A review of “Bringing It All Back Home” by Bob Dylan

[Since Bob Dylan videos tend to disappear quickly from Youtube, the videos in this post are live versions. You can hear the original album versions on Spotify.]

I can summarise this post in one sentence: “Bringing It All Back Home” is awesome, brilliant and possibly Bob Dylan’s best album. The only reason it’s not definitely Bob Dylan’s best album is that the two albums released after it—”Highway 61 Revisited” and “Blonde on Blonde”—are also amazingly good, and I can’t really say that any one of them is better than the other. There’s also competition from “Blood on the Tracks”, but that album came later, during a different phase of his career, and it has such a different tone and style that I don’t think it’s very meaningful to compare it with these three albums. Together, these three albums are known as the ‘electric trilogy’, because it was on these albums that Bob Dylan first started using electric instruments, thus distancing himself from his folksinger roots. The story of this shift in genres is interesting, if you’re interested in the development of popular music, but it doesn’t really have much relevance to listeners of the album today. “Bringing It All Back Home” wasn’t completely electric—the songs on the second side were done in the old acoustic style—but the difference between the two sides isn’t particularly striking, at least to a modern listener. It makes you wonder how people could have made such a fuss.

I’m no expert on this—I mean, this album was released 40 years before I was born—but I don’t think the change in instrumentation was what really made some of Bob Dylan’s old fans annoyed with him. It was actually more about the abandonment of ‘protest songs’, which had already happened with the previous album (“Another Side of Bob Dylan”) but I guess at this point, people still thought Bob Dylan might want to go back to making political statements and being the ‘voice of a generation’. They were wrong, of course, and thank God for that! Now, I have some sympathy for the people who were disappointed in him for this. I’m not against political art. And I like Bob Dylan’s political songs. But I think for Bob Dylan, political art was just a passing interest. His debut was apolitical; then there were two albums with political themes, and then he lost interest. Any political songs he made afterwards would have been insincere—he wouldn’t really have believed in their message, he would have been just writing them to please his fans. And nothing is worse than insincere political art.

What is this album about, then? It’s hard to say, really. Sometimes people say that Bob Dylan relies on his lyrics—and this is kind of true—but it’s misleading too, because it makes you think the lyrics are meant to be understood as a story, or poem, perhaps. But really the lyrics are just like another instrument in the song. They’re part of the music, not separate from it. And they don’t have a meaning any more than a guitar riff has a meaning. I don’t mean they’re meaningless: like a guitar riff, they can communicate a certain emotional atmosphere, but not much more than that. The line in “Gates of Eden” about “the motorcycle black Madonna two-wheeled gypsy queen” isn’t there to introduce a new character or something like that. The only reason it’s there is to make you go “What a really cool-sounding phrase!”, or maybe even “What a ridiculous line! What was he on when he decided to put that in the song?”, which, if it makes you laugh, is probably a reaction Bob Dylan would be happy with you having.

Of course, some of the songs do have more definite meanings: “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” is a love song, for example, “She Belongs to Me” is something kind of like a love song, “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding” is kind of political. I can even accept the argument that “Maggie’s Farm” might be an allegory for Bob Dylan’s relationship with the folk movement, although personally I prefer to think of it as a song about a guy who really hates his job at a farm. But the lyrics still act as an instrument to some extent in these songs as well. For example, there’s the line in “Love Minus Zero/No Limit”: “in ceremonies of the horsemen, even the pawn must hold a grudge”. What on earth does that mean, and what does it have to do anything? Well, those are the wrong questions to ask. It just sounds good.

But let’s go through the songs. The first one is “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, and this is a really great, interesting song. In fact, pretty much all the songs on this album are great and interesting. You can just take those adjectives as implied for all the other songs! “Subterranean Homesick Blues” is pretty much a rap, although that term wasn’t in use when it was released. The lyrics consist of descriptions of things going on in around the narrator, together with various warnings addressed to a “kid”, such as “Don’t follow leaders, watch the parking meters” and “Don’t wanna be a bum, you better chew gum”. These lyrics, together with the instruments, give the song has a sort of chaotic, bustling feel. It’s a very fun song, and an excellent way to draw you into the album. It also has one of those lines that seems like a well-known phrase, although it’s actually Dylan’s own invention: “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”.

