This is Not *Just* the Album With "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" On It!

Apr 11, 2011
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:The songs are brilliant, and the instrumentals surprisingly effective

Cons:As a whole, not something that makes you sit up and take notice of it.

The Bottom Line: This isn't one of the quintessential Bob Dylan releases, but it's evident that he was still at his peak. It at least shows that he could do an effective soundtrack.

(Disclaimer: Those looking for an overall description of the album will find what they're looking for in the "Review Body" section. The section titled "Track Reviews" is meant only for those who want to read detailed descriptions of the songs, and they do not constitute the essence of this review. Lastly and most importantly, this review might not be written in the point of view of a Bob Dylan fan.)

Overall Score: 11/15
Best song: “Knockin' on Heaven's Door”
Worst song: ...I don't want to pick!

Review Body:

It's for good reason that Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid was never considered a quintessential Bob Dylan album. That reason, of course, is because it's a soundtrack, and it's filled mostly with instrumentals. As is the nature with many soundtrack albums, its pieces weren't designed to be listened to but rather listened with. Nevertheless, surprisingly, this album provides plenty of moments that are well worth their weight in gold. (Or perhaps that's not so surprising, since Bob Dylan was still riding high on his awesome streak.)

The most obviously weighty song of this album is “Knockin' on Heaven's Door,” which I'm sure even the most modest rock 'n' roll fan knows by heart. It's so notable that I'm sure many people think of Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid only as *that* album with the country-western classic “Knockin' on Heaven's Door” on it. (That impression is intensified by the fact that it's one of only two songs here... The other song, “Billy” gets repeated a few times.) But there's a great reason that people only remember this album for “Knockin' on Heaven's Door;” its atmosphere is heavenly and the melody is the sort of thing that sticks with me the first time I heard it. Surely, any country-western superstar would readily give his left foot for such a song, and many of them have made cover versions of it.

However, I won't lie to you and pretend that this is the most fascinating album that ever lived. Many of these tracks are long and sparse instrumentals that are played by a simple acoustic guitar that frankly contain little to keep my from mind wandering away... But maybe these tracks are supposed to make our minds wander? Where they take my mind is to the fresh-aired Wild West where I'm touring the countryside on a trotting horse. I've never seen the movie, but they couldn't possibly be for scenes other than that. These tracks are usually sweet, gritty, and surprisingly atmospheric in spite of its sparseness.

It might strike some as a bit disconcerting that the famous song on here is only two and a half minutes. But at least Dylan supplements this album with a five-and-a-half minute instrumental variation of it called “Final Theme.” The atmosphere isn't quite as thick, but it's nonetheless beautiful. The star of that show is a pan-flute solo, of all things. (Who would have thought to hear a pan flute in a Bob Dylan album?) It seems to hit all the right notes at just the perfect times.

“Billy” is the main theme of the movie, however, as it takes up four of these tracks. (They're all very different variations of it, so I hardly grow tired of it!) Perhaps that musical idea wasn't Dylan's best, but it's a breezy and enchanting. An extended, strictly acoustic rendition of it called “Main Title Theme (Billy)” opens the album with a couple of laid-back guitars strumming along with a jangly tambourine. “Billy 1” starts as a more involved instrumental with more emboldened acoustic guitars and a gritty harmonica that ends with some singing. “Billy 4” is an even rawer sung version of it with extended lyrics. “Billy 7” is slowed down considerably as though it were an afterthought.

There are other instrumental tracks here that aren't rehashes of earlier themes, most notably “Turkey Chase.” Even if you haven't heard the piece before, you probably know what it's like just based on the song title. There's some bluegrass banjo pickin', a nimble hoedown fiddle playing around, and a bass guitar doing the standard 1-2/1-2 pattern. ...And it's really good. He's hardly breaking new ground with it, but he is using a non-obvious chord progression, which exactly what keeps it on its toes. There's also “Cantina Theme (Workin' for the Law),” “Bunkhouse Theme,” and “River Theme,” which are all very nice albeit nothing to jump and shout over. ...It's one of the byproducts of being a movie soundtrack, I guess!

I suppose I should also mention somewhere that Bob Dylan also starred in the movie and it was directed by Sam Peckinpah. I suspect I won't go forever in my life without seeing the movie, but I at least know the soundtrack album pretty well. It might not stand up too well compared to all the great albums that surrounds this release in Dylan's discography. That's the best that can come from a movie soundtrack! However, even as a soundtrack album, this is a must for his fans. It's another bit of evidence that Bob Dylan could do anything that he set his mind to in the '60s and '70s.

Track Reviews:

Main Title Theme (Billy) B
Welp. I've never seen Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. But I've listened to its main title theme, and it's OK. It might fit perfectly with whatever's going on the screen, but for the time being, I only have the music to hear. Without a doubt, it's a nice, laid back acoustic guitar theme. Some critics have called it something like a masterpiece in sparse looseness, and I suppose I'm feeling that. It has a definite lazy outdoorsy quality to it thus especially appropriate for a Western. Moreover, it does seem rather unusual for a film soundtrack. ...However, it doesn't mean I have to be terribly enthusiastic about listening to it! It goes on for six minutes, and you can kick back and enjoy it guiding your mind to wander through its looseness.

