Bob Dylan's latest record - Shadows In The Night - is the #1 album in the UK. A collection of Frank Sinatra covers, it's the next surprising move from a singer-songwriter who's made a career out of doing whatever he damn well pleases.
Robert Allen Zimmerman - to give his birth name - polarises popular opinion like Marmite. I first really came to know his work back in the summer of 2002. I had recently started a new job and was going to be driving between Bournemouth and Southampton, spending the best part of an hour each way in the car. Some new music was definitely required. I went down to HMV and browsed the racks, looking for inspiration. Whilst I was rummaging through the bargain bins, I came across an unfamiliar CD at a very nice price. I decided that I could afford to risk three quid on this particular album album, though it would probably just confirm what I suspected all along. That this "Bob Dylan" bloke couldn’t sing and was criminally overrated.
So I took the CD, threw into the car stereo and started the drive home. I listened to it. And then on the way to work the next day, I listened to it again.
And I thought it was great.
The album was Blonde On Blonde. There’s no hit singles on it but what is does have is Dylan classics such as “Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again” and “Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat” and “Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands”. The Dylan anorak in me is forced at this point to tell you that when this came out way back in 1966 it was a double album – one of the very first. And “Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands”, which is 11 minutes long, took up an entire side of one of the two records that made up the album.
In my humble opinion, this is one of the very best folk-rock albums ever made. This is not just a collection of songs but a proper album, with a beginning, middle and end. It’s also a very enigmatic record - there are no photographs available of any of the recording sessions, no film has ever been released of Dylan in the studio – which is pretty unusual.
This is the kind of detail that makes Bob Dylan so fascinating to me. He’s been releasing albums for over 50 years now– 36 studio albums, 11 live albums and many, many compilations. For many people, it's the Dylan voice that's the problem. He doesn't have a great singing voice - a sandpaper curtain that unfortunately obscures his genius for some. But get over your initial misgivings, dive in, and there's a wealth of tremendous lyrics and powerful music to discover. Full disclosure: whilst many of his records are works of genius, others are complete crap. No, really. Unlistenable. Lend an ear to 1988's Down In The Groove for a start.
And it’s not just his records that can be infuriating – it’s his live performances as well. I’ve seen Dylan play live on several occasions, each time going with a different person – because at the end of the gig, they invariably turn and say “sorry mate - that was rubbish”. They complain that he croaked his way through each and every song, that he played classics like “Blowin’ In The Wind” or “Like A Rolling Stone” in versions that hardly sound like the original at all. And they’re right. The band is good – the music is always good – but Dylan barely acknowledges his audience. He just gets on stage, does a couple of hours and goes.
But once in a blue moon, sometimes clicks. Out of nowhere, he suddenly delivers a terrific performance or does something you’re not expecting. Last time I saw him, he had a stack of music sheets on top of his keyboard. He was peering at them, trying to read the words as the sheets kept slipping off. In exasperation, he glanced around, picked up something nearby and used it as a paper weight. If you looked really hard, you could see what the improvised paperweight was – the Best Song Oscar he won in 2001, for "Things Have Changed" from Wonder Boys.
I’m now passionate about Bob Dylan – the music, the lyrics, the man, everything. If you’re a fan, he can really be exasperating at times but like with a good friend, you’re always prepared to forgive the odd indiscretion.
And by the way, his Frank Sinatra album is terrific. He even sings it well, the contrary old bugger.