Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Times They Are A-Changin’, But Dylan Didn't . . .

The Good: Good lyrics, Fine singing
The Bad: Bland, unimaginative music that illustrates no growth, Short!
The Basics: Dylan's third album leaves little to no impression and the three best tracks are available elsewhere, which is where they should be found.

I've rather suddenly discovered that I like Bob Dylan. I mean, I grew up on a pretty steady diet of folk-rock music and strangely, as I have aged, I have embraced that more than rebelled against it. In fact, my rebellion against my father's music probably is liking Dylan's music and vocal presentation more than he does. I listened to Dylan's sophomore endeavor, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (reviewed here!) and genuinely enjoyed it. So, when I picked up the album that followed that, The Times They Are A-Changin’, I was, if anything, biased toward it.

The Times They Are A-Changin’ is Bob Dylan's first album that is entirely Dylan's exclusive material. All ten tracks were written and performed by Dylan and I have to assume the cover photo was chosen by him as well, because I cannot believe a record company would believe that that mug would sell records (that's not entirely a joke, but I suppose tastes change over the decades). The liner notes were written by Dylan and instead of having the traditional lyrics to the songs that are on the album, Dylan provides an epic poem about his thoughts in 1964 when the album was released. This ten-track, forty-five and a half minute album, then, represents the most pure form of musical expression from Bob Dylan to date in his (at this point) three album career. The title track is probably the best known one on the album, though as someone who grew up on folk rock, "With God On Our Side" was instantly familiar to me as well.

The problem with The Times They Are A-Changin’ is that it's nothing new. Seriously, if one were to pop in The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan and this album and let them play back to back, without knowing the tracks beforehand, a listener would not be able to reasonably pick where one album began and the other ended. While I admire consistency, especially when the quality of writing is so high, The Times They Are A-Changin’ illustrates musical stagnation with Bob Dylan. The album is what the last one was; Dylan's voice fronting his lyrics, a man with his guitar and harmonica. There is nothing that stretches Dylan on this album to be more than he was on the prior one. And while this might seem like a lot to ask from someone who had put out an album each of the two prior years (in '64 he would release two albums, this being the first), but given that the albums are fairly short and have minimal production, the context makes his lack of growth even more disturbing.

As with the prior album, The Times They Are A-Changin’ is a light folk-rock album that is preoccupied with a political message and vision for the United States and world that involves peace, fairness to workers and fighting government oppression. The least political track on the album is "One Too Many Mornings," follows in the tradition of "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" as a song about leaving. But it's not as big, not as grand and not as heartwrenching. Instead, it is a subtle walking away on a gray morning type song. Indeed, the song is less about the relationship and more about the act of leaving. It's sad and Dylan's harmonica part on it accompanies the quiet guitar in a way that defines loneliness and loss.

It is the exception on the album, which is otherwise filled with statements, declarations and diction. Indeed, on a simple sonic level, every other song features Dylan's voice louder and out front. Songs like "North Country Blues" begin to define what has become the parody/stereotype of Bob Dylan's sound, as he sings with a folk drawl that is drawn out and sometimes closer to a mumble. Some of the songs are not as articulately presented as in his prior endeavors and it's easy to see how he gained his reputation.

Still, his singing is not as bad as people want to make it out to be. I have more of a problem with his lack of musical imagination on this album. The guitar is quiet and strummed in similar ways on virtually all of the tracks. So "With God On Our Side" sounds almost identical to "North Country Blues" in terms of the guitar. And “The Times They Are A-Changin’” sounds just like "Only A Pawn In Their Game" which is problematic because they both have such similar political messages or righteous anger.

But the truth is, I think, anyone coming to Bob Dylan now is likely to be approaching his works because of a desire to hear the poetics of the artist. Here, Bob Dylan delivers. Singing about Medgar Evers, Dylan writes some amazing poetry with lines we never hear in music today. Dylan writes and sings, "But the poor white man is used in the hands of them all like a tool / He's taught in his school / From the start by the rules / That the laws are with him / To protect his white skin / To keep up his heat / So never thinks straight" ("Only A Pawn In Their Game") exploring that the poor whites are kept down the same way as the black citizens. Nowhere in the american political discourse today do we adequately explore the similarities between economic strata vs. ethnic relations. Indeed, the Congressional caucus on poverty disbanded . . . pretty sad to think the government doesn't want to have a specialized committee for fighting poverty these days when Bob Dylan was crying out against the oppression of all poor people forty years ago.

The album is pretty lopsided as well; following "Only A Pawn In Their Game," none of the songs resonate. They are quiet, somewhat uninspired and not as impressive as the ones frontloading the album. And there's not much to this work. There's disappointment in the world and a quiet call to action; outside the title track, which opens the album, most of the tracks simply observe the political turmoil and comment on it as opposed to calling for actual uprising. The best I can say about this album is that it does make me think that the character based on Dylan in Factory Girl (reviewed here!) was well presented.

Ultimately, many of the later tracks do not even have the lyrical power of the early ones. "Boots Of Spanish Leather" is utterly unmemorable and "When The Ship Comes In" is just simple and folksy without resonating. That's the problem with this album; it has three great songs and seven dull ones that might have better poetics than most music today, but are understated in sound and style such that it does not leave much of an impression at all.

The best track is probably "Only A Pawn In Their Game," the weak point is "Boots Of Spanish Leather," and this album is pretty impossible to recommend. The three best tracks are likely on other compilations that would be a better value to the Dylan listener.

For other Artist Of The Month selections, check out my reviews of:
Hotter Than July - Stevie Wonder
Opiate - Tool
Covers - James Taylor


For other music reviews, please 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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