Album review: 'Bringing it all Back Home' - Bob Dylan (1965)

Bob Dylan was just twenty three when he recorded Bringing it All Back

Home in 1965. The album is at once a frozen-in-time snapshot of a young artist at a

particular era, and a reflection of the change and continuity dichotomy at the heart of

American history.


The album was uploaded to YouTube in March 2019, three months before I

discovered "Mr Tambourine Man": an enduring favourite. In the spirit of giving

what you have gathered from coincidence, I listened to the whole album whilst

writing this, our impromptu, whistle-stop exploration of it, without reading

anything critics and reviewers have mused about it.


Bringing it All Back Home conjures two juxtaposed societies: one real, with all

its contradictions and hypocrisies; the other, fantastical and other-worldly, a

land of diverse characters, from the “empty-handed painter in the streets” to

some “utopian hermit monks”. The songs sentimentalise situations and

relations with sheer imagination and communication. Dylan recorded it after

the Christmas break of 1964. According to Howard Sounes’ biography Down

the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan, Dylan “integrated what he had learned from the

success of British bands such as The Beatles with his own, more poetic

lyrics”.


"Subterranean Homesick Blues" - A more urban, gritty, bitter, and pacey version

of his eponymous "115th Dream" song later on. The music video shows Dylan

sifting through a sheet of lyrics. This is no doubt a precursor to the cards on

the doorstep scene in the seasonal rom-com Love Actually. (‘Who is it?’ ‘It’s a

singer of strophic, iconic American blues.’ ‘Tell him to bugger off.’)


More importantly, the social-satirical song was steeped in the politics of the

1960s, notably the civil rights struggle, with the lyric “you don't need a

weatherman to know which way the wind blows” harking back to “Blowin' in

the Wind” of 1962.


"She Belongs to Me" - a merry little ditty serenading who? A mystery muse in

his life, let’s call her Euterpe. Rather, it transpires the real answer is Joan

Chandos Baez, a best-selling singer-songwriter from the folk tradition. They

met in 1961 when Dylan was ushered over to her table at Gerde’s Folk City in

Greenwich Village, according to her memoirs. (Baez said, “I’ve never had a

humble opinion in my life. If you’re going to have one, why bother to be

humble about it?”)



"Maggie’s Farm" - at a time when labour rights continued to be contested in the

USA, this conjures an image of the lackadaisical worker with a rebellious

streak, who suddenly realises there are more important things to them in life

than manual labour. “Well, I wake up in the morning, fold my hands and pray

for rain / I got a head full of ideas that are drivin’ me insane / It's a shame the

way she makes me scrub the floor.” The stories in the songs can be fragments

of an imagined larger narrative, linked only by the listener’s own imagination.

“Don’t ask me nothin' about nothin’, I just might tell you the truth.”


And then, presumably, the protagonist goes "On the Road Again", to the tune of

"Outlaw Blues". We have here the character of the itinerant, outlaw troubadour,

removed from the settled respectable domesticity of normal society. “Then you

ask why I don't live here / Honey, do you have to ask?” After it becomes clear

what a hell-hole of a place this is, the question becomes “Honey, how come

you don’t move?” To answer this rhetorical question, because then there

wouldn’t be a song is why. The title Bringing It all Back Home is strange in an

album with so much travel.


"Love Minus Zero/No Limit" - Here Dylan shows his inner Sappho-lite. While others seek wisdom from each other and books, he loves a wise woman, placed on a pedestal, like a mother but better. She is like the hedgehog in the light essay of Isiah Berlin (following

Archilochus): the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big

thing. “She’s like some raven…” soaring above the rest? Not quite, “At my

window with a broken wing”.


"Bob Dylan's 115th Dream" - A false start lets us into some studio hilarity. Dylan

and his musicians break down into giggles at the very first line, "Ok, take two."

This song seems to be a tongue in cheek treatment of a consequential

chapter in history of the USA. This makes clear the role of coincidence in

history, as understood as a sequence of improbable events. It tells the story of

a Mayflower passenger voyaging into a foreign land “I think I'll call it America”.

The passenger is tossed from pillar to post, in a chaotic series of events,

verging on the Kafkaesque levels of bizarreness. We go back in time when the

traveller sees three ships sailing to the bay. The captain is asked his name:

Columbus. He is told, "good luck".


