31 December 2008

Sound Savour: The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963)

Artist: Bob Dylan. / Label: Columbia.

A monthly series examining my favorite albums.

Much of the appeal with The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan is really ethereal, so when discussing it, it is best to start with what about the album is genuinely quantifiable. Looking at it through the prism of numbers, it's something along the lines of 2, 7, 11, 21, and 50 – the artist's second L.P., filled with poetic songs (eleven of which were original and a few of which border on a then-unheard-of seven minutes) recorded at only the age of twenty-one. The cumulative effect is fifty minutes of powerful and furious music that bridged literacy with the guitar and, with its continued influence on generations of musicians, helped crown Dylan the preeminent singer-songwriter of the twentieth century.

The numbers, particularly 2 and 21, are important. The album displays the depth and maturity of a late-career release, although it is technically his second. It is an important technicality worth considering, however; the previous year Dylan had released an eponymous album, with eleven cover songs and two originals, but Freewheelin' inverted that cover-to-original ratio, making this album feel more like a legitimate debut than any collection of covers could be. Dylan's age makes the L.P. all the more impressive. You might be tempted to think he were in his forties with the rawness, vulnerability, and world-weariness that infuses his voice on the tracks, particularly the sophisticated takes on lost love in "Girl from the North Country," the mournful rhetorical questions of "Blowin' in the Wind," the surrealist and apocalyptic poetry of "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall," and the acrimonious protest anthem "Masters of War." In fact, Freewheelin' might be said to have one of the most impressive A-sides in the history of music – all of those songs could be stand-outs on their own, and grouped together with lesser songs of twang and humor, they play like a best-of release.

Equipped with his acoustic guitar and harmonica, Dylan helped bring folk music into the mainstream with Freewheelin'. The melodies are inherently simple (and, in many cases, adapted and reworked from previous songs), but the details are all in Dylan's lyrics. "Blowin' in the Wind" is often dismissed today as cliche, what with Dylan's own cast off ("I wrote that in ten minutes") and the sudsy rendition by Peter, Paul and Mary. But a close listening to the song immediately shows how it has outlasted its criticism. By eschewing specificity, it is immune to the passing of time. As Mick Gold noted, its vagueness also adds to its haunting truth: to say "the answer is blowin' in the wind" is to say the answer is simultaneously obvious and untouchable, both known and unseen. (That duality resonated with those entrenched in the Civil Rights Movement; it prompted Sam Cooke to write "A Change Is Gonna Come.") It is not as much of a direct protest song as "Masters of War," which is also timeless but contains Dylan's most vitriolic lines and speaks to the assumed discrepancy between age and wisdom:

How much do I know to talk out of turn? / You might say that I'm young, you might say I'm unlearned. / But there's one thing I know, though I'm younger than you, / Even Jesus would never forgive what you do.

"Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" resonates with lost love, but ripples forward with soft scorn, and its classic musicality has kept it to be one of the strongest songs on the album. Side two loses a little of the pent-up energy from side one, but nonetheless remains to be counted among some of the best folk music from the early 1960s. "Corrina, Corrina" and "Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance" are covers with new arrangements, and "I Shall Be Free" is a personal rewrite of the broad "We Shall Be Free," spiced with snide contemporary remarks. "Oxford Town" at first seems to be too glib, but I think that's its earthiness instead. Although it's the shortest song on the album, it's also one of the strongest songs on the second side. It's a good balance of protest and commentary, but seems too casual coming so long after the beauty of "Blowin' in the Wind," the force of "Masters of War," and the bizarreness contradictions of "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall."

What remains the most special aspect of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan is the starkness and strength in its simplicity. It feels too obvious to note its importance (in its wake, the Beatles began writing songs that went further than sheer love; "We just played it, just wore it out," George Harrison said), but aside from its shock waves, this first wide exposure for Dylan – his skipping acoustic guitar and weary voice – remains one of the definitive sounds of the last century.


MovieMan0283 04 January, 2009  
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MovieMan0283 04 January, 2009  

Curiously, since the cover of this album is so iconic and since it contains so many of his most famous songs, this is sort of underrated Dylan. By which I mean that it gets overlooked on all this best-albums-of-all-time lists. Perhaps that's because it's not a rock album (though I've seen Kind of Blue on those same lists), or perhaps its slightly uneven quality (it's not as hard-hittingly focused as Highway 61 or Blonde on Blonde) causes it to drop out of the running (what with so many other great contenders from Dylan).

But it was my first favorite Dylan album and it remains unique in his catalogue: the best example of his early folk period which, despite his many incarnations, is probably still the most recognized phase in Dylan's career. It has so many fantastic songs and a melancholy quality all its own. Thanks for the write-up (can you believe he was 21 when he made this? Or that the Beatles were 23, 23, 21, and 19 when they debuted on Ed Sullivan? The times they have a-changed, but not for the better, my friends...)

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