There are just some artists you know you should drop from the discussion. I did it with the Beatles. But Bob Dylan is so important to me I couldn’t cut him with the big 5. And this album is just so magnificent I had to put it on my list. It really is an arbitrary process. But it’s my blog, my rules. So it goes.
The album sees Dylan moving away from the Greenwich folkie image to the innovator with its part acoustic, part electric set up. But as always, the deeply sardonic and cynical Dylan writes the lyrics. This album has some of his best music, lyrics, and attitude. In my mind, it is only matched by his 1970s masterpiece Blood on the Tracks, and if that record had the last track of this album on it, I would have flipped over easily.
The finale of Bringing It All Back Home is the beautiful lullaby of a kiss off, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” I used to sing this song to my eldest daughter to get her to go to sleep when she was a baby. It still works to sing her Dylan songs to get her to leave you alone as she continues to despise him and “his whiny voice”. Hey, I tried, damn it. But the simple acoustic strum, subtle bass, and the shifting chords matched with a gentle, saddened vocal by Dylan just screams “good night and so long”. It’s simply too beautiful for this world. It breaks my heart and makes me cry. I don’t want to cry.
The album is chock full of brilliant, legendary tracks. Take the ridiculous genius of “It’s All Right, Ma, I’m Only Bleeding”. Over a sparse acoustic guitar that plays simple up and down chords, Dylan rails against hypocrisy, commercialism, the folk music scene, life in general. It’s a dark song, filled with vivid imagery and memorable lines that remain quotable to this day. “Money doesn’t talk, it swears”, “He not busy being born is busy dying”, and “Propaganda, all is phony” is just the tip of the iceberg with this song. But the stripped down arrangement actually enhances the complex lyrical structure that he spits out with such a gentle fury, making the song heavy and thought-provoking.
There is also the memorable “Mr. Tambourine Man”. While the Byrds version will go down as one of the definitive covers better than the original, the original ain’t half bad. In fact, I sometimes prefer Bob’s personal, singular whine to the polished harmonies of the Byrds. Whatever the song may be about ( all drug theories have been shot down by the man himself, but come on, dude), it’s a perfect little folk pop ditty, one of the first real ones.
There is also the fierce and acerbic “Maggie’s Farm”, which is one of my favourite Dylan songs of all time, along with “Love Minus Zero/ No Limit”. The former zings the Greenwich folk scene that Dylan sprang from, the latter one of the great love songs by someone not known for them. Both sides of the man are powerful and compelling to listen to. Even Nana Mouskouri recorded “Love Minus Zero/ No Limit”. Nana freaking Mouskouri.
But of course, the album opens with one of the biggest statements ever in music. It was the song that inspired the art of the music video, which is endlessly imitated, and is pretty close to being the first rap song of note as well. Dylan, over electric guitar and full rock band trappings, speak sings the lyrics so quickly that you half expect him to trip up. Even if he didn’t make an ass out of himself, “Subterranean Homesick Blues” remains a signature tune, and an inspiration of songwriters everywhere. It also remains on of Dylan’s few true commercial hits singles.
The album has not one single misstep musically, not with the weirdly surreal “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream”, the cynical “On The Road Again”, the dismissive “She Belongs To Me”, or the fatalistic “Gates of Eden”. Rarely has an album been this powerful, based purely on simple music and complex lyrics. Bob is the greatest because he’s Bob Dylan, sure. But you don’t get to be Bob Dylan if you don’t come up with this album.