One of the single most important albums of the rock canon, THE FREEWHEELIN' BOB DYLAN, along PLEASE PLEASE ME, introduced the 1960s with a bang. Sure, the decade had been underway since 1960, but with this release we finally get the Dylan that will change the face of popular music. Although the album before this one can be entertaining in spots, no one could guess the genius of this sophomore effort by listening to the first Bob Dylan disc. And what genius it is.
Dylan, in the course of 13 songs, covers much of the human emotional genome, from joy to sadness to longing to righteous anger to broken hearts to comedy. The album is as accomplished and stunning as any of his later works, and stands as one of the best albums ever recorded. The sound is sparse, but very effective for the material covered. It also has a lesson producers nowadays could learn from: you don't need tons of instruments to produce effective music. This is just Dylan, a guitar, and a harmonica with the exception of "Corrina, Corrina," and he makes it work. Boy does he ever.
This album produced many of his most important compositions and signature songs, including the song that broke him into the mainstream, "Blowin' in the Wind". Compositions like the aforementioned song, "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright," "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall," "Masters of War," and "Girl of the North Country," quickly established Dylan as the premier songwriter for the social conscious of the early 1960s, a role Dylan would quickly move away from (just listen to the mid 1960s trilogy of BRINGING IT ALL BACK HOME, HIGHWAY 61 REVISITED, and BLONDE ON BLONDE to see how far he left this stuff behind). However, Dylan would never cease to be the premier songwriter of rock and roll, and he is still regarded as the poet laureate of rock and roll.
What makes this album's durability all the more remarkable is that it was recorded in the height of the folk-protest revival, which had numerous songs that do not have long shelf lives. The central problem with protest albums is they have a tendency to become dated and awkward as years go by, but not here. These songs sound just as glorious as when they were first released. Where THE FREEWHEELIN' BOB DYLAN does sound dated, this effect actually enhances the album, especially on the last cut of the album where he is talking to President Kennedy who was alive at the time. That alone gives the cut an endearing quality.
Dylan wisely stayed away from dated political concerns, and instead addressed the problems America was having in the 1960s from a much more universal perspective. Instead of singing about nuclear rain (which "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall was never about to begin with), Dylan invokes an oncoming apocalypse. With "Blowin' in the Wind," he confesses he simply doesn't know the answers to the problems, a very strange thing for an early 1960s folk song to do. Other folkies would have said the answer was social reform, or peace and love, or something along those lines. "Masters of War" stays relevant even today, because Dylan addresses universal concerns, not topical ones.
It is useful to contrast this album with its followup, THE TIMES THEY ARE A'CHANGIN'. THE TIMES is a much more defined album, with Dylan clearly in the "protest mode". While most of the cuts off that record are certainly worthy additions to the Dylan catalogue (considering the stuff that was being recorded at the time by Dylan, did we really need "With God On Our Side,") when taken as an entire album THE TIMES wears its listeners out emotionally. TIMES can get rather monotous as times as well. TIMES has dated much more badly than FREEWHEELIN', though to be fair to that record, it still stands up much better than the other folk records coming out of the Greenwich Village scene by today's standards, especially with the title track.
That is one album that desperately needed some light-hearted moments like "Eternal Circle" or something to break up the monotony. Sadly, two of the best compositions ("Percy's Song" and "Lay Down Your Weary Tune," both available on BIOGRAPH) were left off.
TIMES is a dark, brooding, traditional "protest album", and though evidenced by Dylan's numerous outtakes from that period that he was writing songs far beyond simple protest music, it is obvious Dylan constricted himself to very narrow subject matter and themes. TIMES comes off as a very humourless, serious affair. Dylan does not make that mistake here.
While I digressed to discuss this album's followup, contrasting TIMES with FREEWHEELIN' is useful in that it helps show what makes FREEWHEELIN' so successful. TIMES is a straight laced, no nonsense protest album, though with better track selection (like most of Dylan's work), it could have been a much different, and in TIMES' case, better, album. Listening to TIMES is emotionally draining, and while certainly has some great songs, overall the album does not stand up as well, though there are individual songs that match anything on FREEWHEELIN'. TIMES is much more limited in its emotional range, whereas FREEWHEELIN' is a much broader record, and a better one at that.
While THE FREEWHEELIN' BOB DYLAN certainly qualifies as a protest album, due to Dylan's deft skill he crafted the album to be much more universal than strictly topical, and he has been rewarded with creating a rather timeless piece of music. While he did go radically reinvent himself several times over, Dylan never sounded better here, and while he may have come up with music as good as the songs on this album he never made one that surpassed it.