dylan album I brought. Perhaps fueled by the anarchistic spirit of punk as a politics major I was bemused as to why the great “protest singer” of the sixties was turning, apparently, towards Christianity and a certain kind of conservatism.
On “When You Gonna Wake Up” indeed, he sings, “strengthen the things that remain,” musing that it can’t be good for America to have “sheiks walking round dressed like kings,” buying up everything with their oil money. But perhaps I was only interested because he had Mark Knopfler playing guitar for him! Knopfler had just broken through with the first Dire Straits album, and his tone and lead playing on Slow Train Coming still sound marvelous. The Muscle Shoals horns are on here too, and Jerry Wexler produced it. I now know that those are major calling cards also.
But I think the most poignant memory I have of experiencing this album was the questions of spirituality that it brought up. I had come from a non-religious background in the most pagan part of the U.K., so I hadn’t asked myself any questions about who I should serve. So when one of the canon gods of popular music kicked off his new album with “Gotta Serve Somebody” I was like…really, even if you’re Dylan? The album resonated so much with me that I still remember that my one line impression of Dylan was to exaggeratedly sing “I’m too b-uh-lind to seeeeeee ya” from the second track, “Precious Angel.”
If the album was supposed to convert you to the ideas of Christianity, though, it didn’t take hold of me. Nor, completely, we have to assume did it stick with Dylan. This is the first in a trilogy of albums that are lumped together as his “Christian period” and are often forgotten now in reconsideration of his body of work. (Indeed, a best-of put out in 2007 ignores everything between 1976 and 1997.) As a fan of his music it would be a mistake to never listen to this album: it has some very fine songs that stand the test of time, “Slow Train” for one, which seems to predict a lot of the world confusion that is only now materializing. And it certainly doesn’t have a preachy tone. In fact, “I Believe In You” and others could be read as simple love songs to someone who had made the great man think and question himself—a good exercise for all of us.
Jay Gabler: While Slow Train Coming impressed many, those fans who were concerned that Bob Dylan’s enthusiastic embrace of evangelical Christianity would adversely affect his music must have dropped their heads to their turntables when Dylan came boogying out on Saved with the title track, an excruciating Elvis-in-Vegas big-band rave-up. The record only gets more difficult from there, for reasons that have nothing to do with its subject matter and everything to do with its poverty of imagination and thematic flatness. The songs are mediocre Gospel, and Dylan sounds — ironically — lost.
Still, Dylan is Dylan, and other performers have made cases for this material. The 2003 album Gotta Serve Somebody — in which songs from Saved and Slow Train Coming are covered by artists such as the Sounds of Blackness, Shirley Caesar, and Aaron Neville — is revelatory, the aural equivalent of wrapping Linus’s blanket around Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree. These songs weren’t so bad after all…they just needed a little love.
That love, unfortunately, is little in evidence on the plodding Saved. A common interpretation of “Like a Rolling Stone” has it that Dylan was essentially directing the angry, restless lyrics at himself. Listening to “Are You Ready,” the final song on Saved, I had a similar impression. At the end of a personally painful, artistically hot-and-cold decade, Dylan sure must have felt like he needed a savior. God, however, helps those who help themselves.
Shot of Love (1981)
Jay Gabler: Someone gave Dylan a shot of something, because he sounds artistically reinvigorated on this complex, even catchy collection. After the studio sheen of Slow Train Coming and the muddy rock-gospel of Saved, on Shot of Love he returned to the appealingly shambling sound he perfected with the Band. He also backed off from the explicit, didactic preaching of Saved and reintroduced the surprises and ambiguities that make Dylan Dylan.
It seems significant that the only song from these sessions Dylan chose to include on his 1994 Greatest Hits Vol. 3 collection is “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar,” a song that didn’t appear on the original album: it was released as the b-side to “Heart of Mine” (a breezy light-rock ballad in the vein of “Precious Angel”), and was then added to the album sequence when Shot of Love was issued on CD.
A song that feels so epic it’s hard to believe it’s only four minutes long, “Groom’s Still Waiting” brings Dylan’s Gospel period full-circle to connect with the Biblical imagery that had appeared in his songs since the 60s. The song begins, “Prayed in the ghetto with my face in the cement/ Heard the last moan of a boxer, seen the massacre of the innocent,” and goes on to mix apocalyptic declarations with intimations of romantic dissolution.
