You can call him self-indulgent, you can call him slick. You can call him mascaraed genius, you can call him Rick. You can call him a crowd-pleaser, you can call him a crank. But in the 1970s, you couldn’t consistently call Bob Dylan anything for very long. His very first review of the decade in Rolling Stone, then still the arbiter of the same counterculture that hailed him a hero, led with an incredulous, “What is this shit?” After a legendary winning streak that left his early output the gold standard of the ‘60s—and thus among the most overplayed of the era—he flopped, hard. Dylan later claimed that he was tired of the attention and that Self Portrait was a plot to get people to stop buying his records. It worked.

As Another Self Portrait revealed decades later, there was a good album buried in those sessions, but such was the contrariness of the aging boy wonder that, after riding a critical and commercial rocket in the ‘60s, all he wanted to do was crash land. Stubborn, mercurial, Dylan careened into the new decade with a spotless record and proceeded to grow spots. Several of them, with peaks and valleys and canonical albums and widely dismissed efforts. Maybe his best work of the decade was largely recorded in the ‘60s, The Basement Tapes. But, with Self Portrait and a succession of new directions that didn’t all take, the voice of his generation, after a steep ascension, was ready to fail, and he got some of the worst reviews of his career well into the decade. By the end of the decade, as biographer Clinton Heylin notes, Dylan was getting over a failed marriage and the backlash against Street-Legal and Renaldo and Clara, a nearly five-hour movie that has yet to find critical rehabilitation. And then he found God. Today, Dylan may be America’s elder musical statesman, but he had to make some missteps along the way, and the ‘70s is when he shifted from unstoppable juggernaut to flawed major artist; after conquering the world, he was still trying to find himself, and the search was fascinating. – Pat Padua

“If Not for You”

After essentially changing the face of popular music in the 1960s, Dylan’s 1970s was typified by a desire to return to some sort of simplicity, as evidenced by New Morning, the apologia album that came immediately in the wake of one of the greatest acts of self-sabotage in music history. New Morning was something of a reset, its simple, warm fusion of folk, country and gospel a soothing balm from an artist who was perhaps looking to settle down a bit as he started a new life. All of this is evident in the romantic inflections of the album opener, “If Not for You.” Where previous Dylan love songs allowed for the singer-songwriter to exercise a degree of poetic license in order to craft something singular, “If Not for You” places emotion ahead of arch artistic expression.

The message of “If Not for You” is easy to comprehend; it’s direct in the way that some of the finest folk and country music often is. Dylan’s words rely on the sort of common metaphors and descriptors that are commonplace because they work so effectively. The sense of joy and ecstasy in the song is palpable, and it is only helped by the low-key arrangement of the song itself. Al Kooper’s organ, typically a dominant force on early Dylan albums, lingers in the background, and greater emphasis is placed on Dylan’s tender (by his standards) vocal delivery. Even as a Dylan original, it has the feeling of the kind of country standards that Dylan was fascinated with at the time, and it essentially became a standard almost immediately after its release. This is arguably one of the handful of Bob Dylan songs performed better by other artists—I’m partial to George Harrison’s rendition—but that only serves to emphasize just how great of a songwriter Dylan could be. – Kevin Korber

“Day of the Locusts”

Fifty years ago, Dylan—disillusioned, out of place, high as hell and paranoid—drove down to Princeton with his wife, Sara, and David Crosby to receive an honorary degree. The story goes that his two companions had to do everything short of kidnapping to get Dylan to comply, which makes sense considering he had dropped out of the University of Minnesota in 1960 and spent the intervening decade becoming—by purpose or accident—a key figure of the counterculture. But academia is a many-tentacled beast, and here it was, trying to claim Dylan as one of its own, again. Out of this experience was born “Day of the Locusts.”

The song is driven by Dylan’s piano—banging out the simple repeating chord progression—and one of his best vocal performances. The underlying chord structure doesn’t change from verse to chorus, so it is Dylan’s melodic variations that mark the change between them, accompanied by subtle backing harmonies and an echoing organ. The guitar and percussion are inobtrusive, filling in the gaps between Dylan’s words. In a fitting touch, a recording of buzzing insects flits in and out of the track.

