Fuck “With God on Our Side.” No, seriously, it can take its 7 minutes’ worth of bad guitar playing and non-melodies and bad lyricism, fashion them into a metaphorical shaft, and go fuck itself for all anyone could care. Even ignoring the fatal sin of a modern song re-arranging sentences and sacrificing grammatical integrity for rhyming’s sake (“The first World War, boys / It came and it went / The reason for fighting / I never did get”) or Bob Dylan’s random use of “I’s” to make him seem like one of the everyman (“I’s taught and brought up there”, “I’s made to memorize”), the lyrics are frighteningly bad. They range from dated (“I’ve learned to hate Russians / All through my whole life / If another war comes / It’s them we must fight / To hate them and fear them”) or just dumb (read this aloud: “Oh the history books tell it / They tell it so well / The cavalries charged / The Indians fell / The cavalries charged / The Indians died”; um, yeah, if that’s what your history books are telling you, they’re not telling it so well at all).
But whereas I can forgive the equally bad “Ballad in Plain D” off Another Side of Bob Dylan because the rest of it is so good, I can’t here because the rest of The Times They Are A-Changin’ ain’t much better. His guitar playing on “Only a Pawn in Their Game” and “Restless Farewell” are equally bad; the former employs shifts in tempo that are only useful when he intones the song’s hook over top (one of the few memorable melodies on the album, and still not as powerful as his intonations on the following album) but distractingly random anywhere else. Meanwhile, Dylan strums the chords really slowly in the latter in the same way a novice guitar player might who’s never been taught how to strum. The riff of “Ballad of Hollis Brown” is the only riff worth mentioning because the empty spaces makes for a desolate landscape, but like “With God on Our Side” or “Restless Farewell,” there isn’t a melody and the thing just humps that riff for the too-long duration until either you or the riff has fallen asleep. And with songs like “North Country Blues,” “When the Ship Comes In,” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” the only thing wrong with them is that there’s nothing right (although “When the Ship Comes In” gets a bit of praise because of being livelier than the rest of the album).
And I admit that I’m not as won over by the title track as everyone else seems to be: the use of harmonica just seems cheesy, like it’s the sonic representation of time and how it’s a-changin’ (though I admit that Dylan’s iambic stressing makes for a good hook, “The times they are a-changin'”). The only songs I come back to are “One Too Many Mornings,” which, despite being the shortest song on the album, manages to transport you somewhere through the chipped way the word “miles” parts Dylan’s lips, and “Boots of Spanish Leather,” because a recycled melody is better than no melody at all. It’s funny that critics at the time called out Another Side of Bob Dylan for ditching protest songs for personal ones when the best songs off Dylan’s protest album were about love. Here’s a thought: angry Bob Dylan is way worse than happy Bob Dylan. That’s actually applicable to real life, if you think about it.