"Mr Tambourine Man" - More than any other song, this evokes adventure from

the ordinary. One of the YouTube comments is about how Mr Tambourine Man

makes you feel nostalgic for a time you didn’t even know. I remember the first

time I heard it, when I was studying in Paris in June 2019. My flatmate

Rodrigo, a guitar player and poet in his own right, played it on the speaker,

and in the next room I was immediately struck by wanting to know what it was.

Rodrigo had left his guitar in Mexico, and I said that in a decade’s time, he

need not worry about not having bought a guitar, because there’ll be a sharing

economy app covering just about everything by then, even spare local guitars

gathering dust. And by that time, I will still love the wistfulness of this song,

especially the final verse, with the cascading succession of rhymes building a

truly fantastical story.


"Gates of Eden" - This is a great song precisely because, perhaps, it defies

summarisation more than any other on the album. Like Don McLean's "American Pie", it is

cryptic. This is cynical, to my ears, about the promise of heaven, and it sounds

deeply melancholic.


"It’s All Right Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)" - Led by a catchy motif, it’s a song to

listen whilst standing back and looking at a frantically self-absorbed society,

supposedly superficial and hypocritical: “Advertising signs they con you into

thinking you’re the only one / that can do what’s never been done / that can

win whatever’s been won / meanwhile life goes on all around you.” Again, the

lyrics are cryptic enough to retain a relevance, yet unique enough to be only of

their place and time. Dylan’s diagnosis of society is dedicated: “For them that

must obey authority that they do not respect in any degree, who despise their

jobs, their destinies, speak jealously of them that are free.”


Lyrics can make music too. Dylan’s possess an internal poetry, within the lines

as well as across them. The use of internal rhyme creates another, altogether

more subtle, layer of music. Music’s emotional effect lies in partially meeting

expectations that are created by prior exposure. We expect a harmonic

combination, or a note, then we hear it, and that meeting of expectation

creates dopamine, from a sense of completion and closure. It’s a similar

process when we hear the layer of poetry created by the same syllables or

consonants. As Louis Sagasti writes in A Musical Offering, “Music promises

the pleasure of the future: anticipating a melody that flutters a few steps ahead

is the dessert we savour even as we raise another steaming forkful to our

lips.”


"It’s All over Now, Baby Blue" - The day has come to an end and it’s time to

evaluate everything that has happened – and leave, quickly. In the final song

of the album, Dylan uses the word ‘home’ for the first time, discounting

‘homesick’ from "Subterranean Homesick Blues’" This probably isn’t a

coincidence when it’s in the line, “All your seasick sailors, they are rowing

home”. In the last song, our protagonist troubadour, guitar in hand, is walking

down the highway again, off into the sunset, and waves goodbye to all the

characters he has encountered, and made.


When you’re writing about songs, where do you even start? The fishing for

metaphors and the recourse of adjectives is a temptation for music writers, as

to almost amount to a trap. To say something clever, a comment which

transcends the art, the critic can act as a mediator between the creator and

the imagined audience. This can help to create a common listening

experience and communicate an apparent understanding of the music. Yet,

the art is self-contained and subjective: nobody is more placed to understand

it than another.


When you write when you’re older, you’re generally speaking, perhaps a little

more burdened by external expectations and the increasing propensity to

conform, and constrained by the added need to earn. Yet when you’re writing

when young, you’re motivated, but you have little to fear. We all, therefore, must

free ourselves from the curse of the blinking cursor and the stasis of the

page’s blank lines (whether ledger lines or normal ones) by writing freely, with

the approach of Dylan, without thought for the morrow, and without caring

about the crap which will inevitably show up on the initial editing page.


Paradoxically for an artist who bares his soul in his songs, Dylan would mock

the questions from journalists asking about their meaning and context. They

just are. We listeners don’t need to know the whole backstory of the songs.

Well, Dylan thought not. He’d shrug and keep schtum, as if he is a vehicle to

deliver the songs, as if they were absolute art, somehow plucked from the

ether, like a natural melody which will last to eternity, and which predated

humanity (as if). Rather, the songs are laboriously carved, honed, and

edited by a person, fulfilling their own profound mission.


With this album, Dylan alienated himself from a few of his original fans who

valued his purist acoustic credentials. He ‘went electric’. Watching the

carbon-trading, commitment-making circus of COP26 on the news, it’s about

time transport and heating systems did the same. Also, this article is total

procrastination.


Samuel Teale Chadwick, November 2021

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