In Defense takes a second look at a much maligned cover artist or album and asks, “Was it really as bad as all that?”
Dylan is Bob Dylan‘s first break-up album. Out of print for decades before eventually being issued on CD in 2013, the LP was a result of Bob’s defection from Columbia Records to the fledgling Asylum Records in early 1973. While the split ultimately proved to be a temporary separation, it appeared at the time to be a permanent divorce.
The resulting album is often framed as an act of revenge on Columbia’s part, a collection of poor-quality outtakes specifically designed to reduce Dylan’s stock with record buyers. However, this theory doesn’t add up. Columbia still owned Bob’s valuable back catalogue, which they presumably intended to continue profiting from, and releasing an intentionally substandard Dylan album would have been counterproductive. What was probably going on, as Jon Landau suggested in his review for Rolling Stone, was that Dylan would have been the first in a series of “new” Bob Dylan albums comprised of outtakes from previous Columbia sessions. Decca Records was concurrently doing the same thing with their trove of unreleased recordings by The Rolling Stones.
But why these recordings? The track selection on Dylan is perplexing, especially since Columbia already possessed much of the material that would later surface on the successful Bootleg Series. A likely explanation is that whoever compiled the album (possibly Mark Spector, who assembled an abandoned early version) was under pressure to get the record out before Dylan’s first release for Asylum – which was being recorded at that very moment – and therefore had no choice but to simply grab some of the most recent tapes off the top of the pile. The tapes in question, as it happened, were from the sessions for Dylan’s 1970 albums Self Portrait and New Morning.
Columbia’s ploy worked. Dylan reached No.17 on the Billboard chart and was certified gold, despite overwhelmingly negative reviews. Were the critics right? Let’s take another look.
Dylan gets off to a promising start with a traditional called “Lily Of The West.” This song bears a striking resemblance to Dylan’s later recording of “Jack-A-Roe” from 1993’s World Gone Wrong, and it’s possible that the two are related (a variation of the phrase “man of high degree” crops up in both). The aura of tragedy and darkness makes the track totally unsuited for the album it was left off, New Morning, but here it makes a terrific opener.
The mood changes drastically on track two for Elvis’ “Can’t Help Falling In Love.” Although it sounds less like a performance and more like Bob absent-mindedly singing to himself while the band tags along, the overall effect is charming. Up next is the wild and rollicking “Sara Jane,” which would have made a worthy addition to New Morning. Perhaps Bob left it off because he wanted to present an album of all new material after the poorly-received Self Portrait. Either way, New Morning‘s loss is Dylan‘s gain.
At this point the album’s haphazard sequencing begins to affect the flow of the record, as we have two long, slow songs back to back. Peter LaFarge’s “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” is a part spoken-word number about one of the six marines who raised the flag at Iwo Jima, and features Bob on piano in a similar mode to New Morning‘s “Three Angels.” “Mr Bojangles,” written and originally performed by Jerry Jeff Walker, is a stately ballad about the narrator’s encounter with the title character in a New Orleans jail cell. The organ, backing vocals and Dylan’s singing combine to make this track unexpectedly moving.
“Mary Ann,” another traditional, tells the tale of two lovers separated when one goes off to sea. Dylan rarely performs traditional songs with anything less than total authority, and “Mary Ann” is no exception. Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi,” meanwhile, is a case of Bob’s obvious enjoyment being more of a highlight than the actual performance. “A Fool Such As I,” on the other hand, is a very good performance, this time from the Self Portrait sessions. It’s difficult to see why this incredibly fun and catchy song – originally performed by Hank Snow – was left off that album, but it’s nice to have it here.
The final track, the Billy Simon/Charles Badger Clarke-penned “Spanish Is The Loving Tongue,” is hard to appreciate while being aware of the lovely, solo piano version of the song that appears on The Bootleg Series Volume 10: Another Self Portrait. That’s unfortunate, because this take is interesting. It starts off as an acoustic performance before morphing into a tango (!) featuring the whole band. Nonetheless, it can’t equal the quiet beauty of the Another Self Portrait version, coming across as more of an experiment than a fully fleshed-out idea.
So, is Dylan as bad as it’s often made out to be? Since it was compiled and released without Dylan’s input – indeed, against his will – it’s impossible to view the album as any kind of artistic statement. However, as is the case with any Bob Dylan record, it has much to offer if approached with an open mind, especially for fans of Dylan’s 1969-70 era. For an outtakes album that bears all the signs of being thrown together in a single weekend, Dylan is surprisingly good stuff.
Read more about Bob Dylan in our list ranking all of his Great American Songbook covers!