The verses are laced with surreal touches. The weather is sweltering, the crowd is eerily quiet and a room full of “judges”—black-robed academics—“smells like a tomb”. In one of his more macabre images, Dylan sings that “The man standing next to me, his head was exploding/ Well I was praying the pieces wouldn’t fall on me”. But out of the gothic verses springs the elation of the chorus. The song of the locusts arrives as something transcendental, a sign of life beyond the dead pomp and circumstance of the event. Dylan closes the final verse with a sentiment that anyone who has come into contact with a university can relate to (and which has taken on a morbid resonance as colleges rush to return to class in the fall): “Sure was glad to get out of there alive.– Ian Maxton

“The Man in Me”

For a certain generation of listeners, “The Man in Me” will forever and always been associated with the 1998 Coen brothers’ film, The Big Lebowski. So effective was its utilization during the opening credits (and again midway through the Dude’s journey) that it’s damn near impossible to hear the song without thinking of it within the context of the film. It’s lumbering, piano-led groove, Dylan’s wordless vocalizing and the high, almost ethereal female harmonies create a haunting effect that seems tailor-made for visual accompaniment. Which perhaps comes across as a little odd given the otherwise unremarkable nature of the song itself within its original context on the album New Morning.

Falling on the latter half of the B-side, it comes at the start of a trio of brief, almost sketch-like songs. Indeed, “The Man in Me” is, comparatively, fairly lyrically sparse, relying instead on the song’s instrumental arrangement to evoke an emotional sentiment underscored by the lyrics. In its simplest terms, it is a love song in which Dylan has found an ideal mate, the type of woman who manages to “get through to the man in [him].” And while the song’s lyrics rely on fairly formulaic notions of love and its effect on the afflicted, the timbre of Dylan’s voice and his preference for wordlessness help to truly sell the idea that he has found himself so enamored of another that it has quite literally rendered this voice of a generation speechless.

It’s both celebratory (“But oh, what a wonderful feeling/ Just to know that you are near”) and ebullient in a way few Dylan songs have managed. Simple, sweet and to the point, “The Man in Me” is an affecting love song that succeeds where most others fail miserably, showing Dylan once again to be a brilliant conveyor of emotion both with and without the words he chooses. – John Paul

“Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”

Though it may be the schmaltziest of Dylan’s best-known compositions, “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” is also his most immortal, so to speak. This gorgeous hymn about imminent death, from the perspective of someone terribly close to oblivion, is uniquely powerful. Few songs capture the final seconds of life so evocatively. We all tremble at that “long black cloud,” the final curtain, that’s “coming down.” We do our best to forget it day to day, as we go about our quotidian business. Death isn’t something we like to be reminded of, even though memento mori has been a recurring concept in art, one that long precedes Bob Dylan.

And yet, this simple tune remains timeless. Guns N’ Roses infamously turned it into a ham-fisted power ballad (and rock radio hit) on Use Your Illusion II. (Dylan was not a fan.) But others have deepened its inherent pathos. Antony and the Johnsons’ phenomenal cover from the I’m Not There soundtrack is both ethereal and funereal. And then there’s Warren Zevon’s sighing rendition, sung at the end of his own life, that endures as potent as ever. It becomes a glorious anthem of finality. “Open up, open up, open up” he riffs at the end, directly to St. Peter about the pearly gates.

Dylan’s own recording, from the soundtrack to Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, became a worldwide hit in the early-‘70s. It even peaked in the top 20 of Billboard’s Hot 100 chart, quite a feat for Dylan during his commercially fallow period between his ‘60s prime and mid-‘70s resurgence. The song’s popularity speaks to its universality. We’ll all someday experience its lyrics, just before everything fades to black. – Peter Tabakis

“Tangled up in Blue”

Switch the pronouns around; it doesn’t matter. Shuffle the verses. Create and recreate possible narratives. None of it quite matters on Dylan’s masterpiece, “Tangled up in Blue.” The ambiguity, of course, is part of the song’s genius, but if it were utterly unclear, it couldn’t carry the emotional weight that it does. The proper story almost exists, and listeners can easily argue about the sequence of events, but the key sensation of the tale comes through. Dylan’s central character experiences a powerful but complicated romance. No matter what happens, he remains tangled up in thoughts (and sometimes life) with this woman, before heading off too, ostensibly to find her one last time.

