Tucked away on Bob Dylan’s 23rd studio album Empire Burlesque, the troubadour sings simply but sternly, “Trust yourself/Trust yourself to do the things that only you know best/Trust yourself/Trust yourself to do what’s right and not be second-guessed…” Dylan had trusted himself since he first arrived on the scene in 1962, engaging in a series of transformations that enthralled, angered, transfixed and bewildered those that followed his career – from folk troubadour to electric rocker to cowboy crooner to confessional singer-songwriter to born-again song-slinger to distracted artist to grand old man and living legend. The times they were a-changin’, and Bob Dylan was a-changin’ with them. He famously titled his fourth album Another Side of Bob Dylan – but the hefty new box set from Columbia Records and Legacy Recordings The Complete Album Collection Volume One (88691 92431 25 1) offers practically every side of Bob Dylan…all save the private one, which he has worked valiantly to protect and preserve over 50+ years in the public eye.
The term “Dylanologist” was coined by one A.J. Weberman. His confrontations with the artist whose work he closely parsed for deeper meaning have achieved now-legendary status. But with the release of this career-spanning 47-disc box set, all who listen can become Dylanologists. Dylan struggled with the tag of “the voice of a generation,” one which critics and fans alike were all too eager to bestow upon him after he spoke with a wisdom far beyond his years on such songs as “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” “Masters of War” and “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall.” Of course, in some respects, it was accurate. Though he wasn’t the first lyricist to push the envelope on subject matter – theatrical lyricists did it with regularity – Dylan played a major role in freeing popular song from the conventions of moon-june-spoon love songs. One expects that he would openly credit the likes of E.Y. Harburg and Johnny Mercer from the Broadway-pop tradition as well as Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and Pete Seeger from the folk landscape in shaping his craft. Yet significantly, his early emphasis on impressionistic, oblique and poetic lyrics was a major deviation from folk, blues, country, Broadway or Tin Pan Alley traditions. And though Dylan was far from the first singer to pick up an instrument and sing, his tremendous success did kick a door wide open. He empowered every kid without the vocal prowess of a Frank Sinatra or even an Elvis Presley to grab a guitar and a notebook, and give voice to the thoughts, desires and yearnings of their age group. Dylan’s ascendance dovetailed with the rise of youth culture – and the power of youth to influence spending – via rock-and-roll. He was initially a folk singer with a rock-and-roll heart, then a rock-and-roller with a folk heart, always with the empathy of the blues running through his veins.
Yet, it’s important to remember that the man who wrote “Like a Rolling Stone” also wrote “Wiggle Wiggle.” The same Bob Dylan who offered the world his ravishingly esoteric “Visions of Johanna” also tapped into the pop zeitgeist providing accessible hit songs for The Byrds, The Turtles, and Manfred Mann. He even co-wrote songs with Carole Bayer Sager (“That’s What Friends Are For,” “A Groovy Kind of Love”) and Michael Bolton. Journalists will no doubt continue to parse Dylan’s voluminous output for meanings both hidden and obvious, but the real truths about Bob Dylan are present in his music, and those truths resonate differently to each person who listens.
There are few artists whose entire (or near-entire) catalogue can truly justify the existence of a set such as The Complete Album Collection Volume One; Legacy has previously and rightfully bestowed the honor upon such artists as Miles Davis, Tony Bennett, Johnny Cash, Harry Nilsson and Paul Simon. Barbra Streisand seems a logical next candidate. Like the catalogues of any of those colleagues, all of whom set a new standard or high watermark for popular music in their genre, Dylan’s output can more than withstand the scrutiny of the box set treatment. Each and every disc – whether acclaimed or maligned – is an essential piece of the puzzle.
After the jump: what’s here? What’s not here? Is it really where it’s at?
