Downshift: Before the Flood

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I took a turn backwards to catch up on some material gone by. So far in this project, I’ve looked exclusively at studio albums, thinking this restriction would help me reign in this huge body of Dylan’s work. Maybe it has, but I’ve also been aware that there are some beloved live albums I’m zooming past, such as this one, Before the Flood, from 1974, with The Band. It features a slew of Dylan’s best work, like “It Ain’t Me Babe,” “Ballad of a Thin Man,” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” These songs are recognizable (unlike his later tours), well sung, and performed with an energy impossible to capture in studio recordings.

I’ve also slowed my pace a bit from an album every day to an album every one-to-three days. What I lose in continuity in this regard I make up for with a fresher point of view. This is a long haul, and attempting to sprint the whole way will lead to fatigue and oversight.

In deciding to be kinder to myself and my primary sources (the albums themselves), I chose a handful of live albums to plug into the rotation, plus the Christmas album, the Sinatra album, and A New Self Portrait. As one internet commenter said, listening to all of Dylan but skipping Hard Rain is like going to Egypt and missing the pyramids. I don’t want to miss the pyramids; I’ll never go to “Egypt” again.

This album also features some of The Band’s best numbers: “The Weight,” “The Shape I’m In,” “The Night They Drove Ol’ Dixie Down.” Dylan, again, comes through as a member of a larger group rather than the all-consuming presence he commands on virtually all his albums.

Studio albums show the result of meditated, purposeful production, like studies and experiments in mood and sound. Live albums capture the of-the-moment excitement of performance. Dylan’s biting persona benefits from the levity of this live album.

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