Bob's Big Box

Bob's Big Box
As a music lover who just turned 40, I thought it was about time I explored the back catalogue of Bob Dylan, an artist I'd largely ignored previously. Right then...

Sunday, 22 February 2015

3. The Times They Are A-Changin' (1964)

Aside from the anthemic title track (like Blowin'... from the last album it's very familiar yet surprisingly short), on first listen this sounded like a very one-note record; drab and grey, much like the cover.  But once I began paying attention to the lyrics, each song's unique character was revealed and the album's light and shade began to show through.

The first song to really grab my attention was North Country Blues, told from the point of view of a poor mother-of-three living in a godforsaken mining town that's slowly collapsing over time, mirroring the disintegration of her family.

Equally bleak and attention-grabbing is the tale of the Midwestern farmer in the Ballad Of Hollis Brown, driven by grinding poverty to murder his wife and five children before turning the gun on himself.  For me the repetition of the first line of each verse really drives home the grimness of Hollis' situation, and the description of the shotgun hanging on the wall becoming the shotgun "That you're holding in your hand" is chilling.  I think the potency of both of these songs owes much to Bob's matter-of-fact delivery of these most harrowing lyrics.

The two most powerful songs here though, are With God On Our Side and Only A Pawn In Their Game.  The first is a long litany of wars and atrocities justified by man's presumption that he has divine sanction in even the most horrific of acts.  The second cleverly uses the story of the assassination of a civil rights activist to illustrate how the poor are controlled by those at the top. Both of these very intense songs are followed by more tender numbers (One Too Many Mornings and the lovely, forlorn Boots Of Spanish Leather), which provide some welcome relief on an album with none of the jokes and lighthearted moments found on Freewheelin'.

That's not to say it's all gloomy here.  Even though When The Ship Comes In is sung from a dissatisfied standpoint, it is upbeat and optimistic, while Restless Farewell is a confident defence against his critics, with his feet "now fast" and pointing "away from the past".

I found Dylan's third album to be a bleak, beautiful record stuffed with so many great songs that it's impossible to pick out a favourite, but today I'll plump for this, The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll:

What do you think of this album?  Love it?  Hate it?  Meh?  I'd love to know.  Do tell me in the comments section below.

I'll be back in a week or two after listening to the next out of Bob's Big Box; Another Side Of Bob Dylan.

Monday, 16 February 2015

2. The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963)

Wow, what a confident record! On his second album Bob has begun stretching out, both lyrically and in song length, and the differences between Freewheelin' and his debut just a year or so before are startling. All but one of the songs here are written by Dylan himself with their melodies based on existing traditional songs. Romantic travails still crop up (Girl From The North Country, Down The Highway) but mostly subject matter has moved from the personal to the political.

It opens with Blowin' In The Wind, an extremely familiar song even to Dylan virgins like me. This time I was immediately struck by just how short it actually is - it's been covered countless times by other artists and has had a huge impact down the years, which is pretty amazing for a track that comes in at under three minutes long. On first play my immediate favourite was the fantastically powerful A Hard Rain's A Gonna Fall, which uses abstract imagery to create a sense of sad inevitability and hints at some kind of dark end for the human race. On an album jam-packed with classics it soon had some competition, however.

Masters Of War is a marvellously bitter diatribe against the industry of conflict, which doesn't pull any punches and in no uncertain terms wishes for a quick end to the warmongers. More plain speaking, this time addressing civil liberties, is present in Oxford Town, about the story of student James Meredith at the University of Mississippi. This pithy number is followed by the lengthy, not-so-plain-speaking Talking World War III Blues, a brilliant, absurdist look at America's fears, some of it briefly reprised in closer I Shall Be Free.

Away from social and political commentary, Bob Dylan's Dream is a nostalgic look back that yearns for the simple, uncomplicated friendships of his teenage years. This and much of the witty, playful Bob Dylan's Blues, e.g. 

"Well lookit here buddy,
 You want to be like me,
 Pull out your six-shooter,
 And rob every bank you can see.
 Tell the judge I said it was alright.

make me wonder whether it was possible that the pressures of success, or indeed impending success, as his poor-selling debut didn't exactly launch him into the stratosphere, (such confidence!) were already getting to him. (You just wait, Bob!)

Another standout for me is the resigned Don't Think Twice, It's All Right, another track I was already familiar with, and of which dear old Dolly made a decent fist last year on her Blue Smoke album:

When it comes to the final two songs Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance and I Shall Be Free, I have a bit of a mental block in that I have trouble recalling them, probably because the preceding material is so strong and occupies my mind so fully on each listen. Frankly it wouldn't hurt the album for me if it came to a close after Corrina, Corrina.  Except for this song, where Dylan is joined by a backing band, I think that Freewheelin' is a great lo-fi example of how powerful and influential one talented man armed with just his guitar and harmonica can be.

What do you think of this album? What's best/worst about it for you? Do let me know in the comments.

After hearing this great record and the one that preceded it, I'm really looking forward to getting to know the next in line, The Times They Are A-Changin'.  I hope you can pop back in a week or so when I've had a good listen.

Monday, 9 February 2015

1. Bob Dylan (1962)

On first play my initial impression of this debut, a collection of folk standards, blues covers and two originals, was that at the age of just 20 Dylan already sounds like a fully-formed artist. Although he wears his influences on his sleeve, he has a distinct vocal style and his musicianship and songwriting are surprisingly well developed for someone just out of their teens.

Accompanied only by his guitar and harmonica (and apparently recorded in a couple of short sessions with few do-overs), there's a heavy emphasis on death and an unexpected sprinkling of humour among the tales of traveling, sorrow and woman trouble.

I've probably played this album ten times over the past few days (it's only a little over 30 mins long). At first I simply admired it, but it was during the fourth listen that I absolutely fell for it. My top tracks at the moment are the two originals (which bodes well) Talkin' New York and Song To Woody, which both owe a debt to his hero Mr. Guthrie, especially the latter to his 1913 Massacre. Other current favourites are the wonderful Man Of Constant Sorrow, the energetic Pretty Peggy-O and Baby Let Me Follow You Down, of which I'd only ever heard The Animals' adaptation.

Well, things are off to a very good start - this box set could yet make a Dylan nerd of me. What do you think of this album? I'd love to hear your thoughts on it in the comments section below, whether you've heard it a thousand times before or just the once.

I'm off back to the Box to dig out the next album, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. I'll report back in about a week - I hope you can join me.

Friday, 6 February 2015

About BobBox

Last week I bought the Complete Album Collection by Bob Dylan. It was at the temporarily low price of £89 and I'd just been paid some money owed to me, so it seemed like an ideal opportunity to invest some time and money getting to know his hefty back catalogue.

The 47- disc set comprises 35 studio albums up to 2012's Tempest, six official live albums and the compilation Side Tracks which collects together previously released material not included on the original albums.

My intention is to listen to one album every week or so, recording my impressions here. As someone who knows very little of Bob and his work I'm anticipating an enjoyable and interesting journey (although I have been warned about the 1990s!) on which I hope you can join me. Your comments and info are welcome whether you're a Dylan nut or Bob virgin, and assuming enthusiasm can be maintained on both sides it could be a fun way to pass 2015.

Okay then, into the box...