At the core of the box set are the 35 studio albums released by Dylan on the Columbia and (oh-so-briefly) Asylum labels between 1962 and 2012, from Bob Dylan to the darkly beautiful Tempest. Those LPs are joined by six live albums released between 1974 and 1995, and a newly-curated 2-CD collection of odds and ends, or Side Tracks. This set represents the “core” Dylan collection; 1993’s The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration, 2005’s Live at the Gaslight 1962 and Live at Carnegie Hall 1963, and 2011’s In Concert – Brandeis University 1963 have not been selected for inclusion.
Of the studio albums, the most notable inclusion is the infamous 1973 album Dylan, cobbled from the outtakes of the Self Portrait/New Morning era and featuring, among other head-scratching tracks, the singer’s rewritten take on Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” and Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” (Dylan even found common ground with Sammy Davis, Jr., his forebear in the “song and dance man” department, recording a sympathetic version of Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles.”) This LP has never had a domestic CD issue until now, and it’s actually a vivid and compelling complement to the recently-released Bootleg Series volume Another Self Portrait.
What else is new? Of the 41 original stereo albums contained here, 14 have been newly remastered for this box while others utilize the most recent CD remasters. The freshly-spruced up studio titles include Dylan, Self Portrait (the same remaster as included in the deluxe edition of that Bootleg volume), the film soundtrack Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, 1978’s swaggering Street Legal (presented here in its original mix; a previous remaster in 1999 introduced a new mix by producer Don DeVito), 1980’s faith-based Saved, three underrated eighties sets (Empire Burlesque, Knocked Out Loaded, Down in the Groove) and a further three from the early nineties (Under the Red Sky and a pair returning Dylan to his folk roots – Good as I Been to You and World Gone Wrong). Of the live albums contained in the box set, Hard Rain (1976), At Budokan (1979) and Real Live (1984) have also been newly remastered. As on Legacy’s recent Paul Simon box, individual remastering credits are absent in favor of a group credit for Greg Calbi, Mark Wilder, George Marino and Eddie Schreyer. 1981’s Shot of Love, generally considered the third and final title in Dylan’s born-again trilogy despite some secular themes, remains the “odd man out,” having never received a sonic upgrade to date.
Typical for a box of this style, the greatest rewards might be reaped from whichever albums are least familiar to the listener. Dylan’s nearly-unparalleled cultural impact in the 1960s led each of his subsequent works to be examined under a microscope. But even Dylan couldn’t possibly have ever matched that initial impact, despite albums that ranked among his best (like 1975’s Blood on the Tracks, on which he definitively proved he could stand alongside the most successful “confessional” singer-songwriters of the era, or the one-two punch of 1997’s Time Out of Mind and its belated, stylistically dissimilar follow-up, 2001’s Love and Theft). Whereas Dylan set the trend in his 1960s, he was, by and large, following it in the ‘70s and ’80s. Only in the 21st century did he wholly reinvent himself, looking back to the blues and Tin Pan Alley traditions his original music supplanted all of those years ago. The modern-day artist, equal parts Woody Guthrie and Bing Crosby, again sounds like nobody else but Bob Dylan.
The true Dylan story – with melody, lyrics and inimitable phrasing yielding a sheer, singular musicality – is chronicled through the 41 albums here. But a special 2-CD collection rounds out the box set, in the style of Legacy’s past boxes. Tony Bennett’s The Complete Collection offered discs of non-LP singles and rarities. Johnny Cash’s The Columbia Album Collection also compiled his rare singles onto CD. One would have expected the Dylan set to follow suit. But instead of a singles roundup, the box offers Side Tracks: Songs from Compilations.
