“To live outside the law you must be honest”, Dylan sneers as he rounds out the second verse of another lyrical masterpiece. Indeed, he’s been doing just that for a career approaching the six decade mark, and “The Cutting Edge,” the newest in a long-running series of official bootlegs and unreleased material, gives an unprecedented look into the mind of America’s greatest living artist from his most eclectic period.
The trilogy of “Bringing It All Back Home”, “Highway 61 Revisited”, and “Blonde on Blonde”, still stands today as the most impressive creative output by any American artist in a short timeframe. In 1964, Dylan stood alone, armed with only an acoustic guitar, harmonica, and an unbelievable ability to write songs of succinct poetic power. By the end of 1966, he’s touring with a revved up electric rock band, singing twelve minute ballads about literary cornerstones, and has completely changed the face of rock music forever.
The Cutting Edge is the behind-the-scenes look at everything that went on in the studio during that eighteen-month period of creative output. It includes takes of classic songs that were tossed or rearranged, extra verses and alternate lyrics, and even some songs that were cut completely from the album, and were never heard from again.
We’ve all heard these songs hundreds of times. “Just Like a Woman”, “She Belongs to Me”, “Like a Rolling Stone”, these are all classic Dylan tunes. As such, the original recordings might not have the same surprise or edge to them that they might have once had. We now know every note, every harmonica break, every asthmatic sneer. Getting a new look at these songs is refreshing, and a reminder of what made us all fall in love the first time we heard these songs.
But we didn’t hear these songs by accident, as Dylan was not an underground artist at the time. Many of these songs were on the Billboard 100, if not in the Top 20, unthinkable by the pop music standards of today. As such, we know that then and now Dylan has always had the savvy marketing department of Colombia Records at his fingertips to handle every distribution deal, and every dime dealt.
They once again have done a fine job for this release. They’ve produced a promotional video voiced by Penn Jillette (above) to tell the story of this particular package. Colombia is aware there are many different levels of Dylan fans to engage with in the marketplace. There are always going to be college kids listening to the new album, and for that audience they’ve put out a twelve song “best of” CD. This solely includes the alternate tracks to the most famous songs from this era.
They’ve also released a six CD Collector’s Edition for fans that engage beyond just the greatest hits. Where Colombia has really gone all out, though, is the 18-Disc Limited Collectors Edition. This includes every note that Dylan recorded in this period, along with art books, photographs and memorabilia. There are many fans who were just kids when these songs were recorded, who are in positions of relative power now. They can afford the $599 price tag on the collector’s edition and not think twice about something they consider high art. For the rest of us there’s always the distilled CD release, and the internet radio services to rely on.
Dylan has never been afraid to try something new or different. At first glance the inclusion of a karaoke-based mini game on his website to promote this new compilation might seem out of place, but once you remember just who we’re trying to promote it somehow makes perfect sense. The game requires you to hook up a microphone to your computer, and sing-along to “Like a Rolling Stone”. If you can match Dylan’s unique pitch and timbre, you unlock a bonus track to sing to. I personally got 92%, and if anyone reading this can beat me, I’ll gladly lend you my copy of the CD.
The website also includes the ability to play around with the mixes of the song, and the presentation is phenomenal. You can hear tapes winding in the background as well as Dylan’s asthmatic coughing and wheezing. There’s three different “session” types to play around with. The first is called “Jam Session”, where you can jerk around with the different instrumental tracks + Dylan’s voice to create your own arrangement of the iconic tracks. A “Listening Session” mode, where you can scroll through time and listen to the development of some of these songs. If songwriting was a sport, it’s definitely a game of inches, and that’s no more obvious than in this mode here. Thirdly is the aforementioned karaoke session. Who else is doing this kind of interactive promotional material? It’s different, engaging, and most of all fits the theme of the artist and his music perfectly.
If there’s one thing Dylan has done over the past five decades, it’s subvert expectations. From folk music to rock ’n roll, to gospel, Frank Sinatra and more, he’s never looked back to where he had been, only to the horizon. More importantly, when he does pursue something new, he never breaks away from bringing a piece of himself to the new medium. Even now at seventy-five years old, he’s releasing interesting bootlegs of older material, touring like a man in his twenties, and putting out wonderful new records. The marketing is reflective of that, and it all speaks to a man who shows no signs of slowing down or giving up just yet.
Like the song says, “He not busy being born is busy dying”.