In theme and mood, it’s similar to “Foot of Pride,” a towering Infidels outtake that was released on the first Bootleg Series collection; when Lou Reed covered “Foot of Pride” at Dylan’s 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration, it was a reminder of how the likes of Reed and Patti Smith were using Dylan’s work as the foundation of their seminal recordings just as Dylan’s Christian phase was beginning.
The trilogy of albums drawing heavily on explicitly Christian themes came to an end with the final track on Shot of Love, “Every Grain of Sand.” A tender, humble ballad full of poetic imagery, “Every Grain of Sand” is widely considered one of the finest songs of Dylan’s career — as well as perhaps the only song that shows what could happen if Dylan’s full gifts were trained on the faith he’d devoted so much substandard material to. The song was performed by Emmylou Harris and Sheryl Crow at the funeral of Johnny Cash, cementing its status as an American classic.
Jay Gabler: Though Bob Dylan had already released two albums in years beginning with 1-9-8, it was with Infidels that he really entered the ’80s. On the cover he wears a pair of the Wayfarers that he helped make iconic in the ’60s and were again trendy thanks to Tom Cruise; inside, producer Mark Knopfler gave the album a mainstream studio sheen that made Infidels more commercial-sounding than any album Dylan had ever released.
Both the sound and the largely secular subject matter made for a marked break with the “Christian trilogy” of albums that had preceded Infidels, and Dylan’s fans welcomed the change with open arms. Epic opener “Jokerman” was hailed as a true return to form, and politically-charged numbers like “License to Kill” delighted those who had been waiting for Dylan to return to topical songs.
Infidels still has its fans — it’s often called Dylan’s best album of the ’80s — but it can also be heard as a harbinger for a decade that produced more mediocre Dylan material than any other. I’ll take a “Big Yellow Taxi” cover any day over an thuddingly obvious, emptily rocking original like “Union Sundown.” There was to be more — a lot more — where that came from.
Still, there’s definitely some gold on Infidels, from the aforementioned “Jokerman” to the sweetly melodic “Don’t Fall Apart On Me Tonight” to the mystical “I and I,” which received a ripping treatment on 1984’s Real Live, Dylan’s most underrated live recording.
For Dylan superfans, though, Infidels is most notable for a song that wasn’t on it: “Blind Willie McTell,” a stunning composition that many consider one of the best songs Dylan ever wrote. Though it was recorded in the Infidels sessions, it was cut from the final album sequence and wasn’t released until the first Bootleg Series in 1991. Why? Because…Dylan, man. He does what he wants.
Empire Burlesque (1985)
Walt Dizzo: The hard part of listening to Bob Dylan’s 1985 record Empire Burlesque is that you already know what brilliant Bob Dylan albums sound like. I know that may seem harsh, but when a guy makes transcendent and timeless-sounding records, it’s tough not to notice the obvious attempt at trying to sound contemporary. Of course, 30 years later, we can look back and say that yes, indeed, this sounds like an ’80s record.
Pop in the cassette and press play and you’re greeted with the gospel-tinged “Tight Connection To My Heart,” featuring famed Jamaican rhythm section Sly & Robbie as well as a great female trio adding vocal depth to Dylan’s lyrics (one of the back-up voices you hear belongs to Carol Dennis, who would become Dylan’s second wife from 1986 to 1992). This song sets a historically-noted trend with Dylan borrowing quotes from movies and television on this record, maybe most famously a line in this song that also appeared in an early episode of Star Trek (yes, really).
The album continues with a mélange of clichéd lyrics and movie dialogue lessened by over-the-top production. However, these aren’t all bad songs. Really, it’s almost unfair to compare Dylan with Dylan. “I’ll Remember You” has some solid lines, but that echo effect on the vocals grows old fast and the track would have benefitted from a more stripped-down take (which could be said for most all the songs on Empire Burlesque).
Dylan is joined by sometime collaborator Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones on the Vietnam-War-inspired “Clean Cut Kid,” a track with a sharp political commentary paired with upbeat music. I’d love to hear an updated 2014 version of this song performed in the folk style of Dylan’s earliest musical role models.
