Bob Dylan has been writing and recording music for almost 60 years, and rock ‘n’ roll’s foremost poet laureate has no intentions of stepping back into the shadows.
New album ‘Rough and Rowdy Ways’ arrives later this month, his first album of original material since 2012’s ‘Tempest’. Not that he’s been slacking – three volumes of cover material have occupied his studio time, his archives have been further plundered for the Bootleg Series, while Bob Dylan’s ongoing tour commitments would exhaust most musicians a quarter of his age.
This new album, then, is just the latest comeback in a career peppered with visions of returning to the source, of a life dominated by resurrections.
Clash looks back on five seminal Bob Dylan albums that defied the odds, and found the songwriter bouncing up from the canvas to deliver a knockout blow.
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‘John Wesley Harding’
It’s difficult to image the sheer cultural velocity that accompanied each statement by Bob Dylan in the 60s. Moving with electric pace, 1965 saw two separate masterpieces - ‘Bringing It All Back Home’ and ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ - while 1966 bore witness to the hefty, expansive double album ‘Blonde On Blonde’.
But then came the motorcycle crash. Retreating to upstate New York, Dylan’s absence from the counter-cultural landscape spawned feverish speculation, focussing on gory injuries, mental collapse, and a reclusive identity – the Howard Hughes of the New America.
‘John Wesley Harding’ with his riposte to all that, and removed him from the Love Generation to quite literally make his roots elsewhere. A stark listen indebted to country music, the record took the name of a feared Old West gunslinger, reaching down into the bedrock of Americana.
Released as 1967 drew to a close, ‘John Wesley Harding’ felt a universe away from its peers; as sombre and suggestive as the black and white photo on its cover, its low-key return masked the subtle shifts within the songwriting itself. Quietly enduring, haunted by religious imagery, ‘John Wesley Harding’ was sound of Dylan pressing pause amid the unstoppable momentum of the 60s.
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‘Blood On The Tracks’
Critical lore has it that ‘Blood On The Tracks’ was a bolt from the blue, the sudden arrest of a creative slide that opened in 1970 and continued to accelerate.
However that’s slightly missing the point of Dylan’s early 70s output. Sure, ‘Self Portrait’ was rightly derided, but ‘New Morning’ has stood the test of time. Equally, the songwriter’s acting role (and soundtrack) in Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid saw him accept fresh challenges, while 1974’s ‘Planet Waves’ is an enriching for-old-time’s-sake link up with The Band.
With all that in mind, the sheer domineering artistry of ‘Blood On The Tracks’ isn’t a complete shock, but it remains a bold, riveting experience. Laced with career-high classics – the scorn of ‘Idiot Wind’, the simplistic beauty of ‘Shelter From The Storm’ - it moves from semi-acoustic folk dash to a plangent take on Chicago blues, pieced together with unerring emotional accuracy.
With divorce, heartbreak, and a blossoming interest in sculpture all being named as influences – each one successively dismissed by Dylan himself - ‘Blood On The Tracks’ has retained its mystery in a way the album’s that immediately preceded it have lost.
It’s a record dominated by masks and disguises, each character playing multiple roles in a way that never truly coalesces, an endless who-done-it that still thrills and fascinates.
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The 80s weren’t kind of many artists of the Love Generation. The Rolling Stones were largely absent, Paul McCartney moved definitively into MOR, Neil Young was sued for not being Neil Young enough, while Dylan… well, try listening to ‘Empire Burlesque’ and compare it to, say, ‘Bringing It All Back Home’.
With his involvement with the Travelling Wilburys seeming to ignite that creative spark once more, the Daniel Lanois produced 1989 full length ‘Oh Mercy’ saw Bob Dylan re-enter the ring, a determined, beatific return, soaked in visions of America and the eternal mystery of Crescent City.
‘Political World’ lashed out at the establishment, while the apocalyptic ‘Man In The Long Black Coat’ was seemingly recorded in one take. Moving with confidence once more, it’s a record that thrives on risk, retrieving Biblical language on the sumptuous ‘Ring Them Bells’.
The magisterial ‘Most Of The Time’ is Dylan looking inwards, a process continued on the caustic, charged ‘What Good Am I?’. A sudden surge back to his Imperial best, ‘Oh Mercy’ remains a real landmark for the songwriter, laid out like an exhibition, each portrait leading to the next.
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‘Time Out Of Mind’
If the 80s were tough on Dylan fans, then the 90s would prove to be a real drought. The Neverending Tour not withstanding, the songwriter seemed to slip from view, the good will surrounding ‘Oh Mercy’ surrendered on lacklustre follow up ‘Under The Red Sky’ and two – count ‘em – trad folk workouts.
And then came ‘Time Out Of Mind’. Regarded as a spent force, Bob Dylan’s surge back into view caught fans and critics off guard, his biting, reflective work would be unsparing in its lyric lens, unflinching in its penmanship.
‘Love Sick’ is the last saloon for romance, the final death rattle for the heart. ‘Dirt Road Blues’ has a skeletal rockabilly feel, while ‘Cold Irons Bound’ pulls the Beat poetry of ‘Visions Of Joanna’ say into the glare of modernity.
The 16 minute ‘Highlands’ ranks among the most ambitious tracks Bob Dylan has ever recorded, a songwriter whose yearning for space in his work moves from ‘Blonde On Blonde’ to recent tumbling ode to assassination ‘Murder Most Foul’. Here, though, not a second is wasted, with Dylan able to ruminate on place and time with laser-like exactness, channelling Robert Burns and a flea-bit Boston restaurant in the process.
A work that absorbed the ageing process – Dylan’s voice is unframed by effects – it stands alongside those final albums by Johnny Cash as a work of devastating Americana, flipping rock’s quest for eternal youth on its head. ‘Time Out Of Mind’ was just the beginning, however – a record haunted by the nearness of death, it actually sparked renewed life for Dylan’s muse.
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‘Rough and Rowdy Ways’ will be released on June 19th.