Dylan Finds His Voice

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It’s kind of ridiculous to call a Bob Dylan record “underrated.” The man is one of the most celebrated songwriters in the world, and his recorded output has been thoroughly devoured by both critics and regular music-lovers.

So when I say that The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan is underrated, I don’t mean it in the “Batman Forever is actually kind of a good movie” way. Freewheelin’ has been featured on its share of “best-of” lists and contains about five indelible Dylan classics (It opens with “Blowin’ in the Wind” for Chrissakes), but it’s never really mentioned alongside the “Big Three” Dylan albums.

In case it’s not clear, I’m talking about Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde and Blood on the Tracks.

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It’s not that Dylan’s other albums are bad, per se (well, some of them are), but those three tend to get mentioned the most. To be honest, those are probably his best three albums.

However, Freewheelin’ is a close fourth. It’s a different sort of Dylan than in those other records; for one thing, it’s just him and his guitar throughout. The album captures Bob Dylan during a pivotal moment in his career, finding the artist growing exponentially as a songwriter. Freewheelin’ is the first Dylan release to contain a vast majority of original compositions (his previous debut album had only two), and the acerbic wit that became one of the artist’s trademarks was on full display. At this point, Dylan was mainly writing protest songs (“Talkin’ World War III Blues,” “Masters of War) and had yet to enter his druggy, surrealistic period (basically his classic era). It’s fascinating to witness the raw talent awaken on record. This Bob Dylan is almost laughably young and naive, but somehow deeply cynical and world-weary. He wears it in a way that only Bob Dylan can.

In addition to undisputed classics like “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” Freewheelin’ also features some lesser-known gems like “Girl From the North Country” and “Down the Highway.” It’s Bob Dylan. He’s great. What else do you want?

Also, the record turns 54 years old this week. So give it some cake.

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