This album is full of guest performances by solid studio musicians including Mike Campbell, Howie Epstein, and Benmont Tench of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers. However, not all of the collaborations work quite so smoothly. Guest vocalist (and future Dylan mother-in-law) Madelyn Quebec of the Raelettes, who backed up Ray Charles in the 80s, shares vocals duties with Dylan on “Something’s Burning, Baby,” but the result sounds like a karaoke duet where only one of the performers has previously heard the song.
There are some solid Dylan songs on this record, but Empire Burlesque suffers the same fate as most albums that attempt to sound contemporary — they just don’t hold up. For a peek into some of Dylan’s highlights from this era listen to the earlier version of “When the Night Comes Falling From The Sky” featuring studio help from Steve Van Zandt and Roy Bittan of the E Street Band, which is available on Dylan’s 1991 Bootleg Series box set.
I’d also advocate for a listen to some of the great covers of these mid-80s Dylan songs. For example, the O’Jays recorded two versions of “Emotionally Yours” and more recently the ATO Records compilation “Bob Dylan in the 80s” features some great covers including Dawn Landes and Bonnie “Prince” Billy teaming up to cover Empire Burlesque’s closing number “Dark Eyes,” and Lucius performing their unique take on “When the Night Comes Falling From the Sky.”
Knocked Out Loaded (1986)
Mac Wilson: One of the paradoxes of Bob Dylan is that almost nobody has actually heard everything he’s recorded. It could be argued that only his most fervent, long-tenured fans have dug into every one of his releases; for the rest of us, there will always be holes and blind spots. In a way, this is enticing, as there’s always the possibility that your favorite Bob Dylan song is still buried on an obscurities compilation, or one of his overlooked ’80s albums. It was for this reason that I volunteered to review Knocked Out Loaded: I’d never heard it before writing this review.
The record opens with a cover of Junior Parker’s “You Wanna Ramble,” sounding much like the territory of bluesy reinterpretation that he’d explore — to great acclaim — in the 2000s. Kris Kristofferson’s “They Killed Him,” with its litany of slain historical figures, lays down the territory more famously covered by XTC on “The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead.” One of the highlights is “Driftin’ Too Far from Shore,” one of only two Dylan solo compositions on the record, with its endearingly 80s pop production (he rhymes the title phrase with “whore” quite often, to give you an idea of his creativity on that front). The gospel standard “Precious Memories” comes with steel drums, and side one is rounded out by “Maybe Someday.”
“Brownsville Girl” is the longest song on the album by a wide margin (11 minutes) and is a collaboration with Pulitzer-winning playwright Sam Shepard (who was then a Stillwater resident, married to Minnesota native Jessica Lange). It’s a rambling number, with call-and-response backing vocals and several shoutouts to Gregory Peck. “Got My Mind Made Up” features songwriting contributions from Tom Petty, and “Under Your Spell” is co-written by Carole Bayer Sager (!); all three aforementioned songs are unremarkable, though the melody of “Under Your Spell” is decent.
There isn’t an established thread to be had on Knocked Out Loaded, whether lyrical or musical, with the exception of his female backing vocalists, who are utilized in a fashion reminiscent of later-period Leonard Cohen. If you can extract meaning from these vocalists, more power to you; otherwise, Knocked Out Loaded is an occasionally entertaining, yet slight, entry in Dylan’s library.
Down in the Groove (1988)
Jay Gabler: Dylan for beer commercials — which is to say, not really for anyone at all. The kindest interpretation of this album is that everyone involved thought they were making Love and Theft: the resonant roots-rock album Dylan would release 13 years later. One thing to be said for Down in the Groove: this is Dylan at his peppiest. If you don’t like Dylan because you think he’s too dour, check out his rollicking take on “Silvio,” the only song on this album that proved to have legs. Even Dylan’s take on “Rank Strangers to Me,” the famously bleak Albert E. Brumley classic, burbles along amiably.
