Critics and musicians take on 50 years of Dylan, album by album

For the contributors to Jon Bream's "Dylan: Disc by Disc," even the Christmas album is worth debating. Here's why

Published August 1, 2015 6:00PM (EDT)

  (Wikimedia/Rowland Scherman)
(Wikimedia/Rowland Scherman)

For much of the career of the man born Robert Zimmerman, there's been a kind of critical consensus. He started as a folky, singing acoustic protest songs that spoke to a generation. Then one day -- at Newport in 1965 -- he plugged in, and musical history was electrified and his own career broadened. A few stunning years followed, including a motorcycle crash and a period of retreat, and then, a p0werful record about divorce called "Blood on the Tracks." And then, what? A series of false starts, dead ends and attempted comebacks? A descent into Christian music? A loss of direction? Self-absorption?

It's around this time that things get blurry and observers start to disagree. The release of a tribute record last year -- "Dylan in the 80s" -- and Elijah Wald's recent book "Dylan Goes Electric!" try to reorient the way we think about specific periods. But the new "Dylan: Disc by Disc" reckons with the entire career. Jon Bream, music critic at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, brings together dozens of writers to look at the output, from "Bob Dylan" to "Shadows in the Night." They include rock critics Robert Christgau and Evelyn McDonnell, and musicians Joe Henry, Questlove, Suzanne Vega and Jason Isbell.

We spoke to Bream from Minneapolis; the interview has been edited slightly for clarity.

Dylan is probably the most written about musician in history, at least in the past 100 years or so, with the possible exception of the Beatles. Why did we need another Dylan book, and what were you filling in that wasn’t there yet?

Well, I was approached by a publisher about doing an illustrated discography, and they wanted me to do commentaries about every album. I said, “That’s not going to be very salable. How about if we get different people commenting about Dylan’s album and set it up as a pseudo-debate situation where two different commentators talk about each album.

Unlike the Beatles, Dylan is probably the most debated artist. There are probably more books about the Beatles, but people disagree about Dylan, on both sides of the issue. I thought it would be a fascinating way to do it. We had some professors who teach classes on Dylan. We have critics involved, and then we have some musicians as well.

I like your point: Give us a few examples of places where they disagree. I think there’s a moment of consensus, perhaps, but there are places where there really is an open debate on the value of certain periods and certain records. What are some of those?

It varies from commentator to commentator. A lot of people dislike his Christmas record, but I found two commentators who were willing to do it and they both loved it and rated it one of their favorite Christmas records of all time, along with Frank Sinatra’s record. Speaking of Sinatra, people are divided on Dylan’s Sinatra record. Is it really good singing? People say it’s good singing for Dylan at this point in his career, but a lot of people think he’s an acquired taste.

Some people dismiss him because his voice has become so croaky. They don’t call it singing, and they can’t take anything he does seriously, whereas other people maybe reserve judgment and say, “OK, this is Bob Dylan. This is what he’s evolved to, and let’s evaluate him on those terms.”

Right, and I think his Christian period in the ‘70s and early ‘80s was another that divided people. Many dismissed that period, but there are some who really love it as well. How did you find that period?

I think, in retrospect, some of the things we disliked about him sound better now. The Christian records don’t sound as bad now as we thought then, and the same can be said about “Self Portrait,” which was reviled at the time. Now that we’ve heard “Self Portrait” Part 2 and we’ve had a little time and heard a lot more from Dylan, we understand where it fits in in the overall arc of his career, in his sense of music, in his taste in music. Yes, it was the covers album, and no one wanted a covers album from the greatest lyricist of our time. But he was showing his taste in music and the kind of songs he grew up with and influenced him, and the songs he liked. It doesn’t sound as bad now as it did then. In fact, to some people it sounds good.

You mentioned the overall arc of his career. At this point, we’ve had more than 50 years of Dylan records. How do you see the overall arc or shape? Is there a single direction or a set of directions or a set of obsessions that he returns to from time to time?

Right now, he’s certainly on his exploration of American music. That’s what he’s always been on. We didn’t see it that way, but if you look carefully, that seems to be the thread that goes through his music, whether it’s the early blues and folk that he started out with, or the vaudeville and tin pan alley stuff that’s come out in the later years. He’s always been a student of American music. He’s had country music in there. Every style of music that he grew up and listened to, whether it was rock 'n' roll or folk or blues or even bluegrass, if you ever listened to his radio show, you got a very good idea for his range of interests. I think that would be the thread that runs through all the records, if you look at the overall arc.

That makes sense. There was a fairly brief period from “Bring It All Back Home,” “Highway 61,” “Blonde on Blonde” where he wasn’t just exploring American music, he seemed to be pushing the edges of it. He was experimenting and stretching. That period was tied up with the Newport ‘65 moment when he went electric — it’s the subject of a new book. How does that period now fit in when we look back over all these decades? Was it an anomaly?

