In the span of one year and some change, Bob Dylan rattled his fans’ expectations to the point of nearly deserting them — and, in the process, rerouted the course of popular music. That is not hyperbole when you consider that he released three indelible albums right in a row between 1965 and 1966: “Bringing It All Back Home,” “Highway 61 Revisited,” and “Blonde on Blonde,” classics that gave rock some of its most enduring anthems.
Just as he had prophesied the year before, the times indeed were a-changin’. Seismic shifts were already underway in Dylan’s artistry in ’65. On the heels of putting out “Bringing It All Back Home” in March, a few months later he infamously went electric at the Newport Folk Festival, closely followed by the release of “Highway 61 Revisited.”
It was a staggeringly fertile period for Dylan, which is reflected in the latest installment of his ongoing collection of archival recordings. “The Cutting Edge 1965-1966: The Bootleg Series Vol. 12” pulls back the curtain on an artist at a crossroads, the effects of which rippled far and wide.
The box set is an exhaustive document of his recording sessions back then, full of alternate takes with false starts, studio chatter, sudden song breakdowns, flubbed lyrics and subsequent laughter. Most of the songs were previously unreleased; all offer a ringside view of Dylan’s creative process. This review is of the deluxe six-CD box set, but it’s also available in “best of” double-disc and three-LP editions that will suffice for most casual fans.
(A collector’s edition with 18 CDs, not provided for review, is most certainly geared for Dylan completists. Limited to 5,000 copies and priced at $599.99, it includes “every note recorded during the 1965-1966 sessions, every alternate take and alternate lyric” and “rare hotel room recordings,” according to press materials.)
The set opens with a handful of consecutive versions of “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” letting us witness its evolution. The first take features 1½ minutes of Dylan strumming an acoustic guitar until he decides it’s not right. “Start it again. I’ll do this one more time. If I can’t do it, we’ll do another song,” he says, sounding indignant and impatient with himself. “We’ll do any song as good as I can do it the first time.”
For the third attempt, he shifts to a lower key, his voice burnished and his cadences more conversational. It’ll come as no surprise that Dylan was — and most likely remains — highly attuned to every last detail of a song, from the rhythm of his phrasing and his playing to the band’s feeling for his words.
It’s fascinating to hear how some songs started in one direction and darted into another one entirely. Early takes of “Visions of Johanna” were freewheeling stabs at roadhouse country rock that work as well as the version chosen for “Blonde on Blonde.”
It’s nice to be reminded of Dylan’s sense of humor, too. “Alcatraz to the 9th Power,” the voice (presumably of producer Tom Wilson) from the control room announces they’ll be recording. “No!” Dylan howls. “That’s not the name of it. I switched songs. This song is, uh, uh . . . ‘Bank Account Blues.’ ” It ended up being “I’ll Keep It With Mine,” heard here as a demo delicately rendered on piano and harmonica.
The third disc is devoted to the entire 16-take session for “Like a Rolling Stone,” recorded over two days. You get a bird’s-eye view of how the generational anthem, which appeared on “Highway 61 Revisited,” came together. Hearing the rehearsal versions without Somerville resident Al Kooper’s iconic organ riff, you suddenly appreciate how much his handiwork was essential to the final product.
ESSENTIAL All of the “Like a Rolling Stone” versions