Rolling Stone called this Bob Dylan’s worst album but is Bob Dylan’s worst album better than most other artist’s best album?
Roo asked me the other day whether or not she thought I was a better batsman than Jimmy Anderson. I told her that Monty Panesar, often regarded as a joke Test batsman, opened the innings for Eastbourne in the Sussex County League and was incredibly successful. So while I was flattered that she asked, there’s no way I could ever face the short pitched barrage that he faces every time he bats.
1) Was Jimmy Anderson’s worst innings better than my best innings?
2) Was the worst joke that Paul ever told better than the best joke I ever told?
3) Was the worst singing that Rob ever did better than the best singing I ever did?
4) Was my worst lesson better than the best lesson given by the Economics teacher at Netteswell? (Which reminds me that during our journey home from The Jurassic Coast on Tuesday, our SatNav told us to “turn left at Denis Lane”)
5) Was my worst conversation with Paddy better than my best conversation with the so-called friend who called me a wanker on this blog last week?
6) Was the worst curry I ever had better than the best sushi meal I ever had?
7) Was Brighton losing 3-0 to Burnley better than Lewes beating Leatherhead 5-0?
8) Does Keir Starmer’s most boring speech have more intrinsic value and honesty than Johnson’s best speech?
9) Was Peter’s worst choice for album club better than my best choice?
10) Is “Down In The Groove” better than “30”?
“Death Is Not The End” is probably one of the best songs on the album and has been covered by The Waterboys, who released it on “The Live Adventures Of The Waterboys” in 1998. Bob Dylan’s version is the result of a collaboration with Full Force, who are a group of hip hop and R’n’B singers from New York. This track was recorded during the sessions for “Infidels” in 1983. The song does not celebrate the joys of heaven but demonstrates a belief in rebirth. The final verse describes a post apocalyptic world full of cities on fire, lawlessness and decaying humans. This bleak view of the future is one that he has maintained over the subsequent 30 years. Bob Dylan has always had a negative outlook on the world, whether it be on “The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll”, “Desolation Row”, “Angelina” or “Murder Most Foul”. It’s not clear whether or not it’s a good thing that death is not the end.
“Ugliest Girl In The World” is not the best song that Bob Dylan has ever written. He rhymes “nose” with “clothes”, “hop” with “stop” and “bed” with “said”. Grateful Dead lyricist, Robert Hunter, was responsible for these abominations. This is a long way from other brilliant collaborations they made together, such as “Duquesne Whistle” and “My Wife’s Home Town”.
The other co-write with Robert Hunter is “Silvio” which is another standout track on the album. It’s a fast-paced song with Bob Dylan spitting out the words in a mock-rap style. Lyrically, Bob Dylan is searching for the meaning of life: “Silvio. I’ve gotta go. Find out something only dead men know”. Death might not be the end, indeed. The first verse could be a summation of Bob Dylan’s career up to that point. “Stake my future on a helluva past. Looks like tomorrow is coming on fast. Ain’t complaining about what I’ve got. I’ve seen better times but who has not.”
It’s quite valid to criticise this album because of the songs. Only four are Bob Dylan songs and two of these were co-written with Robert Hunter. None of the other songs come anywhere near the quality of a good Bob Dylan song, let alone his best ones. However, what every Bob Dylan album has (apart from “Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid”, which had five instrumentals) is a plethora of songs, brilliantly sung. His voice may not be to everyone’s taste (and he has used many different voices through his 60 year career) but I would not accept anyone saying that he is a poor singer.
“Ninety Miles An Hour (Down A Dead End Street)” was written by Don Robertson and Hal Blair and sung by Hank Snow in 1963, reaching Number Two in the country singles charts. Bob Dylan sings it slowly, with a piano accompaniment and a number of backing vocalists, including Bobby King. The strength and conviction of his singing is truly awesome and unforgettable.
“Rank Strangers To Me” was written by Albert E. Brumley, who also wrote “I’ll Fly Away”. It was popularised by The Stanley Brothers in 1960 and is considered to be one of their most significant songs. Bob Dylan’s version is respectful and yet he makes it his own by his magnificent rendition.
“Shenandoah” was originally sung in the early 19th century by fur trainers in the USA and Canada as they travelled down the Missouri River in canoes. It was adopted by sailors to become a sea shanty and is listed in the Roud folk song index as Number 324. It has been covered by Harry Belafonte, Dave Alvin, Bing Crosby, Glen Campbell, Judy Garland, Roger McGuinn, Van Morrison, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, Richard Thompson and Pete Seeger amongst many others.
These last three songs bring the album to an end and are a foretaste of “Good As I Been To You” (1992) and “World Gone Wrong” (1993), two Bob Dylan albums that consisted of traditional folk songs.
“Down In The Groove” is not Bob Dylan’s best album but as I listen to the quality of his singing, I realise that I can take immense pleasure from hearing a genius making music.
Answers: 1) Yes 2) No 3) Yes 4) Yes 5) No 6) Yes 7) No 8) Yes 9) No 10) Yes