The next two songs are, in my opinion, slightly weaker but still very enjoyable. “She Belongs to Me” is a love song of a somewhat vague and ambiguous nature. It’s not even very clear whether it should be thought of as a love song since the lyrics could be interpreted as gently mocking. It does have some great lyrics like you’d expect from Bob Dylan: “she can take the dark out of the night time and paint the day time black”. After this song, you may get a feeling of déjà vu as “Maggie’s Farm” sounds, at the beginning, almost exactly like “Subterranean Homesick Blues”. This is one of the most famous songs on the album, and its lyrics awesome. Some of the lines are great countercultural aphorisms (“I try my best to be just like I am, but everybody wants you to be just like them”) and some of them are just hilarious (“she’s sixty-eight but she says she’s fifty-four”). Unfortunately, the song also has kind of a terrible melody, and Dylan’s voice, which is often kind of drawling and unpleasant, is especially like that here. So I’ll admit I find it hard to listen to this song all the way through.

“Love Minus Zero/No Limit”, which follows “Maggie’s Farm”, is an improvement. This is the best song on the first side of the album. It comes across as a much nicer love song than “She Belongs to Me”, although this is really due to the sweet melody rather than the lyrics. The lyrics start out lovely and heartwarming, then during the last three verses they get rather weird—I already mentioned the “ceremonies of the horsemen” line—and they no longer sound so pleasant: “the cloak and dagger dangles”, “the wind howls like a hammer”, “my love, she’s like some raven at my window with a broken wing”. The main attraction of the song, for me, is that it’s simply a really nice tune.

After this there are two more ‘average’ songs: “Outlaw Blues” and “On the Road Again”. “Outlaw Blues” is one of the many ‘generic blues songs’ Bob Dylan has done, so its melody is very similar to other songs like “Down the Highway” and “Meet Me in the Morning”. Hence it can be a little bit forgettable. But like all the songs on this album, it has some cool lines, like “I might look like Robert Ford, but I feel just like Jesse James” and “don’t ask me nothin’ about nothin’, I just might tell you the truth”. “On the Road Again” is a comic song about a house with some very strange, dysfunctional inhabitants: there are lots of wonderfully ridiculous lines in it, but the best part is the refrain, and the way Dylan delivers it perfectly: “and you ask why I don’t live here… honey, I can’t believe that you’re for real!” Even so, the song can be a little forgettable just like “Outlaw Blues”. I couldn’t really say why, but it took me a long time to appreciate it.

The first, electric side of the album finishes with “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream”, which is another highlight. The funniest moment on the album is probably the start of this song: Dylan sings the first line in his usual ultra-confident style, but just as he’s almost finished, he realises that he’s started too early, his band have been taken by surprise and haven’t started playing yet, so he breaks out into laughter along with all his band members, which lasts for a good 20 seconds before they start the song properly. The lyrics of the song itself are funny themselves, by virtue of being completely ridiculous. It actually succeeds quite well in creating a dream-like narrative, where new things just keep appearing out of left field and everything seems to make sense until you give it 2 second’s thought. By the way, the melody of this song is exactly the same as “Motorpsycho Nightmare” on “Another Side of Bob Dylan”, which is also hilarious. I’m not complaining, since it’s a pretty good melody. Another thing to note about this song, which I never used to notice since I was paying too much attention to the words, is that the instrumental accompaniment here is really awesome. It was definitely worth waiting for the band to get into gear!

So that’s the end of the electric side. The acoustic side begins with “Mr. Tambourine Man”, a classic and probably the most well-known song off this album due to the Byrds covering it and making it into a big hit. Personally, it’s this song that really got me into Bob Dylan. It was after hearing the final verse that I could say to myself: “Yeah… this guy is really good.” I’m going to have to quote it in its entirety so you can see what I mean.

