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.