The individual set pieces stun. Dylan fills the saga with wordplay and unforgettable imagery, whether drifting from New England to New Orleans, finding uncomfortable housing in New York, or nervously hiding in a topless bar. Each verse rubs up against the others to develop a vision even if the way these verses fit remains unclear. It could be an out-of-order narrative or it could involve changed narrators in a cubist delivery (Dylan’s constant fiddling with the lyrics lead to some versions more suggestive of that idea). Regardless, the tangle grows. The hurt grows. The heartbreak lingers in the rain, but the passion persists.

As the guitars jangle away, Dylan creates one of the most distinctive paintings in pop music. He writes life in big sweeps using tiny details, even as he leaves out some of the information we might most want. The world is hard and messy and often disastrous. Still, as the guitars jangle away, you sense it might be worth pushing through the illusions and the mess and finding out what’s next in the journey, even if you can’t quite put the pieces together. – Justin Cober-Lake

“You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”

Blood on the Tracks was widely received as a return to form for Dylan after more than half a decade in the creative wilderness. Whether that assertion is true or not, “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” is a return to the style and sound of his pre-electric days. The production on the track is smoother than Dylan’s early folk work, and the use of the country-inflected bass adds some depth to the track, but at its core, the song, as it appears on the album, is one in which Dylan, accompanied by his guitar and harmonica, dips into the same elemental pool out of which he pulled The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and The Times They Are a-Changin’.

The lyrics are simple. It’s a song about how nothing lasts, but in contrast to the popular sentiment “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone,” Dylan suggests that you can only know what you’ve got by meditating on its eventual loss. It’s a hard-earned perspective, and the song shifts between romantic, pastoral imagery—“dragon clouds so high above”, “purple clover, Queen Anne’s lace”—and persistent regret. Dylan opines on past loves: “Mine have been like Verlaine’s and Rimbaud”, he says. The first bridge ends with the perfect lyric “I could stay with you forever and never realize the time,” which is both beautiful and ironic—Dylan knows precisely what time it is.

The song moves at an almost cheerful speed. On an alternate take released on the Bootleg Series Vol. 14 (labeled “Take 5”), Dylan, with a full band, plays the track with a more melancholic, shambling pace. It’s not always the case that Dylan’s alternate takes are better (though they are usually interesting), but in this case, it’s true. Vocally, the slowed tempo allows Dylan a more expressive range. His voice breaks ever-so-slightly on the first line, and he turns the higher notes throughout into a mournful howl. It’s an exhibition in what makes Dylan a great vocalist: he understands that singing is 90% acting and 10% pitch. You can sell a bum note as long as you feel it. And in the midst of his crumbling marriage, there can be no doubt of his feeling. – Ian Maxton

“Simple Twist of Fate”

“Simple Twist of Fate” could easily be a short story. The world feels real, immersive, and it is filled with rich details—the “neon burning bright,” the saxophone and the “ticking of the clocks.” Yet it may be the more abstract lines that hold the most weight. When the character wakes up alone, he feels “an emptiness inside” to which he cannot relate. It’s one thing to feel empty; it’s another to be estranged from your own emptiness.

His self-estrangement is central to the song, which hinges on the idea that the characters’ interaction, as well as their future together or lack thereof, is subject to a force beyond their control. He wonders whether “she’ll pick him out again” and asks how long he has to wait, thereby underscoring his own lack of agency. He is constantly subject to outside forces—not only fate but time, the heat of the night which hits him like “a freight train” (and hits us, too, thanks to Dylan’s rising vocals), the other character’s leaving and possible returning. He is even subject to his own emptiness.

