This summer I set out to listen to every Bob Dylan album in order (including the Bootleg Series) and write about them. I finished this ten part series over a week ago, but now I want to take some time to get some perspective on this quiet Sunday when I can feel autumn creeping in.
The biggest thing that surprised me on this journey was that none of Dylan's music that I had already known dropped in my esteem. There was never a moment where I told myself "what did I ever see in this?" On the contrary, it was much more likely for me to ask myself "why didn't I like this one more before?" That was certainly the case with New Morning and Modern Times. This is probably the most banal observation I could make, but this exercise affirms all of the praise that has been lavished on Dylan over his career. It is not Boomer nostalgia or overwrought fawning. In fact, it's not enough!
The other big insight I have is into aging. During the entire 60s Dylan just churned out amazing song after amazing song. Even when he was resting in Woodstock after a motorcycle accident he wrote and recorded the songs on the Basement tapes in a year. There's enough in that repository for a lifetime for other musical artists. In his youth the muse never left him.
In the 70s, however, things got rockier and spottier. In his personal life Dylan started a family but also got divorced. As I know from my own aging, getting older means being responsible for people other than yourself and prioritizing family over other concerns. It can also mean that creative work doesn't come as easily. (Notice how the frequency of my posts has fallen off for proof of that.) In the mid-70s Dylan managed to find his feet again, but only for a short time. His Christian period that followed might be rock music's most notable mid-life crisis.
In the 80s he cut some records that were just flat out bad. He was still trying to maintain the pace of his youth, without the same youthful creative energies to sustain it. There was just no way he could put out a whole album's worth of good material every year. The standout songs on those albums also show that the embers still burned.
The admirable thing is, Dylan adjusted. He stopped trying to be a rock singer, and went back to the folk and blues music that originally sustained him. In a strange way the angry folkies who got mad when Dylan went electric were a little bit right: he could never escape who he truly was. Dylan's folk albums in the 90s helped inspire him and build up his creative reserves for the amazing trilogy of albums that followed. Once he started running out of gas again he returned to old standards, and used that time to invigorate himself and turn out the excellent Rough and Rowdy Ways.
As an aging person myself, whose capabilities diminish with each passing day, I take some amount of comfort in Dylan's trajectory. It's better to burn out than to rust, but sometimes burning out just means keeping a candle lit.
Dylan Album Ratings Roundup
I am not going to rank Dylan's albums (which is impossible) but I will just share the ratings I assigned. Feel free to argue with me.
Five Bobs: Rough and Rowdy Ways, Modern Times, Love and Theft, Time Out of Mind, Blood on the Tracks, Basement Tapes, Blonde on Blonde, Highway 61 Revisited, Bringing It All Back Home, The Times They Are A-Changin', The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan
Four and a Half Bobs: Oh Mercy, Desire, Nashville Skyline
Four Bobs: Tempest, Together Through Life, World Gone Wrong, Good as I've Been to You, Slow Train Coming, Street Legal, New Morning, John Wesley Harding, Another Side of Bob Dylan, Bob Dylan
Three and a Half Bobs: Triplicate, Fallen Angels, Unplugged, Infidels, Before the Flood, Planet Waves
Three Bobs: Shadows in the Night, Real Live, Saved, Hard Rain
Two and a Half Bobs: Empire Burlesque, Shot of Love, At Budokan, Self Portrait
Two Bobs: Christmas in the Heart, Down in the Groove, Knocked Out Loaded, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid
One and a Half Bobs: Under the Red Sky, Dylan and the Dead
One Bob: None, because even his worst stuff has some redeeming features