If your memory serves you well, you will recall that Bob Dylan was unplugged decades before MTV made it hip to be musically square again. Later, of course, he would inspire generations of singer-songwriters to plug in. So when in 1992 Dylan decides to cut a totally acoustic record of traditional folk and blues material that features only his own voice, guitar and harmonica, he is just about the last artist who could be accused of jumping on the musical bandwagon. After all, he helped build the wagon.
In its stripped-down intensity, Good As I Been to You recalls the midshow acoustic segments that in recent years have been a consistent highlight of Dylan’s Neverending Tour. Even more than that, the album’s intimate, almost offhand approach suggests what it would be like to sit backstage with his Bobness while he runs through a set of some of his favorite old songs. This is a passionate, at times almost ragged piece of work that seems to have been recorded rather than produced in any conventional sense.
Only a quarter of a century late, this is the sort of album the people who booed Dylan’s decision to go electric wanted from him. And for the most part, the songs on Good As I Been to You are the same sort of material that might have appealed to the younger, freewheelin’ Dylan back in the days when he was being influenced — by Woody Guthrie, for example — rather than exerting profound influence in his own right. Still, at least one selection — the unlikely but oddly delightful “Froggie Went A Courtin'” — evinces some of the fascinating perversity that fans have come to expect from Dylan in his middle age.
Indeed, it’s pretty damn perverse that the greatest songwriter of the rock era has chosen to record an entire album of other people’s songs, when even his 1961 debut included three originals. Thirty years and nearly forty albums later, though, Dylan has earned the right to sing the blues or whatever else he chooses. And by the very nature of his style, Dylan adds his distinctive stamp to anything he touches — whether it’s his loving version of “Frankie and Albert” (a close relative of the more famed “Frankie and Johnny”), his rousing takes on Howlin’ Wolf‘s “Sittin’ on Top of the World” and Blind Boy Fuller’s “Step It Up and Go” or his ultrasexy reading of “Tomorrow Night,” which he delivers in a romantic near croon that would make Elvis proud.
Indeed, “Tomorrow Night” captures Dylan’s warmest vocal in years, and though his lived-in voice may still strike some as too nasal and raspy, he sounds dramatically less strained in this unadorned setting. He also seems much more committed to Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times” than he did to his own material on his last studio album, Under the Red Sky (1990). Similarly, Good As I Been to You provides a perfect opportunity to sample Dylan’s wonderfully idiosyncratic guitar and harmonica playing. Like Neil Young, Dylan is no virtuoso in the traditional sense, but he’s a genuinely inspired primitive.
This fascinating exploration of musical roots is more than a diversion for musicologists. Good As I Been to You shows that sometimes one can look back and find something that’s both timeless and relevant. It also proves once again that Dylan can still be every bit as good as he’s been to us in the past. Which is, of course, as good as it gets.