Bob Dylan & The Band – Before the Flood
When I was a boy, like many children of the 1970s, I took cod liver oil in capsule form. An earlier generation had taken the oil straight without the benefit of a digestible jelly hiding the taste. Because I was a boy, and therefore 95% idiot and 5% explorer, I naturally decided one day to bite into the capsule until it popped. My mouth was flooded with a taste of the sea so intense it was like mainlining a fish processing plant. And on that day, I learned that sometimes it’s best not to go below the surface of things: only disappointment – and a lifelong aversion to fish that tastes like, well, fish – will follow.
I don’t want to suggest that Bob Dylan is cod liver oil in this parable. But I also don’t want to not suggest that. My whole life as a consumer of music, and, relatedly, a reader about music, I have been told how great Dylan is. And when something is presented as being good by pretty much everyone, it is very hard to form your own opinion about it. If I like Dylan, am I really just being a sheep and not giving proper consideration to what I’m actually hearing? But if I don’t like him, who the hell am I to reject a Nobel laureate and Academy Award winner? Is it a good idea sometimes to just trust that something is good (for you), rather than have to find out what it tastes like for yourself? It’s the kind of conundrum I grapple with when I offer up these little opinion pieces.
The early 1970s were a (comparatively) fallow period in Dylan’s career, the first such period really, which is why we are now here, over 60 Pazz and Jop pieces in, finally encountering his music. And, man, did I luck out. Because instead of having to assess what I think about a bunch of unfamiliar tunes, I get to dip my toes in with a batch of old hits in a live setting. It completely gets me off the hook: it’s not like I’m going to come up with anything new to say about “Like A Rolling Stone”, and if I did stumble into something new, it wouldn’t be in writing about a live album where he plays a bunch of songs the world already knows.
Or maybe the world doesn’t know them as well as it thinks, because Dylan goes out of his way to twist things up here.The better you think you know a song, the more effort Dylan seems to take in rendering it just a hair unfamiliar. Everything feels fresh, poppier, more contemporary. There is a blues feel to parts of the record, and for a reprobate folkie, this album seriously rocks, although the notion of Dylan as a folk artist should’ve been put to bed long ago.
Dylan has famously pissed off – and existentially on – his audience, so one wonders how some fans responded to some of his reconsiderations on this record. For casual fans such as myself, it’s a revelation. His voice, like Joni Mitchell’s, has always weakened my appreciation of the artistry. But Bob sounds pretty good here. I mean, he’s still Bob, but there’s an energy and passion that is missing from the studio versions of some of these songs. He’s laying it out there, abandoning any notion of cool storytelling detachment. None of these songs are stripped down, with Dylan fully embracing the possibilities that come with having The Band behind him. He’s playing before large crowds, yet the record has the feel of a really dedicated cover band blowing through the middle set – always the best, with the crowd settled in and the band at peak energy, before the end of night lethargy sets in – at a small town bar on a sweaty Friday. The Band acquit themselves well – they were obviously more than a supporting act – but it still feels like Dylan’s show. But when they take centre stage partway through the record, it’s a welcome change of pace.
Favourites are the high energy opener, “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)”, and a bouncy version of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”. “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”, always a powerful song, is richer for having a less ragged vocal, and “Just Like A Woman” likewise benefits from sounding less cynical. Finally, this version of “All Along the Watchtower” leans into ‘60s psychedelic, and feels like a record The Doors would’ve made if they had actually been smart as opposed to trying to sound smart.
One of these days – and I can see it in my headlights – I will have to bite the capsule and find out what I think about a batch of unfamiliar (to me) Dylan tunes. For now, I can enjoy the simple comforts of known truths.