It’s kind of interesting; I feel like I may have less to say about this album than I did about Dylan’s debut, even though this one is far, far better than its predecessor, but we’ll see. I guess one of the most compelling things about this album to me is the way it starts; if you, as I did, cue it up to start playing right after the last song on Bob Dylan, you’ll be genuinely taken aback. As I said before, you can smell the desperation and the sweat on Dylan’s debut; he has something to prove and he’s singing very loudly and striking his guitar in a very percussive way. He’s going at it hammer & tongs. Then comes this album and it opens with the quiet, lilting Blowin’ in the Wind and then Girl from the North Country, and you can just feel the absolute confidence of a man with nothing to prove anymore. Which, of course, he did still have something to prove; his debut album is pretty bad and he almost didn’t get a second shot. But I think it’s actually less significant that this album contains mostly original material as opposed to the standards heavy debut; the most significant thing is Dylan’s sense of calm here. He’s leaning back into the music and letting the strength of the words and melodies come to the forefront and he’s beginning to really work on his phrasing (one of his greatest strengths over the years) as opposed to just bellowing at the top of his lungs.
But this is certainly a massive leap forward from his debut in every way; the production is clearer, his playing is softer and more evocative, the songs are better (for the most part) and his singing is less strident. I suppose one could talk about the songs, but I’ll not spend a lot of time here. I’ll just say that the first three songs on the album are Blowin’ in the Wind, Girl from the North Country and Masters of War. That would be enough, but then in the exact middle of the album (they were originally broken up on the vinyl record) you have, back to back, A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall & Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright. The rest of the album doesn’t stand up to those songs, really, and Dylan has released albums where there’s not a less than great song on the album. But it’s hard to hold weaker songs like Oxford Town or Bob Dylan’s Blues against an album when it has no less than five of the greatest songs ever written on it. Some of the other songs are actually pretty good; Dylan’s absurdist stream of consciousness numbers here are Talkin’ World War III Blues and I Shall Be Free, and if they both (particularly I Shall Be Free, which was a recording that was entirely adlibbed) have some clunkers in the lyrics, they both also have some really hilarious lines. And Corrina, Corrina is worth a mention; it’s one of the last times Dylan would cover a traditional folk song for several years and the first time he’s heard on one of his albums with a backing band. But anyway, this is Dylan’s first really good album; only a couple of the songs are actively pretty bad, like Bob Dylan’s Dream, and most of them are quite good to genuine masterpieces. From a one star debut, Dylan takes quite a leap: Recommended. 3 ½ stars.
tl;dr – sophomore album finds Dylan relaxing into himself, provides at least five genuine masterpieces and only a couple of duds; Dylan’s a minor, slightly talented folksinger when it starts and an icon for all time when it’s over. 3 ½ stars.