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.
In the sort-of-biopic I'm Not There, Bob Dylan going electric is portrayed as a literal attack on the folk audience. Dylan and band open fire with machine guns blazing like in some comical action movie, and the whole thing is played off with tongue firmly in cheek. While the whole “Dylan goes electric” story has by now grown into a myth through the re-telling and exaggeration, it's still clear that he was no longer going to be what the folk movement wanted. They saw him as useful for political ends; were it up to them, he'd have kept on, writing about Martin Luther King Jr. and Vietnam and the like. But it never occurred to them that Dylan would be more useful to the world as an artist instead of a spokesman. If they hated him and turned on him for it, he'd be much happier that way.
By now deeply ensconced in abstract wordplay, post-modern stories, and bluesy/folky rock music, it's actually a bit of a surprise how grounded most of Bringing It All Back Home sounds. 'She Belongs To Me' is a lovely ballad in the mold of 'Corrina, Corrina', while 'It's All Over Now, Baby Blue' is (rightfully) considered one of Dylan's masterpieces, a deeply poetic break-up song. Of course, then there's 'Bob Dylan's 115th Dream', a surreal narrative that portrays a modern colonization attempt of America with both historical and fictional characters thrown in. (My two favorite moments: the laugh breakdown at the beginning of the song, and the parting line about more ships arriving in America as Dylan flees the country back to Europe—“he said his name was Columbus/and I just said good luck.”) Even at their most nonsensical, like the litany of advice on opener 'Subterranean Homesick Blues', the lyrics are supported by Dylan's continued gifts for basic but memorable arrangements. 'Outlaw Blues' points the way to the more raucous moments of Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde.
The most famous thing about Bringing It All Back Home is the way the album is split in two, between the 'electric' first side and the 'acoustic' second side. This makes it a true transitional record, since the second side would be the last time we heard him purely acoustic for a few years. With only four songs, it shows Dylan in his deepest attempts yet toward creating a new folk songwriting style without changing the musical approach. 'Mr. Tambourine Man' is better known for its cover version even though the original's lyrics are easier to focus on, reading like his version of 'Puff The Magic Dragon', right down the supposed pot references. It also gave us the word 'jangle', so that's something. While one could argue that 'Gates Of Eden' and 'It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)' do have some political commentary, they feel like incidental results of the imagery he's weaving together rather than the focus. In one way of thinking, this was Dylan codifying and perfecting the style he'd begun with songs like 'Bob Dylan's Dream' and 'Chimes Of Freedom', songs that feel both very personal and about larger issues, too.
The album cover and title may be an ironic joke, but at the same time, it seems like they help describe where Dylan was at when Bringing It All Back Home was made. Feeling under siege from the folk community and the increasing social turmoil of the 60s, he retreated into an increasingly insular world—the fallout shelter-looking den of the album cover—but still commented on the external world. In that sense, 'It's All Over Now, Baby Blue' can be interpreted as a break-up song that compares the end of love to the world ending. The mistake of the folk movement and the “Judas!” accusations was in assuming Dylan ended his political persona for greater money or fame. In actuality, he had done it for personal and artistic reasons. As 'Like A Rolling Stone' would soon demonstrate, if he had to be one or the other, he'd rather be a folk hero than a political one.