After a shameful break, I'm back with "Project Dylan", my sequential overview of my favorite Bob Dylan albums. So far I've covered Bob Dylan, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, The Times They Are A' Changin, and Another Side of Bob Dylan. Now on to Bringing It All Back Home...
In standard Dylan exegesis, Bringing It All Back Home is where Dylan breaks with the folkie/protest singer identity of his earlier work. Not only is he already turning electric here, well before he gets to “Like a Rolling Stone”, but his artistic focus turns to an inner symbolic world where his vision reaches the surreal new levels that mark him as the poet of his generation. I suppose that’s all true as far as it goes, but what I hear throughout this album is seething protest. The protest is now bigger, and more fundamental, than civil rights or the anti-war movement. It’s nothing less than a repudiation of the way things are, the entire way society is organized.
“Subterranean Homesick Blues” kicks in to it with full tilt electrified blues, rock and roll by any other name, that in just over two minutes flat of rapid-fire verse paints a picture of a society that one can only hide out from in basements as it seeks to put you on the day shift. And what else is it but the whole system of expectations itself that he doesn’t want to labor for anymore in “Maggie’s Farm”: Well, I try my best/ To be just like I am/ But everybody wants you/ To be just like them/ They sing while you slave and I just get bored/ I ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm no more? The pervasive rebellion reaches a high point on “Outlaw Blues”, an echoing steely blues song that warns off all comers: Don't ask me nothin' about nothin'/ I just might tell you the truth.
The whole argument comes to a conclusion in the masterful incisive poetic stream of consciousness that is “It’s Alright Ma’ (I’m Only Bleeding)”. I won’t go into its rich detail here except to note that the poet, even while admitting: If my thought-dreams could be seen/ They'd probably put my head in a guillotine, still asserts: Although the masters make the rules/ For the wise men and the fools/ I got nothing, Ma, to live up to. Read the rest when you have a chance, and see if it doesn’t ring even more true in the aftermath of financial and consumer collapse in 2009 than it did in 1965.
Even a song that is clearly comedic, like “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream”, where Dylan actually busts up laughing at the beginning, uses absurdism and rhyme to lay bare the genocide and thievery at the heart of the founding of the country. The joking “On the Road Again” similarly insists on opting out of the great big out-of-control American nightmare: You ask why I don’t live here?/ Honey how come you don’t move? So too with the seemingly abstract poetry of “Mister Tambourine Man” and “Gates of Eden” which nonetheless seek out realms beyond the straightjacket of everyday life.
There are more personal moments too, including what I think is one of the most beautiful love songs ever written, “Love Minus Zero/No Limit”. My heart aches every time I hear the lines: My love she speaks like silence/ Without ideals or violence/ She doesn't have to say she's faithful/ Yet she's true, like ice, like fire, not least because I know nothing I write will ever touch it. “She Belongs to Me” shimmers with line after line of beautiful poetry subtly undercut by the servitude to the woman it portrays. Words also fail to describe the bitter beauty of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”, a breakup song that assigns longing and melancholy regret for the breakup to the other party, surely a neat trick if there every was one. It also seems a kind of bridge to the albums larger theme of protest, the bereft woman as American society itself, told to leave failed excess behind and begin again:
Leave your stepping stones behind, something calls for you.
Forget the dead you've left, they will not follow you.
The vagabond who's rapping at your door
Is standing in the clothes that you once wore.
Strike another match, go start anew
And it's all over now, Baby Blue.