Last night in Boston I saw John Prine for the first time. He sounded great—his voice as warm and familiar as you get on the albums. He’s grown a little wider and puffier with age, but still he danced the cha-cha and strummed fast within his four-piece band (guitars, upright bass and mandolin; no percussion). Watching Prine grin and sing, I realized that guy never said a bad word about anybody in his songs. Sam Stone is tragic, not evil. Vietnam reaped hell on folks, but Prine is content to leave it at that. Prine himself is affable, self-deprecating, imminently lovable.
I was glad to have listened closely to Dylan’s first three folk albums before seeing Prine. I don’t listen to a lot of classic folk, but the Dylan tracks had reminded me how the folk genre allows for war protest, class and union anthems, and place-driven travel tunes alongside love songs, character songs, and first-person introspection and revelation. Within the formal tradition, the songwriter’s character bleeds through. Dylan, after projecting a vociferous persona in his previous album, has lightened up both in voice and form in Another Side of Bob Dylan.
It’s just a theory, but when Dylan opens with “All I Really Want to Do” (“is baby be friends with you”), it feels like a direct nod to the Times album. He’s not so serious; he can be a softie too. In “I Shall Be Free No. 10,” a track in vignettes recruiting such figures as Cassius Clay and Barry Goldwater, Dylan informs us, “Now, I’m liberal, but to a degree / I want everybody to be free.” This is a clarifying phrase: Dylan’s radical politics extend only as far as universal equality. Beyond that, all bets are off.
Another salient nod to Another Side‘s polemical predecessor comes in “My Back Pages,” the chorus crooning, “I was so much older then / I’m younger than that now.” Remember that gaunt, wizened 23-year old of The Times? This cover features a fresher-faced Dylan staring out of the frame with something like a Mona Lisa smirk.
The songs here are more cheerful, less somber. A jangly piano appears on the second track, “Black Crow Blues.” Dylan believed songs are just floating around out there, and if he didn’t write them down, someone else would. From that view, the songwriter is merely a vessel through which omnipresent streams of chords and lyrics flow. This concept allows him to get away with a certain incoherence that reaps surprising rewards, like this: “Ramona, come closer, shut softly your watery eyes / The pangs of your sadness shall pass as your senses will rise.” Grounded in rhythm and alliteration, these lines show Dylan at his best to date. But the end of this verse, “There’s no use in trying to deal with the dying / though I cannot explain that in lines,” simply confuses me. I wish he’d try and explain what he means, but hey, the song dictated itself to him that way.
Do I get this album? Yeah, it’s a young folk singer still maturing. Do I need to have listened to the previous ones to get it? Yes, because Another Side seems in direct conversation with what came before. Do I like it? It’s great.