Tag Archives: Bob Dylan

Shadow Kingdom

Shadow Kingdom: The Early Songs of Bob Dylan – Wikipedia

Recorded: ?

Released: July 18, 2021

Bonus! Dylan’s “broadcast event”… “filmed performance”… “series of linked music videos”… The latter probably is most accurate. Pitchfork said: “As he sings in dusky rooms filled with cigarette smoke and lamplight, mannequins and Western characters, the whole thing takes on a surreal, ghostlike quality.” 

I’ve watched the whole thing three times, I think, and it’s a real pleasure. What this showcases is Dylan’s skill as a song interpreter… with the twist that these are all his own songs. These aren’t ramshackle tossed off run throughs; these are fundamental reimaginings of the songs that fit where Dylan is now. Given the ravages to his voice over the 30 to 55 years since he wrote these songs, he obviously changed how he sings them, but the changes to the musical settings in many cases are at least as fundamental. If you think this is how all these songs would have sounded if had recorded them for “Rough and Rowdy Ways”, you’ll be close (maybe that’s when he came up with these arrangements?) There also are lyric changes, and they’re interesting, but I don’t think they change the songs in a meaningful way.

There are a couple songs that don’t work as well for me: “Watching the River Flow”, “To Be Alone With You”, perhaps… it still feels like he hasn’t quite found the way to sing them with this current vocal abilities. But these are the exceptions.

Highlights for me:

  • Beautiful version of “Forever Young”. Seeing and hearing him do this at the age of 80 is moving, but if the performance wasn’t great, it would just be sad. But the performance is great, perhaps best version of this song ever.
  • “Queen Jane Approximately”: one of my least favorite songs from “Highway 61 Revisited” comes across beautifully in Dylan’s new mode.
  • “Tombstone Blues”. This is insane. Instead of the driving blues rock of the original, It verges on spoken word, delivered over a barely there ominous accompaniment. A prophetic vision, recited as if he’s receiving it in real time.
  • “What Was It You Wanted”. This was the biggest surprise for me. First, “Shadow Kingdom” was billed as “The Early Songs of Bob Dylan”, which I and everyone else assumed would mean the 1960s and maybe early 70s, and this is form 1989’s “Oh Mercy”. Second, while I really like Oh Mercy, it could barely crack the Top 10 of Dylan’s albums. And finally, “What Was It You Wanted” is my second least favorite song on the whole album (“Disease of Conceit” comes in last). And yet, this was a stunning performance. I feel like the song never existed before, even though Dylan’s singing actually is quite similar to the Oh Mercy version. Perhaps the melody just perfectly fits where his voice currently is at. Perhaps the stark stripped down arrangement gives room for the essence of the song to come through. And perhaps the message of paranoia, isolation, wondering what does this other person want? Is that a kiss of betrayal? is just so spot on. 

As of now (July 24, 2021), this performance is set to disappear in a day or so. I expect it will come out again in a permanent form. Whenever you have the chance, take a listen. It will change the way you imagine these songs, and change your view of what Dylan can do.

The Bootleg Series Vol. 12: The Cutting Edge 1965–1966

The Bootleg Series Vol. 12: The Cutting Edge 1965–1966 – Wikipedia

Recorded: January 1965 – May 1966

Released: November 6, 2015

So I don’t have to talk about this, since it is a compilation album, and my rule was that I didn’t have to talk about compilation albums. But in case you don’t have any idea what this is, here’s what the Wikipedia article says: “it comprises recordings from 1965 and 1966, mostly unreleased demos and outtakes from recording sessions for his ground-breaking albums Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde. “

The other complication is (again, per Wikipedia): “Three different versions of the set were released simultaneously: a two-disc 36-track Best of edition in the packaging and format standard to the rest of the series after the first installment; a six-disc 111-track box set Deluxe edition similar in packaging to its counterpart from the previous Bootleg set; and an 18-disc 379-track limited Collector’s Edition available exclusively by order from Dylan’s official website…”. The “Collector’s Edition” included  “…every note recorded during the 1965–1966 sessions, every alternate take and alternate lyric”.

Yikes.

So… I sprang for the Deluxe edition when this came out, so that’s 111 tracks. I’ve listened to these 111 tracks a few times over the past few weeks, and I have a grab bag of reactions that I’ll share in no particular logical order:

