So, I got The Original Mono Recordings, a box set that contains Dylan’s first eight albums in mono rather than stereo; I’m kind of not even going to really talk about the mono vs. stereo debate, but I did want to talk about these albums. I’ll probably make some comments about the set as a whole at the end, but I feel these albums are really worth talking about individually. If you know me very well, you probably know that I don’t really have a favorite musical artist; it’s a fool’s errand and impossible really to pick one because there are so many great ones and so much diversity. But if I did have one, it would be Bob Dylan, if that makes any sense. But there are some of his smaller albums I still haven’t heard (news on a new Dylan project to come soon); and his debut would be one of them. It’s generally been considered one of his weakest efforts, but there’s been some attempt to rehabilitate it as an overlooked gem of late. Well, that’s stupid because it really is a pretty awful album. It contains eleven covers of folk/blues standards and only two originals, Talkin’ New York Blues, which no one really tries to defend, and the well-regarded Song for Woody, which is a tribute to Woody Guthrie. One could really say Talkin’ New York Blues is as well, really, but frankly I find Song for Woody itself to be pretty weak. So much for the originals.
On to the covers, I find that they pretty well all misfire. I think Dylan, as a shockingly young twenty-year-old, is trying to prove something on this record; he’s hitting every song here about as hard as he can hit them. His voice, which I typically love, is really quite obnoxious on this record; he hasn’t found his groove yet, in short. He’s often just shouting these songs rather than singing them and he takes several of them, like Highway 51, Gospel Plow & Pretty Peggy-O, at insanely fast speeds which do poor service to the songs. I like the more laid back songs here, like Baby, Let Me Follow You Down and, best of all the songs on the record in my opinion, a lilting, sorrowful House of the Rising Sun.
But for all the failures, there’s some interest here for those interested in Dylan’s career and his chameleon like nature. It’s the one album in what I’d call his Desperate Period, where he’s trying to prove that he deserves to be a folk artist. It’s interesting to see that Dylan’s interest in Christianity is really in place from the very beginning, for all the stuff about his “Christian period” later; he mentions Jesus in three songs & discusses Heaven on a fourth, making almost a fourth of his debut album songs that deal with Christianity in some way or other. And it is interesting to hear Dylan cover some of the standards, though he does do surprisingly inferior versions of a lot of them. Still, it’s just kind of fun to hear him do Man of Constant Sorrow, later popularized by the Coen Brothers, and In My Time of Dyin’, a song done in a much different and much better version by Led Zep and, in a great instrumental version, by John Fahey, under the title Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed. Most interesting of all is Dylan’s early fascination with death; many people call Time Out of Mind his “Death Album,” though I don’t, but there are three songs here, nearly a quarter of the record, that are specifically about death, and others mention it.
Anyway, Jesus, four ****** paragraphs and this is easily the worst album in the set. I will say that there are others that are less interesting, though they are better; I’ll probably have less to say about Another Side of Bob Dylan and John Wesley Harding even though they’re better, simply because there’s just less to really say about them. But anyway, this album kind of has, in retrospect, the Seinfeld problem; based on that first season, would you really have had any idea it would turn out to be a contender for best television comedy of all time and would you even have given it the chance of a second season? Based on this record, I wouldn’t have really given Dylan a second one if I’d been calling the shots – and if you’d told me he would be the most significant musical figure of the twentieth century, I’d have laughed until I cried. It’s an album for only the most die-hard fans; he’s kind of my favorite musical artist and I’m never going to listen to it again, frankly. It’s just terrible. Warned against. 1 star.
tl;dr – annoyingly desperate album sees a young Dylan trying, and mostly failing, to prove his talent; based on this debut, even Dylan fans will wonder how he got a second album. 1 star.