IN 1982, Columbia Records set itself an impossible task: Compile an album that sums up the 23-year career of Bob Dylan. The result, ``Biograph,'' is finally in the stores. But it shouldn't surprise anyone that the project took 31/2 years to complete, because over the past two decades Bob Dylan has been perhaps the most mercurial and influential rock artist of his time.
Dylan, after all, started as a Woody Guthrie-style folk singer, and in subsequent years turned into an archetypal protest singer; a barbed, venomous rocker spewing out torrents of bizarre imagery; a reclusive, country-tinged balladeer; a freewheeling carnival-style showman; and a born-again Christian singing overtly religious songs.
In the process he's released more than two dozen records, written hundreds of songs, and inspired more curiosity, loyalty, and, perhaps, disappointment than nearly any other artist of his time.
As Dylan himself notes in the ``Biograph'' liner notes, ``It seems like I'm always in the midst of some controversy.'' This five-record set is no exception: In the short time since its release, ``Biograph'' has gathered plenty of staunch admirers and not a few detractors -- and that last group includes Bob Dylan himself.
Columbia, naturally, is enthusiastic about the collection, which sells for $25 to $30 and covers Dylan's career from 1962 through 1981, from acoustic protest songs (``Blowin' in the Wind'' and ``The Times They Are a-Changin' '') to rockers (``Like a Rolling Stone'') to ballads (``Lay Lady Lay'' and ``Forever Young'') to religious songs (``Gotta Serve Somebody'').
The public, too, seems enthusiastic. Jeff Jones, Columbia's East Coast director of product marketing, says orders have just come in for 10,000 more boxes. In many areas record stores are sold out. Songs from the set are playing on more than three dozen rock radio stations around the country -- stations that rarely play 20-year-old cuts and in past years have pointedly ignored Dylan's material.
As for Dylan himself, he wasn't nearly as enthusiastic before the album came out -- possibly because, in the words of one associate, ``he didn't want to put a tombstone on his career. If it bombed, that'd be his entire career bombing.'' At first he downplayed the project in print, saying that he didn't pick the material or put it together. But later he turned around and approved the final package. According to some reports he's become more positive toward the set now that it's selling.
``Biograph'' listeners aren't likely to come away thinking that the new songs are better than the old, because the set clearly shows that with a few major exceptions, Dylan's later work doesn't compare with the ground-breaking music he made 20 years ago. The difference in quality is aggravated by alternating riveting songs with eminently dispensable ones. The torrid mid-'60s single ``Positively 4th Street,'' for example, is followed by 1975's noisy but slight ``Isis,'' while the trifling ditty ``On a Ni ght Like This'' sounds especially insignificant when it's used to lead into the gripping ``Just Like a Woman.''
The record has other problems, too: odd choices of material (three songs that first appeared on the ragged 1974 ``Planet Waves,'' but only two each from the epochal 1965 ``Highway 61 Revisited'' and haunting 1975 ``Blood on the Tracks''); and 20 previously unreleased songs that rather haphazardly skim the surface of Dylan's massive catalog of unissued recordings.
That shortcoming may be partly due to the restrictions Dylan apparently placed on Jeff Rosen, who works for Dylan's publishing company and who chose the songs, subject to the singer's approval. Dylan reportedly wanted ``nothing that doesn't sound [as cleanly recorded as] a record,'' which disqualifies many ragged but extraordinary songs.
But ``Biograph'' is, after all, five records' worth from the man who, according to marketing director Jones, ``has been the cornerstone of Columbia Records for more than 20 years now.'' Because of that, the songs are strong enough to overcome most problems in the way they're presented.
The package also includes a fascinating 36-page book by rock journalist and screenwriter Cameron Crowe. Dylan gave Crowe what might be his frankest, most revealing interview ever, while also supplying previously unpublished photos, including one of his parents in 1939, three years before he was born.
``Bob apparently had a big desk covered with photographs most people had never seen,'' Mr. Jones says. ``When it came time to choose the ones for the book, he went through them with Jeff Rosen, saying, `I like this one. I don't like this one. Use this. . . .' Jeff would say, `But Bob, that's out of focus.' And Bob would say, `I know it's out of focus. I like it.' ''
In the interview, Dylan talks about hitchhiking to New York: ``I wouldn't do that today. People aren't as friendly, and there's too many drugs on the road.'' On the '60s: ``It never occurred to anybody that we were living in the '60s. It was too much like a pressure cooker. . . . Not like . . . the '80s, where everybody says, `These are the '80s and ain't it great.' ''
``Sometimes,'' he confesses a few pages later, ``I think I've been doing this too long.'' But the fact that Dylan has been making music for so long is what makes ``Biograph'' fascinating despite its flaws.