The Cutting Edge shows what genius sounds like before it becomes genius.
Last year’s release of The Basement Tapes Complete was a long-awaited event even for die-hard Bob Dylan fans who shelled out a lot of money on bootlegs over the years. Unfortunately, the latest entry in the Bootleg Series is as much a product of copyright strategy as it is archival generosity. The deluxe version of this release is something of a pre-emptive strike to extend copyright terms and keep this material out of the public domain. But is it worth listening to? That all depends on how much you like Bob Dylan.
In the space of thirteen months, from January 1965 to February 1966, Dylan cranked out three essential albums, Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde. The Best of the Cutting Edge 1965-1966 features outtakes from one of the most fertile creative periods of this iconic musician. Dylan fans will want to hear it all—even the 18-disc, $600 deluxe edition that includes every note of music Dylan recorded in this period. Casual fans, however, will not have the patience to wade through the deluxe set, the six-disc standard version, or even the two-disc set of session highlights that was made available for this review.
The Cutting Edge shows what genius sounds like before it becomes genius. Take “She Belongs to Me” in its first solo acoustic take. Dylan doesn’t completely sell the lyrics; his delivery is strong enough for a mere mortal, but it’s not up to the casual perfection of the released take. Vocals are also sub-genius on the first take of “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” Dylan rushes through “You don’t need a weatherman to know the way the wind blows” and misses the perfect, sardonic timing of the released version throughout the take.
The previously unreleased song “California” sounds perfectly convincing, perhaps because there’s no official studio recording available for unfavorable comparison. The 18-disc version of The Cutting Edgeincludes more than a disc’s worth of outtakes of “Like a Rolling Stone,” and the two-disc set highlights just two of these: an early fragment and take 11, which is still several takes away from the released version. This collection of outtakes makes it clear that the first thought is not always the best thought. The music is fairly close to the finished version, but Dylan is still trying to give it the definitive sell. His genius may seem effortless on the final versions of his records, but a lot of hard work and near-misses went into those masterpieces.
Dyalnologists may be most fascinated by the drastic changes in tracks from Blonde on Blonde. The fifth take of “Visions of Johanna,” for instance, rocks much harder than the album version. It actually sounds pretty great as a straight-forward rocker, but, somehow and thankfully, everyone involved discovered the best way to approach it was to take it at a more laid-back pace. “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” is also taken at a drastically different tempo, three minutes faster than the released version and not nearly as strong. An even bigger surprise is an early take of “Just Like a Woman” played in a kind of Bo Diddley shuffle. As the take ends, a producer says, “That’s one hell of a beat!” Fortunately they found a better one.
The 36 tracks collected on The Best of the Cutting Edge sample the many steps taken toward a series of rock masterpieces. This isn’t bad music. But do you want to listen to inferior versions of some of your favorite songs? If you want to hear how these songs developed in the studio, then you may well prefer to seek out the six-disc or even 18-disc version of this material. But the two-disc set is an often frustrating exercise in “not there yet.”