Dylan's third studio album, THE TIMES THEY ARE A-CHANGIN' continues in the protest vein of its predecessor, FREEWHEELIN' BOB DYLAN, but with a much more narrow focus. With FREEWHEELIN', Dylan did record protest music, but there was much more to that record than just straight protest, and what protest there was operated on a much more universal level than the run-of-the-mill protest songs of the day.
Not so with this record. When Dylan recorded THE TIMES in 1964, he decided to focus solely on the protest music genre of the 1960s. While much of the music is memorable, because of the narrow constraints Dylan imposed upon himself, THE TIMES has become more dated than any other reason in Dylan's career. And because it is so protest heavy, the album gets monotonous and just depressing to listen to in large quantities (just like the New York version of BLOOD ON THE TRACKS). Listening to the album straight through is very emotionally draining Taken in small doses, though, it's doable.
In the early days of the rock industry, the focus was much more on singles and EPs than full length albums. Bands like The Beatles and Led Zeppelin and their contemporaries are largely credited from moving the musical industry of the early and mid 1960s move away from singles to albums as the dominant art form. They helped make the albums indivisible and consolidated, with a natural ebb and flow, instead of sounding like a collection of singles with filler thrown in between.
While Zeppelin and The Beatles are the most renowned for this movement toward albums in general, along with jazz musicians, Dylan beat both bands several years to the punch. All of Dylan's albums have a distinct atmosphere and sound that he is creating, even his critically panned albums.
With TIMES, he is going for a stark, world-gone-wrong feel that dominates the entire record. Because of its heavy content, TIMES stands as Dylan's most depressing and emotionally draining album by far. While his other acoustic records certainly have a world-weariness and a focus on protest sentiment, they are also very humour at times, and filled with a vibrancy and life that TIMES is simply lacking. Now, only the deep morose of a world gone wrong stands out.
TMES is also unique because it appears that Dylan enrolled in the Phil Ochs school of songwriting, pulling his material directly from newspaper articles. Songs like "Pawn in Their Game," "With God On Our Side," "Lonesome Death of Hattie Carol," and "North Country Blues" all sound very much like relics of their time. While I always personally enjoyed "Pawn in their Game" due to Dylan's intricate word play, the song had become dated. While "With God on Our Side" has a universal message, Dylan focuses a large portion of the song on the early 1960s Cold War conflict between Russia and the United States, thus making the song dated in ways the FREEWHEELIN' song "Masters of War" will never be.
The title cut, justly one of Dylan's most famous songs, sounds simply like a made to order protest song. In 1963, before the song was recorded, Dylan's friend Tony Glover saw the early manuscript of the song, and read the lines "come senators, congressmen, please heed the call". Glover reportedly asked Dylan: "What is this s---, man?" Dylan's answer: "Well, you know, it seems to be what the people like to hear". The song sounds like a rather self-conscious attempt at a grand statement, and the spiritual sequel or successor to "Blowin' In the Wind". "Things Have Changed," Dylan's Oscar winning song from the Wonderboys soundtrack of 2000 is in many ways an answer to this song. Even though the song sounds forced, Dylan was at the height of his powers during the 1960s, and the title cut is one of his strongest songs. Just goes to show that when an artist of Dylan's calibre writes made-to-order music, he can still come up with fantastic material. Just look at Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel.
"Lonesome Death of Hattie Caroll," much like DESIRE's "Hurricane", has Dylan protesting social injustice with a memorable melody, strong lyrics, but unfortunately not that historically accurate. The song is about a young Maryland man with high political and social connections randomly killing a woman who was working at a hotel he was at for a ball named Hattie Caroll by hitting her with his cane. While William Devereux "Billy" Zantzinger (Dylan mispells his name as "Zanzinger") did get charged for manslaughter, it is generally agreed she did not die due to physical abuse. Hattie Caroll had a medical condition of hypertension, harden arteries, high blood pressure, and an elarged heart, and though an autopsy was not performed, she probably died of a brain haemorrage caused by stress from the situation, rather than the physical assault itself. The cane left no marks on her. The song is a fan favorite, and Dylan has performed it in concert in recent years.
The rest of the songs are rather well done. Dylan recycles the melody of FREEWHEELIN's "Girl from the North Country Fair" for "Boots of Spanish Leather". Dylan, being Dylan, had stolen that melody from Martin Carthy's arrangement of the English folk song "Scarborough Fair" lifts the melody to D. Dylan wrote "When the Ship Comes In" when a hotel denied him lodging while he was with Joan Baez do to his scruffy, hobo look. "Ballad of Hollis Brown," which Dylan rerecorded in the 1990s, is a fantastic, morbid song originally auditioned for FREEWHEELIN' but sequenced as the second track to great effectiveness, a stark contrast to the rather anthemic qualities of the title cut "Times They Are".
Like his debut, BOB DYLAN, THE TIMES ultimately is a rather limited snapshot of where Dylan was at artistically at the time. Bruce Springsteen is famous for recording numerous songs during his sessions that don't make the final cut, because the material doesn't fall in line with the overall tone he is striving for. Just like Springsteen's records, Dylan limits himself strictly to a specific type of music, in this instance protest music, but at this point in his career he was writing much more than protest music. Had Dylan included some of TIMES' outtakes as supplemental songs or substituted the outtakes for songs that made the album, TIME's emotional and artistic core would be changed radically. Had songs like "Lay Down Your Weary Tune," "Percy's Song," "Bob Dylan's New Orlean's Rage," "Farewell," "Hero Blues," and "Eternal Circle" been included, the TIMES would be a much more versatile album instead of the straight protest record that it is.
In retrospect, TIMES remains an important album, as much for what it is not as for what it is. Dylan would never make another album so protest oriented. Dylan would famously move away from this direction, lyrically with his next album, and then musically as well on the his electric period. The song that always stands out to me is "One Too Many Mornings", with this very memorable lyric of "Everything I'm a sayin', you can say just as good, you're right for your side and I'm right from mine"). Dylan famously recast that song in his "Royal Albert Hall" concert. With this song, he is already hinting at his break from the folk scene, like his subconscious now he can't stay in the protest folk scene for long.
The last song, just like most last songs on Dylan albums, is very significant. "Restless Farewell" stands as Dylan's own farewell to the movement that catapulted him to fame, and just like "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" is a devastating kiss off to people trying to pin Dylan down to their definition of what they want him to be. The protest movement only got Dylan for full straight album.
Ultimately, for what it is, TIMES is a great album, but not really an accurate snapshot of Dylan's art at the time. TIMES feels like a diversion into hard-core protest music, and not really natural extension or progression of what Dylan was doing at the time. My own thoughts are he had to go through the folk-protest movement and then go on to rock'n'roll, to go through just one more persona and then cut it away.