Thursday, September 20, 2007

On Bob Dylan

Through my classic rock high school years and through most of my indie rock university years, I generally ignored Bob Dylan. I purchased Highway 61 Revisted, Blonde on Blonde and Blood on the Tracks, but never paid them much attention. Bob Dylan generally doesn’t write pop songs—he generally writes blues, folk and country songs. For a long time, I found blues, folk and country songs boring. Dylan almost never bothers with bridges and this annoyed me to no end. I also didn’t like that Dylan was lyrics-based songwriter. I didn’t consider myself a “lyrics guy.”

In my final year of university, I spent about four months listening to Dylan’s entire discography up to Slow Train Coming, his first Christian record, which I like. I also read a Dylan biography and watched Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home. I did this out of respect for other people’s taste—if so many people, people who generally share similar musical taste with me, love and respect this guy, who was I to reject him before giving a fair listen. This decision marked a major shift in musical consciousness for me—I became more interested in liking things than hating them. And I really liked Dylan.

It’s true that the meaning for most Dylan tunes lies in the words—the backing tracks are mere accompaniment. Because of this, Dylan demands close attention—leave him on in the background and all you get is monotonous, whiny noise. But the attention is worthwhile. The man turns a phrase like no one else in the business. That said, if Dylan were just a poet, I wouldn’t have bothered. I still don’t consider myself a “lyrics guy.”

The key to Dylan, for me, lies in his delivery—when he’s trying, there’s no better singer in the world: the subtle inflections, the ability to shape and fit rhymes into tricky meters, the sheer number of words he crams into the simple melodies, those aching, creaking high notes on songs like “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” Of course, one thing anyone listening closely to Dylan will discover is that there are a number of occasions when he just doesn’t try. That’s the case for pretty much all of Another Side of Bob Dylan, by far the weakest Dylan record of the golden, pre-motorcycle accident era (1962-1966). Then there’s the ridiculously put on “soul” voice he uses on the mediocre New Morning and Planet Waves. Sometimes it feels like he's making crap on purpose.

Still, the fact that there are weak records in Dylan’s expansive catalogue is part what’s so appealing about him. Dylan, like very few others, is a pop musician whose career should be examined from all angles—musical, biographical, historical, personal. He made a point of presenting his work as art and so it should be treated as such. With artists, you take the good with the bad, and give equal attention to both. Watching how Dylan changed, grew, and struggled as an artist is what makes the listening experience fascinating from the audience perspective. It took me a long time to figure this out. But when I did, I was greatly rewarded.


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