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What Critics Think About What Bob Dylan Thinks About Modern Song

Bob Dylan's latest book has fascinated many reviewers

Among the various Bob Dylan compilation lists on Spotify, there is one titled All Bob Dylan Albums. The duration is 63 hours and 17 minutes. For a singer-songwriter who can produce a catalogue of music totalling more than 60 hours, then he is certainly entitled to critique -or even pontificate on - modern music.

And that is exactly what Dylan does on The Philosophy of Modern Song, a lavishly-illustrated, multi-media collection of essays – 66 to be precise – on mostly 20th-Century songs the Nobel Laureate considers worthy of his sometimes mind-boggling reflections.

Surprisingly, especially for a writer who has composed lyrics which might stretch from Boulder to Birmingham, this is only Dylan’s third work of prose. Published on November 1, it follows his 2004 memoirs Chronicles: Volume One and Tarantula, his often-forgotten collection of prose poetry, from the mid-60’s.

As one might expect, the eclectic collection covers most genres of popular music – jazz being at least one exception - pretty much like the legend himself who traversed from blues and folk, through to temperate rock, with diversions into gospel, country and even crooner renditions. The music of big names like Elvis (“Viva Las Vegas”), Roy Orbison (“Blue Bayou”) and Nina Simone (“Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”) get scrutinised. There are some obscure songs like Judy Garland’s “Come Rain or Come Shine.” And even the absurd, when he uses Johnnie Taylor’s soul song “Cheaper to Keep Her” to demonstrate contempt for divorce lawyers!

The inner cover notes laud it as “a master class on the art and craft of song-writing.”

Do the eager-beaver Dylan critics agree?

“It’s part music-appreciation class, part podcast-style rant, and as unpredictable, cranky and largely engrossing as the man himself,” writes David Browne in Rolling Stone - under the headline: “In His New Book, Dylan Is an Unexpected Music Critic, and A Master Gaslighter.”

Browne concludes: “The Philosophy of Modern Song literally closes the book on the way songs were written, played, recorded and sung for a long period of time. He leaves the future, and the pleasure of the now, to those who will eventually write their own versions of his book.”

The New York Times introduced two excerpts from the book by noting: “The title of Bob Dylan’s latest book, The Philosophy of Modern Song, is, in a sense, misleading. A collection of brief essays on 65 songs (and one poem), it is less a rigorous study of craft than a series of rhapsodic observations on what gives great songs their power to fascinate us.”

The introduction concludes: “Students of Dylan have long known to just listen and not ask why.”

The Buffalo Times was overwhelmed. “The great book of 2022 … utterly extraordinary … not only one of the great books of year, but of the past decade. It is unexpected in every way … a magnificent book of music criticism disguised as a memoir and a set of off-the-cuff fantasies and confidences… That’s its genius,“ wrote Jeff Simon.

Writing in Variety, Chris Willman had similar sentiments: “He is as much of a historian, and more-than-decent rock critic, as he fancies himself – this is absolutely one of the best books about popular music ever written. But the best passages (and sometimes its most delightfully or jaw-droppingly purple ones) comes when he puts himself inside the minds of the songs’ protagonists.”

Esquire, let rip in the other direction: “The title of the book is a lie,” Alan Light wrote in his opening. “There is no ‘philosophy’ offered here – no overarching theory or argument made about writing or singing songs.” But this gibe was beneath a sub-head stating: “The Philosophy of Modern Song is, as a title, almost entirely untrue. But the work is revealing nonetheless.”

The Guardian proclaimed: “It is not just the breadth of Dylan’s musical knowledge on display here, but the depth of his listening.”

As might be expected, the London publication took an anglophile perspective, with writer Sean O’Hagan declaring: “There are surprises aplenty, not least the almost sacrilegious absence of a single song by the Beatles – are there any songwriters more “modern” than Lennon and McCartney?”

O’Hagan added: “His selections are mostly American (the exceptions being the Who, the Clash and Elvis Costello) and tend towards the unapologetically old fashioned, whether that be the rough and rowdy roots music that he has always been drawn to – blues, rockabilly, bluegrass, early folk – or the pre-pop standards he has homaged on his recent trio of cover albums.”