Though the liner notes mention that Side Tracks’ purview was to include otherwise-uncollected songs from “Greatest Hits Vol. 2 (1971), the overseas anthology Masterpieces (1978), the all-things-to-all-men Biograph box set (1985), Greatest Hits Vol. 3 and The Best of Bob Dylan Vol. 2,” that isn’t quite the case. The unique material on Masterpieces – the “Big Band” version of “George Jackson,” the live “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” the alternates of “Mixed Up Confusion” and “Spanish is the Loving Tongue,” and “Rita May” – is wholly absent. What Side Tracks ultimately amounts to is a culling of the rare material introduced on Biograph (more than half of Side Tracks’ 30-song lineup) plus a handful of single A-sides, songs from Greatest Hits Volumes 2 and 3, and loose ends such as “Things Have Changed” from the Wonder Boys soundtrack and the “Dignity” edit from the Dylan “red box” of 2007. (Heylin mentions The Best of Bob Dylan Vol. 2 “preferred the actual, untainted 1989 version of ‘Dignity’” while Greatest Hits 3 boasted Brendan O’Brien’s 1994 remix. Side Tracks ditches both in favor of a slightly shorter edit from the 2007 box set.)
Some might find it commendable that The Complete Album Collection didn’t include any truly rare material on the exclusive Side Tracks CDs; surely having included those coveted Masterpieces tracks (most of which were originally single B-sides) would have incited complaints from diehards “forced” to purchase the box for a mere few otherwise-unavailable songs. However, the choice to include only easily-accessible material on Side Tracks makes one yearn for a complete Side Tracks collection taking in the numerous other one-offs and soundtrack appearances that have been commercially released. In the latter category alone, Dylan has appeared on the soundtracks to Hearts of Fire, Natural Born Killers, Feeling Minnesota, The Sopranos, The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Gods and Generals, North Country, Lucky You, Hawaii Five-O (2011) and this year’s Inside Llewyn Davis – just to name a few. Side Tracks doesn’t purport to be a complete accounting of Dylan’s non-album material, and indeed, when considered as a bonus, it’s an enjoyable listen. As an overview of Dylan’s “other” music, though, it’s far too incomplete to make very much of an impression. (For those interested in owning Side Tracks on vinyl, it will arrive for Record Store Day’s Back to Black Friday event as a triple-LP set pressed on 200-gram vinyl.)
The Complete Album Collection, as produced by Jeff Rosen and Steve Berkowitz, excels in a flawlessly-designed presentation worthy of its subject. It’s housed in a box with a lift-off cover, and every album is presented in a faithfully-reproduced LP mini-sleeve. (Only the original Asylum designs of Planet Waves and Before the Flood have been jettisoned in favor of the look of the Columbia repressings.) The accompanying 268-page hardcover book is also a wonder to be hold. In addition to individual track listings for each disc, the book includes the original liner notes for every album – no need to squint at the miniaturized LPs! – plus a great selection of photographs and memorabilia images. Bill Flanagan has supplied an introductory essay and Dylan biographer Clinton Heylin has written an album-by-album chronology of over 40 pages’ length. As none of Legacy’s past Dylan reissues has included liner notes from a historical perspective, Heylin’s analyses are a crowning touch here. (Original release dates are indicated, but discographical information oddly is missing.) In another spot-on feature, Heylin has noted where a listener can track down all of the commercially-released outtakes from any given album. For example, in the Basement Tapes entry, Heylin directs readers to seek out “The Mighty Quinn” on Biograph (or Side Tracks), “I Shall Be Released” and “Santa Fe” on The Bootleg Series Vol. 2, and “I’m Not There” on the I’m Not There soundtrack album.
Bob Dylan has a more familiar catalogue than that of, say, Bennett or Cash, both of whom – unlike Dylan – had a substantial number of albums fall out of print before their Complete Collection boxes were released. Most of the individual albums here are readily available on CD and digitally, though the 14 remastered albums sound splendid and are well worth the upgrade. But above all, there’s something tremendous about the opportunity to own one of the most significant repertoires in American music in one place, at a cost of less than four bucks a disc at the time of this writing. Doubtless this box will become the cornerstone of many a serious music library. But keep room on the shelf. Volume Two is promised for next year, to include the volumes of The Bootleg Series to date. Let’s hope the bonus material associated with recent Bootleg releases isn’t excluded from the complete set, and that a Side Tracks Volume Two rounds up more of those Dylan B-sides and rarities. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. There’s much to bask in here, and when you take it all in, you might just be thankful and grateful to be seeing the real Bob Dylan at last.