Oh, how is it even possible to say a bad word about a Bob Dylan album? Arguably the most brilliant songwriter of our time, an absolutely fascinating evolution of an artist: poet, rebel, activist, balladeer, country singer, troubadour…. We all know the list of accomplishments that can follow his name. Even more impressive is the fact that it’s a list that’s had many of these twists and turns just in recent years of recording, and also includes such off-the-beaten track moves as books of poetry, dips into film including 2004’s Masked and Anonymous and the self-penned Chronicles: Volume One in 2005. It’s a vast and always intriguing catalogue of work that Dylan has provided us with, but this latest offering from the library of Columbia/Legacy, DYLAN, should not be confused with an offering from the man himself. And perhaps that is the sole reason I can bring myself to utterly say that this is not a necessary addition.
Dylan’s music has been remastered, recycled and repackaged in so many ways that the ridiculous number attempts is probably only forgiven because of the extraordinary level of songwriting that we’re dealing with. To date, there have been three volumes of Greatest Hits (released in 1967, 1971 and 1994 respectively), the Biograph box set in 1985, an Essential Bob Dylan in 2000, a Best of in 2005, a remastering series of his first most influential albums, The Bootleg Series Volume 1-3 in 1991, and yes, the list goes on here too. There is no doubt that we’re talking about a catalogue of work here that is deserving of the title “masterpiece”, but do we really need to be presented with these same songs over and over again?
Besides Disc Three of DYLAN, which covers the more recent years of studio work, all but a small handful of the songs on this new three disc set have already appeared at least once before on another compilation. In fact, the only previously unreleased track — the only remix ever to be approved by Dylan, Mark Ronson’s remix of “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine) — is only available through the digital version of the album being sold through iTunes. It’s ironic that so many attempts have been made to fit Dylan’s career neatly into a box when he has spent his entire career genre-bending, defying expectations and dodging any sort of pigeon-hole that people have tried to carve out for him. But it’s also getting tired. According to the advance press released for the compilation, song selections were greatly influenced by the input of fans offered through the website set up to promote DYLAN, though the predictable track listing found here really doesn’t indicate anything out of the ordinary.
The latest incarnation of retrospective on DYLAN is one that takes a mainly chronological focus, including the key songs from his albums to paint a sort of linear picture of all of the expected landmarks of his career: from his “Song to Woody” in 1962 and rise to fame in the later ’60s, through the personal and professional roller coaster of the early ’70s to mid-’80s that saw critics claiming the end of his career at least a few times, up to the widely acclaimed trilogy that began with Time Out Of Mind and led to yet another comeback for the artist in the late ’90s. Just trying to mark three such definitive timelines for Dylan’s career is restrictive and insisting on “fitting” the songs together like one big jigsaw puzzle feels like we’re missing the point completely.
Really, there isn’t a single song here that isn’t a winner (it is Dylan, after all), but it’s all far too familiar territory and just seems to be shelling out the same snapshot of the singer that we’ve all been getting for years. Frankly, he’s a much more interesting artist and more challenging song samples definitely exist: Dylan’s often bratty persona and tumultuous relationship with the media as represented “Ballad of a Thin Man”, lesser known examples of exceptional lyricism like “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”, moments of womanizing swagger heard on “Oh, Sister”, and instances of his twisted humor as on “Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum” are just a few. There are a million other unrepresented moments throughout Dylan’s career that would have offered a more thoughtful and unique portrayal of such a vast artistic landscape: there’s certainly enough diversity to be found throughout Dylan’s 45 years of work.
Ultimately, it may simply just come down to the fact that there is no box set that could ever properly house the likes of someone like Bob Dylan. There is really nothing linear about his career, and certainly nothing so conventional about his work that it could be expected to be presented in any sort of meaningful way within such unoriginal parameters. So, grab this album for the catalogue of great songs if you don’t already have the classic albums that they’ve been picked from. But, really, we should all already have these albums.