Standing outside the Boylston T stop, I punch up Bringing It All Back Home, the next album in the chronology. I head down the stairs underground just as the opening licks of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” ring out.
The previous album concluded with “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” and apparently Dylan wasn’t kidding. The shift to electric is unsubtle, jarring for a lick or two before the drums kick in, the vocals fire up and we roll down the tracks. “Don’t follow leaders / Watch your parking meters.” I try to imagine what that jolt must’ve been like for fans at that time. “The pump don’t work cuz the vandals took the handles.” It’s a total 180.
The second track, “She Belongs to Me,” showcases what folk music set to electric rock arrangement can accomplish. The tune is sweet and fully charged. “She never stumbles / She’s got no place to fall.” And the third track, “Maggie’s Farm,” announces a new intent, an evolved purpose, gives context to the entire project. “I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more,” Dylan declares. There’s no reconciliation here. Dylan has made a total break, an utter departure.
The first time an unaccompanied folk song seemingly strikes up on track seven, the quick acoustic strumming and opening–“I was riding on the Mayflower when I thought spied some land”–collapse into extended laughter, as if Dylan were actively mocking his former home genre. Take-two features the whole band in a bluesy, playful soundscape.
This is hybrid music, folk-rock. This album breaks new ground.
About the time I detrain, back above ground, we’re back in folk land with the beautifully expressive “Mr. Tambourine Man.” But the folk stuff now contains mind-bending stream-of-consciousness word-riffs like “magic swirling ship” and “tambourine in time.” Some of the lyrics, I gotta say, just aren’t very good.
Let’s play a game. Dylan lyric, or scrawl from my high-school planner:
A. “The lamppost stands with folded arms / its iron claws attached.”
B. “His wicked-eyed pointer will soon turn to ash / as the mail truck silently whimpers.”
C. “You never will forget / the lion’s eyes which hypnotize / will pay off your debt.”
D. “While preachers preach of evil fates / Teachers teach that knowledge waits / Can lead to hundred-dollar plates…”
Answer: A and D are gems from “Bringing it All Back Home.” B and C are my own 16-year-old attempts to sound as cryptically profound and accidentally meaningful as Dylan when he hits a sour patch.
Note this: amid the at-best inconsistent “It’s Alright, Ma, I’m Only Bleeding,” Dylan sings, “He who is not busy being born is busy dying.” That’s his commitment to reinvention, to evolution. That’s the ethos right there of this whole project.
Do I get this album? It’s an F.U. To the folk establishment and a new stake in rock and roll. Do I need the previous albums to get it? Absolutely. The context is crucial, the contrast essential. Do I like it? Two songs are among his worst to date, a couple are okay, a few are classics, and three are brilliant. So yeah, it was all worth it.