I have neither the training nor the desire to partake in a deep musical dissection of this collection of songs, and I sincerely hope that some Noder better informed than I will provide one. My aim instead is to apply my analytical skills, limited though they may be, to a recording made over forty years ago.
Bob Dylan’s fourth album, Another Side Of Bob Dylan would prove to essentially point the way for the most fruitful, and perhaps best known period of his career. The record can be seen as a half way point between the traditionalist, laid back folk of “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” and the scathing, surreal garage rock of “Highway 61 Revisited”. It is taken as received wisdom that it was on the 1965 record “Bringing It All Back Home” that Dylan’s style change- people point to this decision to record one side of electric tracks, and leave the B-side acoustic. But in terms of song writing, it is this, his fourth record, when he truly breaks out of the niche he had already established so well for himself. The trademark of his early music, the Woody Guthrie-esque austerity of both sound and form, is being eroded by this point. No longer was Dylan letting the established rules of folk music dominate his writing- he was now dominating the established rules of folk music. It is for this reason that this quiet, seemingly unassuming LP can be considered one of the most influential in the Dylan canon.
In terms of subject matter, Dylan was in a period of transition. Protest still remained at theme, but instead of the staunch resoluteness and clarity of this record’s predecessor, “The Times They Are -A Changin’”, the dissent is more sporadic, as well as more abstract. “Chimes Of Freedom” is undoubtedly a great Dylan protest song, being euphoric where the earlier “Masters Of War” would sound bitter, or melodic were “The Times They Are A-Changin’” (the song) would be discordant. But what Dylan seems to be yearning for in the song is freedom in a more general sense, in a sense, which is evocative of the American ideal of freedom- neither as a licence to anarchy or depravity, but as the possibility for the fulfilment of potential. But it is not this lyric poetry that defines Another Side. Songs such as this are the exception rather than the rule.
Perhaps the most plausible reason why this album would be amongst Dylan’s lesser known is that many of the songs have an improvised, throw away feel. As sfc pointed out in his write up of I Shall Be Free No. 10, many of the songs are “off the cuff”, to such an extent that it perhaps dangerous to read too much into them. Whether Dylan was high or drunk at the time of their composition is something I can only speculate. Nonetheless, these tracks are still undoubtedly good. While this is indeed a testament to the ease with which he could outdo his rival songwriters at the time, his apparent ability to exceed his peers with the minimum of effort, it is so successful because of the type of music, as well as the music itself, that he is writing. He relies on simple, effective forms in many of his compositions, indeed, in terms of chord sequences and rhythm, he revisits many of his established signatures. The simplicity of the production is in fact an asset to these songs- provided he could keep churning out surrealistic, funny lyrics he could have essentially written an infinite number of these songs, all of which only subtly different from the other. Songs such as “Black Crow Blues” are endlessly enjoyable because of their familiarity. By this I don’t mean to suggest Dylan is by any means a lazy writer, far from it, I merely point out that he put his talents to good use.
Why then is this an important album? Is it as emotionally powerful as “Blood On The Tracks”, as much fun as his latter-day masterpiece “Love And Theft”, or as thrilling as “Blonde On Blonde”? Quite simply, this is not an album most would put at the top of an “All Time Best…” list. Its importance lies in its seemingly triviality, in its whimsy and its absurd humour. It is important not because it changed the world, or even music, all that significantly, but because it is a collection of well crafted, funny and occasionally profound songs, and that is perhaps the most important music of all.