Cantina Theme (Workin' for the Law) B
Aw... I was expecting some of that fruity Star Wars music! But anyway, here is yet another loose instrumental that sounds like it must've been pretty great for a Western soundtrack. It's even more loose and sparse than the previous song. ...If you've been basking in that song, there's no reason to stop here. But the drawback is the instrumental theme is far less memorable, and I might even wager to say that this is boring. ...Yeah, yeah, it's a film soundtrack—I know.

Billy 1 A-
Here's another drawback to soundtrack albums: We get songs that repeat. Now, that serves a function in soundtracks, because repeating musical themes helps the audience make connections in the plot. (Definitely see Ennio Morricone's Once Upon a Time in the West soundtrack for a perfect example of this done masterfully.) But as I'm listening to a stand-alone soundtrack... well... it's only the third song, and I've heard this one before! The big difference here is that Dylan sings on this one, hence the higher rating. ...No disrespect to “Main Title Theme,” but I'm reviewing a Bob Dylan album, and I want to hear him sing! Besides, the vocal melody is pretty great. It has a definite Western flavor to it. Maybe it even has a Mexican folk vibe to it... as little as I know about Mexican folk. (All I can say is listening to this makes me crave refried beans.)

Bunkhouse Theme B
Ah yes, ladies and gentlemen! Bask in more of this instrumental looseness! ...Again, this must be pretty darn good for a soundtrack, because I can sort of picture a scene that would fit this mood. But doing that doesn't necessarily thrill the pants off of me. The instrumental theme Dylan comes up with is nice, but that's also not something to write home about. Put this on as background music, and I think you're using this piece about how it was intended.

River Theme B
Old man riverrrrrrrrrrrrrr... No, it's not that song. But we do get to hear some Bob Dylan singing on it even though he's mostly singing “ahhs” and “lahhs.” The extremely simple vocal theme is rather nice, though, and he's continuing to strum that guitar in a laid-back and sparse manner. ...Indeed, we all shall embrace the sparseness!

Turkey Chase A-
Well surprisingly, you might be able to guess how this piece would sound before you even put it on. There's a bluegrass twidding away while a fiddle plays some rather involved arpeggios. ...It's still not a very forceful song as it continues to seem nearly as laid back as anything else on this album. But it's more upbeat and not quite as sparse, which I'd consider a welcome change of pace!

Knockin' on Heaven's Door A
There's a good reason why people consider Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid as that album with “Kockin' on Heaven's Door” on it, because that's the only song on here that anybody likes. ...And that's not to mention that it's only one of two actual songs on here! But anyway, this is a pure classic in every sense; it has a haunting atmosphere and the sort of melody you listen to once and it sort of sticks with you for the rest of your life. For the pure classic that it is, I find it weird that it's only two and a half minutes. Well, I guess it didn't need much more convincing!

Final Theme A
This is basically a reiteration of “Knockin' on Heaven's Door,” unless my brain is playing tricks on me! But instead of the singing and lyrics, we get a pan flute noodling around for five minutes. But I like it! The pan flute plays a few nice notes, rattling off far more fancy acrobatics than Dylan ever could with his vocals. The atmosphere isn't quite as heavy, but it does have a definite “conclusive” aura about it. So its dubbing as “Final Theme” is probably quite accurate!

Billy 4 A-
If the previous track was the “final” theme, then what's he doing still coming up with more songs? Ah these high-falootin' rock stars! I never understand them! As you might have gathered from the title, this is another version of “Billy 1,” which occurred earlier in the album. The good news is that we hear Dylan's vocals, and he sings longer. The instrumentation, however, seems far less refined. The only instrument he's playing is a simply arpeggiating acoustic guitar and the usual harmonica. His singing is so rough that I can even hear him make clumsy “puh” noises into the microphone. ...Now, none of this is necessarily a bad thing! The melody is still good!

Billy 7 B
How many Billys were there? ...So this here is a slowed down version of the same song that we had just gotten over listening to. Maybe this was music for the closing credits? Don't forget to deposit your popcorn containers into the nearest trash receptacle! Seriously, I used to work in a movie theater, and I'm shocked over how many people thought it was my job to pick up after them. I mean, everybody should feel free to accidentally spill a few little bits of popcorn on the floor; that's fine! I'd clean it up! BUT HOLY CRAP, PICK UP YOUR FRIGGIN TRASH AND THROW IT AWAY YOURSELF!!!! I MEAN, WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU!!? But I digress. As you'd expect from a slowed-down version of a song that we've already heard multiple times in this album, this is far less exciting. I do like that he brought in a little bit of electric guitar to orchestrate it a little more fully.

Concluding Remarks:

This is hardly the quintessential Bob Dylan album, but if you're a fan of his, then you pretty much can't go wrong with it. I hope you'll discover that this is far from *just* the album with “Knockin' on Heaven's Door” on it.

Read Bob Dylan reviews by Starcollector!

Bob Dylan (1962) | The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963) | The Times They Are A-Changin' (1964) | Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964) | Bringing it All Back Home (1965) | Highway 61 Revisited (1965) | Blonde on Blonde (1966) | John Wesley Harding (1967) | Nashville Skyline (1969) | Self Portrait (1970) | New Morning (1970) | Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973)

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