Sunday, April 16, 2006

The Bob Dylan Marathon

[A while back I listened to all of Bob Dylan's studio albums one after the other in order of their release. It's 20-odd hours of music, and took me three days (I've thought about doing it again all in one go, but Tara tells me this is a terrible, terrible idea. It's likely she's right. I still think I might do it.). The only studio album I didn't listen to was this one, which is not readily available (it's made of leftovers from another album and was released by his record label during a contract dispute). Here are the lessons I learned from listening to all the albums one after the other.]

1 - The stuff that's canonical is usually good. The "classic" Dylan albums really are classics.
2 - But sometimes the canon is incomplete. "World Gone Wrong" is a terrific album of folk tunes (and a nice "missing link" album that shows that "Love and Theft" didn't come from out of nowhere), it's also kind of unnecessary. It's not a classic, but it sure is great, particularly the title track.
3 - Everyone knows that people aren't perfect, but they screw up way more often then you'd think. By my reckoning, a full third of Dylan's albums are bad. Flat out bad. Maybe another quarter are marginal. And he's Bob Dylan.
4 - What's a less cynical way of saying that even a stopped watch is right twice a day? "Oh, Mercy" is not a very good album, but "Shooting Star" is a great song. It can be hard to admit things like that.
5 - Middle-age can be pretty dicey, artistically speaking. Being young and passionate: awesome. Being old and cynical: fantastic. Being middle-aged and comfortable: not so good.
6 - The exception to #5 is a messy breakup. "Blood on the Tracks."
7 - New converts shouldn't evangelize, but of course, that's exactly when they want to. True, Bob Dylan's Christian albums aren't as uniformly execrable as you've been led to believe (see #4), but some of the songs are downright mawkish. Yes, I'm looking at you "In the Garden."
8 - It's sad watching someone try to remain relevant instead of remaining true to themselves. "Empire Burlesque" and "Knocked out Loaded" are bad in a way that the very weakest moments on his other albums are not...which is weird considering that "Bob Dylan" has been a composite character from day one (who is he remaining true to?). But it's still correct.
9 - Bob Dylan is cooler than you are. It's just kind of a universal truth. Unless you happen to be Lou Reed.

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