This is one of those albums that’s difficult to talk about. Bob Dylan is simply one of the most important musicians of all time, full stop. I mean, how exactly do you go about writing a review of a Nobel prize laureate’s greatest masterpiece? There isn’t a single track on this thing that doesn’t have something huge to say about the human spirit, and each of Dylan’s lyrics are perfectly written to deliver said messages. With nothing but an acoustic guitar, harmonica and a whiny, nasally voice, he managed to make one of the most culturally significant, emotional and timeless albums of all time, thanks almost solely to the sheer power and brilliance of his songwriting. This is one of those records that should simply be made required listening for the entire human race, and that’s an honor that only a handful of albums have ever been worthy of.
As by far the most acclaimed and popular album of Mr. Dylan’s acoustic era, this album can be a bit hard to approach. My advice for a first time listener is to just sit back, forget about the status the record holds, and just listen to the lyrics as they come. Don’t think too hard about them, at least not on your first listen: just hear them and let their emotion and power do their thing. The beauty of the songwriting here is that, unlike a lot of his later work, the lyrics aren’t that hard to understand. They say what they mean, and they’re strong enough on their own to have an impact without much of a hidden meaning or symbolism behind them. He knows exactly how to get you sad, angry and happy with nothing but a good melody and a stroke of the pen. His guitar work doesn’t hurt either: the excellent chord progressions and rhythmic strumming are a perfect chaser for his lyrics, and his guitar proves itself to be more than enough instrumentation necessary to hold the entire record up on its own. His harmonica is great too: on the tracks where it shows up, it serves as a nice (although rather shrill at points) partner to his guitar, blowing out short bursts of improvised harmony that glue together the song quite well. All said, his lyrics really are the true star of the show here. Listening to this masterpiece, it’s difficult to deny that he deserved that Nobel Prize in Literature moreso than almost any other singer-songwriter of the 20th century.
Dylan c. 1963. Image source: npr.com
In terms of individual tracks, this record is positively jam-packed with classics. Right off the bat we have “Blowin’ in the Wind,” one of Dylan’s most world-famous songs. It’s lyrics are a powerful indictment of war and fighting in all of its forms, and it retains its poignancy and relevancy even to this day. Telling of this album’s excellency, then, that it isn’t even close to the album’s best track. The album’s third track, “Masters of War,” is chilling and filled with pure rage so strong you can feel it in your stomach. It’s probably the album’s most direct and un-subtle anti-war statement, and it’s all the better for it. The pure hatred in his voice is almost startling, and if you aren’t at least a little angry and/or upset by the end of it, you’re either a robot or just didn’t pay it that much attention. Then there’s “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.” I honestly don’t even know if I have the writing prowess to communicate the qualities of this song, so I’ll just say that it’s jaw-droppingly beautiful, and you just need to experience it. There are a few other great tracks worth mentioning too: “Talkin’ World War III Blues” is a darkly humorous account of the end-times, and “Oxford Town” is a brief, depressing picture of segregation and racism on college campuses. Really though, every track on this album is important and deserves recognition. Dylan didn’t waste a single song when making this album, and all 50 minutes of it still feel fresh today.
This is just one of those albums. It’s hard to talk about, because I don’t want to overhype it, but at the same time, it’s wholeheartedly deserving of said hype. It’s the perfect showcase of Bob Dylan’s songwriting ability, not to mention his guitar playing, and is one of the most essential records of the folk genre, right up there with Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads. It’s an album that was both timely in 1963 when it came out and timeless and relevant even today, almost 55 years after its release. It retains its sense of urgency and relevancy through (for the most part) refraining to reference contemporary figures and events, and in doing so, it creates a politically charged, powerful and still-applicable record that can be repeatedly discovered and loved by each generation to come.
Favorite Tracks: “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,” “Masters of War,” “Talkin’ World War III Blues,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Oxford Town”
Next Up: A Christmas Gift for You by Phil Spector (1963)