Friday, October 19, 2012

Reviews That Do Not Add Up, Vol. 2: A Bob Dylan Three-pack!

The Good: Generally great lyrics, Voice, Sound
The Bad: Music becomes repetitive by the end of the set, Later lyrics are not as inspired
The Basics: When the three albums after Dylan's debut are put together in a no-frills boxed set, the listener is provided with a declining musical experience of little real value.

When I reviewed the cinematic releases of The Lord Of The Rings films (reviewed here!) and I realized that the parts were not averaging out to the whole and I decided sometimes when we rate anthologies of works, the sum is different from the parts. I find that to be true of three of Bob Dylan's earliest recordings (his second through fourth albums) which have been anthologized in a convenient package at a special lower price than the three discs on their own!

Given that some think I ought to be reviewing based on the reputation of Bob Dylan, as opposed to what I actually hear on the discs, allow me to preface this review by saying that I review based on what I hear, not by how other people enshrine our rock and roll legends. As a result, listening to this three pack quickly becomes a more mediocre experience than I might have enjoyed from Bob Dylan.

This collection of three Bob Dylan recordings includes the albums The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, The Times They Are A-Changin' and Another Side Of Bob Dylan, which easily establish Dylan as a singer songwriter of some talent and diction. In this collection of classic folk-rock music, the listener is treated to such classics as "Blowin' In The Wind," "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," "The Times They Are A-Changin'," "With God On Our Side," and "It Ain't Me Babe," which are pretty much indispensable Dylan classics that illustrate his ability to write (and sing) music.

It ought to be mentioned that this is simply a bundle pack. The albums that are in this anthology are identical to the original releases, there are no bonus tracks, no special booklets, no alternative takes. What the listener gets is a collection of thirty-four tracks clocking in at approximately two hours and forty-five minutes of studio recorded tracks that help to establish Bob Dylan as a strong singer-songwriter. The vast majority of the songs in this collection are written by Bob Dylan.

The lyrical quality of these songs makes it easy to see why Bob Dylan is considered a legend. Yet, the imagery and meaning he presents is somewhat erratic as the collection goes on. Take, for example, the first song in the collection, "Blowin' In The Wind," where Dylan asks the listener, "How many roads must a man walk down /Before you call him a man? / Yes, 'n' how many seas must a white dove sail / Before she sleeps in the sand? / Yes, 'n' how many times must the cannon balls fly / Before they're forever banned? / The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind." It is a poem, set to music, a bold series of questions that utilizes great imagery and expresses a clear theme and mood and makes a statement that is timeless.

As the process goes on and Dylan sheds is covers of anyone else's works or his reinterpretations of traditional songs, his writing takes a turn that is less poetic and often less powerful. So, for example, near the end of the collection comes the humorous song "Motorpsycho Nitemare," and if you're only a casual (or non) listener to the works of Bob Dylan, it's no surprise if you haven't heard of this song. This is a comedic song by Dylan that attempts to tell a story and use humor to satirize middle america. Instead of the timeless quality of "Blowin' In The Wind," he engages the redneck stereotype of rural America with a protagonist who escapes being seduced by a farmer's daughter by getting the farmer enraged with lines like "I said, 'I like Fidel Castro I think you heard me right' / And I ducked as he swung / At me with all his might / Rita mumbled something / 'Bout her mother on the hill / As his fist hit the icebox / He said he's going to kill me / If I don't get out of the door / In two seconds flat / 'You unpatriotic / Rotten doctor Commie rat'" ("Motorpsycho Nitemare"). Certainly, the situations and goals of each song are different, but the level of diction just isn't there in the latter song and that is indicative of the collection; the best works come earliest, with the writing being more poignant, tight and worthwhile in the earliest songs.

This is not to say the latter songs are badly written, but they do lack the poetic flair and sense of imagery and quality of early tracks. Dylan stops being florid and creative, sacrificing the imagery of poems for the harsh reality of straightforward storytelling (in song form). Hearing the albums, one wonders why Dylan went in that direction when he was able to evoke powerful emotions for the political and the personal with his early sense of imagery.

Thematically, though, this collection is a horrible assembly. The collection is lopsided as it begins as a pleasant mix between the personal and the political, takes a hard turn toward being almost entirely political songs - some of which might seem a little dated now - and then a hard turn to songs that are only about relationships. In other words, the balance that Dylan found on the first of these albums is entirely lost on the two that follow, making it a somewhat weird assemblage of songs. The result is that the only truly binding element between the albums is the time period (and the cardboard wrapper that binds the three discs together!).

Throughout this collection, there is a very unified sense of musical sound. Bob Dylan presents his musical poems with his voice, guitar and harmonica. That's all. It's a very stark and precise sound, underproduced and simple. The problem is, when you're two instruments strong and the same voice throughout, the limitations of sound soon become evident. There is a very repetitive sense of music over the course of the thirty-four tracks. Sure, Dylan changes it up with tempo, so there are rousing chant-like songs like "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" and ballads like "Blowin' In The Wind," but musically, there are a lot of similarities in the sounds of the various songs. "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" uses essentially the same chords (in nearly the same ways!) as "It Ain't Me Babe" does later in the collection. There are several blues songs (four explicitly referenced as "Blues" in the titles) over the course of the collection and they have great similarities musically. The lyrics might be completely different and imaginative, but the sound, the variety of music presented by Dylan quickly begins to seem limited. The ear craves for something more.

Which leads us to the vocal performances of Bob Dylan. Dylan's music starts articulate, clear and distinct (much the way The BeeGee's started out with more of a folk-rock song before going falsetto, as evidenced on their great album Their Greatest Hits: The Record). Indeed, at the outset of this collection, Dylan is a singing storyteller who could be pretty much any folk singer of the time. He has a great sense of diction that sung with conviction, grace and precision of articulation. The common parody of Dylan being a mumbling, incomprehensible performer, is far from the sound presented in the first half of this collection.

The problem is, as the collection progresses, the first hints of that Dylan, who Dylan becomes stereotypically, are revealed. Later tracks like "To Ramona" are drawled out in a way that seems like exactly like those who have heard OF Dylan would expect. The gradual transformation into a somehow less articulate singer, combined with the declining quality of some of the later lyrics, creates a sense of descent over the course of the anthology.

That is problematic, but if this were a single album, I would certainly say that it is frontloaded - i.e. all the best tracks are put at the beginning. It's true. The first album in this collection is the best and the other two albums are not great, lending little overall value to this complete collection. The best songs on the later discs are on far better anthologies or collections. That's, ultimately, why this three pack is only worth it for the completist fans of Bob Dylan and not those who want a collection of his best works.

The best songs in this collection might well be "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" (one of the top five Dylan songs ever!), "The Times They Are A-Changin'," and "It Ain't Me Babe," with the low points being "Oxford Town" and most everything else after "Only A Pawn In Their Game."

For other Bob Dylan reviews, be sure to check out my takes on:
The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan
The Times They Are A-Changin’
Another Side Of Bob Dylan


For other music reviews, be sure to visit my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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