Recorded: August-October 1963
Released: January 13, 1964
I have to confess: I just don’t like this one as much as “The Freewheelin’…”. I think the reason why can be expressed in terms of what I imagine it would have been like to hear “The Times…” in 1964, right after “The Freewheelin’ was your last exposure to Dylan. Two things you notice right away: he emphasizes topical songs, and there’s no humor. I think this makes the album a tougher listen, and (retrospectively) more dated.
OK, but! There still are classic songs here, again, a handful that if anyone else had written them, could have made their career. The title song, “One Too Many Mornings”, “Boots of Spanish Leather”, and “Hattie Carroll” at least. FWIW, I prefer “The Times They Are A-Changin’” to “Blowin’ In The Wind”, a stirring call to action to plaintive questioning. And while the story behind “When the Ship Comes In” is really pretty petty, this is another one that never fails to lift me up:
We’ll shout from the bow your days are numbered
And like Pharaoh’s tribe
They’ll be drownded in the tide
And like Goliath, they’ll be conquered
And when it comes to the topical songs, “Hattie Carroll” is without a doubt his best ever. Despite being based on a specific incident, its message remains timeless. And the lyrics, melody, and performance are all outstanding. And I’ve always loved “Only a Pawn in Their Game”. I actually feel this song taught me to look at the world in a new way:
But the poor white man’s used in the hands of them all like a tool
He’s taught in his school
From the start by the rule
That the laws are with him
To protect his white skin
To keep up his hate
So he never thinks straight
‘Bout the shape that he’s in
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game
So why the disappointment? Well, I’ve already mentioned the lack of humor, but it really is striking, and it lends the whole album a kind of monochromatic air. And finally, there is one song that, as performed here, brings the whole thing to a grinding halt: “With God On Our Side”. I like the idea, I’m a sucker for the history lesson, but the arrangement is just unbelievably tedious, just a few aimless acoustic strums and a dirge-like tempo. When I listened to it as part of this exercise, I felt like it was dragging pretty badly, and I looked at the display, and there were like 4 and ½ minutes left. Oh well, some live performances are much better!
Also worth mentioning: “Lay Down Your Weary Tune” and “Percy’s Songs” are outtakes from these sessions. So this lets me say FOR THE FIRST TIME, “You know, sometimes Bob Dylan leaves the best songs off his albums!” OK, maybe not the very best, but I have always loved “Lay Down Your Weary Tune”, and would put it somewhere up there on my personal list of his best pre-electric songs. And “Percy’s Song” also is a very good listen.