What are Dylan’s best periods? I think there are four distinct periods; here’s my evaluation:
1. The 60s. The most overrated period of Dylan. First there was the folkie stuff, which is of no interest to any sensible person who sees ‘folk music’ for what it actually is, i.e. fake music. You can tell it’s fake by its rootsy ‘authenticity’. So let’s move on.
This led quite naturally to ithe opposite, the electric rock Dylan and the most overrated album in history, Highway 61. Dylan, as we know caught a lot of flack for becoming a rock and roller, as well as much admiration. But the truth is that this album only rocks very awkwardly and stiffly. The music is at odds with the lyrics, which are pretentiously literary, despite the odd throwaway line that sticks in the mind like some meaningless thought that you want to go away (“Ezra Pound and TS Eliot fighting in the captain’s tower”). He says he doesn’t know what he meant in his songs from this period. That’s because they didn’t mean anything. Duh! But they didn’t fit the music either.
But it gets worse. This is also the period that produced such ghastly songs as Just like a Woman and other immature-boy juvenilia, where unfortunately it is only too clear what they do mean. Best stuff for me from this period? Some tracks on Bonde on Blonde (Leopardskin PillBox Hat, etc.) and some tracks on Nashville Skyline.
2. The transitional period. Trying to grow up (might have already begun with Nashville Skyline). This is more or less from Blood on the Tracks to the Christian albums. Blood on the Tracks is still too much about ‘poetry’ for me but I do like some of the tracks on Desire, where he was starting to find his feet as a storyteller and learning to vary the styles of music, the instrumentation, etc. Not to mention the fact that some of the songs were actually about stuff.
The Christian albums I will pass over in polite silence. Oh and there was also Billy the Kid and Knocking on Heaven’s Door. Apparently he sang the latter to the Pope who fell asleep during the performance. But I still like the recording way more than Guns & Roses’ version.
3. The mature Dylan. My favorite period. Basically the late 80s and the 90s. This includes Time out of Mind and Love & Theft. If I had to choose one of these masterpieces it would be the latter. It just grooves and swings like hell. Rockabilly galore. It’s as if he finally found the kind of words and tunes that not only suited each other, but also suited his own voice and musical gifts, which are finally revealed to be considerable. Whereas on Highway 61 the lyrics were just antithetical to the rock music of the time, here they just meld beautifully. (And if you doubt what I’m saying, just listen to the Rolling Stones’ song Jigsaw Puzzle, which unfortunately mars Beggars Banquet. Why? Because they was trying to do a Dylan lyric of the time, which just don’t rock.)
Another album of interest from this mature period is Knocked Down Loaded, a quirky album because of its swampy reverb-drenched sound, no doubt in line with the Louisiana-ish album title. It’s not all great but some great tracks.
4. The recent period. Begins with the not-half-bad Modern Times, which continues with the rockabilly spirit to a great extent. (Love Wanda Jackson’s version of Thunder on the Mountain). Too soon to evaluate this period, which of course is still ongoing. Who knows what might still come?
So there. Rip the ripostes.