How do you write about an icon? What are you supposed to say about somebody whose life and work have already been picked over with a fine-tooth comb for the past 50 years? You could probably hurt yourself trying to write something original, and at the end of day discover it was still something somebody had already written. Even if you tried chipping away at his iconic status you’d find others had beaten you to it. While you could try and fall back on being as objective as possible, with people of this stature it’s almost impossible not to let your personal opinions affect what you write. They’ve been such a part of our culture’s fabric for so long, there’s not going to be many out there who don’t have an opinion about them one way or another.
I figure the only way I’m going to be able to get through this review of Legacy Recordings’ Bob Dylan: The Complete Album Collection Vol. One is, aside from describing what it includes, to try and explain how Bob Dylan merits such a breathtaking career spanning retrospective. The only way I’m going to be able to do the latter is by relating my own experiences with his music. Hopefully this will give you some idea of how and what he has meant to the world of popular music since his first album in 1962.
The Complete Album Collection Vol. One contains 43 CDs, including all of his studio albums ever released on Columbia and Sony from 1962’s Bob Dylan to his 2012 release Tempest. The set also includes six live CDs: Before the Flood (with The Band), Hard Rain, Bob Dylan Live at Budokan, Real Live (the last three newly remastered for this collection) Dylan and the Dead, and MTV Unplugged. The final two discs in the box, Sidetracks, are made up of material originally intended for release as bonus features on one of Dylan’s greatest hits packages; Greatest Hits Vol. 2, Masterpieces, Biograph, Greatest Hits Vol. 3 or The Best Of Bob Dylan Vol.2, but never released before. If you don’t want to buy the 43-CD set, you have the option of purchasing the entire package as a limited, numbered edition harmonica-shaped USB stick containing all the music in both MP3 and FLAC formats and a digital version of the hardcover booklet included in the box set. The booklet includes liner notes for each CD written especially for this package.
With the CDs listing for over $200.00 and the USB stick more than $300.00, it seems like a lot of money to be asking people to shell out. However, even simple math will tell you the sticker price is still cheaper than the cost of even downloading each title separately, let alone buying the CDs one at a time. So, if you’re looking to pick up the entire Dylan catalogue in one fell swoop, plus some extra’s thrown in, this is quite the bargain. However, what is it about Dylan that would make you want to own all of his CDs? What did he do that merits this type of attention?
I’m sure most of you have at least heard the quotes calling him the voice of a generation or the conscience of the people. But how is that relevant to those who weren’t born in the post-World War ll years, known to most in pop culture as the Baby Boomers, or “Boomers” for short? The thing is, others might have slapped those titles on Dylan, but he was never one to really pay attention to what anybody said about him and always carved his own path. Unlike some who have been content to continuously plough the same furrow over and over again, Dylan has constantly looked for new ways of expressing himself.
Even going back to his earliest albums you can see he was always more than just your simple folkie. While his earliest albums, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963) and The Times They are a Changin’ (1964), owe a debt to his mentor Woody Guthrie, they owe as much to country blues artists as well. Lyrically he was ranging from the intensity of calling for the death of arms manufacturers and those who sent people off to war in “Masters of War”, to being downright silly in “I Shall Be Free”. In fact he originally was going to give Freewheelin’ the title Bob Dylan’s Blues, he was so interested in that style of music. Perhaps if he had, people might have been less shocked when he showed up with an electric guitar in his hands.
To say the electric sound of Highway 61 Revisited (1965) was considered a betrayal by his fans is an understatement. They booed their hero offstage. From the Newport Folk Festival (although a teacher I had in school says part of the problem was the sound system was so bad nobody could hear anything if you were sitting more than three rows away from the stage) to the Royal Albert Hall in London England and across the U.K., his fans acted with derision and outright scorn. Today songs from that record are among the ones you’re still most likely to hear played on classic rock stations, “Like A Rolling Stone” and the album’s title track. However, while those songs are the most well known, others like “Desolation Row”, “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”, and “Tombstone Blues” are the real heart and soul of the album as they show how far Dylan had wandered lyrically from the days of protest songs. He’s started to look at the world through the unique prism of his eyes, creating a refracted and strangely-hued world which spoke to people at a gut level instead of being issue-oriented.
As you chart Dylan’s progress and evolution down through the years based on his musical output, you discover he was always changing and progressing. There was the Americana music he started producing in the late 1960s with The Band, which included albums like The Basement Tapes (not released until 1975 but recorded in the late 1960s), John Wesley Harding (1967), and Nashville Skyline (1969). The latter was recorded in Nashville and featured a duet with Johnny Cash on “Girl From The North Country”. While everyone around him was trying to blow the walls down with electric guitars and psychedelia, Dylan was once again charting his own path. As always, he was more concerned with looking for emotional truth in his material than catering to popular taste or giving the people what they wanted.
I had first heard Dylan in 1966 at the tender age of five, hating the sound of his voice as I had just discovered The Beatles through the movie Help! and thought that’s what pop music should sound like. Ten years later the combined effect of 1976’s Desire and the live Hard Rain made a convert out of me. Those two albums, plus 1975’s Blood On The Tracks, were nothing short of revelations. While the radio was full of mindless dreck here was a guy singing about ideas, weaving stories and standing up for what he thought was right. I still can’t listen to “Hurricane”, his song in defense of the wrongly convicted Reuben Carter, without getting chills. While some called the song naive and uninformed, Dylan was proven right when years later Carter was exonerated and found innocent of the murders he was said to have committed.
I don’t know what would have happened if I had begun listening to him seriously a couple of years later when he went through his born-again Christian phase. The lyrics are the most simplistic of his career, straight-ahead Christian evangelizing. Musically they might have been interesting, with Mark Knopfler and other members of Dire Straits playing on the sessions for 1979’s Slow Train Coming, but I still can’t listen to either this disc or the two following, Saved (1980) and Shot of Love (1981). I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who took some solace in Joni Mitchell’s words when she said, “It’s just a phase Bob’s going through”.
It wasn’t until 1985m when he hooked up with Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers to promote Empire Burlesque and 1986’s Knocked Out Loaded, that I began to take notice of Dylan’s work again. Once again he had changed and was going places musically and lyrically challenging. “Brownsville Girl” on the latter, co-written with playwright Sam Shepard, was 12 minutes long and marked his return to the beautiful storytelling of the mid-1970s. This is Dylan at his best. The storyteller and poet who can see and describe the world in ways nobody else can. Whether it’s his flights of fancy like “Isis” from Desire or, as he’s aged, his explorations of his own mortality, his songs are carefully thought out and intelligent.
What makes Dylan so appealing is his ability to speak to things we all have in common, no matter what our age or status. I think this is what I found most unsettling about the born-again Christian period, the way it excluded so many where his music had always been so inclusive. Sure, you have to listen to it to appreciate it (this isn’t mindless music you can put on in the background) and he might make you work to understand what he’s saying, but this is a small price to pay for the gems you will unearth in his words. You may not always agree with him or even like everything he’s put out, but he is without a doubt one of the major artists of both the 20th and 21st centuries and continues to be so to this day.
Bob Dylan: The Complete Album Collection Vol. One is the most comprehensive retrospective of his career released to date. While others may have been equally prolific in their production or been more commercially successful, this set proves there’s no one who can match Dylan when it comes to keeping us intrigued through his abilities as a lyricist and his desire to explore different musical styles. For those of you with the cash to afford this set, it will be worth every penny you spend as you’ll have at your disposal the most diverse collection of music recorded by one artist in the history of pop music.