As with Knocked Out Loaded, for Down in the Groove Dylan experimented extensively with covers and songwriting collaborations — to similarly disappointing effect. Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter helped out with “Silvio” and “Ugliest Girl in the World”; the blah Together Through Life (2009), in which Hunter collaborated on almost every song, later proved that the lack of alchemy here was no fluke. The album’s several covers are listenable, but uninspired: in that sense, Down in the Groove is Dylan II, an album that nobody wanted or needed.
There are actually two bands here — one led by session vet Danny Kortchmar and the other featuring Steve Jones (the Sex Pistols) and Paul Simonon (the Clash) — but as Robert Christgau noted in his review, the two bands are “indistinguishable.” Dylan had become “forever professional,” noted Christgau, whereas Dylan’s previous cover-filled disappointment Self Portrait “was at least weird.” When Rolling Stone ran a 2007 feature on great artists’ worst albums, Down in the Groove won (dis)honors for Dylan.
Besides that dubious distinction, Down in the Groove is notable for having launched Dylan’s “Neverending Tour”: he started touring in support of this album, and basically never stopped.
Oh Mercy (1989)
Jay Gabler: There are people who don’t agree that Oh Mercy is Bob Dylan’s best album of the ’80s, and those people are crazy. This is the most coherent, absorbing, moving new body of work Dylan had released since at least Desire, maybe even since Blood on the Tracks. Recording in New Orleans with Daniel Lanois — an experience recollected in Dylan’s book Chronicles Vol. 1 — Dylan got his groove back, or rather, got out of the deep groove he’d been in for most of the decade.
Oh Mercy is the album that pointed the way towards Dylan’s even greater artistic comeback — also with Lanois — several years later on Time Out of Mind. Lanois takes a firm hand here as producer, embedding Dylan in Lanois’s signature swampy sound, where Dylan sounds right at home. Taking a sharp turn from the increasingly generic-sounding rock albums he’d been releasing, on Oh Mercy Dylan — 48 years old when the album was released — discovered the new style of singing that would become his standby for the remainder of his career: a haunted, almost spoke-sung rasp that casts his youthful faux-kie twang in a dark, bluesy style that perfectly suits the older man Dylan was then becoming.
The album asserts itself from the first notes of opening track “Political World”: some atmospheric guitar picking, followed by a rattle of percussion and then a tight groove. Finally, Dylan appears, sounding like a gnarled sage. “We live in a political world,” he declares. “Love don’t have any place. We’re living in times when men commit crimes, and crime don’t have a face.” Then the track really kicks into gear, and long-suffering Dylan fans must have wept for joy at the glory of it all.
The album isn’t without its weaker lyrical moments: “Disease of Conceit” is a didactic bore, and there was to be more where that came from on the following year’s Under the Red Sky. For the most part, though, the album is remarkably consistent, and a number of the songs are among Dylan’s best. The first side has the epic “Man in the Long Black Coat” and “Ring Them Bells,” which Joan Baez — poignant as always — made the title track of a 1995 live album. The second side opens with the devastating one-two punch of “Most of the Time” and “What Good Am I?” The album closes with the wistful “Shooting Star,” an open and sincere ballad that Dylan pulls off masterfully.
With Oh Mercy, the long strange trip that was Dylan in the ’80s came to an end, pointing the way towards very good things to come.
Under the Red Sky (1990)
Jay Gabler: In December 1990, I was 15 years old. We were having a family cookie bake at my aunt Betsy’s townhouse, and Under the Red Sky was on. When the album ended, Aunt Betsy skipped over to the stereo. “Ooh! Did we run out of Bob Dylan?”
A devout reader of the music press, I pointed out that the album had been very poorly reviewed. “Well, I love it!” said Betsy. “And this is my favorite song!” She pressed play and went back to the cookies as Dylan growled “Wiggle Wiggle.”
Maybe it’s because I love my aunt that I came to appreciate this album as a guilty pleasure, or maybe there genuinely is a case to be made for the elegant title track and the surly fun Dylan has with “Unbelievable” and “Cat’s in the Well.” Dylan himself seems to be a defender of this material too: tracks from the album routinely show up in his set lists. It’s pretty much me and Bob and Betsy against the world on this one, though, and in fact it’s precisely the fact that it’s one of the few Dylan albums you’d ever consider as the soundtrack to a Christmas cookie bake (actually, most people would probably choose it over Dylan’s actual Christmas album) that a lot of people find off-putting.