No, people will argue that that was Dylan at his greatest. He had an incredible run at that time of creativity and originality, but you can also look back at it, Scott, as his version and his vision of American music. He was taking some of the things that he learned from other people, and he was bringing a different style of lyric writing to it, and he created his own style and his own vision. If you analyze it, you can see a lot of the antecedents: what informed that music and the things he listened to. Certainly, he created a style of his own because his singing voice was not typical. It was not pretty. It was unusual. His approach to lyric was unusual because it wasn’t tin pan alley anymore. He broke the form and created new forms. He took his style of poetry and adapted it to a rock format.

Right, but you’re saying that underneath all this, it was in some ways classic Americana. He was drawing from the blues, the folk tradition, even if he was adding electricity and —

Absolutely, he was drawing from those traditions and melding them together and forming his own version and vision of it, for better or worse. Some people loved it, some people thought it was crazy. Bob Dylan really created the job of singer-songwriter. Before him, there were singers, and there were songwriters. Now, you could argue, “Well, wasn’t Woody Guthrie a singer-songwriter?” But no one viewed him that way. He was writing topical songs perhaps. Dylan really created this new job of a songwriter who sang his own songs, his own way.

I think part of what we mean by that term these days is somebody whose life flows into the music and vice versa. There were people who had sung their own music, like Chuck Berry, for instance, but it didn’t feel intimate in the same way. Berry was sort of channeling postwar culture.

It didn’t feel personal at all.

Right, it didn’t feel as personal. While Dylan in the '70s released a record that continues to have a huge following --  “Blood on the Tracks,” a marital breakdown album. How does that one fit into the discography?

Well, it’s my favorite Dylan record for many different reasons. One, he remade half of it here in Minneapolis, and it was something I wrote about at the time and knew about the musicians who played on the project site. I guess I feel a personal connection to it, but I also feel like it’s powerful musically and lyrically.

We did a survey of all the contributors to the book, and it ended up being the No. 2 record in overall ranking. It was a return to very personal, very powerful music-making after a period where he kind of lost his focus a little bit. After the motorcycle accident and all that, he went in a different direction, and he seemed to be refocused once he hit “Blood on the Tracks.” It was probably his most personal album ever.

I suspect there were records that people were dying to write about — “Highway 61,” “The Basement Tapes,” “Blonde on Blonde,” etc. — and others where it was hard to find contributors. Did you find that? Or did each record have at least a few people who were excited to talk about it, whether they liked or loved the album?

You mean did I have to pay some people more money to get them to write about the lesser records? Are you asking that, Scott?

Let’s put it this way, the matchmaking part was the most daunting part of this process. Did I have trouble finding people to do the lesser records? I had to turn to some friends, some critic friends. For instance, there’s a story I tell in the introduction for “Knocked Out Loaded,” and after we had the discussion, it was with Gary Graff, a Detroit critic, and Joel Selvin, a longtime San Francisco Chronicle critic. I’ve known both of them since the '80s. Selvin, after they answered the first question, said, “Gary, what did we do to piss off [name] to get this assignment?” At the end of the discussion, I explained to them that, when that album came out, I was on the road with Dylan, and he gave me a cassette copy to listen to, in his presence, with headphones on, and then I had to tell him what I thought about it to his face. I explained to them that I had a much more daunting task than they did.

Yeah, it was challenging to find people. I asked people, if they were interested in contributing, to rank the 10 records they’d want to do, in order, and five records that they don’t want to do. I was able to find people to do everything. There were some people, like Bob Christgau said, “I’m only interested in doing one record.” There was a bit of a pecking order. Artists who wanted to contribute probably got a little higher priority than critics. And critics are more versatile. Critics are able to adapt and do other records. Luckily, I was able to reach out to several veteran critics who were really versatile and flexible and adaptable in that they were willing to take on records that they did not sign up for.

It’s not a book about a decade or a handful of albums. It gives roughly equal measure to the whole career without pretending that every album was as good as the next. Do you have a favorite era for Dylan? Do you look forward to new work from him? Do you find that there was a great period, and everything else has been a falling off?

I would just say that Dylan, Miles Davis and Prince, you have to listen to every record that they put out. They will surprise you. They have surprises, both good and bad, but they all have a certain genius that leads them in whatever direction it does, and you have to pay attention.

“Tempest” was a very good record. Very deep. If you can get used to the voice, it’s a pretty powerful record. There are some people who dismiss it because they just can’t stand the raspiness or the rawness of the voice. In some ways, it also complements the raw emotion of the lyrics. I always look forward to Dylan records.

Does any period stand out? Sure, the period in the ‘60s that you just mentioned stands out, but then others stand out. One thing, Scott, that I learned in doing this book — I obviously had to go back and listen to every Dylan album. In my opinion, almost all the albums changed somewhat. Many of them I haven’t listened to for years, and some you just sort of accept. Everyone knows “Blonde on Blonde” is great, and I don’t need to listen to it again.

Some of these I haven’t listened to since they came out, and others I had listened to fairly regularly. It just became fascinating to rethink the records and to think about them in a different way.

By Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

MORE FROM Scott Timberg

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