When the lyric “I”—central to the preceding song on the record, “Tangled up in Blue”—returns in the last verse, Dylan sings again about being subject to fate and time: “I was born too late.” By reintroducing the first-person, Dylan returns to the intimacy which dominates much of Blood on the Tracks. Still, there is a sense that the lyric voice, like the character, is still not in possession of himself, as if he’s being tousled about by wind, driven by external forces. Perhaps this apparent powerlessness, along with the use of fiction and third-person, is a way of abdicating agency. Or perhaps it is a true representation of love, which can make us feel like characters in someone else’s story. – Tyler Dunston

“Idiot Wind”

Someone’s got it in for me, they’re planting stories in the press!” Dylan bellows at the start of “Idiot Wind,” Blood on the Tracks’ caustic centerpiece. Dylan has long denied that Blood on the Tracks is autobiographical, going as far as to claim in his memoir, Chronicles: Volume One, that its songs were inspired by Anton Chekhov’s short stories. And while it’s true that—as far as we know—Dylan has never shot a man named Gray nor absconded to Italy with the dead man’s wife, the bile and paranoia that permeates “Idiot Wind” is very real.

The song is most commonly interpreted as a shot at Dylan’s estranged (and soon-to-be former) wife, and there are enough clues in the lyrics that bear this out. The entire back half of the song reads like a farewell to a lover: He can’t remember what she looks like anymore, and he’s so grief-stricken that he can’t even touch her favorite books. (The performance captured on the live album Hard Rain is incendiary, changing a key lyric from a “chestnut mare” to a “smoking tongue.”) But what sets “Idiot Wind” apart from scores of lesser breakup songs is Dylan’s recognition that he bears the blame as much as the person he’s addressing. “You’ll never know the hurt I suffered/ Nor the pain I rise above/ And I’ll never know the same about you,” he sings in the final verse, just before the spiteful “You’re an idiot, babe” becomes “We’re idiots, babe.” It’s also possible that he’s talking to himself, killing his ego by inflating it to its bursting point. Hell, both could be true. All we can say for certain is that Dylan was lying when he claimed that Blood on the Tracks wasn’t personal. You can’t just write a song like “Idiot Wind”—you have to live it first. – Jacob Nierenberg

“If You See Her, Say Hello”

Bob Dylan has repeatedly denied that Blood on the Tracks has anything to do with his divorce, but whether you believe him or think that he’s deliberately obfuscating, the emotional effects of the album can’t be understated. “If You See Her, Say Hello” is both the album’s emotional low point and one of its most beautiful moments; it’s the song that underscores what Dylan was trying to accomplish with this album, even as he scrapped a finished version of it in the process of making it. Like a number of the songs on Tracks, this is a stripped-down affair; the song features no chorus to speak of, and the arrangement is one of the sparest on the album with only organ, guitar and lightly-picked mandolins present. The sound it creates is fittingly funereal, as this song focuses less on visceral pain and more on the after-effects of a relationship’s dissolution.

Despite his insistence that this song and the others he wrote around this time aren’t autobiographical, “If You See Her” displays a vulnerability that is almost never present in Dylan’s work. Dylan had written about love, heartbreak and relationships before this, but “If You See Her” is unique in the sheer emotional devastation portrayed here. The speaker is a broken shell of a person; the end of this relationship has destroyed him. He imagines that her life is going reasonably well, and he sounds both pleased and slightly bitter while imagining this. But it is all imaginary; he only thinks this out of regret. What Dylan does so well, both in the lyrics and through his vocal performance, is to bring home the finality of the situation. This relationship, and this story, has ended, and there’s no chance of bringing it back. Any sense of hope is gone, and all that’s left is to deal with the emotional fallout. – Kevin Korber

“Shelter from the Storm”

In the Duino Elegies, Rainer Maria Rilke writes about the dual nature of God, containing beauty and terror in equal measure—“Every angel’s terrifying.” The tenth and final elegy ends on the paradoxical notion of a “happy thing” which “falls,” a reversal of the traditional associations of joy/ascension and grief/descent. For Rilke, the elegies emerged from a period of intense spiritual tumult. He said that he finished what may be his greatest work in “a hurricane of the spirit.”