Producer Don Was plays the anti-Lanois, and the album credits are a who’s-who of people you’d never want to hear on a Bob Dylan album: Elton John, Bruce Hornsby, David Crosby, and so forth. George Harrison, Stevie Ray Vaughn (!), and Slash (!!) all play on the album, but you’ll listen in vain for any barn-burning guitar duels. Songs like “10,000 Men,” “2 x 2,” and “Handy Dandy” boogie by with minimal lyrical content, and “T.V. Talkin’ Song” is an anti-television tirade that’s up there with “Union Sundown” and “Disease of Conceit” among Dylan’s worst would-be topical songs of the era. “Your mind is your temple/ Keep it beautiful and free/ Don’t let an egg get laid in it/ By something you can’t see.”
Egg-layer, heal thyself.
Good As I Been To You (1992), World Gone Wrong (1993)
Jay Gabler: Released back to back in subsequent years of the early ’90s, Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong represented Dylan getting into the spirit of the unplugged era. As many listeners pointed out at the time, they were the albums that much of Dylan’s original fan base had wished he’d made instead of going electric 30 years earlier: solo acoustic records (his first since Another Side of Bob Dylan) featuring exclusively covers of folk and blues nuggets. Both albums were recorded in Dylan’s garage studio at his Malibu (!) home using a very simple recording setup; the audible hiss on World Gone Wrong inspired false rumors that Dylan had mastered the album from cassette.
So closely miked you can almost hear Dylan’s stomach growling, these albums spotlight Dylan’s skills as an interpreter. World Gone Wrong is the stronger of the two, with Dylan seeming to have figured out what was working for him: mournful ballads like the title track and “Blood in My Eyes.” On both discs, though, it’s the story songs that really pack a punch: tales of love and death (and, often, the sea) like “Canadee-I-O” (Good As I Been To You), “Love Henry,” and “Jack-a-Roe” (both World Gone Wrong). We also get Dylan’s takes on blues standards like “Frankie & Albert” (Good As I Been To You), “Delia,” and “Stack a Lee” (both World Gone Wrong). Good As I Been To You ends with a six-and-a-half-minute version of “Froggie Went a Courtin’.” Uh-huh.
Listening back, these albums sound like Dylan cleansing his palate — and ours — between the excesses of the ’80s and the artistic breakthrough he would achieve with his next studio album, Time Out of Mind. While he was in an acoustic state of mind, he also played a masterful MTV Unplugged session that’s available as a video and an album; his measured, rich, and insightful performances of songs from across his career confirmed that after a decade when he often seemed adrift, Dylan in the ’90s was an artist who knew where he’d been — and where he was going.
Time Out of Mind (1997)
Andrea Swensson: Widely regarded as Bob Dylan’s “comeback album,” Time Out of Mind came after a long creative drought. The album featured his first original work since the poorly received Under the Red Sky in 1990, and was a reunion of sorts for Dylan and the producer Daniel Lanois, who also recorded his 1989 album Oh Mercy.
Although Dylan later said he didn’t like what Lanois did with the record — Dylan has self-produced every record he’s made since — Lanois’s atmospheric production became one of the defining elements of Time Out of Mind. Listening back to the record now, it’s also obvious how influential the aesthetic of the album has been on contemporary artists. Recent albums from the War on Drugs and Ryan Adams sound like they could have been recorded in the same studio using the same setup.
And culturally, the success of Time Out of Mind put Dylan back in the public eye for the first time in years. The song “Love Sick,” especially, took on a life of its own — it was featured prominently in a Victoria’s Secret ad, and it was the song Dylan was singing on the Grammys when performance artist Michael Portnoy tore off his shirt and writhed around the stage with the words “soy bomb” scrawled across his chest. What ever happened to Soy Bomb, anyway?
Love and Theft (2001)
Jay Gabler: In a horrific coincidence, Love and Theft was released on Sept. 11, 2001. Though it didn’t become the source of solace that U2’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind was for many, and it couldn’t have (nor would Dylan have) addressed the day’s events as directly as Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising, it still resonated with the grim yet hopeful national mood in that sadly epochal year. Backed by his crack touring band, Dylan dug into the dark depths of Americana he’d been plumbing for decades to come up with an album that jumps from past to present, from myth to reality, as eccentrically and as effectively as John Wesley Harding.
