A darkly delicate denouement, Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” — as conveyed with trembling, breakable beauty by Richard Manuel — concludes Music from Big Pink like a moment in miniature.
The Band had explored big ideas, genre-defining notions, and added a group of sharply drawn, completely unforgettable characters to the rogues’ gallery of rock music. Their debut, however, closed out with what felt like a devastating, very personal prayer.
Manuel had sung a yearning, high harmony on the track’s initial incarnation, as part of their creative outburst with Dylan in a basement in West Saugerties, New York, and Manuel stays in that emotional place throughout his finished vocal on the Band’s take from a year later. In so doing, he finds shattering new depths of meaning in Dylan’s prison-cell incantation.
His Band mates help frame a sense of finality that is largely unique among the tune’s seemingly endless group of covers, beginning with Levon Helm’s yearning vocal contributions on the chorus and continuing to his endlessly intriguing rhythm. Achieved by flipping a drum and running his fingers through the snares, it unfolds like a solemn funeral march. Garth Hudson’s ghostly presence on the roxochord likewise serves to underscore this version’s rough moral message: All things end, whether in good time or not.
Other takes on this song — certainly those associated with Amnesty International over the years — tease out its surface theme of redemption, but its placement at the conclusion of Music from Big Pink, and Manuel’s defenseless falsetto delivery, imbue this version with a billowing sadness. The idea of “release,” at least this time, feels like a wish granted too late.
Dylan actually recorded two versions of “I Shall Be Released,” with a second 1971 take finding a home on Volume II of his Greatest Hits. Along the way, the Band took several live passes at the song, as well — notably as as a ragged sing-along (and perhaps too obvious closing image) from their guest-packed Last Waltz concert. But nobody — not even, to my ear, its author — captured the song’s parable-like complexities quite like Manuel and the Band did here.
And they were just getting started. Big Pink would, of course, resonate far and wide. Though recorded in New York City and — after a tumultuous reunion show with Bob Dylan on January 20, 1968, at a Carnegie Hall tribute to Woody Guthrie — in Los Angeles, the Band’s debut quickly came to personify a new back-to-basics aesthetic.
Eric Clapton, who’d first heard an early version of the album while on tour with Cream, promptly quit the band in search of a rootsier sound. All of a sudden, the Beatles had unplugged for what would become their troubled Let It Be project. The Rolling Stones and Traffic quickly put aside their flirtations with psychedelia. A young Led Zeppelin would morph “Chest Fever” into “Your Time is Gonna Come.”
And, to think, this wasn’t even the Band’s best album. That came next.
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