Bob Dylan – Biograph

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 8)

At first, I thought I would skip Biograph because it is a box set and under my rules, I am not reviewing box sets. But then I thought about how I keep Biograph organized with the regular CDs and not the box sets, and how I have reviewed the Treasure Isle Collection, which is a four CD set that I also catalog with the regular albums. And maybe I felt a little insecure about the Blonde On Blonde fiasco. Well, I regret nothing.

What I Think of This Album

This is a strange collection. Not a greatest hits, not really a career overview, not a gathering of rarities, it nonetheless makes stabs in all those directions. I think it works best as a rarities comp, as almost 40% of the songs were either previously unreleased or released only as singles, and there are some real gems there. As a hits collection, it fails simply because there are too many non-hit songs included, and its size makes it overly challenging for a first time listener. 

And as a career overview? Actually, it works pretty well that way. And while I am tempted to augment that praise by suggesting that Biograph overcomes the lack of chronological sequencing, I am going to go further and posit that the set works better because of the timeline jumping. I think to start out with Dylan as folkie, segue to the manic electric period, document the bewildering post-motorcycle accident era, observe the comeback of Blood On The Tracks and Desire, gape at the conversion to Christianity, etc. would have been boring and unfair (though, strictly speaking, accurate). I feel it is more appropriate and far truer to present Dylan in all his guises and modes without a framework, for this uniquely highlights his talent and skill (and perhaps his stubbornness). Jumping around from 1964 to 1975 to 1981 to 1966 to 1979 to 1969 reveals the scope and depth of Dylan’s gifts, and in fact honors those gifts by giving over fully to them. To otherwise present Dylan as being one thing for some chunk of time and then another thing during a later period dilutes and distorts the actual story, which is less one of transformation and more one of transcendence. Of course, Dylan says he was transformed after his motorcycle crash, so maybe I’m just full of shit. 

I like this collection both because of the rarities and the songs from the albums I don’t own (and probably never will). 

The unreleased songs (I am counting singles and B-sides here) are showstoppers, mostly. Two singles released in 1965 validate my preference for the Highway 61 Revisited portion of Dylan’s career. “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?” is romantic and sexy. This is possibly my favorite Dylan song ever. It is also the blueprint for the entire Wedding Present output. Predating that by a few months was “Positively 4th Street,” which is cutting and venomous. “I Wanna Be Your Lover” is perhaps a tad reductive of Dylan’s sound from that time, but it’s not a bad song at all.  

“Abandoned Love” is a tremendous track dating to 1975, never before released, replete with ramshackle charm (and the violin of Scarlet Rivera). Dramarama covered this recently. “Up to Me” should have been included on Blood On the Tracks, as it is similar in feel but much better (and refreshing) than many of that album’s tracks. “Baby, I’m In the Mood for You” is an early track – from the Freewheelin’ sessions in 1962 – and it reflects the playfulness of Dylan’s work from that era. “Lay Down Your Weary Tune” is based on an unspecified Scottish ballad, and it sounds like it; nae, this is a fine piece.

I don’t know why “Groom’s Still Waiting At the Altar” was relegated to a B-side. This is a fun, surprising blast of energy from 1981, the blues structure notwithstanding. “Quinn the Eskimo” could not carry that title these days (rightly so), but that’s the only thing wrong with it. Shifting locales, “Caribbean Wind” is pleasant, though lightweight. Ending things is the warm and spare “Forever Young.”

While it is nice to own the original of “I’ll Keep It With Mine,” the truth is that Nico’s version is *much* better (though it’s probably necessary to mention that Nico hated the arrangements on Chelsea Girls).

Of the songs from albums I don’t own, my favorite might be “If Not For You,” and “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” is almost as sweet and heartwarming. I like the gentle “Every Grain of Sand,” which is also from 1981 but sounds like a 1964 track at its core (it reminds me, melodically, of “Chimes of Freedom”). “You Angel You” from Planet Waves is a very welcome surprise. 

I used to own Another Side of Bob Dylan, so “It Ain’t Me Babe” isn’t new to me, but I am grateful that I have it now. The same is true of the live version of “I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met).”

Getting “I Want You” – the best song from Blonde On Blonde – without needing to own Blonde On Blonde is a gift. Too, the live rendition of “Visions of Johanna” is much more enjoyable than the studio version.

The liner notes contain a lengthy biography and, more compellingly, song-by-song commentary from Cameron Crowe (ugh), with explanations from Dylan (yes!).

The Best Thing About This Album

One of the nice surprises of this collection is all the love songs. I dig the fucking love songs.

Release Date

November, 1985

The Cover Art

Terrible, but not surprising.

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