Also, it rocks. Despite all the blandly upbeat four-on-the-floor arrangements of Dylan’s 80s work, Love and Theft hurtles forward with the kind of barn-burning abandon we hadn’t heard on a Dylan studio album since Highway 61. The swiftest kick comes with “Summer Days,” which has become a late-set live staple for Dylan and features the well-played Great Gatsby reference (Fitzgerald being a fellow Minnesota expat):
She’s looking into my eyes, she’s holding my hand
She says, “You can’t repeat the past.” I say, “You can’t? What do you mean,
you can’t? Of course you can.”
Elsewhere on the album, there’s the exquisitely wistful ballad “Mississippi,” the rambunctious “High Water (For Charley Patton)” (“I got a cravin’ love for blazing speed/ Got a hopped-up Mustang Ford/ Jump into the wagon, love, throw your panties on the board”), the charging “Honest With Me,” and the seven-minute closer “Sugar Baby.” Love and Theft is also a vaudeville show of bad jokes, pastiches, and tall tales. It’s quintessential Dylan, and it’s kind of a miracle.
Modern Times (2006)
Jay Gabler: In 2006, I was feeling like the download era wasn’t giving me the kind of intense new-album experiences I’d have back when I’d buy new CDs and listen to them over and over. Modern Times was released just as I was heading to London for a week, so I loaded that album, and only that album, on my iPod Shuffle and off I went. I listened to the album over and over as I walked around London, and I was amazed at how well the album held up. Eight years later, it still does.
While less musically varied than its eclectic predecessor Love and Theft, Modern Times ranges from the gentle lilt of “Beyond the Horizon” to the boogie of “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” to the minimalist melancholy of “Nettie Moore.” Each song creates a world of its own, and it’s clear that Dylan didn’t waste the half-decade between Theft and Times: the lyrics are diamond-sharp, starting with raucous opener “Thunder on the Mountain.” The song bursts with the kind of exuberant non sequitur humor we’d hardly heard from Dylan since the 60s. When Dylan sings, “I got the porkchops, she got the pie/ She ain’t no angel and neither am I,” it’s easy to imagine that he’s still keeping time with the junkyard angel he used to drive around in his Buick 6.
Modern Times marked the end of what’s become known as a comeback trilogy that started with Time Out of Mind. One of the things that makes the three albums so special is that they all benefit from Dylan’s life experience: the songs are pervaded with wistful and wry reflections on the past as well as an acute awareness of how precious the present is. On the stunning ballad “When the Deal Goes Down,” Dylan sings, “More frailer than the flowers, these precious hours/ That keep us so tightly bound.”
The album’s final song, the apocalyptic “Ain’t Talkin’,” seems almost to come from beyond the grave, with the narrator wandering a wrecked and lonely landscape: “the last outback at the world’s end.” The end is indeed near, and Modern Times captures that sense with a deep poignance and abiding lyricism. What comes after the world’s end? Nothing good, deadpans Dylan in “Spirit on the Water”:
I wanna be with you in paradise
And it seems so unfair
I can’t go to paradise no more
I killed a man back there.
Together Through Life (2009)
Jay Gabler: Bob Dylan’s known for making albums that are obsessively loved and just as passionately hated, but he’s not known for being boring. Together Through Life is the exception that proves the rule: a musically and lyrically bland collection of songs on ancient themes that gain no new resonance on this competent but completely unexceptional outing.
What is typical of Dylan is making inexplicable decisions, like — in this case — choosing to embark upon an album-length collaboration with a lyricist whom he’d worked with on what’s often called the single worst album of his career. Robert Hunter, best known for his work with the Grateful Dead (“Dark Star,” “Friend of the Devil,” “Truckin’”), co-wrote all but one of the album’s songs with Dylan, resulting in lyrics that are at best forgettable and at worst wince-worthy. (“The door has closed forevermore/ If, indeed, there ever was a door.”)