You could make the case that the same is true for Dylan. We all know the story of Blood on the Tracks, how his mid-‘70s masterpiece marked the dissolution of a marriage and a corresponding state of inner turmoil, but it’s not the turmoil that makes songs like “Shelter from the Storm” great—it’s what Dylan made of it. Like Rilke, Dylan brought out the beauty and spirituality in pain, highlighting the terror that accompanies the greatest joy.

Dylan applies the sublimity of God as seen in Rilke to romantic love. From the outset, “Shelter from the Storm” is littered with references to a Judeo-Christian context; Dylan sings that he “came in from the wilderness,” he describes himself as a creature “void of form”—he even mentions his “crown of thorns.” He also refers to the place where “God and her were born,” explicitly confusing romantic and religious devotion, refuge and strife. Like Rilke, he goes on to describe love—at once secular and devotional—in terms of beauty and terror. He describes how “beauty walks a razor’s edge” and declares, “It’s doom alone that counts.” Finally, he says, “I bargained for salvation and she gave me a lethal dose,” a stunning conflation of religious and secular devotion, life and death. It’s not far off from “Every angel’s terrifying.” Like Rilke, Dylan’s vision of love is one in which pain and beauty, romance and faith are inextricable, almost indistinguishable, from one another. – Tyler Dunston

“Buckets of Rain”

Dylan once sang of a hard rain that was a-gonna fall, and “Buckets of Rain” is the conclusion of Blood on the Tracks’ emotional downpour. It’s one of the simplest and loveliest songs that Dylan ever wrote, though there’s a bitter that comes with the sweet. After eight tracks of vulnerability and heartbreak, and whatever the hell “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” is, there’s a sense of resignation to “Buckets of Rain.” It may be the end of Blood on the Tracks, but it isn’t the end of the affair—the question asked in the song’s final line is left unanswered.

For years, Dylan had been the “spokesman of a generation,” a symbol to which countless Americans could pin their hopes and fears. On “Buckets of Rain,” Dylan doesn’t sound anything like that: He just sounds like a man who wants to be nothing more than a man, to process his emotions and remind himself of the things he loves about the woman he loves. “I like your smile/ And your fingertips/ I like the way that you move your hips/ I like the cool way you look at me,” Dylan croons—a heartfelt sentiment from a man who isn’t known for heartfelt sentiments. But whatever warmth those words contain is turned inside out by the very next line, “Everything about you is bringing me misery.” Hearing this song in 1975, it remained to be seen if the story of Bob and Sara Dylan would have a happy ending, if there would be a rainbow after the rain. That’s sad to think about, yes, but that doesn’t mean it was a bust. – Jacob Nierenberg

“Goin’ to Acapulco”

We debated way too hard and long about the status of the Basement Tapes. The long-storied album of the same name was released in 1975. But the tracks themselves were laid down in the late-‘60s, in a Woodstock home dubbed “the Big Pink” following Dylan’s infamous motorcycle accident. There he gathered with his touring band, the Hawks, who would eventually become the Band, and recorded immortal tracks (“I Shall Be Released,” “This Wheel’s on Fire,” “Quinn the Eskimo,” “Tears of Rage” and “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”). Many of them were covered by other artists and were well-known by the time The Basement Tapes became officially available.

This weird accident of history means only one song of the bunch made our list: “Goin’ to Acapulco” (since the rest didn’t feel fully ‘60s, nor ‘70s). Though it’s not as memorable as some of its Big Pink siblings, “Acapulco” perfectly captures the spirit of the ramshackle project. It seemingly starts mid-phrase, and ambles along as if it’ll fall apart at any moment. Dylan’s plaintive wail and the Band’s loose accompaniment somehow cohere into a structurally questionable mess. But what a fabulous mess it is.

