Half a century into his career, Bob Dylan’s amassed a gigantic catalogue of original material. He’s released a string of greatest-hits albums, and his touring repertoire is well over 100 songs. But he’s also got some remarkable songs that have been overshadowed by their companions — songs that, in anyone else’s career, would be high points.
In honor of the release of his 35th(!) album, Tempest, we invite you to listen to these overlooked gems in isolation, away from the blinding flare of his most famous records; you’ll find they sparkle much more vividly.
“As I Went Out One Morning”
Given his obsession with history and vernacular American music, Dylan was eventually going to have to confront the legacy of slavery head-on. He did it with this affectless, totally twisted John Wesley Harding song, a three-verse koan in which a beautiful slave tries to convince the terrified narrator to be her lover and "fly south" - and she's not just any slave, but Thomas Paine's slave. Extra points for the way Dylan's asthmatic harmonica and Charlie McCoy's indelible bass counterpoint play off each other.
“Gonna Change My Way of Thinking”
Two underrated talents of Dylan's are his ability to rattle off killer blues couplets and his willingness to go back and tweak "finished" songs. The original version of this Bible-thumping blues appears on Slow Train Coming, though when Dylan and Mavis Staples remade it as a duet for 2003's Gotta Serve Somebody compilation, he threw out all but the first verse, came up with a bunch of much funnier half-secular lyrics, cranked his rasp up to "lacerate," added a bit of spoken dialogue lifted from "Jimmie Rodgers Visits the Carter Family," and ended up with one of the fiercest rockers of his career.
“If You Gotta Go, Go Now”
The Beatles and Dylan spent a lot of the '60s volleying songs back and forth, and this salacious Bringing It All Back Home outtake is hilarious both on its own and as a parody of the Fab Four's sound circa "I Should Have Known Better." It was a British hit for both Manfred Mann and Fairport Convention (the latter in a French-language, Cajun-style arrangement, as "Si Tu Dois Partir"), but Dylan didn't bother to put it on an album until The Bootleg Series in 1991.
Dylan's spent his whole career repurposing the language of songs written before he was born, but this Modern Times masterpiece is nearly wall-to-wall references. The beginning of the chorus here is lifted from a pre-Civil War tune, "The Little White Cottage, or Gentle Nettie Moore." (It can't have escaped Dylan's notice that another Nettie Moore was a contralto who recorded "Deep River" and "Song of India" in 1922 for Black Swan Records, "The Only Records Using Colored Singers and Musicians Exclusively.") The "Lost John" of the song's first line comes from a Woody Guthrie tune; the "blues... falling down like hail" is from Robert Johnson; "where the Southern crosses the Yellow Dog" is not just a line from W.C. Handy's jazz standard "Yellow Dog Blues," it's the particular line Handy claimed he heard a black musician singing in 1903. And so on: As Dylan puts it, "too much paperwork." What all those allusions add up to, though, is more like a papier-machÃ© mask – "Nettie Moore" is ultimately about a fading consciousness ("the world has gone black before my eyes") reassembling a lost world of experience around itself.
Occasionally, Dylan's recordings sabotage a terrific song. This two-chord Street-Legal number about sex, voodoo and flirtation with evil has a bunch of terrific lines: "Come over here, pony, I wanna climb up one time on you," Dylan growls. Somehow, the recorded version ended up with a crawlingly slow tempo, a trio of backup singers ceaselessly repeating "How much longer?" and a cheeseball sax solo. Imagine it without the bombast, though, and it's as deep and unnerving as any blues he's written. (For another version of the song, sans cheesy sax solo, check out the Dead Weather's cover of it.)
Dylan doesn't have much of a rep as a groove artist, but the title track of the second album from his born-again Christian period is the funkiest thing he ever recorded. That's partly the work of the ace rhythm section - bassist Tim Drummond (a veteran of the James Brown band, who co-wrote the song) and drummer Jim Keltner. More broadly, though, Dylan had finally figured out how to integrate some of the sound of the gospel and soul records he loved into his own music.
“Series of Dreams”
"Look, I don't think the lyrics are finished," Dylan groused to producer Daniel Lanois about this surging, dramatic song. "I'm not happy with them. The song's too long. But I don't wanna cut out any of the lyrics." In some ways, "Series of Dreams" was Dylan returning to the lyrical mode of his mid-'60s songs - except, this time, their namedropping specificity has been ripped out, and all that's left are stasis, ambiguity and the bare walls that once held his grand visions. The arrangement, though, is the closest he's ever come to Lanois's other associates U2; its slowly cresting dynamics and thunderous rhythm are unlike much else within the Dylan catalogue.
“When the Ship Comes In”
Dylan's memoir Chronicles, Vol. 1 discusses the seismic impact that Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's Threepenny Opera song "Pirate Jenny" had on him. This 1964 "finger-pointing song" is Dylan's own "Pirate Jenny": a revenge fantasy where Dylan explores the dark side of his demands for social justice. It's pretty clearly inspired by Brecht and Weill's song - particularly its scenario, in which the ship arrives to wake the sleeping villains and settle some old scores.
“You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”
Blood on the Tracks has so many earthshaking songs that it's easy to overlook the ones that are merely wonderful. "Lonesome" is as simple as a Hank Williams standard in some ways, but it's filled with masterful touches: Dylan rhyming "Honolulu" with "Ashtabula," the "crickets talkin' back and forth in rhyme," the image sequence of "purple clover, Queen Anne lace/ crimson hair across your face," that heartbreaking chord shift at the end of the bridge. It's a rare example of a gentle Dylan come-on.
Dylan's collaboration with theatre director Jacques Levy yielded a lot of the long dramatic-narrative songs on Desire, but this long, cascading three-chord rocker, in particular, caught fire on the 1975-76 Rolling Thunder Revue tour. (Afterward, he never played it again.) It's an allegory about marriage and separation and reunion, a companion to the sibling/lover language of "Oh Sister," a grand adventure yarn with some daffy jokes in it. Most of all, it's a showcase for the jagged bark Dylan's stage voice had become by the mid '70s: He could spin the plot a little by landing hard on certain words, and got a lot of juice out of bellowing the song's climactic "YES!"