For an artist as willfully unpredictable as Bob Dylan, sometimes the driving impulse to keep one’s audience guessing can become as commonplace as simply toeing the line of consistency. It’s a Catch-22 in the simplest sense, a fine line between the overarching need to assert one’s individuality, and the expectation, or even certainty, that one will do so. So in the early months of 2009 when much ado was being made of the “sudden” news that Dylan’s new studio album, Together Through Life, was slated for imminent release, it was difficult not to wonder just exactly what all the fuss was about. After all, he’s been releasing new albums every two-to-four years since 1997’s Time Out of Mind. With almost three years having passed since 2006’s Modern Times, the man was right on schedule.
But what a lot of people — including some who could be rightly considered Dylan experts — missed in the attendant media blitz surrounding Together Through Life was that Sony almost surreptitiously reissued another set of four remastered titles from Dylan’s back catalog a month in advance of the new album. And what an odd, disjointed set it is: New Morning, Dylan & the Dead and two collaborations with the Band, The Basement Tapes and Before the Flood. The seemingly random selection raises even further questions about the marketing strategy: Why not include Planet Waves to have the full set of Dylan/Band recordings available in updated CD fidelity? Or, more to the point, why reissue Dylan & the Dead at all? (More on that later.)
Getting back to the alleged spontaneity of Together Through Life‘s release, the story behind New Morning reveals the flimsiness of that particular party line. Released in October 1970, a mere four months after the unequivocal disaster of Self Portrait, the shock that New Morning must have generated with its sudden appearance truly qualifies as unexpected. Dylan himself has downplayed the conditions that led to two new releases in such quick succession, but after the critical drubbing unleashed upon Self Portrait, it’s hard to see New Morning beyond the context of a quick attempt at saving artistic face.
Regardless of how one approaches it, New Morning is a rather underrated entry in Dylan’s discography. One that rightfully takes a backseat to the more obvious classics yet collects quite a few unpolished gems under its wing. “If Not for You” opens the album with one of Dylan’s greatest and most straightforward love songs, and one that was covered almost simultaneously by his friend George Harrison. It also works well to announce the record’s vaguely unifying concept, an extension of the countrypolitan sound of Nashville Skyline and John Wesley Harding, where Dylan’s piano overshadows his guitar, and his voice has returned to the more familiar timbre heard in his earlier work.
Two of the album’s best songs, “The Man in Me” — used to such wonderful effect in the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski — and “New Morning”, put a looser spin on the prevailing country influence; along with the harder-edged “One More Weekend”, it illustrates Dylan wasn’t completely abandoning the sounds of his past successes. The diverse collection is balanced out by a couple of clunkers that show Dylan hadn’t completely recovered from his Self Portrait lapses in judgment either (“Winterlude” and “If Dogs Run Free”), but overall the album draws strength from its lack of homogeneity — and the fact that most of the songs are neither his best known nor his most enduring makes New Morning that much more ripe for rediscovery.
Three years earlier, Dylan was recovering from a motorcycle accident that left him with a concussion and cracked vertebrae when the loose-recording sessions that became The Basement Tapes began. Working with four-fifths of the Band (then still known as the Hawks) at its home (“Big Pink”) near Woodstock, New York, Dylan began a period of prolific recording that resulted in 30 or so new compositions — many of which appear on the official version of The Basement Tapes released in 1975. Even before then it had become one of Dylan’s most celebrated works, and for good reason: Its reputation has spawned extensive bootlegging, full-length books (Greil Marcus’ Invisible Republic) and magazine cover stories demanding its release.
Between Dylan’s renewed enthusiasm and the Band’s humble virtuosity, the ensemble struck a collective balance that resulted in ragged, yet magnificent recordings of some of Dylan’s best songs: “Goin’ to Acapulco”, “Tears of Rage”, “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” and “This Wheel’s on Fire”. Listening to it in the context of when it was recorded (as opposed to when it was released), one can see how it might have made the transition between Dylan’s more obtuse style of Blonde on Blonde and his more straightforward post-accident work much smoother had it been released in 1967. Instead, the songs gained exposure through bootlegs and numerous cover versions by artists ranging from Peter, Paul and Mary to Brian Auger’s Trinity until its proper release.
Dylan doesn’t suffer from a lack of canonization, but it still bears saying that The Basement Tapes remains the same kind of shambolic masterpiece as The White Album, Exile on Main Street or Physical Graffiti. Like those albums, it’s a hodgepodge collection of material in many ways — some of it was overdubbed just prior to its official release, and some of it wasn’t even recorded at the Big Pink sessions — but that only intensifies its disheveled glory. There’s also something about the remastering that makes it feel more like an official album — the earlier CD version’s weak fidelity unfairly emphasized the “basement” nature of the recordings, where it now possesses a clarity that belies its humble and informal origins.
In 1974, Dylan and the Band toured the United States in support of its reunion album Planet Waves, which was released early that year. A live album, Dylan’s first, had already been discussed, resulting in the presence of professional recording engineers and equipment at many of the shows. Before the Flood compiles the best of those performances in a sequence that reflects the general flow of the actual concerts, which featured solo sets from Dylan and the Band individually in addition to segments together.
Those strict divisions are felt not only in the double album’s running order but also in the performances themselves. Dylan and the Band exist as very separate entities here, not the fully collaborative unit heard on The Basement Tapes. The ensuing work is one that plays to Dylan’s quirky strengths as a live performer, whether on the strong and passionate readings of “Most Likely You’ll Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)” and “Lay Lady Lay” that commence the recording or the full-band arrangement of “Blowin’ in the Wind” that concludes it.
The band fares better than Dylan in the solo sets, although its return in the second half with “Shape I’m In” and “When You Awake” carries over the lack of subtlety heard in Dylan’s three unaccompanied acoustic performances. Guitarist Robbie Robertson sounds inspired throughout the first disc in particular — his solo breaks are a repeated source of bristling energy. But overall, Before the Flood remains a worthy but inessential item in Dylan’s catalog — and both he and the Band have better live recordings available, especially the several volumes in Dylan’s Bootleg Series.
Speaking of better live recordings, Dylan & the Dead isn’t one of them. Recorded during a 1987 stadium tour that featured three sets each night — two by the Grateful Dead followed by one with the Dead as Dylan’s backing band — the album ranks near the nadir of Dylan’s discography. Although it sold well upon its release two years later, Dylan & the Dead was a staple in college dorm rooms and the first introduction to either artist for many people who were expanding their musical tastes in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It hasn’t gotten any better with age.
Of course, Dylan wasn’t exactly at the top of his game at the time of the Dead tour; and though the Dead was still going strong as a live act, the 1980s weren’t kind to either artist. But surprisingly, the ensemble fares better on the then-recent Dylan material like “Slow Train” and “Gotta Serve Somebody” — the latter being a lone exception to the otherwise lackluster performances as the Dead breathes a little life into one of Dylan’s most inexplicably popular songs. Elsewhere, the Dead takes a workman-like approach, frequently sounding as if it is teaching Dylan his own songs as each one begins.
But maybe it just simply wasn’t a good match. After all, for a band as renowned for its improvisational skills as the Dead, playing rote arrangements of Dylan tunes may have been the equivalent of donning suits and ties to work as stockbrokers. Either way, the reissue can’t be faulted — in fact, the fantastic mix and stereo separation only calls more attention to the mediocre playing by all involved. Regardless of the unusual inclusion of Dylan & the Dead, the set of CD reissues is welcome for The Basement Tapes alone, and it will be interesting to see how much of Dylan’s remaining catalog gets remastered as more and more of the music-buying public turns to non-physical formats.