Bob Dylan has remained relevant through several terrible albums and even eras, mainly because he’s so willing to change things up, go in new directions, and try out entire new styles. His latest album, Shadows in the Night, shows that sometimes he can straight up confuse people, but this is nothing new. Here are ten times when Dylan angered and confused critics and fans:
1. Early Dylan
People have been criticizing Dylan since the beginning of his career. Early on, many people—including several fellow musicians—perceived him as a Woody Guthrie rip off. A particularly harsh criticism came from musician and critic Tony Glover who, upon reading the lyrics to “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” remarked to Dylan, “What is this shit, man?” As late as 1989, in fact, Dave Marsh referred to the legendary “Blowin’ in the Wind” as, “the most unctuous song Bob Dylan ever wrote” in his book The Heart of Rock & Soul.
2. Dylan goes electric
Dylan going electric is now one of the most iconic moments, both in Dylan’s career and in rock and roll history, beginning the folk-rock boom that would dominate much of the late ‘60s. At the time, though, several audience members booed at his concerts and, in his legendary 1966 “Royal Albert Hall” concert in Manchester, one person famously yelled out, “Judas!” These types of responses were a bit ironic, considering that the people responding this horribly to change were the same ones who completely bought into a song called “The Times They Are a-Changin’.”
3. Dylan goes country
Released in 1969, Nashville Skyline isn’t quite as well-renowned as Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, or John Wesley Harding, but it is still considered to be a great album and it was pretty acclaimed upon release. Still, some reviewers were skeptical of the country direction, with Ed Ochs writing in Billboard, “the satisfied man speaks in clichés, and blushes as if every day were Valentine’s Day” and “So goodbye, Bob Dylan, I’m glad you’re happy though you meant more to me when you were … confused like everyone else.”
4. Self Portrait
Dylan entered the 1970s with Self Portrait, an album that hasn’t stood the test of time at all and is often thought of as one of the worst albums ever recorded by a great artist. Still, critic Robert Christgau said of it, “Conceptually, this is a brilliant album,” while acknowledging that it was not enjoyable to listen to. For the most part, Christgau was right, and it’s still fascinating to read people’s reactions to the album. Most notable is Greil Marcus’ famous review in Rolling Stone, which opened with, “What is this shit?”
As if Self Portrait didn’t anger critics and fans enough, Dylan, released in 1973, was comprised of two outtakes from that album and seven from the fairly acclaimed New Morning. Even Christgau, who’d given Self Portrait a fairly mild C+, gave Dylan an E, and Jon Landou’s Rolling Stone review was just as angry as Marcus’ for Self Portrait, although not as quotable.
6. Dylan goes gospel
In the late ‘70s, Dylan became a born-again Christian and refused to play any secular material, including his older work, saying, “I don’t sing any song which hasn’t been given to me by the Lord to sing.” He recorded two gospel albums, 1979’s Slow Train Coming and 1980’s Saved. Strangely, these albums weren’t nearly as unpopular with critics as Self Portrait, with Jann Wenner calling Slow Train Coming, “one of the finest records Dylan has ever made” in his Rolling Stone review and Christgau calling it his best since Blood on the Tracks. Still, there was a bit of a negative reaction towards this new direction, mainly from fans who were disappointed at the lack of older material at shows, as well as from John Lennon, who recorded “Serve Yourself” in response to Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody.”
7. Dylan & the Dead
Most of Dylan’s records in the 1980s were detested by a large group of people, some of them unfairly (especially the quite good Empire Burlesque). But perhaps the most controversial of these was Dylan & the Dead, a collaborative live album with the Grateful Dead. The album is largely forgotten now, but reviews at the time were particularly harsh. Christgau gave it a C-, David Fricke gave it a two-and-a-half star review in Rolling Stone, and Stephen Thomas Erlewine’s review on AllMusic called it, “Quite possibly the worst album by either Bob Dylan or the Grateful Dead.”
8. Under the Red Sky
Dylan would end the 1990s by beginning his finest era since the ’60s. Beginning with 1997’s Time Out of Mind and culminating with two of his greatest albums ever, 2001’s Love and Theft and 2006’s Modern Times, this terrific era makes it easy to forget how he began the decade: with “Wiggle Wiggle,” a song that contains lyrics like, “Wiggle ’til you’re high, wiggle ’til you’re higher/Wiggle ’til you vomit fire.” All in all, Under the Red Sky isn’t as bad as critics made it out to be, but it’s certainly not his deepest work.
9. Dylan goes Santa
After his most acclaimed decade since the ‘60s, Dylan closed off the 2000s with Christmas in the Heart, a Christmas album that’s as funny and entertaining as it is bizarre. Naturally, the album was polarizing among critics.
10. Dylan goes Sinatra
On Feb. 3, Pitchfork revealed their review of Dylan’s new Frank Sinatra covers album, Shadows in the Night. Written by Stephen M. Deusner, the review opens with the line, “Is Bob Dylan trolling us?” While it’s natural that someone reviewing Dylan would want to top Marcus’ “What is this shit?,” at least Marcus understood Dylan. Deusner doesn’t, and judging by lines like, “There’s no ‘Strangers in the Night’ or ‘My Way’ on here, nor is there a single dooby-dooby-doo” and “Say what you want about Sinatra, but at least the man could swing,” he doesn’t seem to get Sinatra either. And, yes, after Self Portrait, his gospel phase, and his Christmas album, Dylan is now trolling you by covering Sinatra. You got him, Deusner!
Part of what makes Dylan’s whole career so fascinating is how he never stays in one place, never allows his audience to get too comfortable, and never gives up his values. The times are still a-changin’, and if he can’t change with them, he’s gonna go full on in the other direction and make everyone wonder what the hell he’s doing.