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Opinion: A taste of Bob Dylan is not enough

November 7, 2013
By MARK J. MILLER - For The Weekender ( , The Herald-Star

This week I review the new "Bob Dylan Complete Album Collection Vol. 1," recently released by Sony/Legacy.

- Bob Dylan - "The Complete Album Collection Vol. 1"

Of course Sony/Legacy didn't send me the entire box set of 41 CDs, but I did receive a rather clever three-CD sampler with one song from every one of the band's 39 albums. It's a rather interesting concept, but no matter - I own every one of these, either on CD or vinyl or both and have listened to them extensively through the years.

The gargantuan box also includes two CDs of previously unreleased material, which, to be honest, I would have rather had. Priced at about $180 on, I imagine these huge box sets must be selling well enough or the company would simply stop offering them.

What's interesting is some of these albums weren't released on Columbia - now owned by Sony - but on other labels as well, such as "Before the Flood," Dylan's live set with the Band, which was originally released on Arista Records. Then I remembered that Sony now owns the rights to Arista's back catalog as well! So there you go.

Instead of trying to review all of Dylan's albums, I'm going to focus on the sublime, the good, the mediocre and the absurdly bad, because Dylan, obviously a man who doesn't like to be contained in a creative straightjacket, has released a few true stinkers during his long career as well.

The sublime -From 1965's "Bringing It All Back Home" to "Highway 61 Revisited" to his ultimate masterpiece, 1966's "Blonde on Blonde," the Dylan most think of was creatively born. Beginning as a folkie, these three albums saw Dylan turn to rock and roll in a big and tremendously creative way. Influenced not a little by the Beatles and various chemical enhancements, these are the crown jewels in Dylan's career, the creme de la creme. Wildly surrealistic and absurdly vivid poetry mixed with electric blues, these albums still influence rock today and helped create a new art form.

From 1967 to 1969 we have Dylan turning country after a serious motorcycle accident and a desire not to be pigeon-holed. "John Wesley Harding" is a fine, stripped down album of more "straight" material, while "Nashville Skyline" sounds "sweet," with country-influenced instrumentals and a guest appearance by Johnny Cash. A break from cigarettes also changed Dylan's voice from a sarcastic instrument into the sexy bedroom lullaby heard on "Lay, Lady Lay."

From "New Morning" to "Planet Waves" - roughly 1970 to 1974 - Dylan sounds rather lazy, although there are some winners amongst the muck. He also released one of the worst albums of his career with "Self Portrait," a weird, skewed and deliberate attempt to sabotage his career, in my opinion.

Dylan recovered in 1975 with "Blood on the Tracks," a bitter but spirited account of a recent divorce. This is definitely the highlight of his 1970s work with the exception of "The Basement Tapes," recorded with the Band. The two-LP offering is a tour-de-force and surreal slice of Americana that's funny, sarcastic and filled with great song after great song. "Desire" is best known for its gyspy-flavored violin and some fine songs, while "Hard Rain" chronicles Dylan's tour with the Rolling Thunder Revue, a motley group of musicians. The album is spirited, with Dylan's fierce delivery live showing he was beginning to care about his music once more.

Things then went back to hell again, with Dylan releasing a string of mediocre albums, including "Street Legal," the absolutely horrible "Live at Budokan," the "I'm-sort-of-a-born-again-Christian-fundamentalist" vibe of "Saved," "Slow Train Coming" and "Shot of Love" followed by "Infidels," the best album of Dylan's 1980s years. He spends the remainder of the decade putting out mediocre effort after another and sounds lost, spiritually and creatively. Even a stadium tour with the Grateful Dead as backup band showed Dylan was in a foul mood, as witnessed by yours truly during a wretched show at Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Ore., in 1988.

It isn't until 1989's "Oh Mercy" that Dylan found his groove again, and the album is filled with fabulous songs, including the wry "Everything is Broken" and the movingly pious "Ring Dem Bells,"

The good vibrations didn't last long, as the next year Dylan released the worst album of his entire career with "Under the Red Sky," a stinker so bad I cringe to think of it. A man who wrote "Like a Rolling Stone," writes a piece of crap like "Wiggle Wiggle?" Wow. This "song" is so beneath Dylan it's hard to imagine he wrote it. But it was obviously another attempt to crawl out under the weight of his reputation by ruining it. It almost worked for me.

Dylan changed gears again by releasing "Good as I've Been to You" and "World Gone Wrong," two CDs of classic folk ballads with just Dylan's ragged vocals and his odd, totally individualistic guitar-playing. Both are quite excellent if a little under-weighted for the most celebrated musical poet of our time.

Then Dylan finds himself and releases a string of top-notch albums showing he was interested in his art again. "They begin with "Time Out of Mind" in 1997, hit the peak with the outstanding "Love and Theft," released in 2001, to "Tempest," released last year. These albums saw Dylan mining musical forms of the past for inspiration, from Tin Pan Alley to gutbucket, Mississippi blues, with much success. In there also is Dylan's delightfully tongue-in-cheek Christmas album, which I think is a lot of fun.

So, there you have it. It is interesting to note that on every album there's at least one Dylan song where he means it, even on the ones that are phoned in. You could do a lot worse than having Dylan's complete album collection. Maybe Sony eventually will send me one.

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