The Good: Amazing lyrics, Moments of vocals
The Bad: Musically unimaginative, Short
The Basics: Bob Dylan's classic album The Times They Are A-Changin’ is burdened by frontloading and plagued by songs that use licks from the title track to make a musically mundane masterpiece!
[There is a big meme in the art community going around now called "Draw This Again." In the meme, artists illustrate how they have grown in their chosen medium by putting side-by-side pictures of art they created in the past and now. My wife had the great idea that I should do something similar with my reviewing. So, for 2017, I will be posting occasional "Review This Again" reviews, where I revisit subjects I had previously reviewed and review them again, through a lens of increased age, more experience, and - for some - greater familiarity with the subject. This review is one such review, where I am re-experiencing The Times They Are A-Changin’ after many years and with more experience as both a reviewer and one who has heard much of the Bob Dylan library. The album was originally reviewed here!]
Given the vast career and amazing writing of Bob Dylan, it is hard to imagine him as a "one-hit wonder." The truth is, Dylan's music has barely been recognized by the Grammy Awards - he has almost as many Grammy Hall Of Fame awarded singles/tracks as he does actual Grammy Awards and several of the post-1980 Grammy Awards were, arguably, de facto "Lifetime Achievement" awards (Time Out Of Mind lacks the iconic tracks of The Times They Are A-Changin’!) - and he has built an enduring career out of a fanbase that continues to support him, rather than truly innovating or surprising mainstream culture. So, going back to Bob Dylan's earlier albums is an exploration in some ways of how massively American culture has changed since the 1960s. Bob Dylan might well be the embodiment of the argument of the war between art and commerce. At the forefront of that argument would have to be The Times They Are A-Changin’.
The Times They Are A-Changin’ was Bob Dylan's third studio album and coming off the previous year's platinum album, the gold The Times They Are A-Changin’ was a comparative commercial failure. Given that the title track is the first song on the album and dominates it, The Times They Are A-Changin’ has all the makings of arguing that Bob Dylan would have been a one-hit wonder if he were competing in today's market. And yet. 1964, when The Times They Are A-Changin’ was released, saw Dylan releasing two albums and building his fanbase through touring. And he has had a career that has spanned more than fifty years because he has something to say and his career was given time to find its place and for the artist to develop his sound. One has to wonder how many "one hit wonders" would have developed into the next Dylan had their careers not been cut short by labels concerned more with commerce than art . . .
All that said, The Times They Are A-Changin’ is very much a pop-folk album that is artistically the embodiment of a one-hit wonder. It is a virtually impossible task to follow-up on the quality of the song "The Times They Are A-Changin’" so any album that tried was going to be an ambitious project that was instantly hamstrung. Bob Dylan and producer Tom Wilson seemed to realize that and they put the title track right up front and hoped that people would listen beyond the first track more than once. That, as it turns out, is a tougher task than one might want to admit.
Musically, "The Times They Are A-Changin'" is the album's most complicated, memorable and richly-developed track. Bob Dylan sings, plays guitar and harmonica and he wrote a track that has a great melody to it. So, when he follows the opening song with the depressingly repetitive and simple "Ballad Of Hollis Brown" and then follows that (after a similar track) with "One Too Many Mornings" - a song that has wonderful lyrics that utilizes a number of the same musical licks (direct progressions of notes, the same tune in places!) as the first track - The Times They Are A-Changin’ becomes something of a chore to sit through.
With only ten songs, adding up to 45:36, The Times They Are A-Changin’ is short. It is, however, an embodiment of the quality of Bob Dylan's creativity as an artist and performer. Bob Dylan wrote all ten songs and he performs the primary vocals on all of the tracks as well. Dylan is also the only credited musician, playing the acoustic guitar and harmonica on the songs without additional accompaniment. The only major creative aspect he is not credited with is producing the album, but Tom Wilson seemed to help define Bob Dylan's sound and given that they continued to work together after Dylan started to achieve commercial success, it is hard to argue that he did not respect Dylan's vision for the album.
Vocally, The Times They Are A-Changin’ features Bob Dylan with a clear singing voice. There are only hints of Dylan's iconic mumbling drawl in the performances on The Times They Are A-Changin’. Instead, Bob Dylan opts for clear vocals that articulately present his lyrics. In addition to singing the words clearly, Dylan illustrates fairly decent lung capacity with holding notes on songs like "With God On Our Side," which also stretches him to the higher registers, though he performs mostly in a comfortable tenor range.
Bob Dylan has always had amazing poetics - which makes it completely understandable that he would receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. Dylan does a rare thing when he constructs a musical argument on the malleability of nationalism with "With God On Our Side." Over the course of the song, he charts the philosophical progression of being American and creating enemies to fight for the purpose of maintaining the military-industrial complex and justifying it. With lines like "Oh the history books tell it / They tell it so well / The cavalries charged / The Indians fell / The cavalries charged / The Indians died / Oh the country was young / With God on its side" ("With God On Our Side"), Dylan starts the listener down the rhetorical argument that comes full circle with an ironic question about Judas Iscariot's relationship with God!
As one might expect of Bob Dylan, much of The Times They Are A-Changin’ is political in its lines. While it might get buried as a literal b-side, Dylan has something to say on all of his songs, like "Only A Pawn In Their Game." When Dylan sings "A bullet from the back of a bush took Medgar Evers' blood / A finger fired the trigger to his name / A handle hid out in the dark / A hand set the spark / Two eyes took the aim / Behind a man's brain / But he can't be blamed / He's only a pawn in their game" ("Only A Pawn In Their Game"), he illustrates a backbone and a poetic style that is distinctive and strong.
Of course, it is virtually impossible to compete with "The Times They Are A-Changin'." The instantly memorable rhyme scheme of "Come senators, congressmen / Please heed the call / Don't stand in the doorway / Don't block up the hall / For he that gets hurt / Will be he who has stalled / There's a battle outside / And it is ragin' / It'll soon shake your windows / And rattle your walls / For the times they are a-changin" ("The Times They Are A-Changin'") creates such a distinctive, sea chanty-like tone as to make the song iconic and powerful!
That said, virtually every compilation album worth its salt will have "The Times They Are A-Changin'" on it and that makes The Times They Are A-Changin’ a tougher sell as an album. The Times They Are A-Changin’ has that song, but the dated references on the other songs are starting to age poorly and most of the rest of the tracks live in the shadow of the title track in a way that makes them forgettable. Objectively, there is quality to The Times They Are A-Changin’, but it gets a mildly positive rating more for its objective quality than being a great, listenable, album.
The best track is "The Times They Are A-Changin'," the low point is "North Country Blues."
For other Bob Dylan reviews, be sure to check out my takes on:
The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan
Another Side Of Bob Dylan
Early Album Boxed Set
Blonde On Blonde
Blood On The Tracks
No Direction Home
Love And Theft
Shadows In The Night
For other music reviews, please check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2017 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.