Bob Dylan

Revisiting the music of Bob Dylan can be a trifling, traumatic experience for the uninitiated. The sheer diversity and volume is enough to make even self-proclaimed Dylanologist A. J. Weberman’s head spin. So you can imagine handing over 40 albums to an unsuspecting novice with the expectation of a full and well-rounded education. Odds are it could cause major, irrevocable psychological damage. Or maybe just a splitting headache. Still, in an age where living legends are immortalized as walking relics, record labels have gone to great lengths to keep longtime patrons on their toes while exposing the greenhorns to a time when popular music was undergoing a massive makeover.

The Beatles have had their catalog picked over and reinvented so many times, it’s hard to tell if any of the albums they released when they were together even count anymore. Dylan’s catalog, however, is much more exhausting and subject to interpretation. For the most up-to-date lesson in Dylanology, it’s best to scrap the greatest hits and best of collections, and let the 3-CD Dylan set take the reins. The 51-song collection takes students on a long, wayward journey, spanning four decades and innumerable transformations and growing pains.

Disc one covers Dylan’s first five years, 1962 through 1967, producing pure gold with songs like “Blowin’ In The Wind,” “The Times They Are A-Changin’” and “Like A Rolling Stone.” The so-called “hits” are here, although Dylan never set out to become a hit maker, especially when you consider how unorthodox his voice, lyrics and approach to the process were. During this period, he was still searching, questioning and evolving as an artist — from the lone singer-songwriter to the electrified band leader. Even so, this disc probably contains most everything a neophyte needs to know.

Disc two extends the time frame from 1967 to 1985. While Dylan recuperated in Woodstock from a motorcycle accident that almost took his life, changes were afoot and a new page was turning in the annals of rock. Rumors abounded that Dylan was in hiding, afraid of getting left behind. In reality, he was taking stock of his career, developing a new vision for where he wanted to go. “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” from 1975’s The Basement Tapes and disc two’s opening number, reveals Dylan and the Band were making lovely music at the Big Pink house in Woodstock. At the same time, Dylan was immersing himself in country, blues, gospel and other musical styles to quell his curiosity.

“Lay Lady Lay” is one example of a country laden tune that would open new doors; “I Shall Be Released” and “Knockin On Heaven’s Door” reinforce the singer’s never-ending quest for spirituality and redemption. Only “Tangled Up In Blue” and “Simple Twist Of Fate” made the cut from 1974’s Blood On The Tracks, arguably Dylan’s finest slab of vinyl since Blonde On Blonde. Room had to be made for tracks like the magnificent “Hurricane,” written on behalf of boxer Ruben Carter, who was falsely convicted of murder, and “Jokerman,” a reggae-infused ditty co-produced with Mark Knopfler.

Disc three covers 1986 to 2006, chronicling Dylan’s struggle to stay relevant in pop culture sea change. “Blind Willie McTell” is a surefire throwback and possibly one of Dylan’s strongest turns of the last 20 years. “Silvio,” co-written with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, is another standout on a disc that cruises down a smooth highway, marked by the occasional pothole. Dylan aficionados may disagree, claiming the singer never lost his touch in the recording studio, despite a never-ending tour that left little time for making compelling records. But then Dylan came out with Time Out Of Mind in 1997, and all bets were off. “Not Dark Yet” and “Make You Feel My Love” are the only two cuts included here from the Grammy-winning album, but they point the way for a rebirth that remains strong to this day, even as Dylan's rich history seems to be garnering just as much attention.

Dylan isn’t simply another repackaging of music from one of the greatest songwriters of the last century. It carefully picks and chooses songs that aptly define the man’s many artistic phases. Surely, there are those who probably feel it is missing a few songs here and there, but when you attempt to condense over 40 albums of material onto three CDs, that’s a given. A single disc version breaks it down even further, yet it lacks the proper perspective the three CD set provides. In a mire of books, movies, concerts and radio shows that explore the legendary singer-songwriter and his career, Dylan is something newbies and veterans alike may want to add to their collections.

~ Shawn Perry.

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