The two most enjoyable tracks on this largely forgettable slump are opener “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’,” a bleak shuffle that would have fit well on Modern Times; and the concluding “It’s All Good,” a play on the then-popular phrase. That song’s at least as peppy and well-written as the material on, say, Under the Red Sky. By the end of this dreary disc, unfortunately that’s a compliment.
Christmas in the Heart (2009)
Jay Gabler: If there’s such a thing as a Dylan “brand,” Christmas in the Heart is both the most off-brand and the most on-brand album of his career. Off-brand because it’s impossible to imagine the Dylan of Don’t Look Back making a straightforward Christmas album, and on-brand because one of the things that defines Dylan is being completely undefinable.
This album would come across differently even if Dylan had made it four decades earlier, during the Self-Portrait phase when he was recording orchestral covers and experimenting with a very different voice than that which made him famous. Then, it might have been seen as of a piece with a period of his career. Instead, though, this album came after Dylan’s much-lauded comeback, when he was a gnarled old bard whose voice was veering towards Leonard Cohen territory.
That’s the voice he uses on Christmas in the Heart, and it sounded completely nuts in 2009. To understand what he saw in this material, we had to wait several more years, until he took a very deep dive into the Great American Songbook. Those songs and arrangements fit closely with what he was getting at with Christmas in the Heart, and make clear that the debate over whether or not the holiday album was a big joke is over. This album may or may not be your cup of tea, but Dylan wasn’t trolling. If anything, he was elf-ing.
Mac Wilson: As with all of his late-period works, Bob Dylan’s Tempest has the spirit of old age and death all over it. It’s also, for my money, the warmest and most engaging record he’s made in the last 20 years, along with probably Love and Theft.
“Duquesne Whistle” is one of the most easygoing songs about impending death that you’ll ever hear; it initially seemed odd as a lead single, but it’s grown over the last two years into a fitting opener to the record. “Pay in Blood” and “Narrow Way” are particularly fine examples of tracks that manage to be engaging over long track lengths. (Has anyone done an in-depth analysis on just how many Dylan songs are particularly lengthy? I am guessing his per-capita number of long songs represents the upper end of the popular canon, to the point of being an outlier.)
The three songs which have always endeared Tempest to me are the closing trifecta of stories: “Tin Angel,” “Tempest,” and “Roll On John.” “Tin Angel” is an intricate murder ballad, packed with detail, to the point where one is amazed that Dylan’s imagination is still capable of sparking such rich storytelling. Similarly, “Tempest” is a 14-minute depiction of the sinking of the Titanic, mixing fact, legend, and outright fiction into a singular perspective on the disaster. “Roll On John” is a tribute to the legends of music, notably John Lennon. These three songs combine to fill a full half-hour of running time, but also make for the most memorable sequence on the record.
Tempest feels like a career closer for Dylan, even though he brusquely refuted such notions when the album was released. As is, it’s a late-career monument whose reputation should only grow with time.
Shadows in the Night (2015), Fallen Angels (2016), and Triplicate (2017)
Jay Gabler: Three albums, three years, five discs, 52 songs, two hours and 45 minutes. Not an original song among them. Many of the songs were made famous by Frank Sinatra, and all of them derive from the “Great American Songbook” era, when composers like Irving Berlin and Harold Arlen were penning the songs that would define what “popular music” meant before the rock and roll revolution.
Dylan is now 76, and he’s had serious health issues. God willing he’ll keep making music for many years to come, but there’s no question that mortality is on his mind. If it’s better to burn out than fade away, Dylan is doing neither: in a sense he’s fading into view rather than out of view. The most famously inscrutable artist of the rock era is spending his 70s recording lucid, heart-on-sleeve renditions of the songs he heard on radios and record players as a young boy in northern Minnesota.
He’s explained this project in a couple of lengthy interviews, making clear that he doesn’t see this as a retro exercise or a soupy indulgence; rather, he’s proud of the way he and his band have dusted the cobwebs off these songs and rearranged them to remove the sleek orchestras they were originally recorded with. Like Sinata — a more important influence on Dylan, and rock singers generally, than most realize — Dylan is opening up through his song choice and phrasing, rather than through songwriting.
It’s often said about Dylan that he’s “hiding in plain sight.” In an important sense, he’s rarely been more visible than he is on these quiet late-career collections.