Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature two weeks ago. You know what that means, right? We’ve used up our One Good Thing that we’re allowed to have in 2016.
And you know what? It’s more than worth it.
This is, of course, anything but a knock against those whose names were also on the ballot. There is no shame at all attached in coming second in this line-up.
Bob Dylan’s words have had an incalculable influence on the 20th century and beyond. Popular music was never to be the same once that skinny kid from Minnesota was through with it.
Song: “Shelter from the Storm” (Live)
Forgive me for striding forward face-first into hyperbole, but there’s no way around it: this live version of “Shelter From The Storm”, recorded during the second leg of the Rolling Thunder Review in 1976 for the Hard Rain album, might be the Single Greatest Moment in music history. It is electricity, it is fire, it’s a message beamed to us from another dimension. We can do better as a species, it says, we must be able to: listen to this, we already have.
“Shelter From The Storm” of course originally appeared the previous year on Dylan’s masterpiece: Blood on the Tracks, which — ahem! — we’ll have more to say on later. That version, like most of its home album, is sparsely arranged and mellifluously delivered. There is passion and blood there, but it’s the first steps of the tapdancing raindrops on the roof. It’s the lone wanderer, huddling inside against the shifting climate, gazing out of the window, wondering when next it will be safe to venture out. Dylan, that endlessly shapeshifting mercurial spirit, famously morphs his songs live. Arrangements and delivery change, sometimes wildly. Dylan’s songs contain multitudes. Meanings and connotations glide into new positions as he rearranges the pieces. It’s one of his greatest assets as a musician. With this live version of “Shelter from the Storm” the tapdancing raindrops become a storm of Biblical proportion. Lightning lances through the riven sky and Dylan rides atop it, that relentless slide guitar his fell steed.
The obscene thing is that the album, unlike the first leg of the Rolling Thunder Revue, was not so well received critically at the time. Madness. Sheer madness. And yet there was a time once when I underrated it also, until I had the closest thing to a religious experience that I’ve yet to have in my life. It was New Year’s Eve at a house party a decade or so back. I had ended up, shall we say, ‘slightly out of sorts’. In other words: collapsed over a bucket in the garden. It was some point around midnight, and the rest of the world was by then an irrelevance to me. Fireworks sounded somewhere off in the abstract distance, but as far I was concerned it was just me, my bucket, and the slumped seating position that would be my life from then on. That is until some mad genius decided to lean two speakers out of the window overlooking the garden and use them to blast this version of “Shelter from the Storm”. It was like being doused with ice water. It enveloped my entire being and I laughed and wept and understood.
Album: Blood on the Tr—*glances down*—…Goddamit, Riley!
Album: Bringing it all Back Home
Bob Dylan’s albums cannot be separated from the history they are surrounded by. In many cases this is because they made the history around them. Much like Newport or the infamous Manchester Free Trade Hall ‘Judas’ gig, Bringing it all Back Home was a bolt from the blue, igniting and cauterizing popular music in one fell swoop. I could go on and on about the divine way the album straddles the acoustic/electric divide; the ambition of the compositions; the incredible lyrical scope — from the stream of consciousness Dadaism of “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” to the “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall”-matching apocalyptic visions of “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” — but really this is personal: this album hits me hard. As they say on the internet (wherever that is), it gets me right in the feels. Why? Two reasons, mostly: “Mr Tambourine Man”, and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”. Here’s the thing about Bob Dylan’s albums: they exist in quantum state of perfection: Whenever I try to figure out which album of his is the best, it is always the one that I’m currently
observing listening to. Then everyone else’s opinions are wrong. Until I listen to the album they’re advocating again and the wavefunction collapses and it’s obviously that one.
Nevertheless, “Mr Tambourine Man”, and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” together contain some of the most gorgeous, cascading, imaginative, emotionally resonant imagery and poetry of Dylan’s entire career, and they’ve been with me and guided me through so much shit over the years that I have to give their home album the nod here.
It’s also the one that I’m currently listening to so it must be the right answer.
Song: “Song to Woody”
“Song to Woody” is hands down the most fascinating song I’ve ever heard in my entire life. It’s one of the first songs that Dylan ever recorded, on his self-titled debut album Bob Dylan in 1962. Modeled on a Woody Guthrie tune and intended to show Dylan’s appreciation for Guthrie, it’s a love letter from a young man about to begin his career to someone who may as well have handed him the guitar he’s playing it on. The man who he came to New York specifically to meet.
Because it’s Dylan, it somehow sounds like a song that was ancient even when it was recorded, the words of an old man looking back. But it isn’t. It’s Dylan at his youngest, career-wise. It was recorded almost 55 years ago, it’s a song written by a young man who has no idea who he will be in his very near future. He doesn’t know what “Blowin’ In the Wind” will be, he sings about “Highway 51” on this same album without a clue of it being revisited. He doesn’t know he’ll cause legitimate outrage by going electric in just a few short years. It’s just a simple, heartfelt ode to a hero written by an ambitious young man with the life of Bob Dylan all still to be lived.
Album: Blood on the Tracks (Sorry Petr!)
Blood on the Tracks, if I may, might just be the single most perfect example of an album that exists not as a collection of assorted songs, but as a concentrated whole. While there are songs on it that I can listen to on their own (“Tangled Up In Blue,” “If You See Her, Say Hello,” and “Shelter From The Storm” especially), the album just thrives on being listened to from start to finish. This is the album I go to when I think about breakups, this is an open wound in a recorded audio form. At times literal and others abstract allegory, this song is a breakup. It’s every feeling, every ounce of pain, regret, anger, frustration, guilt, and shame in losing whatever it was you had with someone. It shifts from the cruelty within at least the early verses of “Idiot Wind” to the true ruefulness of mistakes made in “Say Hello.” Dylan denies that the album is directly autobiographical, and even has suggested that it’s actually a long reference to the works of Anton Chekov. But putting aside the fact that Dylan loves to lie about his work and touts the fact that he tries on different faces every day, even as an entirely fictionalized breakup album, the pathos is still real.