The lyrics, mind you, are pure misdirection. The narrator is a ne’er-do-well, Rose Marie a woman of ill repute. No one is headed to the storied Mexican resort destination. Dylan sings off-beat, as if inebriated. So, we’re stuck in this drunken revelry, one that’s almost as enchanting as the title’s sandy getaway. – Peter Tabakis


With cinematic flourish, and across an eight-minute-plus runtime, Bob Dylan and collaborator Jacques Levy tell the tale of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, a Black middleweight boxer who (along with John Artis, not mentioned in the song) was falsely accused of, and incarcerated for, triple murder. “Hurricane,” one of Bob Dylan’s biggest hits of the 1970s, hasn’t exactly aged to perfection. The use of the N-word in the ninth verse, though placed in figurative quotes, is jarring and wouldn’t fly today. Nor would the songwriters’ historical inaccuracies and elisions, which erase Artis from the narrative.

Despite these glaring flaws, the song’s overwhelming might resonates now more than ever. Given our current socio-political climate, with Black Lives Matter moving from an upstart movement straight into the mainstream, its relevance is only matched by “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” an early-‘60s Dylan track that describes the murder of a Black woman at the hands of a wealthy tobacco farmer.

“Hurricane” blows through your speakers with gale-force winds. There’s an urgency to this, the last great protest song in Dylan’s oeuvre, which combines the forward thrust of his best kiss-offs (“Like a Rolling Stone,” “Positively 4th Street,” “Idiot Wind”) with the gravity of his socially conscious classics (“Blowin’ in the Wind,” “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” “Masters of War”). Throw in swirling violin melodies by Scarlet Rivera, masterful vocal harmonies by Ronee Blakley and an all-time-great harmonica outro by Dylan. What shouts out is a potent, though imperfect, indictment of racial injustice: hitherto timeless and heartbreakingly timely. – Peter Tabakis


If we can have cowboys fight aliens and Abraham Lincoln fight vampires, then surely we can have a story where an Egyptian goddess’s love sends a man on an existential journey complete with death and epiphany before a triumphant return to love. Bob Dylan doesn’t actually do that on “Isis,” but he plays with the images of the “mystical child” while sending his protagonist off on an epic quest. The story winds through imagined wilds and internal processes, all as a classic adventure. Joseph Campbell could enjoy the archetypology, but Dylan plays with details of the journey, including the emptiness of the prize, the hero who only maybe changes (“I guess”) and the lack of new power, unless submission counts.

The story works well on its own, but violinist Scarlet Rivera tells half of it, her playing functioning halfway between set-design and Greek chorus. The whole song relies on a steady, comfortable chord progression, with a bluesy turn on harmonica and violin. The steady thump of the backing highlights Dylan’s storytelling – he has as much fun on this trip as we do. It also lets him focus on our thoughts. In the middle of the track, his singer imagines the treasures to come but suddenly Dylan spins us around with, “As we rode through the canyons, through the devilish cold/ I was thinking about Isis.” The emphasis on her name puts a new twist on the events. In the middle of the story, we realize he isn’t running from her but circuitously toward her. We still have death and tombs and a survival struggle ahead, but we know where we’re headed, right back to the fifth of May and the love of Isis. If she wants. – Justin Cober-Lake

“One More Cup of Coffee”

The Rolling Thunder Revue cast Dylan as a white-faced wanderer, a rogue much like the characters in Lorca’s Romancero Gitano. No song embodied this picaresque notion like “One More Cup of Coffee,” a tale of a young narrator who must part with the lover who offers him no “affection, no gratitude or love.” With Scarlet Rivera’s soaring violin providing a haunting counter-melody, “One More Cup of Coffee” is Dylan at his most mysterious.

Featuring a duet with Emmylou Harris, Dylan has claimed the song came to him after an experience in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, France. He visited a Romani celebration there and observed wonders such as a man playing Russian Roulette with five bullets and heard the Middle Eastern-flavored music that courses through “One More Cup of Coffee.” The imagery in the song tracks as Dylan sings of outlaws who excel at throwing knives, illiterate women and a muse with “eyes like two jewels in the sky.

