Friday, June 29, 2007

Brain vs iPod: Bob Dylan Edition

A month ago, I decided to embrace my nerddom and look into something that only I could possibly care about: how greatly do my perceptions of an album differ from the star ratings I each song of the album on my iPod? In other words, how much does the concept of an ‘album’ actually matter? A lot of albums have distinct feels and moods to them, but does that end up actually mattering when it comes to an evaluation/rating of the album itself? The album can have a really interesting feel to it, but if the songs aren’t good, what difference does that make? My guinea pig for this experiment was Wilco.

Well, now I’m moving on to the Big Dog.

I’ve always had an appreciation for Bob Dylan, but I didn’t become a full-fledged Dylan-phile until around 2001 or so. In one of my BMG “Buy 1 Get 27 Free” binges early in high school, I bought his greatest hits, but I just wasn’t ready to appreciate him yet. Well, during the height of Napster, I decided to give Blonde on Blonde a try. And that very predictably led to one of my patented ‘phases’ (like the Flaming Lips phase I went through last year...and the Funkadelic phase I seem to have entered recently).

In the summer of 2001, I discovered and purchased about 2/3 of Dylan’s albums (almost all for under $7!), bought a couple biographies, and immersed myself. So after 6+ years of Dylanology, it’s time to rank the albums...I’ll only do a Top 10 here because if I were to rank all of his albums, this would end up around 15,000 words. That, and there are still a few albums I don’t own—Empire Burlesque, Saved, and New Morning.

Anyway, here goes nothing. The following is my “Brain” ranking of the Top 10 Dylan albums.

1. Highway 61 Revisited (1965). As uncreative as this might make me sound, this is my favorite album of all-time. And I know in advance that my iPod will agree with me, as every song on here got 5 stars. Can’t beat that. Dylan was pursuing that “thin, wild mercury sound” that he had in his head, and he said he didn’t capture it until Blonde on Blonde. Well, to me he had already caught and released it. Everything about this album is perfect. Best album opener ever. Best album closer ever. A perfect combination of whimsy and apocalypse.

2. Blood on the Tracks (1975). No matter what mood I’m in, when I listen to this album, I end up sad and a little bit angry. If great art projects its mood onto you, this is as good as art gets. Songs like “Tangled Up in Blue” and “Shelter from the Storm” set the reflective mood, and then Dylan takes you through the different stages of a breakup, from Anger (“Idiot Wind”) to Gut-Wrenching Despair (“If You See Her, Say Hello”) to Acceptance (“Buckets of Rain”). This might be my second-favorite album of all-time.

3. Bringing It All Back Home (1965). I always forget about this one in the overall conversation of Dylan’s discography—Highway 61 and Blonde on Blonde are always the first two ‘60s albums mentioned, Blood on the Tracks always gets mentioned as well, and his last three albums start to surface in the conversation—but that always leads to a nice “Holy crap is this a great album” moment. The album title is one of the most apt titles ever. You can see his music and all of his influences coming together to start making the ground-breaking music he had in his head. But more than that, the lyricism is at just about an all-time high. Hell, this might be third-favorite album of all-time.

4. Love and Theft (2001). When I woke up the morning of 9/11, my initial thought was, “Do I buy Dylan’s new album before class or after?” I had intentionally avoided reading any reviews or stories about Love and Theft because I wanted to be surprised by what I heard. Of course, as I was getting ready for class, I hopped on the Internet like I always do, saw what had happened, and that, shall we say, changed my day around a little bit. By mid-afternoon, though, my brain was simply fried, so I headed over to Wal Mart to pick up Love and Theft and allow it to distract me for a while. When I got back I turned off the TV and computer, sat in my room, turned out the lights, and listened. It was a nice one-hour distraction before I headed back into the living room to take in what was happening for the rest of the evening.