Take me disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind
Down the foggy ruins of time
Far past the frozen leaves
The haunted, frightened trees
Out to the windy beach
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow
Yes, let me dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free
Silhouetted by the sea
Circled by the circus sands
With all memory and fate
Driven deep beneath the waves
Let me forget about today until tomorrow…

For some reason, in their famous cover, the Byrds decided to omit the last two verses, which are the best ones! So I think I can say quite objectively that Dylan’s original is better. Of course, the first two verses are wonderful as well.

“Mr. Tambourine Man” is really quite a change from the rest of album, which may be due to the fact that it was first recorded as part of the “Another Side of Bob Dylan”. You can actually hear an outtake of it from these sessions on the “No Direction Home” soundtrack, where he sang it as a duet with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott (and, yeah, that didn’t really work). For most of the album, Dylan is putting on his hipster persona—he’s trying to sound cool, trying to impress you. Then on this song it’s like the shades have dropped; he’s stopped all his pretenses, and simply inviting you to share in his awe at the beauty of existence.

The next song is “Gates of Eden”. It’s this song where what I said earlier, about the meaning of Dylan’s lyrics, really applies the most, because the lyrics make absolutely no sense in any straightforward way. I already mentioned the line in here about “the motorcycle black Madonna two-wheeled gypsy queen”—well, that’s what all the lines in this song are like. “Gates of Eden” is kind of like the evil twin of “Mr. Tambourine Man”. Both are evocative, full of vivid imagery, but whereas “Mr. Tambourine Man” is charming and upbeat, “Gates of Eden” is sinister and ominous. This is due just as much to their respective melodies as their lyrics.

“It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”, which comes next, is also a rather ominous song. Like “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, the way Bob Dylan says the lyrics here is more like rapping than singing. His delivery is absolutely excellent: it’s quite impressive how he manages to get all the words out so clearly, yet so quickly, with stress in all the right places. In fact, everything about this song is impressive. It’s known as having some of the best lyrics of any Bob Dylan song. In a way, it’s political, but it’s hard to say what politics it’s advocating. I think the main thing he’s trying to get across is that he’s against falseness and insincerity in all of its forms (the commercialisation of what was once sacred, the lies adverts tell you, the false ideas people have about you, the false beliefs people adopt just due to peer pressure, the hypocrisy of moral guardians…) There are so many memorable aphorisms among these lyrics: “he not busy being born is busy dying”, “others say don’t hate nothing at all except hatred”, “not much is really sacred”, “even the President of the United States must sometimes have to stand naked”, “it is not he or she or them or it that you belong to”, “obscenity, who really cares”. Not to mention great poetry too, such as in the line about “one who sings with his tongue on fire, gargles in the rat-race choir”. The structure of the song is also absolutely perfect; during the verses the lines are short and quick, the same rhyme is repeated all the way through the verse, and meanwhile a spooky descending riff is played on the guitar, which breaks out into a jarring, loud refrain between the verses. There’s also a lyrical refrain every three verses which serves to release some of the tension. In later interviews Bob Dylan has said that this is one of the songs he’s most proud of writing. Listening to it, you can see why.

But my own personal favourite on this album is the very final song: “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”. I find Dylan’s voice here really captivating. He constantly switches between a strikingly high-pitched whine and a calm, level tone, and this makes it possibly the most emotional-sounding song on the album. The melody and lyrics are also wonderful: there are some more brilliant, surrealistic lines like “the empty handed painter from your streets is drawing crazy patterns on your sheets” and “leave your stepping stones behind, something calls for you”. Yet it’s not quite as opaque as some of the other songs like “Gates of Eden”; the message of the song is clearly evident from the refrain: it’s simply that it’s all over now for Baby Blue, although exactly who Baby Blue is, and what’s over, is left to interpretation. It’s been a year since I first listened to “Bringing It All Back Home”, and still, whenever I listen to “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”, it leaves me in awe, and I think my life richer for having listened to it.

I’ve already talked about “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” because it was covered by Joan Baez on “Farewell, Angelina”. That cover, while good, doesn’t really do justice to the amazing original. One cover which does is this one by Them.

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