“Like It Was Written In My Soul”: The Brilliant Music of Bob Dylan
It’s been about fourteen months since “Like a Rolling Stone” first kicked off my obsession with the music of Bob Dylan. After browsing a few articles that claimed to identify the top hundred greatest songs of popular music over the last fifty years, I had decided to look up the song that consistently vaulted to the top of every list. I’d certainly heard of Dylan before, but I couldn’t have named any of his songs other than “The Times They Are a-Changin’” and the peculiar tambourine-laced recording that had appeared on the Forrest Gump soundtrack. What I heard next was a folk-rock explosion of harmonica and organ and a track duration long enough to keep my mind off of skipping the next Spotify ad. It was beautiful.
Over a year later, I’m still exploring the vast catalogue of Dylan’s recorded music. At thirty-five albums and counting (plus dozens of bootleg compilations and live recordings), there’s a lot to digest and discover. A small handful of duds exist, of course, and I’m not necessarily a fan of every single song. But most of the albums pack their punch with lyrical power, as well as a distinct sound that seems to create a special genre for each release.
As a diehard musician and developing songwriter myself, something about Dylan’s music and writing just hits me in the soul. I’m always re-listening to certain albums just so the songs can wrap around me like a fur trench-coat on an arctic day. That’s not just me; everyone has a special artist they enjoy like that. But why Bob Dylan, this erratic, unpredictable musical icon whose voice perpetually suggests desperation for laryngeal surgery?
My obsession begins with the content of his songs. They spark my creativity and awaken my imagination. I’m talking about eight-minute masterpieces that are bursting with vibrant imagery and fiery lyrics which change the meaning of the one-line refrain every time it is sung. If I’m going to listen to a song, I want it packed full of mental comfort food. “Tangled Up In Blue”, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, and “Caribbean Wind” are just a few that do the trick. Dylan breathlessly packs in hundreds of words in just a matter of minutes, leaving you bowled over and excited to seek out similar gems. Even if he’s not cramming, his poetry is poignant and powerful (“Tears of Rage”, “Cross the Green Mountain”), and simplicity rings sincere when he chooses it (“If Not For You”, “Forever Young”).
Everyone in the whole scope of humanity finds a place in Dylan’s praises, depictions, and indictments, from Roman kings to Louisiana fishermen. Hundreds of his songs have geographical associations, as one map has cleverly demonstrated. Furthermore, the Biblical references and allusions that saturate many of Dylan’s lyrics betray his fascination with Scripture, if not his outright devotion to its Author. All these elements converge to create a potent lyrical mix that, when compared to the shallow nature of most popular music, can be addicting for the avid listener.
The music is phenomenal too—most of the time. As I mentioned before, there are some weak spots in Dylan’s repertoire, usually due to occasional poor production and deficient arrangement (and sometimes Dylan’s own deliberate choice, like Self Portrait in 1970). But if it’s a ’60s album, or selected gems from the next two decades, or anything he’s produced since Time Out of Mind in 1997, the music doesn’t disappoint. I personally prefer the live studio recordings of the 1960s and ’70s to the squeaky-clean production of music since the early 1980s. The older recordings pick up a sense of freedom and gusto that create a more organic, intuitive sound, even if instrumental levels, alignment, and tempo are not always impeccably consistent (“Queen Jane Approximately” and the pensive “You’re a Big Girl Now” come to mind).
Stylistically, Dylan is known for jumping around, from pure folk early in his career to folk-rock, blues, country, rock, and gospel. He is definitely not a melodist, but the inventive structures he creates for his lyrics around the chords that he uses is appealing — whether that calls for a variety of chords (“Dear Landlord”) or the protraction of one in particular (“Subterranean Homesick Blues”). And while we’re talking about the music, let me just throw in a good word for the organ – B-3, Farfisa, Vox, whatever style or model is played. I’ve become an increasingly devoted fan of that instrument, and Dylan uses plenty of it in his songs for striking effect.
The Top 5 List
After that long-winded synopsis about Dylan’s musical appeal, it’s time to include a list of personal favorites. This list, by the way, only considers Dylan songs that I’ve heard, since plenty more are still awaiting my discovery. “Like a Rolling Stone” is automatically one of my favorites, so I’m dedicating the list to other songs that aren’t always guaranteed the #1 spot in the Rolling Stone surveys. (It’s also brutally difficult to select just five.)
- “If Not For You” (1970). I’ll start off with this very simply-written song from New Morning, which is ironic because I’ve been raving about Dylan’s billion-word epics up to this point. What I love about “If Not For You” is its adaptability. Although the album version is quick-paced, with steady rimshot beats and a brief harmonica solo, Dylan had first recorded it as a slow, lovely ballad featuring piano and cello. George Harrison covered the song just a few months later, easing the tempo and using dobros to emphasize the song’s characteristic riff. Other artists have similarly experimented with chord and tempo changes to adjust the song’s heartfelt message to their style. Lyrically, “If Not For You” is a tender, honest declaration of love that shows Dylan’s sentimental side — a pleasant change from the often bitter nature of his 1960s material.
- “Jokerman” (1983). I’ll be honest: I have no idea what this song is about. Some interpretations have argued that it’s about Jesus, which works for one verse, but I’m not totally convinced. Nevertheless, I always enjoy this song for its wealth of Biblical references (Genesis 19, Eccl. 11:1, Daniel 3, Luke 16:19-31) and its memorable phrases (like “false-hearted judges dying in the webs that they spin”). Dylan’s penchant for surrealist, catastrophic descriptions also add flavor, especially to the last two verses. There’s nothing folk-rock about this song, unless you include the harmonica solo at the end. With its slick sound, “Jokerman” is busy opening the door to the rock territory found on the rest of Infidels.
