Thirty years after the acoustic Bob Dylan gave the rock world its definitive “plug in,” he has joined the ranks of the unplugged. Of course, this doesn’t mean the same thing for him that it does for other artists who have played the MTV forum: Dylan has been remaking his songs for three decades anyway. Yet this album still comes across as a statement. Appearing on the heels of a successful tour and the release of Greatest Hits, Vol. III, Dylan’s Unplugged is less about stylistic experimentation than about his reconnection with his audience and his past.
Even the Greatest Hits is, predictably, atypical. While for most artists, putting together a greatest hits is tantamount to lining up the No. 1’s, Dylan’s body of work is far more complex. In documenting his best since 1971, the inclusion of “Tangled Up in Blue” and “Forever Young” makes perfect sense, but why “Changing of the Guards” instead of “Every Grain of Sand,” “Hurricane” instead of “Blind Willie McTell”? If the collection is debatable as a hits package, though, it’s nonetheless classic Dylan.
For the Unplugged session, however, Dylan wanders unabashedly into his indisputable greatest. Backed by a tight acoustic ensemble, he opens with “Tombstone Blues” — a cut, ironically, from Highway 61 Revisited, his first fully electric album. “All Along the Watchtower” broadens out into a stately ending, much as it has in his recent tour performances. “Desolation Row” becomes a delicate poem, underlain by the mandolin’s filigree, while “Rainy Day Women #12 and #35” retains its raucous, barrelhouse feel. But Dylan’s songs are both music and message, and “The Times They Are A-Changin'” is without the resonance it had even in its performance (by Don Henley) for the 1993 inaugural festivities. Maybe because of its use during recent Republican victories or the fact that it has been licensed for Coopers & Lybrand ads, it seems a beautiful memory — nothing other than itself.
The only relatively recent songs on the set are “Shooting Star” and “Dignity.” Both are from the Oh Mercy (1989) sessions — “Shooting Star” appeared on the album, “Dignity” is first heard on Greatest Hits, Vol. III. Over a fluid rock & roll groove, “Dignity” catches the tender essence of much of Dylan’s later work: a search for truth without the hard edges of judgment.
In the final trilogy of songs, Dylan loses his typical ironic evasiveness and comes perilously close to self-revelation. “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” is wrenching in its soulful bareness, a conversation overheard between Dylan and himself. Not fiery, not even elegiac, his voice makes unusual leaps in a painful caress of each refrain, as if the original melody alone could not contain his fervency. It’s followed by an easy version of “Like a Rolling Stone,” in which a latter-day Dylan seems more curious, less accusing. Rather than venting anger, he frees it as he grandly rolls into the final refrain, asking of himself, “How does it feel to be on your own/like a rolling stone?”
“With God on Our Side” ends the album like a meditative coda and, deep in the Age of Newt, a concrete reminder that Dylan’s songs become peculiar litmus tests each time they’re sung. Dylan gently reasserts his identity as a folk singer — “for many dark hours, I been thinkin’ ’bout this” — drawing on a rich tradition of folk song, which in an ironic play of mirrors has come to reflect back to him his own image. As it would have been with John Lennon had he lived, what was once youthful prophecy becomes aged wisdom.
It’s generally true that both the greatest hits and unplugged formats are about presenting songs an artist has already done. But Dylan still seems to have spent the decade thus far performing his best-known hits from the ’60s and 70s and going back to his folk-song roots with two albums of covers from that repertoire. Yet in a period brimming with nostalgia tours, Dylan emerges as substantially more than a nostalgist.
Performing his own war horses might be both practical and personal — re-engaging a waning audience but also reacquainting himself with his own songs, songs that may have come to feel as distant to him as those of another writer. As he once told Kurt Loder in rolling stone, “Like ‘Desolation Row’ … there’s no logical way that you can arrive at lyrics like that. I don’t know how it was done.” Loder: “It just came to you?” Dylan: “It just came out through me.”
Speculating on the motivation behind Dylan’s choices quickly becomes pointless. However, we can still — gratefully — feel the effect of those choices. In a political climate very different from the one that birthed these songs, Dylan’s voice runs like a shudder through the times that have changed, an echo of hope that now rings with the hollowness of a failed warning. Yet if the songs are complex in their meanings, Dylan has also shown them once again to be powerful and fresh music, specific to no time, relevant to all.
This story is from the May 4th, 1995 issue of Rolling Stone.