Where to start with this sprawling 43-disc behemoth, chronicling every album Bob Dylan has issued to date over five decades between 1962-2012?
After all, The Complete Album Collection (due November 5, 2013 from Columbia Legacy) features some 35 studio efforts — including rhe first-ever release of 1973′s Dylan on compact disc — as well as six live projects, and two discs of outtakes, singles and non-album cuts. Those outtakes include live takes on “Tomorrow is a Long Time,” “Visions of Johanna,” “I Don’t Believe You,” “Romance in Durango,” “Isis” and “Heart of Mine,” among others.
Both “Series of Dreams” and “Dignity,” two lost classics from the sessions for 1989′s Oh Mercy, are here, as well. Fans of Dylan’s collaborations with the Band will find 1974′s Planet Waves and Before the Flood, as well as 1975′s Basement Tapes. The box also includes 1989′s Dylan and the Dead.
Fourteen of the albums (including 1970′s Self Portrait, 1978′s Street Legal, 1985′s Empire Burlesque, 1992′s Good As I’ve Been To You, and 1993′s World Gone Wrong) have been specially remastered just for this set.
There are newly composed album-by-album notes from Clinton Heylin, and an introduction courtesy of Bill Flanagan. The entire thing is also available on a super-cool harmonica-shaped USB, all of which have been numbered.
It gives a whole new meaning to the word massive. So, we broke it down based on a handful of key moments across the decades, just to get started …
BOB DYLAN (1963): In the beginning, Dylan had an affinity for folk songs stirred vigorously with the syncopations of a blues — and that’s best experienced here, and on the early 1990s compilation The Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3. In fact, the original liner notes to this, his debut album, call Dylan “one of the most compelling white blues singers ever recorded.” That only goes so far, though. “Talkin’ New York” shows where he’ll actually go, and boldly: toward a roughly hewn folk pentameter that shambles to the very thick of meaning.
Nick’s Pick: OK, we love the blues here, anyway — particularly, Dylan’s cover of the old Blind Lemon Jefferson tune, “See That My Grave is Kept Clean.” Oh, and “Man of Constant Sorrow,” decades before it showed up on the “O Brother Where Art Thou” soundtrack.
HIGHWAY 61 REVISITED (1965): Dylan’s second electric album solidified what many folkies had feared: Bob’s gone crazy. But in the best of ways. A tremendous effort. He also debunked what had initially been an overblown connection drawn between his music and the blues. Through you could infer that this title relates to the famous highway running through the blues-rich Mississippi Delta, it was during these sessions that Dylan laid down the law for guitarist Mike Bloomfield: “I don’t want any of that B.B. King shit.”
Nick’s Pick: The opening stanza on “Like a Rolling Stone.” Dylan agrees. In 1984, he said: “The first two lines, which rhymed ‘kiddin’ you’ with ‘didn’t you,’ just about knocked me out.” Us, too.
BLOOD ON THE TRACKS (1974): His most upfront, emotional recording, this album marked Dylan’s First Comeback. “Blood on the Tracks,” Rolling Stone said, “was roundly greeted as Dylan’s return to the poetic force of his classic LPs ‘Blonde on Blonde’ and ‘John Wesley Harding.’” It also feels like a backhanded farewell to the 1960s and its heralded idealism.
Nick’s Picks: “Tangled Up in Blue,” of course — and these lyrics: “Either I’m too sensitive, or I’m getting soft.”
OH MERCY (1989): Maybe it was the clinging New Orleans nights, or the burgeoning talents of producer Daniel Lanois. But Dylan’s bitter introspection sounds refreshingly in focus here, in what could be called his Second Comeback. Dylan’s biblical and lore-laden turns of phrase get a punching up from the Nevilles’ rhythm section — and the spherical keyboard and guitar musings of both Lanois and Malcolm Burn. Even the outtakes from this album, “Dignity” and “Series of Dreams,” were gems.
Nick’s Picks: For all of the atmospherics, we still go for the spit-shined harmonica joys of the only two bonafide rockers on “Oh Mercy” — “Political World” and the minor hit “Everything is Broken.” “Series of Dreams” lifts off as if strapped to a rocket pack.
TIME OUT OF MIND (1997): Seemed somewhat overcelebrated in its moment after a health scare for Dylan, as this one was ranked No. 408 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest records of all time in 2003. But it’s held up well as one of Dylan’s better album-length efforts. He seems to realize, during his first original songs since 1990′s Under the Red Sky, that the clock is ticking. In a larger sense, he’s a guy, in keeping with the title, who is out of time. Dylan is both misunderstood by a new generation, and also moving into the last third of his life. Lucky for us, he isn’t going quietly. Call it his Third Comeback.
Nick’s Pick: “Not Dark Yet,” the best thing Dylan has done in ages, this perfect enigma from a guy who’s made a career of such sleights of hand. An edgy post-modern lament downshifted into quiet Civil War balladry, “Not Dark Yet,” remains a riddle — and maybe that’s the very definition of good art: It’s something that you never quite figure out.