Two Ambitious New Books Examine Dylan’s Recordings
Approximately one zillion books have been written about Bob Dylan, but surprisingly few of them focus mostly on his music rather than his life and career. A pair of recently published tomes do just that, however.
One of these is the well-illustrated Dylan: Disc by Disc, edited by Minneapolis Star Tribune music critic Jon Bream. As the title suggests, the volume includes a look at each of the artist’s albums. Well, almost: it omits coverage of Dylan’s many live recordings and compilations, as well as the extensive Bootleg Series. Still, it covers 36 studio LPs—from the 1962 debut all the way to 2015’s Shadows in the Night. For each album, Bream offers a track list, songwriting and musician credits, and recording information. Then critic Richie Unterberger puts the release in context and discusses its critical and commercial reception before we get to the meat: a Bream-moderated discussion about the album with a pair of commentators.
Those commentators, 55 in all, include professors; DJs; critics like Rolling Stone’s Anthony DeCurtis and No Depression’s Kim Ruehl; and musicians and songwriters such as Eric Andersen, Rodney Crowell, Ric Ocasek, and Wesley Stace (aka John Wesley Harding). Most of the commentator choices are good and some are inspired, though I’d question inclusion of a few: It’s difficult to see singer/songwriter Nicole Atkins as a Dylan critic, for example, given that she says she “grew up hating Bob Dylan,” “thought his songwriting was dumb,” and still likes none of his albums aside from Desire. Then there’s Robert Christgau, the self-proclaimed “dean of American rock critics,” whose opening remarks here include “I’m really not a Dylan person. I don’t really care what he has to say about the world.”
But these are exceptions in a book dominated by insightful commentary from passionate Dylan fans (which is not to say they like every track). I found myself agreeing with many of their opinions and disagreeing with some, but I never felt bored. Having followed Dylan from Day One, I found these discussions fascinating. Like all good music books, they sent me back to the music itself.
I can say the same about the other new Dylan opus, the even more ambitious Bob Dylan: All the Songs—The Story Behind Every Track, by a pair of Frenchmen, journalist Philippe Margotin and musician/producer Jean-Michel Guesdon. Reviewers often jokingly refer to fat coffee-table books and CD box sets as doorstops, but this volume—which contains more than 700 oversized pages and weighs in at about six pounds—really could fill that function.
Like Dylan: Disc by Disc, the book doesn’t completely deliver on its title: the authors don’t cover live tracks, and they only partially address the material in the Bootleg Series. Still, this is an impressively massive undertaking. For each of 492 songs, the book offers musician and recording credits, an in-depth discussion of the lyrics and production, and a ton of trivia for Dylanologists. We learn, for example, what William Zantzinger, the villain in “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” thought of the song, and that “Political World” borrows a phrase from a 1970 Leonard Cohen number. Also here are essays about each album and more than 500 black-and-white and color photos.
The book is at its weakest when Margotin and Guesdon attempt to interpret Dylan’s lyrics; sometimes they offer less than helpful total speculation, saying a song “could be about” such-and-such; other times, they appear to throw up their hands and say things like “another mystery!” or “Dylan seems to be amusing himself, leaving clues here and there to help the listener understand his secret thoughts.”
What makes the book valuable, though, is that it brings together all the important facts about each song, plus Dylan’s own comments in various interviews about what they mean. True, he has been famously elusive at times in discussing his music. (Asked what his songs are about, he has been known to say that “some are about four minutes; some are about five; and some, believe it or not, are about 11 or 12.”) But he has also made more than a few interesting and straightforward comments about his various compositions and recordings, and you’ll find many of them collected here.
If you’re a Dylan devotee, both of these books are a must.
Jeff Burger edited Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters, both published by Chicago Review Press. His third book for the same publisher will be available in fall 2016. His website, byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades' worth of music reviews and commentary.