The Good: Some great lyrics, Some interesting performances, Valuable for history, Some decent music
The Bad: Some lousy songs, Some disappointing omissions, Some moments of voice and music.
The Basics: When Bob Dylan repackages some of his classic songs alongside newly unearthed classic tracks, he fails to find the right market that will get real value from Biograph.
As I have been working my way through my father's Bob Dylan c.d. collection, I've been interested to discover he has so many collections of Bob Dylan's works as opposed to actual albums. As I understand it, albums like Blonde On Blonde are considered classics; the only songs I've heard from the album are from the soundtrack to No Direction Home and Biograph, a massive three disc boxed set collection that has quite a bit of writing to accompany it. Unlike No Direction Home, which proved its worth ultimately by having two discs of entirely unique recordings, Biograph is a mix of studio album tracks and unreleased, live or hard-to-find (i.e. b-sides on singles) tracks.
With fifty-three tracks spread over the three discs, clocking in at well over three hours, this is an essential collection for the real Bob Dylan aficionado. But it's not at all indispensable for those who do not consider themselves diehard fans. Here's why; this set is a catalogue of obscure and unknown works or interpretations of well-known works, but it neglects a great number of well-known Bob Dylan classics that someone simply looking for a "Best Of" from Dylan's folk rock collection is likely to miss. Moreover, some of the rarities are not incredible works that will completely light the world on fire. Instead, this is a set geared toward the fans, the completists, the people who simply cannot get enough of Bob Dylan.
This is how I finally discovered I'm not one of them.
People like me, casual listeners, lovers of music, people who might just like the works of Bob Dylan we've heard before and one or two songs that didn't make the charts, are likely to do better with a straightforward "Best Of" or "Greatest Hits" album. Given that there is so much more in this set . . . it's overkill and it's a selection that is not quite what I'm looking for when I want to hear Dylan. Yes, I spent all three discs waiting to hear "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," but it's not on here!
But more than that, some of the interpretations of songs are just terrible. Rod Stewart did a better version of "Forever Young" (and I LOATHE that one now because it is SO overplayed!); Dylan's version in this collection lacks and passion, any sense of development that illustrates any sense of youth. This unreleased version - which caps off the final disc - is an uninspired interpretation that puts Dylan, his guitar and his lyrics to shame. In short, what one expects from the song is absent and while sometimes different versions can be wonderful, this is not one of them.
That said, let's look at what this pretty massive collection does right! First, it's Bob Dylan and even the most jaded people will often admit that he's a tremendous poet. Dylan is an artist who has a remarkable range of themes, but is most often able to easily sing about relationships (usually their disintegration) and politics. Whichever he is singing about, he manages to usually express his themes with a wonderful sense of imagery and a sense of diction that it well above the average singer/songwriter. As a result, though, one tends to expect a lot from Bob Dylan and his lines (if not his music or voice).
And for the most part, that is well illustrated. Take, for example, "Every Grain Of Sand," on the second disc of Biograph. (This is the release from the album "Shot Of Love.") On this song, Dylan sings about the aging and the unity of the world with lines that are beautifully poetic and packed with meaning and imagery, like "I had gone from rags to riches / In the sorrow of the night / In the violence of a summer's dream / In the chill of a wintry night . . . In the broken mirror of innocence / On each forgotten face . . ." ("Every Grain Of Sand"). If those writing the lyrics sung by Britney Spears had even a fraction of that level of creativity and thematic brilliance, she'd be huge . . . still. Her works would endure.
And this collection has a wonderful number of classic Dylan tracks (mostly the original studio versions) that illustrate his great writing. Virtually anyone who likes folk rock will enjoy "Blowin' In The Wind," "Mr. Tambourine Man," "It Ain't Me, Babe," "Tangled Up In Blue," "Like A Rollin' Stone," and "The Times They Are A-Changin'." And those of us not too familiar with the music of the '60s and '70s will be amazed to learn that the classic Jimi Hendrix song "All Along The Watchtower" was actually one of Dylan's songs! A good number of Dylan's best songs are in this collection . . . just not all of them. The ones that are represented tend to be in recognizable forms that most people will enjoy.
