I’m starting to think that “Bringing it All Back Home
" isn’t really that accurate a title for this album. Yes, in this 1965, Bob Dylan returned to his folk-house-of-mirrors ways of combining the grassroots and the surreal with perfect sincerity; in other words, lyrically speaking, he did in fact “bring it all back home." However, the music on the work is so groundbreaking, so unbelievably hot, that it’s almost like he wrote “traditional" Dylan lyrics only to mask the fact that the tunes were so full of furious. So I guess in that sense, it’s not that the title isn’t appropriate, just that it’s incomplete. Maybe something along the lines of “Bringing it All Back Home, and Burning the Sucker Down" would do a bit better.
Dylan’s position as one of the great American poets is cemented within three minutes of listening. The incomparable “Subterranean Homesick Blues" is often cited as one of his best lyrical performances, and with good reason. A whirlwind of master storytelling, straightforward truth, and transcendent humor… I mean, come on:
Better stay away from those who carry ‘round a fire hose
Keep a clean nose, watch the plainclothes
You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows
So deviously simple and yet so unequivocally true, it sets the tone for an album that at times makes you laugh at loud at some points, but nevertheless keeps you thinking.
The juxtaposition of the first two tracks – the galloping “Subterranean" and the smooth “She Belongs for Me" are also indicative not only of the rest of the album, which consists of a balance of more traditional folk tunes and bold, breakneck statements, but of a major crossroads in Dylan’s career. Listening to this album, you can almost see the division running right down his catalog like a county line: on one side, the man who was the savior of American folk music, and on the other, the rebel who went electric and changed the face music as we know it. Another such pairing – the white-hot “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream" and the mellow “Mr. Tambourine Man" – is twelve minutes of classic Dylan. The sweeping metaphors of the former constitute some of the most conscious satire ever put on wax, while the delicate melody of “Tambourine Man" is some of the most sincere balladry in the man’s entire catalog.
Along the lines of songcraft, you can’t really talk about the album without mentioning the epic “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)." While the topic of the lyrics is much debated, I feel like its clear: it’s a man and his guitar looking at the world, and telling the truth with haunting accuracy:
As some warn victory, some downfall
Private reasons great or small
Can be seen in the eyes of those that call
To make all that should be killed to crawl
While others say don't hate nothing at all
Disillusioned words like bullets bark
As human gods aim for their mark
Made everything from toy guns that spark
To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark
It's easy to see without looking too far
That not much
Is really sacred.
It’s a bit of a shocker for a record that Dylan seems to be having so much fun with, but at the same time, it really isn’t all that surprising considering the cunningly political nature of the album. It’s almost like he’s been setting us up for it; he gives us entertaining accounts of society’s fallacies on numbers like “Homesick Blues" and “115th Dream" to get our attention, and we can’t help but pay attention to the astonishingly close-to-home statements he makes.
And there we have it, I’ve come full circle. “Bringing it All Back Home" is, in fact, a perfect title for the album. Not as a description of the content, but as a command to forget about the meaningless plethora of false idols surrounding us and take a serious look at the problems that touch us personally. To think that the direction that this album took Dylan’s career in resulted in the infamous accusation that he was a “Judas" for playing electric music is one of the greatest injustices in music, regardless of the fact that he was ultimately accepted. Because while the nature of the music eventually became commonplace and highly influential, the message was lost in the very sea of *** that he himself warned against.