By Chris Moore:
RATING: 4.5 / 5 stars
Nowhere else in the Bob Dylan catalog will you find a title that is simultaneously so blunt and yet so aptly written.
To be certain, Another Side of Bob Dylan may have been released in the same year as the preceding The Times They Are A-Changin’, an album that earns the distinction of being the most topical, protest-driven record in his resume. The arrangement here on the fourth is the same as his first three albums: vocals, acoustic guitar, and harmonica. There is a lyrical poem, “Some Other Kinds of Songs…,” included in this packaging, much like the previous record’s “11 Outlined Epitaphs.”
And yet, in many ways, this album’s material and approach could not be more divergent from what Dylan fans had come to expect.
For one thing, the in-your-face lyricism of his previous protest-genre songs is gone here, replaced by the more abstract, vivid, and provocative lines that begin to demonstrate a different aspect of Dylan’s worldview. And, although I do love The Times They Are A-Changin’, it feels like he regressed in some ways after Freewheelin’, stating the “truth” on songs like the title track. Here, on Another Side, he is back to asking questions a la “Blowin’ in the Wind,” perhaps most notably in “Ballad in Plain D” when he sings, “‘Are birds free from the chains of the skyway?'”
Even the arrangements — or perhaps the delivery more than the sounds — have progressed here, noticeable from the first “doooooo” of “All I Really Wanna Do.” Dylan is clearly relaxing on this record a bit, allowing his most honest voice to shine through at times in ways that would have seemed out of place on the more serious tracks of his previous album. Songs like “Black Crow Blues” and particularly “Motorpsycho Nightmare” simply wouldn’t have fit on previous records in all their humorous glory, oftentimes verging on the absurd (i.e. in “Motorpsycho Nightmare”: “I had to say something /to strike him very weird, /so I yelled out, /’I like Fidel Castro and his beard.’ /Rita looked offended / But she got out of the way /As he came charging down the stairs /Sayin’, ‘What’s that I heard you say?'”)
If you think that Dylan was an impressive lyricist prior to this album, then Another Side redefines one’s sense of what it means for words to be “impressive.” Across the eleven tracks, it’s understandable if the listener might feel swept away into a world entirely separate from our own, into an environment where it is possible for the most raw of emotions and convictions to be translated into words.
In “My Back Pages,” Dylan sings that “Lies that life is black and white spoke from my skull.” This is an admission of the shortsightedness of his youth, perhaps equally as much as it is a commentary on his own mortality, as he refers to his “skull” rather than his mind, soul, or something else more spiritual.
In my career as a teacher, I have always tried to avoid the pitfalls of the so-called “mongrel dogs who teach”…
Where he is not experimenting with word play (as in “All I Really Wanna Do,” “I ain’t lookin’ to compete with you /Beat or cheat or mistreat you /Simplify you, classify you /Deny, defy or crucify you”), he is surpassing the best songs of his catalog (think: “I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)” as an updated departure song since “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” sung with all the bitterness that the lyrics require.
Even within this broad range of topics and interests, Dylan has come a long way towards blending his thoughts across multiple songs, avoiding any particular tags. For instance, “It Ain’t Me, Babe” could be viewed as a sad love song, and it could also be read as a statement about his opinions on the folk movement: “You say you’re lookin’ for someone /Who will promise never to part /Someone to close his eyes for you /Someone to close his heart /Someone who will die for you an’ more /But it ain’t me, babe.” This new side of Bob Dylan is adamant that he must follow his heart and do what he feels is right, rather than acquiesce to the demands and expectations of others. Closing his eyes or his heart are simply not options.
This sense of increased confidence amidst confessions of his perceived over-confidence is carefully worked out across the record, aided by his unflinching assessments of others (recall “Ballad in Plain D,” when he sings, “I stole her away /From her mother and sister, though close did they stay /Each one of them suffering from the failures of their day.” Increasingly, Dylan does not rely on grand, poetic statements or metaphors to capture his meaning; rather, he can deconstruct a character’s psychology through deceptively simple lines, like pointing out the “suffering from the failures of their day.”
Additionally, Dylan’s artistry is all the more complete for the inclusion of a track like “To Ramona,” on which he sings, “Everything passes /Everything changes /Just do what you think you should do /And someday maybe /Who knows, baby /I’ll come and be cryin’ to you.” Pioneering some cross between sagely wisdom and open vulnerability, this track reads in many ways like the logical progression of Freewheelin’ alum “Girl of the North Country,” if it is even possible to improve upon such a beautifully bittersweet track.
Finally, he has not even abandoned politics entirely as one might imagine. Instead, he approaches this topic — and this shouldn’t come as a surprise — with more subtlety and humor, as when he sings in “I Shall Be Free No. 10,” “Now, I’m liberal, but to a degree /I want ev’rybody to be free /But if you think that I’ll let Barry Goldwater /Move in next door and marry my daughter /You must think I’m crazy! /I wouldn’t let him do it for all the farms in Cuba.” That last line is particularly funny, and again signals the spark of an entirely fresh and exciting step in Dylan’s evolution as a songwriter.
What is most impressive is that, as young as he was, Dylan was such a gifted and careful wordsmith. I’m always struck by his choice of words here; he does not label these songs as “the other side” of Bob Dylan. Rather, this is “another side,” suggesting that there are more than two sides to him.
As the numerous outstanding albums of his career — Blonde on Blonde, Blood on the Tracks, Slow Train Coming, and Time Out of Mind, just to name a few — would go on to suggest, there are myriad sides to this singer/songwriter. And, if last year’s release of Christmas in the Heart is any indication, there may yet be many more sides to explore.