It can also be a metaphor for Dylan’s disintegrating marriage with his wife, Sara. It’s a song about separation, a song about an inscrutable woman with a voice “like a meadowlark” and a heart “like an ocean/ Mysterious and dark.” Dylan dresses up his hurt in this melancholy tale of loss, one of the finest songs in his oeuvre. – David Harris


Bob Dylan has always been a moving target. A chimerical interview subject, Dylan has peppered his life and his songs with half-truths, tall tales and alternative histories. Dylan wants to confound you, a grifter with a wolf’s smile, an unfaithful historian who is a living curator of our pop culture heritage.

Closing out Desire, though, comes “Sara,” the singer’s nakedly emotion plea to a wife about to leave. If Blood on the Tracks is sadness cloaked in vitriol, allegory and recrimination, “Sara” offers unadorned personal details that can sometimes be too painful to bear. Beginning with images of the Dylan children on the beach, the song takes the listener on a sojourn through places important to the songwriter and his wife, from a marketplace in Savanna-la-Mar to the Chelsea Hotel where Dylan directly references another song he wrote for his Sara during an all-night burst of inspiration.

Don’t ever leave me/ Don’t ever go,” Dylan begs as the song fades out, no truer words of stark desperation. At the end, we find Dylan alone on the beach. There is nothing there but kelp and pieces of a shipwreck. The children, once babies who played there, are gone. All that is left is memories of pails and shells in their hands. Sara is gone. There is only Dylan. – David Harris

“Changing of the Guards”

“Changing of the Guards” is one of Dylan’s great epics – that strain of songs stretching from “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” to this year’s “Murder Most Foul.” It may be the best of them. A Gordian knot of apocalyptic imagery, internal rhyme and self-reflexivity, it’s long been pegged as one of Dylan’s more opaque lyrical turns. There seem to be references to the sonnets of Shakespeare, the life of Joan of Arc and Dylan’s coming conversion to Christianity. Direct references to the Tarot invite the listener to play divination games with the illusive/allusive figures that proliferate. This is a song full of shepherds, captains, witches, priests, idols and gods – a parade of symbolically weighted totems driven on by an underlying prophetic pulse. It’s like nothing so much as Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun with Dylan cast as the wandering torturer who becomes a god.

But it’s best understood as a song of transition. Dylan’s opening lyric offers the listener some context: “Sixteen years/ Sixteen banners united over the field.” The song began to take shape in 1976 – 16 years into Dylan’s career – and eventually appeared as the opening track on 1978’s Street-Legal, which was his seventeenth studio album (if you discount the studio cash-grab Dylan, which Dylan himself did). This isn’t complex numerology, but the lyrics precede to form swirling layers of chaos and uncertainty that are easy to get lost in. And the music underscores that, moving frequently from the major V chord to the minor vi, a move without resolution. On a broader sonic scale, the gospel vocals and screaming sax reflect Dylan’s search for a new sound as he – like many artists his age – filled larger and larger venues. The big sound on “Changing of the Guards” would propel Dylan into the next decade, his most interesting and misunderstood.

Dylan once said of the song, “It means something different every time I sing it. ‘Changing of the Guards’ is a thousand years old.” Like the best of his songs, it is the product of a particular moment in history, intensified by and refracted through Dylan’s artistic impulses and, in the process, transcending its moment. – Ian Maxton

“Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)”

Sifting the first two decades of Bob Dylan’s songwriting, many of the songs that stand out blend a mythic language with enough concrete details to keep them from fully drifting into the ether. One of the highlight of 1978’s Street-Legal, “Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)” continues this tradition blending imagery from both the Old West and the Bible with a physical dustiness. The title situates us at the Southern border, but Dylan immediately questions that premise, wondering if we’re headed toward “Lincoln County Road” (bringing to mind Billy the Kid) or “Armageddon” (suggesting the end times, if not physical Israel). Within a few lines, Dylan posits a world somewhere between history, faith, and reality.

