Dylan’s third album is his first full-on masterpiece. Some don’t like it because it isn’t as wide-ranging as, for instance, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, or I should say like it less as I don’t know if there are a lot of people who would straight up say they dislike this album. But I like Dylan’s focus here; this remains his starkest album, I’d say; the album is once again just Dylan and his acoustic guitar and his focus is clear and straight-forward. These are folk songs, aimed at issues of social justice (for the most part). Like I say, I love Dylan when he’s this focused: Time Out of Mind’s focus on the despair of romantic love, Slow Train Coming on God’s looming judgment, etc. This album is essentially as if Dylan took Masters of War from Freewheelin’ and stretched it to album length and you could pick worse songs than the grim, uncompromising Masters of War to do that with.
I think this album represents a real peak in Dylan’s songwriting abilities and his singing abilities as well. One of his greatest talents, that of phrasing, is really coming to the fore and I’ll mention a couple of really wonderful specific moments in a second. But of the social protest here, the most well-regarded are, I think, the title track, the dirge-like, resigned With God on Our Side & the blisteringly perfect Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll. If you don’t know exactly what’s meant when I talk about phrasing as one of the main talents of the great singers, listen to the way Dylan delivers that last line, “William Zantzinger with a six month sentence.” But I think the other social protest songs here are also first-rate. The Ballad of Hollis Brown remains one of Dylan’s most disturbingly bleak songs and North Country Blues is a fascinating evolution in Dylan’s ability to create songs from unique perspectives. Only a Pawn in Their Game remains an incredibly canny, consistently surprising song about racism and it’s genuinely gripping to hear the way Dylan is able to peel back the layers and see past the front-line racists to the systems that manipulate them. It strikes me as still an act of real vision and courage to say of, for instance, the murderer of Medgar Evers that “he ain’t to blame.” It’s a stunningly deep song, really.
And let me shift a bit to a couple of outliers on the album. The first is one of Dylan’s finest lyrics, Boots of Spanish Leather. It’s a gorgeous and painful song. I had a friend once who said that Boots of Spanish Leather was the most perfect distillation of romantic humiliation he’d ever encountered and I think that’s very accurate. It certainly captures a place of longing and slow realization that I think most of us have, at one time or another, experienced in our relationships and it’s so incredibly brilliant to shift the focus to that final punch-line. It gives the song, which might have been called any number of things, an odd off-kilter, predetermined feeling to have the title of the song echo the final line of the song, as if this fate has simply always been written from the very beginning. And then there’s When the Ship Comes In; it is, in many ways, just as much a song of social protest as some others here, but it’s notable for being an emotional outlier, a song, on an album taken up with weary resignation and despair, a single note of hope and rather than feeling out of place, it feels perfectly placed as an energetic reminder of good things in the midst of darkness. It’s an exuberant song, one of Dylan’s happiest.
But enough. The Times They Are a-Changin’ remains a masterpiece; fifty years on, it falls on the ear with just as much portentous power as it ever has and, sadly for us, just as much painful truth about social injustice and suffering. Freewheelin’ isn’t a perfect album; it has far too much filler. There’s only one song here that could even remotely be called filler, the album’s final track, Restless Farewell, and it is kind of too bad it’s here as that final line of Hattie Carroll, the next to last track, would have been a hell of a way to end an album and anyway, a nine-song record is cool, right? When it’s this good, sure. But that one weak song, even in the important final song position can’t make me feel any different when this album is over. It’s Dylan’s first true masterpiece, his first album to achieve near perfect status, his first work of undeniable, unforgettable genius. 4 stars.
tl;dr – stark album finds Dylan focused on social injustice and features what is still some of his most consistently great songwriting and performing; a work of unquestionable genius. 4 stars.