Much has been said about the inclusion of electric guitars and how much that shocked the folks in the folk scene; I couldn’t find the pertinent issue, but it would’ve been interesting to read what Sing Out! wrote about this one considering they criticized Another Side of Bob Dylan for being personal instead of protestful. But it was bound to happen sooner than later, and I’m happy it happened so soon: Bob Dylan’s acoustic and harmonica and vocal shtick had been growing old, and he had been guilty the previous year of recycling previous melodies (“Boots of Spanish Leather”) to simply not writing any at all (“Ballad in Plain D”). Sure, with “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” being a melodic rewrite of “Motorpsycho Nightmare,” he’s still guilty of the former, but definitely not the latter (and this new song is just as good as the old one, though I can do without the intro, which was cool once and kind of annoying each time after). Some of these songs are the best melodies he’s ever written (“Mr. Tambourine Man”) and while others might not be so melodic, that’s usually where the guitars come in (“Outlaw Blues”).
Though George Starostin writes that, “Bob’s backing band is essentially just a garage outfit with next to none instrumental virtuosity,” I vehemently disagree. The electric guitars are responsible for splashing colors practically everywhere. In particular, pay attention to the empty spaces when Bobby’s not singing on “She Belongs to Me” and “Love Minus Zero / No Limit” (speaking of, ’twas a smart move to separate the album’s three main rock songs with those two), and try not to get lost in Bob Dylan’s poetry and really hear the electric guitar filling in the spaces of the acoustic strums of “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” (speaking of, the second side isn’t entirely acoustic; stop pigeonholing and listen harder) (on, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” love the human way Dylan sings “Strike another match, girl, start anew”). And if not the electric guitars, than harmonica (ie. a literal sigh after the line “It’s alright, Ma, I’m only sighing” at the 1:28 mark). Maybe nothing here’s as intrinsically psychedelic as “Norwegian Wood,” but this is psychedelic folk, people.
That being said, George Starostin is definitely correct in that “What really made the difference were the lyrics that were set to these melodies: psycho, trippy, absurd, some making isolated bits and stretches of sense, some purely paranoid, yet all of them immeasurably more enjoyable in conjunction with these “primitive” melodies and Bob’s wheezing than on the man’s previous recordings where he’d just put them as isolated beatnik poems inside the liner notes.” He’s touched on absurdity before, but never so fully as on Bringing It Back Home, and frankly, they mean a helluva lot more to me than his preceding politics. “She Belongs to Me” would’ve been a more conventional romantic number just a year ago, but here, it begins “She’s got everything she needs, she’s an artist, she don’t look back” (perhaps a metaphor for Bob Dylan refusing the hand-hold the folk scene anymore) and the penultimate verse ends with “She’s a hypnotist collector and you are a walking antique.” Elsewhere, you have some of the most quotable lines of his entire discography, “She knows there’s no success like failure / And that failure’s no success at all” (“Love Minus Zero / No Limit”), and “Let me forget about today until tomorrow (“Mr. Tambourine Man”).
Speaking of the latter, there’s usually debates about whether Bob Dylan’s original or the Byrds’ cover is better. Are you ready for the truth? It doesn’t matter, because they do completely different things. The Byrds understood that “Mr. Tambourine Man” was one of Dylan’s greatest melodies, and added harmonies to turn it into a pop song because vocal harmonies were something of a case du jour around that time. Then, as a rock group, they added a rolling bass and a jangly guitar and delivered the song’s promised psychedelia (“Take me for a trip upon your magic swirling ship”). But turning “Mr. Tambourine Man” into a pop/rock song, they also had to drop more than half of the original’s lyrics, and that’s where Bob Dylan’s original shines. Love the literary devices: from internal rhymes, consonance (“dead for dreaming,” “reels of rhyme”) to assonance (“evening’s empire”) to imagery (surely this song was about drugs).
Sure, some of the songs are minor successes in comparison to the highlights. “Maggie’s Farm” is essentially “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” but worse overall because Bob Dylan isn’t nearly as exhilaratingly different both in his hundred-miles-a-minute delivery and in the lyrics (“Maggie’s Farm” is a thinly veiled metaphor about not wanting to work for the man, be it the government or the folk scene), or in structure (there ain’t a single hook in “Subterranean,” which ends up paradoxically turning every line into a hook from the opening “Johnny’s in the basement, mixing up the medicine / I’m on the pavement, thinking about the government” to the penultimate lines, “Don’t want to be a bum / You better chew gum”). But ask yourself this: is it a bad song or simply not as great as “Subterranean?” Elsewhere, “Outlaw Blues” is even more of a diminishing returns, but “On the Road Again” has an even thicker bass than “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and the blasts of harmonica and drumfills to elevate it.
Similarly, on the second side, “The Gates of Eden” – decent – doesn’t have a chance to shine being sandwiched by the three other songs on the second side. “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” is the best song on the album that’s just solo Dylan … maybe the entire album, actually. The melodic hook’s just as good as it was on “Mr. Tambourine Man,” the acoustic guitar manages to be just as hard-hitting as the electric guitar on aforementioned songs and Bob Dylan’s lyrics manage to sustain the fire of those songs for more than triple their lengths. Remember that bit I said previously about this album having some of Bob Dylan’s most poignant lines? Well, “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” is full of them: “Even the president of the United States / Sometimes must have to stand naked”, “Money doesn’t talk, it swears”, “Say: ‘Okay, I have had enough / What else can you show me?’”, the whole verse about not people hating their jobs, and obviously the closing lines, “If my thought-dreams could be seen / They’d probably put my head in a guillotine / But it’s alright, Ma, it’s life and life only.”