This album was, unbelievably, released the same year as The Times They Are a-Changin’ and, even if this album is Dylan’s weakest since his debut, it’s still kind of amazing that he was able to turn out even more great songs (because there are a few here) in that same year. This album was recorded in a single day and it really kind of feels like it. In my opinion this is really the first album of Dylan’s work that doesn’t sit comfortably in the folk category. It’s still Dylan unaccompanied, but he plays the piano on one track and the album is loose, weird and almost a joke (Dylan can be heard breaking into laughter on at least two songs here). It’s almost his first Self-Portrait, an attempt to purposely distance himself from his audience, not to mention royally piss them off.
And much of it is just utterly trivial and would have been seen as deeply frustrating and insulting to the folk audience. All I Really Wanna Do, Spanish Harlem Incident, I Will Be Free No. 10, Black Crow Blues, To Ramona. Essentially the first half of the album is, at best, forgettable and, at worst, dreadful. I would even include one of the few songs from this album that is genuinely acclaimed and beloved, Chimes of Freedom, which I find to be intolerably long and soporific. It’s just a real slog. I almost think he did this purposely, saving all the good songs for the second half just to see who would sit through the awful first half. Ballad of Plain D is in the second half though and it’s quite simply one of the worst songs Dylan’s ever written. It’s certainly one of the most personal; it takes eight minutes to walk us through an argument between Dylan and the sister of Suze Rotolo, an on-again/off-again lover of Dylan’s, all the way down to actually reproducing things said by the participants word for word. And, boy is it dreadful? It’s easily the worst on the album. Dylan himself once said that if he could take back one song from his entire fifty-plus year career that it would be Ballad in Plain D; good call, bro, good call.
But there are some good things in that back half. My Back Pages, a kind of bitter kiss-off to the folk community, features a gorgeous melody and probably the best lyrics on this album. I Don’t Believe You and It Ain’t Me Babe are, for my money, pretty far down the Best Dylan Songs list, but they’re both witty and miles better than anything on the first half. And I’ll defend the weird Motorpsycho Nitemare, a completely forgotten song, to the death; it’s a hilarious, shaggy-dog tale that just really works for me.
Anyway, it’s an interesting album for those who care to see how Dylan’s career developed; it’s really a rock album with folk instruments, in my opinion, leading right into the electric half of Bringing It All Back Home. But it’s just so damned patchy. When it’s good, it’s good, but most of the time, it’s pretty bad and occasionally downright terrible. Dylan’s ascension in quality grinds to a halt here; this one, while it may have been a necessary evolutionary step between The Times They Are a-Changin’ & Bringing It All Back Home, just isn’t very good. 2 ½ stars.
tl;dr – slapdash, sloppy album is a decidedly mixed bag; perhaps a needed evolutionary step in Dylan’s career, but a step for completists only. 2 ½ stars.