Let’s try to focus for a minute on the positive. I sort of like the cover art. I actually don’t like the covers to most of Dylan’s albums (looking at them all right now, I would almost amend that to say that I don’t like any of his album covers), but this one is kind of goofily above average for a Dylan cover.
After that, I think I’m done.
Dylan is an album that I had never listened to before this week, and it is one that I may never listen to again, in all honesty. I’ll note that AllMusic.com gives it one star out of five (even Self Portrait got two stars), a ranking that is only matched by 1989’s Dylan and The Dead (the album that ended my initial love affair with Dylan a quarter century ago). I’m guessing that AllMusic doesn’t give it out scores below one star?
This is not just a bad album, but it is a legendarily bad album. Perhaps even a purposefully bad album. Released in mid-November, six weeks before Planet Waves, the album was packaged by Columbia out of spite. Dylan had signed with Asylum Records earlier in the year (he will release two albums with them in 1974 before going back to Columbia) and they literally put out an album in an attempt to thwart the sales of the other album. That is pretty incredible if you stop for a moment to think about it.
I have to say, I have never paid that much attention to musicians who protest their record labels, from Prince to the Dixie Chicks. I assume that they probably have some legitimate issues, but I never know what they are, exactly, and I have never really cared enough to follow it. I do have to say, though, that when a record company releases a collection of bad recordings of one of their major stars just in an effort to hurt that person, well, maybe record companies are as awful as they’re depicted as being.
Almost all of the material on Dylan was recorded for New Morning, although two of the songs date from Self-Portrait. None are originals, and none of them are any good. Many of them are songs that Dylan was recording just to experiment with studio set-up – practice material, essentially. Everything was three or four years old at the time and Dylan had made a deliberate choice to bury it all. Notably, when he came back to Columbia this wasn’t released on CD, though it is included on the Complete Album Collection.
Most of the material is kind of disastrous. “Lily of the West” is not awful – that is, until the back-up singers chime in. If you stripped them out this was be an inoffensive number. Not important or memorable, just not awful.
“Can’t Help Falling in Love” is just dreadful. Nothing should be said about this song. “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” is also pretty bad. I kept trying to like this. I have a nice version of this by Peter La Farge on The Best of Broadside. This does not compare to that. “Mr. Bojangles” actually, for a very short moment, sounded to me like a Dylan song once this week. Just the sadness, the circus, something about it. Then it went away and I’ve never managed to get it back. Pretty awful. Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” is one of those frequently covered songs that never sound as good as when Mitchell sings it, so what’s the point? “A Fool Such As I” and “Spanish is the Loving Tongue” both add up to nothing.
There are two songs that I don’t despise here. “Mary Ann” sounds like a rehearsal song. It’s not a bad traditional song. The guitar part is nice, the back-up singers aren’t terrible. It’s probably the best thing here. The other is “Sarah Jane”. My wife thinks that this alternately sounds like something that The Partridge Family would’ve recorded, or that the Muppets should perform (with all the “La la la la las”). I think that this song is just so derangedly goofy that I sort of have to like it. I like to picture Dylan dressed in an Elvis jumpsuit performing this in Las Vegas.
Really, this album is so bad, and the Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid soundtrack is so thin, that I almost skipped ahead to 1974 early today. I was able to restrain myself, but I’ve had Dylan playing in my office all afternoon I am about to lose my mind.
Here’s Peter La Farge doing “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” as an antidote: