“Theme Time Radio Hour”, Bob Dylan’s Four Dazzling Acts.

There are famously no second acts in American lives. But as he has on so many other occasions, Bob Dylan has proved himself the glorious exception to Fitzgerald’s famous maxim.

Dylan’s first act culminated in an extraordinary 14 months between March 1965 and May ’66 when he released no less than three epoch-defining albums; Bringing It All Back HomeHighway 61 Revisited and the still seminal double album, Blonde On Blonde. Then however, just as suddenly as he’d emerged, he disappeared into the undergrowth, opting for domestic bliss and the anonymity afforded by his basement in Woodstock.

To everyone’s surprise and amazement though, he burst back into relevance in the mid 70s with Blood On The Tracks in ’74, Desire in ’75 and the Rolling Thunder Revue tour. But within a year or two his brief renaissance had passed, and by the late 70s he’d resumed his role as a relic of an era that had long since passed. The never-ending tour he seemed determined to persist with looked like little more than an excuse for him to avoid having to ever look himself in the mirror.

But to everyone’s further amazement, a decade later he sprang back into life again, first with No Mercy in ’89, and then with Time Out Of Mind in ’97, both of which were produced by Daniel Lanois. These three acts would comfortably have seen his name forever carved in stone on high.

Remarkably though, these last few years have been arguably his most productive period to date. Three fine albums in Love And Theft (’01), Modern Times (’06) and Together Through Life (’09), particularly the first. A novelty Christmas album, which was far better than it had any right to be. That extraordinary autobiography Chronicles: Volume One (’04), which had nothing to say about his personal life, but which was exceptionally candid and brilliantly illuminating on his music (particularly on the epiphany that resulted in the release of  Oh Mercy.). Plus Scorsese’s brilliant documentary, Bringing It All Back Home. And amongst all of which, somewhat improbably, he embarked upon a new career path as a 21st. century DJ.

The idea behind Theme Time Radio Hour is simple enough. For one hour every week, Dylan takes a theme, say “Marriage”, or “Cigarettes”, and spins discs associated with the chosen theme. He plays little or nothing from the mid 70s onwards, sticking for the most part to the 50s, 60s, and early 70s, though there are also a healthy handful from the 40s and even 30s. There are three series so far, comprising some 100 hours. And each and every single track, on every single one of them, is an absolute gem. Not only that, but his sly but enthusiastic intros are every bit as enjoyable as the forgotten finds he’s continually unearthing and correctly celebrating.

It is, by a considerable distance, the finest hour of listening to be found anywhere in the ether. Furthermore, it’s made for the “Shuffle” mode. As it’s almost as enjoyable having whatever it is that you’re listening to incongruously interrupted by one of Dylan’s droll intros before returning to your own playlist, as it is hearing the actual track that his intro was referring to.

TTRH is an education and a constant source of joy. And once again, that man from Minnesota has produced yet another rabbit from that apparently bottomless hat of his.