  • There are a few (but just a few) “hidden gems” here… that is, they were outtakes that weren’t officially released for years or decades. I’ve already talked about several of them: “Farewell Angelina” and “I’ll Keep It With Mine”. The other song that gets talked about a lot is “She’s Your Lover Now”.  Lots of people love this song. Pitchfork, for example (which doesn’t generally stan Dylan because he’s too old, etc.) had a nice passage on it, including: “it’s easily one of the best songs Dylan had written to that point, meaning it’s one of the best songs he’s ever written period, an alternately hilarious and pained story of a guy, his ex-girlfriend, and her new boyfriend encountering each other at a party.” But they also note that “Dylan was never able to record it properly.” It’s a complicated song musically and lyrically, and Dylan and the musicians never make it all the way through the song without messing up, and he eventually gave up on it. This is another song that I’ve just never warmed up to. Maybe I’m just too fussy, but I don’t feel like he ever got it right… I don’t find any of the versions very appealing musically, and as I’ve said often, I think Dylan’s best songs (and there are lots of them) are very appealing musically.
  • There are lots of “alternative” versions of the songs that appeared on Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde. What’s cool here isn’t that they are “better” than the ones selected for release. It’s that they show Dylan’s process. Again, if you haven’t read about it, he basically works through his songs — to some extent lyrically and to a large extent musically — with his backing musicians. This is how he “finds” the song: Robbie Robertson said (somewhere) that musicians have to be “fast and flexible” to play with Dylan. You see this in the Bringing It All Back Home sessions, where he’s figuring out this whole “electric backup band” thing. He tries a lot of songs acoustic first, then decides that some of them actually can use electric accompaniment… but what? Full rock’n’roll (or blues?) band? Or just a little “coloring”… ala Mr. Tambourine Man? He works that out, too. 
  • And for Highway 61 Revisited and Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, he’s pretty much settled on “Yes, I have a full band backing me up”, but he’s very much working on the arrangements/feel of the songs (as well as finalizing the lyrics) — he’s playing, and listening to what he hears… is it the sound he’s looking for? Most of my least favorite songs from these albums are the fairly conventional “blues-ish” ones… and basically, he’s working out what type of blues he wants them to be… fast or slow, serious or humorous, etc.  These are interesting to me in part precisely because since I don’t like many of these songs as much, I like the somewhat different directions he explored (e.g., on “Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat” or “It Takes A Lot (It Takes a Train To Cry)”).
  • 20 versions of “Like A Rolling Stone!” What not? You get to hear the whole progression of his greatest song.
  • “Highway 61 Revisited” without that damn siren whistle, so that’s a plus. 
  • Most of the different takes on a song are within a fairly “sensible” range of possibilities… like I said, a fast or slow blues, prominent piano or not (in the same basic arrangement), etc. But then there’s “Visions of Johanna”. The early takes are with The Hawks (later The Band). They’re uptempo rock versions… and wow, do I ever think they are not right. At the end of one of them, Dylan says something like “That’s not right…”, and I assumed he was talking about the whole conception of it as an uptempo rock song… but no, it was the execution of it. So then Dylan moved to Nashville, worked with mostly completely different musicians, and nailed “Visions of Johanna” on the very first day… and that’s the version on Blonde on Blonde.

It looks to me like the Deluxe version is now available on the streaming services, so if you’ve made it this far, check it out when you have the time… but I think you should view this mostly as an educational experience rather than a super enjoyable musical experience.

The Bootleg Series Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966, The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert

The Bootleg Series Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966, The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert – Wikipedia

Recorded: May 17, 1966

Released: October 3, 1998

Let’s just start by saying that if for some reason you haven’t listened to this, stop reading, and go do it now. And even if you feel like you know it well, it still wouldn’t hurt to give it a listen and try to hear it with fresh ears. Oh, just to be clear, this concert was at Manchester, not the Royal Albert Hall, but because it had been bootlegged as the “Royal Albert Hall concert”, they kept that in the title of the official release (besides, “Royal Albert Hall” sounds so much cooler).

There’s been so much written about this concert and tour that I can’t conceive of saying anything new. It’s an astounding performance by someone who’s about to turn 25 years old, has already written a boatload of stunning, unprecedented songs, been called the “Voice of a Generation”, raised various controversies, and created a new sound to bring into the world what he’s hearing in his mind. 

A few observations: on the acoustic songs, he sounds so weary, strung out, and yet warm. Sometimes tender, sometimes mocking, and are we sure of the difference? (And who’s he mocking?) I remember reading a quote that he wasn’t just burning the candle at both ends, but taking a blow torch to the middle, and you can tell. Another thing that struck me: he introduced “I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)” by saying “It used to be like that, now it goes to this”…. He now owns his songs, and performs them as he feels them: most of the songs he performs acoustic had electric backing on the studio albums, and three of the songs he performs with the Group (see Bob Dylan: Bob Dylan: The 1966 Live Recordings Album Review | Pitchfork) were acoustic on the studio recordings. That doesn’t matter. He commands the songs and brings them to you here as he understands them at the time. And finally, why would anyone have bought tickets to this concert, knowing Dylan’s going to rock out, and then boo him for… rocking out?

I’m not going to talk about every performance, as they’re all great (again: whole books about this concert!). Most performances are quite different from the studio versions, not better or worse, just equally great, although I would choose the performances of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” and “I Don’t Believe You” over the studio versions. And “One Too Many Mornings” is utterly transformed into an electric majestic storm.