That said, there are some of Dylan's more mediocre songs are represented as well. "Visions Of Johanna" did not wow me and the version of "Quinn The Eskimo" did not as well. Indeed, I doubt there is a version of this song, with its lines "Everybody building the big ships and boats / . . . Everybody's in despair / Every girl and boy / But when Quinn the Eskimo gets here / Everybody'll jump for joy" ("Quinn The Eskimo") that I'm likely to truly be impressed by. These are not Dylan's best lines and it's odd that they appear in this massive collection. In short, there are a number of songs that were previously unreleased and with some of them, there seems to be a good reason for that choice!
Musically, this collection is an intriguing combination of methodically produced studio tracks and underproduced live takes and alternate versions of songs that have minimal production elements to them. For the most part, Dylan's music is Bob Dylan singing, his guitar, and/or his harmonica. On some very well known tracks like "Like A Rolling Stone" and "Mr. Tambourine Man," he adds more instruments - notably percussion and/or pianos. What this collection does better than some (and better than some of his studio albums!) is mix together the sounds of Dylan's music.
On the vocal front, this is something of a mixed bag. Biograph illustrates what Bob Dylan fans are constantly saying; Bob Dylan can sing. He has the ability, he articulates his poems extraordinarily well to his music and he can sing with a clear, crisp voice that can impress listeners who have only heard the stereotypes of Bob Dylan. Songs like "Tangled Up In Blue" illustrate in a very convincing way that Dylan can sing and he has a strong, articulate voice.
But that voice does not come through on tracks like "You Angel You." There his vocals are drown out by the background organs and percussion and obscured by his mumbling. On that track, Dylan's voice is the mumbling stereotype that is like the parodies of Dylan seen on every major sketch comedy series since Dylan started performing with the drawl and whine. And for all my love of "It Ain't Me, Babe," the song helps make the argument that Dylan does perform in that fashion. The problem on Biograph is there's a long stretch of songs with the drawly Dylan; "Million Dollar Bash," for example, follows "You Angel You" and it's even more like the parodies!
There are innumerable examples on both sides of the vocal divide on Biograph with the presentations being split about evenly between the clear and articulate singing voice of Bob Dylan and the mumbling performer. This dichotomy is not (apparently) related to the time period the tracks are from, which makes one believe it is a stylistic decision. This, of course, makes one wonder what those advising Dylan were thinking. Perhaps he was just surrounded by yesmen. My point in all of this is that Dylan CAN sing and on Biograph, there is ample evidence to support that. The problem is, Dylan doesn't always live up to his vocal potential and Biograph illustrates that well as well.
The liner notes are extensive to this album; each track has a detailed explanation of its origins and the thoughts behind it. The liner notes are written by Cameron Crowe, who wrote Almost Famous (reviewed here!). His style in the extensive booklet chronicling Dylan's rise and concepts is straightforward, informative and easy to read. Indeed, it was the quality of the writing that almost made this a "recommend" for me. As it was, it came down to a toss of a coin.
The thing about Biograph is this; there's too much obscure stuff for a casual fan and there are too many tracks for a devoted fan that would repeat what they already have in their collection. The value for the avid collector is compromised by the fact that thirty-one tracks in this set are from the studio albums in the identical forms. The fans who will get the most out of the obscure tracks will be saddled with a majority of familiar works they already have. That pretty much negates the value of Cameron Crowe's writing.
The Bootleg series is a better value for fans, the straight out "Greatest Hits" albums are a better value for the casual listeners. Indeed, this collection may only be ideal for the Dylan fan who doesn't own any of his albums. That's my best guess. It's an entertaining collection (much the way The Beatles Anthology's - volume 1 reviewed here were years ago) but not worth the buy.
"Abandoned Love" stands out as a previously unreleased track that is superlatively good, the fifty-one second "Jet Pilot" is emblematic of the tracks that we'd never miss if it hadn't seen the light of day.
For other Artist Of The Month reviews, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Any Day Now - Joan Baez
God And The F.B.I. - Janis Ian
American Favorite Ballads (Boxed Set) - Pete Seeger
For other music reviews, check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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