The version of The Basement Tapes released in 1975 was a feat of editing as much as musicianship. Under the hand of Robbie Robertson, the vast collections of recordings made by Bob Dylan and the Band (or the Hawks) was shaped, polished, sometimes beefed up with overdubs, to become an album, one where Dylan and the Band shared equal collaboration. It’s an album that celebrated the Band after they had made their own name, but also celebrated the fruitful work Robertson and company had done with Dylan, treating the set as a starting point for the Band and a career shift for Dylan.
The Basement Tapes Complete, however, the 11th volume in Bob Dylan’s ever-expanding Bootleg Series tells a different story. On the whole, The Bootleg Series has been a series of islands, separate moments captured in a career from a musician who never sat still. After the basic odds ‘n sods approach for Vol. 1-3, we got famous live sets captured on Vol. 4 and Vol. 6, a cross-section of the famous Rolling Thunder Revue tour on Vol. 5, a soundtrack to a fascinating, complicating documentary on Vol. 7, late-career recordings for Vol. 8, the early Witmark Demos on Vol. 9, and an expansion of Dylan’s thorniest, most evasive album on Vol. 10. The set up of the series, dipping back and forth in time, changing formats and approaches, suggests that chronology is a bad start to approaching Dylan’s career. It also suggests that, even in revealing more recordings, even in giving them context in these collections, the road he traveled between reinventions only gets murkier, the process obscured as much as it is clarified by this sheer glut of material.
But The Basement Tapes Complete arrives as an outlier in this series, as if it needed more of those. This massive collection is an archipelago all of its own. It deconstructs the 1975 album and, in six discs of material, instead presents us not with an edited album but rather with a chronological trip through all the recordings they could salvage made by Dylan and the Band at Big Pink. The album is sequenced according to Garth Hudson’s documentation of the order of recordings, and it feels — for the first time — like we’re finally being let in on a process, a moment where we get to see Dylan working out his relationship with music. The liner notes here make much of Dylan reassessing his career, his life, and his music in the wake of his bad 1967 motorcycle accident. This is as clear a frame as we’re given for these recordings, and they do seems to reveal both Dylan and the other players here wandering. No individual instrumentation credits are given for these recordings, as everyone bounced around from instrument to instrument, style to style, genre to genre. This is an expansive, overwhelming document of a new sort of innovation from Bob Dylan. It recalls the Witmark Demos in its desire to derive innovation out of tradition, but even those early demos felt shaped by a man who knew where he was going, he was just looking for the best path. That young Dylan was also breaking from a particular vein of folk music. On The Basement Tapes Complete, though, Dylan and the Band give into tradition quite often, and in working with it instead of against it make some fascinating discoveries.
This huge set could also de-mythologize The Basement Tapes, a set that has been written about plenty and been wrapped in mystery and fascination dating back to the Great White Wonder, one of the first big rock bootlegs, pulled from these sessions. But in this box set, the recordings feel less mysterious and more domestic, like an extended jam session we’re let in on. It also shows us that, though the collaboration with the Band is crucial to the sound here, this is very much Dylan’s show, and his drive to keep recording, keep rediscovering, shaping new corners of this home with new sounds, is what makes these recordings so expansive and interesting.
This set is built around a revisiting of old songs, which is a pretty shocking shift considering Dylan and the Band just got through their loud, electric tour in Europe, where so many fans met their folk-busting approach with boos. But here we’re treated to warm versions of tradition folk ballads and spiritual tunes like “Bonnie Ship the Diamond”, “Po’ Lazarus”, and “Ain’t No More Cain” (twice). We also get Irish folk courtesy of a version of the Brendan Behan-penned “The Auld Triangle”, and more than a few trips into blues, especially on a rattling version of John Lee Hooker’s “Tupelo”. In each case, the instrumentation is dusty and organic, but somehow Dylan finds his own voice by honoring others. His ability to dip his voice in molasses as he speak-sings his way through “Tupelo” is extraordinary.
He’s also capable of visiting more contemporary songs and, with the Band, making them his own. He manages versions of “Big River” and “Folson Prison Blues” that play up his love of the blues and, in the process, he almost steals two of Johnny Cash’s signature songs. Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready” feels like a kissing cousin to “‘I Shall Be Released” here. And Dylan even connects with the Band on a few tunes by Canadian singer-songwriter Ian Tyson, making songs like “Four Strong Winds” and “Song For Canada” feel less like Dylan backed by great musicians than like a true band playing together, one and all.
The sequencing here suggests that visiting the songs of others set Dylan and company up to record their own material. Of course, it’s telling that all the covers here feel like both tributes and distortions. Together, these players can’t help but whip up the past even when they honor it. The same is true of their own music. We see the formation of songs Dylan and the and would make famous, as different takes of “Tears of Rage” see it go from ramshackle ballad to waltzing shuffle and back again, while “You Ain’t Goin Nowhere” moves from oddball spoken-word piece to dusty Americana. The group also looks back into Dylan’s own past, turning “Blowin’ in the Wind” into roadhouse blues and “It Ain’t Me Babe” into hazy folk-pop. These takes, especially “Blowin’ in the Wind”, seem to run out of thread before they get to the end, but they set up the stuff that would end up on that 1975 version of The Basement Tapes. Even in this grand sequence, where a cover of “Rock Salt and Nails” can feel as fresh and resonant as “I Shall Be Released”, there’s a different energy to the playful roll of “Million Dollar Bash” or the brilliantly smudged guitars of “Goin’ to Acapulco”. In these moments, we hear the players finding new ground in between all the old ground they visit here. In these moments, Big Pink sounds most like home, like a place not just to regroup, but to self-define.
The Basement Tapes Complete is more historical document than album, one more interested in being comprehensive than being moment-to-moment marvelous. In that way, this box set rewards immersive listening, digesting two and three takes in a row of songs Dylan and Band fans already know on Disc Four, for instance. Or working through snippets and half takes littered through the set to stumble on alternate versions and curious covers of songs you know by heart. You may have to endure the poor-quality recordings on Disc Six more than enjoy them. The truly show-stopping performances here are, honestly, few and far between. But that’s also not the point of these recordings. What makes the set remarkable is its insights into a series of relationships: between Dylan’s past and his future, between Dylan and the Band, between the players and the space they recorded in, between tradition and innovation. In much of Dylan’s work, these sorts of relationships clash. Here, though, they mesh and, yes, sometimes tangle. But the edge is sanded down in favor of the openness of discovery. It makes for a strange kind of consistency, even as the players move all over the map, all over the grounds of this new found home. Of course, maybe this notion of process, this idea that we’re let in on the moment of discovery, is just another sleight of hand by the persona that is Bob Dylan. If it is, it’s perhaps his most convincing yet.