Box sets don’t come bigger than this: all 41 “official” Bob Dylan albums, 14 of them newly remastered, with an additional 2CD compilation of singles and out-takes, and a hardback book of sleevenote prose and poems, track annotations, and so on. If you had to explain the course of western culture in the late 20th century, you could do far worse than simply point to this, the almost complete oeuvre of the era’s most influential artist.
Taken together, the shape of Dylan’s career becomes clearer: not an arc, or even a flow, but a jagged pursuit of a particularly restless muse.
Time and again there are abrupt breaks, with both his own history and the general course of music: the groundbreaking shift from folk to rock; the sudden turn to ascetic, spartan fables while the world around turned psychedelic paisley; the emancipation of country music; the brimstone-breathing Christian preacher; the curatorial unearthing of traditional musical antiquities; and so on, and on.
It’s not all good, of course – there are some right stinkers, especially from the Eighties – but the highs are astronomical, floating over the earth observing humanity and transmuting its foibles into allusive, surreal, poetic commentaries that lodge in the collective consciousness.
And even the bad albums have their moments. In truth, I wouldn’t recommend anyone buy the likes of Saved or Dylan & the Dead individually, but they’re acceptable as part of a longer career narrative, providing low-tidemarks against which the grander swells can be better measured.
My only complaint is that the non-inclusion of the Bootleg Series deprives us of at least two major works (“Foot of Pride” and the magnificent “Blind Willie McTell”) – but perhaps they’re waiting for Volume Two.
Download: Blowing in the Wind; Subterranean Homesick Blues; It’s Alright, Ma; Like A Rolling Stone; Visions of Johanna; Knocking on Heaven’s Door; Tangled Up in Blue; etc, etc.