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.
Although recorded before the assassination of JFK, The Times They Are a-Changin' can't help but feel like a solemn and serious response to that event and the continuing struggle of the Civl Rights movement. Indeed, I don't think you could fully understand what the early to mid 60s were like without hearing this album, since it is interwoven with the fabric of its time. Keep in mind, this is the post-Beatnik pre-Hippie era, a very short timespan that's easy to pass over because the cultural artifacts from either side of it are better known.
The Times They Are a-Changin' as a whole feels like Dylan realizing the fight will be long and hard. Even before JFK's death and the public outcry following an infamous, inebriated speech delivered while receiving the Tom Paine award (during which he said he 'saw something of himself in Lee Harvey Oswald), Dylan was displaying cynicism and weariness far beyond his years. Those unfamiliar with the early phase of Dylan's career might be shocked at how dark Times often is. Look up the story behind 'Ballad Of Hollis Brown' and 'Only A Pawn In Their Game' or take a listen to 'One Too Many Mornings', the latter of which would've made a great cover for Nick Drake. These songs are a bummer. There's no answers or hope to be had in these tales. On his first two records, Dylan leavened the serious/political stuff with some witty wordplay or contrasted them with a few lighter songs; not so much here. Consider the two songs with “blues” in the title from the preceding record, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. They're among the most fun and whimsical on that album, while 'North Country Blues' from Times is a depressing folk song about the ruin of a woman, a town, or both.
Since I've never really cared for politics being mixed into music, I find The Times They Are a-Changin' to be among Dylan's least enjoyable records. I'm not saying I disagree with its point of view, since I'd have to be a racist monster not to. Aside from 'Boots Of Spanish Leather' and the bitter but fun 'When The Ship Comes In', though, the entire record is far too dire and preachy for its own good. There is something to be said for expressing these feelings and telling the stories that need to be told to show the injustice of the world, but this also leaves Times feeling like a historical artifact, or even like rhetoric instead of music.
This era saw the beginning of American youth becoming deeply involved in politics, and Dylan was no different, it's tough to blame him for making a record like this. After all, if he had been focused on 15th century French poetry or horse racing, he'd have made songs about that instead. Times is a commentary on its environment in the same way other politically charged records from other countries and eras become touchstones for their era. The problem for me is that, while you can still enjoy There's A Riot Going On or some of Bob Marley's political stuff, The Times They Are a-Changin' has such a sparse musical style that once you've gotten the message, so to speak, it's not a great record on sheer musical/songwriting terms. Since Dylan immediately moved away from this 'voice of a generation' persona, never again focusing so sharply on political material, one has to wonder if he felt the same.
You often hear people describe great art or artists as timeless, and Dylan has produced more than his share of timeless art. However, the opposite is sometimes true. Great art or artists can be timely, and Times was timely (pardon the pun). As with his first album, the songs have not stood the test of time and feel very much 'of their time.' This doesn't mean it's a bad record by any means, just that modern listeners will have to do some research and contextualizing to fully grasp the impact this must've had when released in January of 1964. This strange period of time—post-Bob Dylan becoming famous/post-JFK assassination and pre-Beatles arriving in America/pre-Civil Rights Act of 1964—is captured eerily well on The Times They Are a-Changin' even if it doesn't make for a comforting, fun, or hopeful listen.