Normally, listening to Dylan is (for me) a pretty emotional experience; coming off of Time Out of Mind, I was expecting something similar with Love and Theft. Instead, I turned on the cd player and listened to what is probably the most fun album Dylan’s ever made. You can’t avoid smiling during “Summer Days”; “Honest With Me” is the hardest-rocking song he’s written; even songs with more downbeat subject matter, like “Cry a While” and “High Water (For Charley Patton)”, aren’t all that downbeat. I expected to enjoy Love and Theft, and I a completely different way than I thought I would.

5. Desire (1976). Certain Dylan albums are mood pieces. They're not tours de force of pure songwriting agility and mastery, but the groove and production and instrumentation are perfectly distinct, and it makes for a lovely listen. Desire is my favorite of this type of Dylan album (others I’d throw into this category are albums like Oh Mercy, Planet Waves, Slow Train Coming, Nashville Skyline—my least favorite Dylan album ever—and Time Out of Mind), though let’s face it—anything with Emmylou Harris on it gives it an unfair advantage over anything without Emmylou.

Desire does have a few perfect songs—“Hurricane” is unbelievable even though his protest might or might not have been sincere; “Isis” is intense and enchanting, though better live (check out the unbelievable Bootleg Series, Vol. 5: Rolling Thunder Revue to see how perfect this song can be); and “Oh Sister” is both haunting and Emmylou-tastic. Most of the album, though, is made up of songs like “One More Cup of Coffee” and “Romance in Durango”—great examples of Dylan songs that could have only been captured with that exact lineup at that exact moment.

I should also mention that Dylan’s voice has never sounded as good as it does on Desire, though my ears might be biased because Emmylou’s harmonizing.

Have I mentioned that Emmylou is the greatest backing vocalist of all-time?

6. Blonde on Blonde (1966). While I don’t love it as much as some (I might just be penalizing it because the harmonica on "Pledging My Time" is too shrill), this album is great for four reasons: 1) “Visions of Johanna”, 2) “I Want You”, 3) that “4th Time Around” sounds like Dylan imitating “Norwegian Wood” (John Lennon had a good reason to be paranoid), and 4) that “Absolutely Sweet Marie” sounds like Dylan imitating every Beach Boys surf song. Don’t know if he actually was or not, but I enjoy it more when I think about it.

7. John Wesley Harding (1967). I was late to the party on this one, and I’m not sure why. I just kept skipping over it on my checklist. That was a mistake. When I finally purchased John Wesley Harding last year, I enjoyed it far more than I thought I would. I knew I’d like “Watchtower” obviously, and I’d seen him perform “Drifter’s Escape” a couple times in concert, so I knew what to expect (more or less...his voice and the instrumentation to every ‘60s song have changed exponentially since then) from that. Otherwise I was a blank slate. But despite the famous lack of hooks or choruses on this album, there is strong emotion and melody at every turn. “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine” has become one of the most played songs on my iPod.

8. Oh Mercy (1989). This one’s #2 on the “Mood Pieces” list...for today, anyway. Some other day, I might put Time Out of Mind in this slot instead. They’re both Daniel Lanois productions, and they both have the same tired (in a good way) feel to them. The difference is, while Time Out of Mind feels like a brittle, cold New York morning, Oh Mercy sounds like a stifling, hot New Orleans night. My opinion of this album might have been enhanced by his long recollection of its recording process in Chronicles, Vol. 1. Hearing him talk so fondly and vividly of it might have made me biased. It’s a damn good album either way, though.

9. The Times They Are A-Changin’ (1964). Really, this album is just as unsteady as his first two (Bob Dylan and The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan), but the title track is, to me, the greatest folk song ever written, so for that reason alone I think very fondly of the album as a whole. However, I have the feeling my iPod ratings won’t think quite as highly of it.

10. Modern Times (2006). Actually, no. Make that Time Out of Mind (1997). Modern Times is a lovely listen, but Time Out of Mind is more cohesive and emotional. Cohesion and emotion are usually two of the more important qualities an album can have, so I’m giving Time the nod. See #8 for further details on this one.