The Guardian is no doubt referring to what became known as Dylan’s three “Sinatra albums” – Shadows in the Night, Fallen Angels, Triplicate – released in successive years 2015-16-17. At the time, the critics were kind to what they saw as Dylan being somewhat replenished in paying homage to the American songbook and Frank Sinatra in particular. In fact, Dylan and Sinatra were somewhat infatuated with each other and the great crooner asked Dylan to perform “Restless Farewell” at a Sinatra tribute concert in 1995, three years before he died.

So it is no surprise that Dylan’s love of crooners is reflected among his intriguing essays. But the choice of the Sinatra classic “Strangers in the Night” perplexed some critics, especially given it is well known that Sinatra disliked the song.

But O’Hagan noted. “It does however give Dylan a chance to trace the song’s “murky” history: the authorship of both the melody and the lyrics are contested. It’s that kind of book: discursive, unpredictable, but always illuminating. Characteristically Dylan, in fact.”

And in his essay Dylan cuts to the chase:

Frank may have hated the song, but the fact of the matter is, he chose it. And therein lies a tale. By the time we had heard “Strangers in the Night,” it had gone through at least two sets of lyrics and a few people had already laid claim to its authorship. It’s a confusing tale that spans a couple of continents. I present it here in the interests of entertainment and will not swear to its veracity.

It is somewhat interesting that in his dissection of “Strangers,” Dylan raises the issue of plagiarism in music. For he himself was subject to accusations of music appropriation, especially in his early years. And he was once famously quoted in Rolling Stone: “It’s called song-writing. It has to do with melody and rhythm, and then after that, anything goes. You make everything yours. We all do it.”

One of the more intriguing aspects of The Philosophy of Modern Song is the inclusion of so-called audio “riffs” in several essays – some are delivered by guest presenters. The riffs see Dylan go inside the head of the song-writer to emotionally dissect a lyric.

Dylan himself reads the “Strangers in the Night” riff, where he is at his inventive best:

Tramps and mavericks, the object of each other’s affection, enraptured with each other and creating an alliance — ignoring all the ages of man, the golden age, electronic age, age of anxiety, the jazz age. You’re here to tell a different story, a bird of another feather. You’ve got a tough persona, like a side of beef, and you’re aroused and stimulated, with an ear-to-ear grin, like a Cheshire cat, and you’re rethinking your entire formless life, your entire being is filled with a whiff of this heady ambrosia. Something in your vital spirit, your pulse, something that runs in the blood, tells you that you must have this tender feeling of love now and forever, this essence of devoted love held tightly in your grip — that it’s essential and necessary for staying alive and cheating death.

And there are times his hyperbole becomes hilarious, if not hysterical. He defines the Osborne Brothers’ “Ruby, Are You Mad at Your Man” as:

a song to drive your car over a cliff to with the radio still on … and you won’t feel a thing.

It is no surprise, Dylan’s infatuation with modern song has indeed started to emerge in his own song-writing. The latest – let it not be his last – album, the much-admired Rough and Rowdy Ways, is littered with references to popular culture. No more so than in the album’s #1 single “Murder Most Foul” where 74 songs and artists are listed – yes someone did a namecheck – as he intertwines, for 17 minutes, the Kennedy assassination and 20th century music.

Play, "Please Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood"

Play it for the First Lady, she ain't feeling any good

Play Don Henley, play Glenn Frey

Take it to the limit and let it go by

Play it for Carl Wilson, too

Looking far, far away down Gower Avenue

Play, "Tragedy" play, "Twilight Time"

Take me back to Tulsa to the scene of the crime

Those who enthused over “Murder Most Foul” – one critic called it “dizzying, utterly extraordinary song” – were no doubt not surprised with the release of The Philosophy of Modern Song for this touring Octogenarian has forever had his head full of music and its origins. He put it nicely to Robert Hilburn of the L.A. Times: “People will think they are talking to me and I’m talking back, but I’m not. I’m listening to a song in my head. At a certain point, some of the words will change and I’ll start writing a song.”

This is probably about as close as Dylan gets to critiquing his own work, which makes his detailed reflections on the song craft of others so intriguing, if not ironic. Now wouldn’t it be something, if his fourth publication was titled The Philosophy of Bob Dylan’s Songs?

Paul Cutler

Editor Crossroads – Americana Music Appreciation


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