Saturday, June 1, 2013

Dylanology: Bob Dylan

Dylanology is an ongoing series of blog posts in which I'm chronologically going through Bob Dylan's studio discography. There may be some diversions along the way.

I've always been curious to listen through Bob Dylan's albums in chronological order. Part of the reason is that without forcing myself to, I don't think I'd ever listen to most of his stuff. The Christian era is perennially at the bottom of my list of albums I need to get to, and the early folk stuff never appealed to me until recently. All of that said, Bob Dylan is a solid if mostly debut folk album. History, and what Dylan went on to do, has increased its significance in the 50+ years since its release. This kind of thing often results in albums that modern listeners will be bored or underwhelmed by because they sound so sparse and basic.

In which case, it's best to do some research and contextualize Bob Dylan in terms of the other music and folk stuff being released at the time. In this regard, what sets Dylan apart is his amicable performances and song selection. Since he hadn't yet blossomed as a songwriter, his debut is notable mostly for the influences it reveals. The pre-rock n' roll music he would later adopt as an aesthetic from 2001's Love & Theft onward is glimpsed here, and it's worth noting that a track from this record, 'Baby, Let Me Follow You Down', shows up in a commanding, remade barrelhouse rock form on the legendary 1966 “Judas!” concert as captured on The Bootleg Series Vol. 4. Reworking songs into new arrangements would go on to become the standard template for Dylan's live shows, something anyone who's caught him on his modern 'Never Ending Tour' will know. But I digress.

If you're the sort of person who loves Nick Drake's Pink Moon, Elliott Smith's first few albums, and The Tallest Man On Earth, I think you'd be wise to seek out early Dylan immediately. You may find it same-y, if not formulaic, but as with any narrow music style, a great performer can wring a lot out of a little. Bob Dylan does this. And Bob Dylan certainly does this.

Though largely made of covers or harmonica/acoustic guitar based rearrangements of traditional songs, it's a record that foreshadows the breadth of Dylan's eventual talent. On his debut he mostly gets by leaning on rough charm: the harmonica and vocal affectations were in already place, and I don't think he gets enough credit as a guitarist. Listen to 'Highway 51' for some impressive strumming.

It's curious to hear the young Dylan singing all these old, dark songs about issues that probably haven't effected him personally. As Dylan aged and life threw some curveballs his way, it's almost as if he grew into the pre-rock-era songs he always treasured. It's similar to how in the mid to late 70s, Jerry Garcia became the troubled old man in so many of the songs he used to somewhat-convincingly sing during the first few years of the Grateful Dead. As Dylan toured with the Dead as his back-up band, this similarity is even more striking...

Anyway, the songs! 'Talkin' New York' is the first instance of a specific style of song in which he speak-sings a story between breaks for harmonica and guitar, with a meta-narrative that this time out fictionalizes his arrival in New York City. 'Song To Woody' tips a hat to Woody Guthrie and has taken on a symbolic quality ever since, as if he's simultaneously eulogizing Woody and his generation while also acknowledging he won't live to see the troubles and the triumphs to come during the rest of the 60s. 'See That My Grave Is Kept Clean' is a spooky nocturne, its heavy imagery brought to life by Dylan's vocals and wild, woozy sliding accents on guitar.

The two songs summarize what is great and slightly underwhelming about Bob Dylan. There aren't enough original songs by Dylan to truly judge him as a songwriter, but any simplistic lyrics or formulaic arrangements are salvaged by his committed performances and impressive musicianship.

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