- “Tears of Rage” (1967). A rough Basement Tapes recording by Dylan and The Band, this slow, melodic song is the lament of a father towards a wayward, ungrateful daughter. Some critics have compared to this the monologue of King Lear; others interpret it as an anti-war song mourning for a misguided America. These views are possible, but I prefer appreciating the reserved power of the lyrics at face value. Their desperate pleading is matched by haunting organ riffs, beautiful chord changes (especially in the chorus), and Dylan’s surprisingly clear vocals. I had to listen to “Tears of Rage” several times in a row after I first discovered it, so eloquently do the reverberant music and soulful lyrics complement each other.
- “Caribbean Wind” (1981). This “outtake” from Shot of Love is another fine piece of lyrical work. Musically, it’s very early-’80s, and usually Dylan can sound mediocre when he employs backing vocalists, but this song, with its driving beat, forthright chord structure, and clean guitar riffs, is a remarkable exception. Dylan vibrantly describes the memories of a former love in word pictures that echo themes from his evangelistic songs. His preoccupation with apocalyptic events also provides a dramatic lyrical bonus as the narrator compares life without his lover to a world gone catastrophically wrong. Dylan packs four hundred words into three verses that build and drive toward a powerful chorus, evoking ideas of ships and sea breezes and the inevitable demise of everything the narrator considers good and beautiful.
- “Idiot Wind” (1975). From its varied chord progressions to its vivid poetic imagery, there’s something cathartically exhilarating about this raging, eight-minute masterpiece from Blood on the Tracks. The tragic beauty cuts right to the bone. Perhaps I should feel guilty that my favorite Dylan song is such an angry one. I can’t. The relentless, conflicted emotion is too breathtaking. The poet spends six minutes lashing out at an estranged lover before turning inwards and admitting that he himself is also to blame. He’s defiantly turning his back, but he can’t pretend he isn’t heartbroken at the love that he has lost—a sentiment more bluntly stated in “Love Sick” on Time Out of Mind. And all the while, the priest sits stone-faced while a building burns, the poet waits in vain for his love beneath the cypress trees, and the idiot wind blows ruthlessly down the back roads headed south.
The decades are pretty lopsided on that Top 5 list, I’ll admit. Dylan is most famous for his ’60s material, and I’ve listed only one song from that decade, which was an unofficial recording at that. There are so many other brilliant songs that deserve mention. So in an attempt to expand the scope of this post as it concludes, I should probably throw in my picks for my top three favorite Dylan albums.
Topping the list is Blood on the Tracks (1975), which wins much for the same reasons as “Idiot Wind”. Dylan uses creative symbolism all over the place, but not in the surrealist manner that permeates his three electric albums ten years before. From the adrenaline and artistry of “Tangled Up In Blue” to the reserved wit of “Meet Me In The Morning”, the mood is honest and bittersweet as it traces the joys and difficulties of relationships. The difference between the New York City and the Minneapolis sessions are very distinguishable — they have sometimes been accused of resembling practice takes — but the musical quality never detracts from the lyrical depth.
Time Out of Mind (1997) takes second place. This rich album thrives on nuances rather than virtuosity, thanks to producer Daniel Lanois’ signature style. Dylan’s voice is heavily worn by this point, but performances on “Dirt Road Blues” and “Cold Irons Bound” are stellar performances nonetheless. “Not Dark Yet” and “Standing in the Doorway” are my favorite gems from this album due to the dim, dreamlike atmosphere they inspire. Although the inconcise, 16-minute “Highlands” requires much patience to digest, and “Make You Feel My Love” is one of the most egocentric love songs I’ve ever heard, Time Out of Mind remains a beautiful, haunting album that I’ve enjoyed absorbing over the past couple of months.
In third place is Blonde on Blonde (1966), the final installment of Dylan’s electric triad and my favorite of the three. Between “Pledging My Time”, “Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat”, and “Obviously Five Believers”, Blonde on Blonde leans heavily towards blues rock, complete with harmonica tantrums and ragged electric solos. “Visions of Johanna” is a critically acclaimed lyric with lines that you can almost hear Dylan enjoy singing (the “ghost of electricity” line is a particularly popular one), and the unstoppable rhythm of “Absolutely Sweet Marie” pounds forward on the verge of hysteria. The pervasive surrealism of the album is a slight drawback — sometimes I just want Dylan to say something clear, which he eventually does in the understated chorus of “I Want You” — and “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” is either hilarious or grating, I can’t say which. But Blonde on Blonde is a fine example of mid-1960s folk-rock in all its organ-decorated glory, somewhat emancipated from the cool venom of Dylan’s previous works.
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That concludes my general assessment of the corpus of Dylan’s music. I’ve been absorbing quite a lot of it since last September, and with today’s release of the complete Basement Tapes, it seemed like a good time to throw in my take on his work. Dylan alone doesn’t have the monopoly on good songwriting, but any serious songwriter should certainly devote time learning from his style. His music has become a critical staple in the American consciousness over the past fifty years, and it fits the vicissitudes of his lyrics like a glove. Like the 15th-century book of Italian poems in “Tangled Up In Blue”, the words and music of Bob Dylan pour off the page like burning coal, leaving on my musical soul an influence that inspires me to write and create for the sheer joy of fitting a complex world into the boundless possibilities of musical expression.