Does Dylan WANT to get canceled?
Bob Dylan's Twisted Philosophy of Popular Song, World Literature Today, January 2023
Listen to audio narration here (11 mins)
THROUGHOUT HIS SIXTY-YEAR-PLUS CAREER, Bob Dylan has combined an “incredible skill with a wildness of spirit,” as magician Penn Jillette recently put it. He towers above others—Bruce Springsteen, John Prine, Leonard Cohen, and Joni Mitchell—through volume, range, and brash unpredictability. In the past decade he has retooled Frank Sinatra crooning (Triplicate) and wrung suspicious reverie from Covid crazy (Rough and Rowdy Ways). In this latest book, he submits essays on sixty-six recordings, having his say about cherished records in a voice that favors wildness over skill.
Dylan has great ears and great taste: he spotlights many performers who don’t get enough credit and rescues others from silence. But his off-the-cuff style inadvertently reveals a reactionary sensibility and undercuts his credibility. Framed by photographs chosen by Parker Fishel and David Beal, in a plush design by Coco Shinomiya, the layout seems both overliteral and didactically allusive. It’s this season’s Drunk-Uncle Coffee-Table Item, designed for display.
Think of this book as a lengthy footnote to the far preferable Theme-Time Radio Hour, where Dylan DJ’d an XM pay-radio network series.
Clichés pile up and ricochet off one another, with the occasional flicker of light. In describing “Nelly Was a Lady,” by Alvin Youngblood Hart, Dylan writes: “In this song the fire’s gone out and your life is missing,” a turn that echoes his best critic, Greil Marcus. (In fact, skip this title in favor of Marcus’s Folk Music: A Bob Dylan Biography in Seven Songs.) Hank Snow’s “I Don’t Hurt Anymore” will “tear your heart out”; “Feel So Good,” by Sonny Burgess, comprises “the sound that made America great.” Some platitudes explode into shrapnel (applause for “a hallucinogenic amalgamation of succubus and thaumaturge”) but not often enough to justify the logorrhea. With a rock band behind him, guessing at where he’ll land, Dylan’s lyrics can prove wildly entertaining: fencing with meaning, spinning language into twaddle at a furious rate, his performances give the ear a wild ride even in slower numbers.
As prose, most of this blurs into wobbly beatnik squawk. About Pete Townshend’s “My Generation,” Dylan writes: “People are trying to slap you around, slap you in the face, vilify you. . . . They don’t like you because you pull out all the stops and go for broke. . . . They give you frosty looks and they’ve had enough of you, and there’s a million others just like you, multiplying every day.” A little of this goes on far too long. In song, Dylan twists clichés with a snap or a snarl; here they just crowd into one another. For pages on end, his style turns mannered. What works as scattershot vocal delivery doesn’t translate into prose. What’s worse, he solved this problem in Chronicles: Volume 1, his absorbing 2004 “memoir,” which this effort somehow diminishes...
—Read the full article in World Literature Today
"Ever wonder why none of Dylan’s ex-wives has ever spoken publicly about his misogyny? Non-Disclosure Agreements: not just for predatory real estate moguls anymore..."
Against the Grain
Filtered by lack of hosannas, strong voices in general:
Geoff Dyer in Unherd
Sasha Frere-Jones in 4Columns
John Carver in PopMatters
Send in the women: say, Patricia Lockwood in the London Review of Books. For the swish.
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