Attempting to encapsulate Bob Dylan’s musical career is an unenviable task. Over the course of five decades, Dylan has not only revolutionized popular music (far more broadly than detractors might wish to admit) but also weathered more artistic rises and falls than any other major pop artist. In that time, his work has been sliced and diced into so many compilations that, if it wasn't for the upcoming release of a new album (called Tempest) in September, you'd swear that the collections outnumber the original albums. Some of these compilations ostensibly cover nearly the entirety of Dylan's long career, but none of them make quite as strong a case for his artistry as the 1985 box-set Biograph.
When Biograph came out over twenty-five years ago, Dylan had recently released a pair of reasonably good albums (Infidels and Empire Burlesque), but the consensus seemed to be that his career was on the downside. As a result, despite only covering work through 1981, Biograph seemed more like a career summation than a recap of the story so far. Since then, starting in earnest with 1997’s Time Out of Mind, Dylan has been on the kind of artistic roll that few pop artists manage so deep into their career. For all that great work, though, Biograph remains the release that best balances all the varied sides of Dylan as an artist. Favoring neither the obvious nor the esoteric, this three-disc collection mixes cornerstones of Dylan’s songbook with work that still divides his fans, particularly some from his “born again” period. However, instead of being jarring, in some cases these combinations allow for a deeper appreciation Dylan’s abilities as both a writer and performer. A song like “I Believe in You” might be more overtly religious in its lyrical content than many listeners will care for, but there’s no denying the power of Dylan’s vocals or the beauty of its melody. Hearing a song like this in the same sitting as an acknowledged classic such as “Tangled Up in Blue” highlights how true he has been to himself as an artist over the years.
Another highlight of Biograph is the presence of both enjoyable alternate versions of familiar songs and some that had never before been (officially) released in any form. These songs spotlight one of the most curious aspects of Dylan as an artist. Over the years, he’s often been one of the most erratic judges of his own work, letting excellent material sit on the shelf while lesser material is released on his albums. Even since Dylan’s return to artistic form, this trait can be seen in the Bootleg Series release Tell Tale Signs, a collection of out-takes and alternate versions from 1989 to 2006 that’s virtually the equal of any of the acclaimed albums from that period.
A case in point on Biograph is “Caribbean Wind”, a fantastic song recorded for the 1981 album Shot of Love. Very similar in tone and approach to 1983's "Jokerman" (and every bit as powerful), it was left off of Shot of Love in favor of a number of forgettable songs and only released four years later. Regardless of the path it took, though, "Caribbean Wind" sounds great on Biograph, all the songs do. Even if this set only covers half of Dylan’s career, what it shows us about why his work matters makes it invaluable collection.