Bob Dylan- Bringing It All Back Home
Written on January 2, 2010
A final farewell to protest music, or is this Dylan’s most outspoken protest album to date?
More on that later, but one thing is for sure. This album is pure lyrical poetry. You can find countless interpretations of Dylan’s lyrics, but they are ambiguous in a way that nothing is completely clear, so everything is open to interpretation and discussion.
The two big controversies around this album are Dylan’s incorporation of electric instruments, and a final departure from the outspoken protest songs of his earlier albums.
Playing this album for the first time, I was most interested in the acoustic to electric transition, because there seems to be more written about that than any other aspect of this album, but there’s not a huge difference between the acoustic and electric tracks. It’s not as if Dylan was playing power cords, he was just incorporating a slightly new sound, which certainly enriches the album’s texture. So, the issue was not Dylan’s electric guitar; the issue was change. The fans saw Dylan as their folk protest hero, and going electric and shifting his lyrics away from topics of protest, meant that their hero was gone. However, Dylan didn’t care. He had no interest in being a protest hero. His interest was in creating music that he personally liked, which on Bringing It All Back Home, was not about protesting (at least not in the traditional sense).
It is commonly noted that Bringing It All Back Home is not based around protest songs, and on initial listen, I agreed with this completely, but I now disagree. Whether intentional or not (and I don’t think anything was unintentional with Dylan during this era), I think this is his most powerful protest album to date, but instead of protesting by speaking out against the government, politics, and whatever else, I think Dylan is protesting the act of protesting itself, and I hear evidence of this in almost every song on the album. Here are some examples:
“Subterranean Homesick Blues”: “Johnny’s in the basement/ mixing up the medicine/ I’m on the pavement/ thinking about the government.” Notice that Dylan is now just “thinking” about the government and not protesting or marching against it. He is now just content with his own thoughts. (Click here to listen to Subterranean Homesick Blues)
“Love Minus Zero/ No Limit”: “In the dime stores and bus stations/ People talk of situations/ Read books/ repeat quotations/ Draw conclusions on the wall.” I think Dylan sees these people as protesters with no individual or unique thoughts of their own; he sees them as protesters for the sake of protesting– not for the sake of any certain cause. (Click here to listen to Love Minus Zero / No Limit)
“Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” “Well, I rapped upon a house/ with the US flag upon display/ I said, ‘Could you help me out, I got some friends down the way’/ The man says, ‘Get out of here, I’ll tear you limp from limb’/ I said, ‘You know they refused Jesus, too’/ He said, ‘You’re not Him’.” These might be the most important lines of the album, which (to me) clearly illustrate that Dylan believes protesting is essentially futile. There is so much you can read into these lines, but essentially, Dylan is realizing that if Jesus failed as a protester, than he certainly will as well. (Click here to listen to Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream)
“It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” “Temptation’s page flies out the door/ you follow/ find yourself at war/ watch waterfalls of pity roar/ you feel to moan but unlike before/ you discover, that you’d just be one more person crying.” These lyrics are profoundly powerful, and in regard to my “protesting protest” concept, Dylan is clearly considering “moaning,” but he doesn’t because he knows that he would just be one more person “crying” about issues that he can’t control. (Click here to listen to It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding))
“It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”: “Leave your stepping stones behind/ something calls for you/ forget the dead you’ve left/ they will not follow you/ the vagabond who’s rapping at your door/ Is standing in the clothes that you once wore/ strike another match/ go start a new, and it’s all over now/ Baby Blue.” This is a fitting last line to the album, and it is the final nail in the protest coffin. He is essentially saying that he’s moved on, and it is time for something new. The line about “standing in the clothes that you once wore” is also significant. At this time, Dylan was in the process of changing his image from wearing very plain work clothes (protester clothes) to leather and sunglasses (rock star clothes). These lines make for an incredible close to the album. (Click here to listen to It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue)
I also have to mention “Mr. Tambourine Man,” which is great and maybe the most catchy song on the album; however, it was written a year before the rest of the material, so it doesn’t quite have the same feel as the rest of the album, but this in no way detracts from the flow of the album, and its placement on the album is perfect, in that it gives the listener a slight intellectual break before diving into the last three songs, which are arguably the most intellectually demanding songs on the album.
Bringing It All Back Home is a must own album. It is intellectually challenging, packed with history, and it makes for a fun listen even if you’re not interested in history or intellectualism.
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