And then there’s “Like A Rolling Stone”: the “Judas” shout from the audience, Dylan’s “I don’t believe you… you’re a LIAR”, followed by his aside to the band “Play fuckin’ loud”. This is a common take, but this is probably the single greatest moment in rock history… because of course Dylan and the band follow this with a bringing-down-the-walls-of-the-temple performance of “Like A Rolling Stone”. This is Babe Ruth calling his shot: ‘Williams’ summary of the story included, “In the fifth, with the Cubs riding him unmercifully from the bench, Ruth pointed to center and punched a screaming liner to a spot where no ball had been hit before.”’ 

I pointed before to the Pitchfork article about the insane 36 disk box that contains all of Dylan’s 1966 live recordings. It has so many choice quotes that apply to this concert, so I’m just going to end by including a few of them:

  • “Dylan is luminous and fragile-sounding during his opening solo acoustic sets, and equally fierce and possessed during the electric second halves, backed by the quintet that would soon become the Band, who match him in super-charged vitality.”
  • “Containing the notorious back-and-forth in which an audience member calls Dylan “Judas!” and Dylan snarls back, “I don’t be-lieve you, you’re a liar” (and to the musicians “play fuckin’ loud”)…”
  • “One takeaway, though, and perhaps the perpetual Dylan hot take, is that the dude actually is an amazing singer, lingering sensuously on every syllable during the quiet acoustic sets and occupying every bit of smarter-than-thou word-play and put-downs when the electric guitars come out.”
    • This is me, again, and Oh My God yes, this is amazing singing.
  • “Speaking almost entirely in parables in interviews and press conferences, the Bob Dylan that stood in front of audiences in 1966 had an unearthly air, a beautiful and vibrating young alien. “Bob Dylan got very sick backstage and I’m here to take his place,” he announces in Glasgow…”
  • “It would be the last time Dylan regularly performed extended solo acoustic sets, and it is a form he has mastered.”

Blonde on Blonde

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blonde_on_Blonde

Recorded: January-June 1966

Released: June 20, 1966 (?)

Listening to this while going through Dylan’s albums in order clarified something for me. If you look at rankings of Dylan’s albums (there are lots of them), this album is typically first or second, and is almost always ahead of Highway 61 Revisited, and certainly ahead of Bringing It All Back Home. And it now seems to me there’s one main and one lesser reason for that. First, the sound: at last he’s been able to capture the sound inside his mind. Of course, there’s his famous quote from the late 1970s: “The closest I ever got to the sound I hear in my mind was on individual bands in the Blonde on Blonde album. It’s that thin, that wild mercury sound. It’s metallic and bright gold, with whatever that conjures up.” And the sound is gorgeous … consistent across the recording. And it isn’t just the arrangements and instruments: there’s something about Dylan’s voice… how to describe it? A warm, knowing, insinuating drawl? It’s striking and effective.

Second, the lesser reason: I think he’s unified two lyrical strands that previously were mostly implemented in separate songs: the serious (e.g. “Mr. Tambourine Man”) and the comic (e.g. “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream”). But with one exception, the comedy is just integrated into songs, with a resulting feel of absurdity rather than humor. 

The exception is “Rainy Day Women No. 12 and 35”. This is a song that Dylan played live a lot during the 1990s, and I never liked it then. However, I really do enjoy the album version: it’s got a great sound (see above), and Dylan’s performance actually makes me believe it: “I would not feel so all alone… eeeeeeeverybody must get stoned.”

Before I’d ever heard the album, I’d heard the conventional opinion of the album, and when I did hear the album, I was … underwhelmed. Listening now, in sequence, I understand why it strikes me that way. It’s the songs themselves. Despite the gorgeous sound, there are a number of songs here that I really have no desire to hear: “Temporary Like Achilles”, “Obviously 5 Believer”, “4th Time Around”. I like “Pledging My Time” more, but still doesn’t do that much for me. 

And there are only three or four songs that I absolutely want to hear: “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)”, “Visions of Johanna”, “Just Like A Woman”, and usually “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” — a beautiful song, but so long and the lyrics can strike you either way. I vibe with the Michael Gray comments on the Wikipedia article: in his first take he said Dylan was “cooing nonsense in our ears”, but later revisited it to say: “Whatever the shortcomings of the lyric, the recording itself, capturing at its absolute peak Dylan’s incomparable capacity for intensity of communication, is a masterpiece if ever there was one”.   

I also really enjoy “Most Likely You Go Your Way And I’ll Go Mine” and “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again”, but they’re just not at the same level. “Absolutely Sweet Marie” is Dylan at his garage-rock poppiest, and I love it.  I also know some people really like “I Want You”, but somehow it’s always felt kind of rushed to me. 

And there is no doubt that “Visions of Johanna” is a stunning achievement, maybe his greatest artistic success ever. And I just love “Just Like A Woman”. I am aware of the view that it’s misogynistic, and I also am aware that, not being a woman, I’m not the best person to adjudicate that charge. However, to me the tenderness of the performance belies that interpretation, and I’ve always heard the line “but you break just like a little girl” as enormously sympathetic.

The album sure does sound great, though: everyone keys on Dylan’s “thin wild mercury music”, but for me “bright gold” is even more apt.