Sometime between 1974's Blood on the Tracks and last year's Under the Red Sky, Dylan's quicksilver alertness and passionate engagement gave way to private preoccupations and a wary inscrutability. The recent all-star 30th-anniversary concert tribute was a powerful retrospective, but we no longer expect Dylan to constantly reinvent himself or to deliver astonishing up-to-the-minute news about our present-day hearts and minds. And now, here he is recording a solo acoustic album featuring mostly obscure folk and traditional songs—none of them Dylan originals. His disappearance seems nearly complete.
Surprise. Good as I Been to You is the best new Dylan album in years. Jettisoning producers and session musicians—and the need to write lyrics—must have been liberating, because Hob plays and sings his heart out. The format and such songs as "Diamond Joe," "Canadee-i-o," and "Little Maggie" hark back to Dylan's early days as a lone folksinger, but there isn't a nostalgic moment on the record. The man who sings these songs sounds tough and wide-awake. The highly nasal bray of his current vocal intonation takes a little getting used to, but Dylan's idiosyncratic phrasing has never been more expressive, bringing emotional color to the tragedies and adventures of the gamblers, pirates, prisoners and lovers in these songs.
The guitar playing is amazing. Strumming and picking crisp melodic folk and blues runs, Dylan reworks time-tested tunes and makes them sweet and compelling with rhythmic backbone. "Sittin' on Top of the World" and "Step It Up and Go" take folk right up to the threshold of rock.
Blood on the Tracks was probably Dylan's last great album. Good as I Been to You, with all its charms, is not in that league, but it is as heartfelt and intense as the earlier record. Singing other people's words, Dylan came back to himself. (Columbia)