From there Dylan unspools a tale that could be read as a redemption story. Only “could be,” because it fuses a Christ-like anger and sacrifice with a gunslinger’s view of justice (perhaps the “Yankee Power” of the title is the US’s national version of the myth of redemptive violence). Dylan’s protagonist might connect himself to Jesus and Billy the Kid, but he’s lost. Bitterness against an old love drives him, but he doesn’t know where he’s going or exactly why. Ultimately, he needs to respond with destruction, but it won’t get him what he needs, and he’s left without from the señor he addresses throughout the song (who could be either a silent guide or a distant god).

The thoughtful orchestration and arrangement develop the song by leaving enough space for the sand to get in (in 1978, Dylan needed to resist over-complicating the track). The horns create the setting but then get out of the way. The song builds just a little, peaking with Dylan’s frustration at his unanswered questions. The horns pick up again to lead us out of the wilderness without letting us forget the desolation, the band ending an apocalyptic vision with a strange (but fitting) decrescendo. – Justin Cober-Lake

“Where Are You Tonight (Journey Through Dark Heat)”

“Where Are You Tonight (Journey Through Dark Heat)” is notable first and foremost, perhaps for its finding Dylan hinting at his future, seemingly improbable conversion to Christianity with its Biblical imagery both explicit and illusory. But more importantly, from a purely musical standpoint, it’s just a damn good song that operates in classic Dylan form. In the moments before he sings the titular phrase, the song sounds as though it were alluding to “Like a Rolling Stone,” the words held and strangled within Dylan’s nasal delivery, Alan Pasqua’s sustained organ swelling along with the drums and prominent electric guitar before exploding into the song’s central question. It’s part allusion to the past and hint at what’s to come over the course of his upcoming, overtly Christian recordings.

Functioning as the closing track of 1978’s Street-Legal, the song is a big, almost gospel-informed pop song that utilizes a larger backing band plus female vocalists on multi-part harmonies that lend additional depth and breadth to the song as it builds and soars over its 6:15 runtime. The gently loping rhythm and Dylan’s lyrically dense writing offer a great deal for listeners to parse out should they so choose, but it’s also a straightforward enough pop song in its own right to stand on its own, regardless of whether or not you’re one for close listening. In other words, you can get off on the typical Dylan lyrical morass just as much as on the song’s groove. It’s this combination that makes for some of the best of both worlds in terms of what Dylan has to offer both lyrically and musically, showing him to not only be a hell of a songwriter from a literary standpoint, but also a monster tunesmith in a purely pop sense. Very few can claim both. – John Paul

“Gotta Serve Somebody”

When American’s greatest Jewish singer-songwriter found Jesus, it would before long lead to one of his most-dismissed creative periods. But Slow Train Coming began the era with something like a return to form; he sounded more relaxed and easygoing, and his backing band followed suit, with Mark Knopfler’s slick lead guitar helping to giving him a new sound that was still steeped in tradition. And this leading track defines Dylan’s Christian era with a hook that would be the envy of any preacher.

With a litany of identities, Dylan redefines himself, as he did throughout the ‘70s, for better and, for many fans, worse. In live recordings that add a fierce passion absent from the studio (cf. Trouble No More) he fortunately dropped the “You can call me Ray” bit, and I personally refuse to call him Zimmy. But despite the dated reference to a then-popular stand-up comic, this is the song you play for people to convince them Dylan hadn’t lost it when he went Christian. While Dylan was perhaps at his best when at his most mystical, as in the visionary heights of “All Along the Watchtower,” Dylan the Evangelist gained points for an often elusive clarity: if interpretations of something like “Watchtower” keep fans guessing even today, there’s no mistaking what he’s talking about here; he’s talking about God and your soul, and if you stopped paying attention to Dylan sometime in this wildly inconsistent decade, this is where he lets you know that you better start listening again because he’s got a message.

“Gotta Serve Somebody” won Dylan a Grammy for Best Male Rock performance, and even though the awards aren’t generally considered an arbiter of real-world quality, the voters were on to something. Don’t worry; Dylan being Dylan, he would subvert expectations again, and again. —Pat Padua

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