So that’s great. Now what does my iPod tell me I like the best?

1. Highway 61 Revisited. Five-star songs: All of them. “Like a Rolling Stone”, “Tombstone Blues”, “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry”, “From a Buick 6”, “Ballad of a Thin Man”, “Queen Jane Approximately”, “Highway 61 Revisited”, “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”, “Desolation Row”

2. Blood on the Tracks. Five-star songs: “Tangled Up in Blue”, “Simple Twist of Fate”, “Idiot Wind”, “Meet Me in the Morning”, “If You See Her, Say Hello”, “Shelter from the Storm”, “Buckets of Rain”

3. Bringing It All Back Home. Five-star songs: “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, “She Belongs to Me”, “Maggie’s Farm”, “Love Minus Zero/No Limit”, “Mr. Tambourine Man”, “Gates of Eden”, “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”

4. Love and Theft. Five-star songs: “Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum”, “Mississippi”, “Summer Days”, “High Water (For Charley Patton)”, “Honest With Me”, “Cry a While”

5. Blonde on Blonde. Five-star songs: “Visions of Johanna”, “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)”, “I Want You”, “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again”, “Just Like a Woman”, “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I Go Mine)”, “Absolutely Sweet Marie”

6. Time Out of Mind. Five-star songs: “Love Sick”, “Standing in the Doorway”, “Not Dark Yet”, “Cold Irons Bound”

7. Slow Train Coming. Five-star songs: “Gotta Serve Somebody”, “I Believe in You”, “When He Returns”

8. Another Side of Bob Dylan. Five-star songs: “Chimes of Freedom”, “To Ramona”, “It Ain’t Me Babe”

9. Modern Times. Five-star songs: “Thunder on the Mountain”, “Rollin’ and Tumblin’”, “Someday Baby”

10. Desire. Five-star songs: “Hurricane”, “Isis”, “Oh, Sister”

Not surprisingly, the ‘mood’ albums I mentioned don’t fare quite as well when they’re evaluated simply for their content—Desire drops from #5 in my head to #10 on my iPod, just as Oh Mercy drops from #8 to unrated.

However, I seem to have discounted Slow Train Coming, Another Side, and Modern Times. I think Slow Train has an easy explanation: it’s a bit of an uncomfortable listen. There are plenty of strong songs, and Dylan sings with conviction, but...well, it’s preachy. Everybody knows this. He suddenly went from well-known Jew to proselytizing Christian, and he seemed to be judging anybody who questioned him or his motives...and for that matter, anybody who wasn’t as faithful a Christian as he suddenly was. Knowing this in advance, I wasn’t in a hurry to buy this album or Saved, even though I’ve owned Shot of Love—the third part of the Christian-esque trilogy—for a while and enjoy it. But there’s no discounting the quality and passion of Dylan’s performance and songwriting here. If he really did ‘go Christian’ go give him something to feel strongly about, it served its purpose.

What about Another Side? Well, quite simply I think it gets lost in the shuffle between his hardcore folk albums—Freewheelin’ and Times They Are A-Changin’—and his electric conversion. How an album with “It Ain’t Me Babe”, “Chimes of Freedom”, “To Ramona” (his most underrated song), and others gets forgotten says something about either my memory or the unbelievable quality of Dylan’s discography. As for Modern Times, I get annoyed with magazines and TV shows when they rank new stuff too high on “Top __” lists, and I think I tend to overcompensate. It’s a damn good album, though it wasn’t the best album of 2006 as everybody tried to immediately anoint it.

So we’re through with two of these experiments now, and I seem to have pretty much learned what I could have guessed I would learn. Just as statistics don’t tell the whole story in sports—one’s impact on team chemistry and his ability to make teammates better doesn’t show up in the box score, just as an album with an interesting mood and groove might not rank high if the individual songs aren’t amazing—they tell a good percentage of it.

Not that this predictable conclusion won’t prevent me from writing a bunch more “Brain vs iPod”’s...

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