The world's popular music critics and other sundry writer types (wink!) have spent the past few weeks trying to size up something that is much more than just a big new album release. Bob Dylan's latest, Rough And Rowdy Ways, comes eight years since his most recent original material, four years after winning the Nobel Prize for Literature and ten months shy of his 80th birthday.
All of this, including the raving reviews, amounts to a major news event for the culture pages — a chance to search for the words (in the present tense) to describe someone bound for posterity. It also happens to arrive as the news pages are being consumed by two other ongoing stories that have their own whiff of history-in-the-making.
Churning through the daily updates and refreshing our Twitter feeds, news editors and readers might pose that unanswerable question: What will remain? Where will the stacks of coronavirus headlines leave us once the pandemic passes? Will George Floyd's name make it into the history books? And what place will now be reserved for Christopher Columbus, Cecil Rhodes, Leopold II?
Back to the culture pages, and the present tense, Olivier Lamm of France's Libération took a crack at describing what it's like, in 2020, to listen to the latest offering from the singular rock 'n' roll master artist:
"How does it sound, a Dylan blues song in the era of TikTok, Defund the Police and the coronavirus? Well what do you know, it sounds like it had to be, a flash of lucidity, a howl crossing the sky."
For this news editor and Dylan nut, that sounds about right. Since first getting hooked 30 years ago, I've often searched for the words — my own and those who write about such things for a living — that might take the measure of a man for the ages who also happens to be my favorite entertainer.
If you're like these international rock critics above, you can try to capture the grandeur; you might compare him to Shakespeare or Mozart or Michelangelo. But I'll also never forget a writer's description of liking Dylan's music the way he likes the smell of bacon ... and then there's the man in question, who parried the early hero worship by calling himself a "song and dance man."
That's what critics do: list the songs, cite a verse, make a connection or comparison.
His Nobel Prize was another occasion for the world's press to try to sum up his multitudes. That he initially went AWOL after the announcement, and wound up as a no-show at the ceremony, prompted additional Dylan news cycles. I even threw my own two cents in the media fountain. But then the Nobel, which at first seemed like some kind of ultimate validation that he was a category unto himself, goes only so far on the question of posterity: Hell, they give one out every year!
And so the reaction to the current album was also destined to create what news editors, with a slightly derisive tone, call copy. Much of it handled by the music reviewer's arsenal of song-by-song analysis and references to other works. That's normal, the work that critics do: list the songs, cite a verse, make a connection or comparison. There are, after all, other new albums to review, pages to fill, deadlines to meet.
Between my own deadlines, and waiting for more Bob copy to come in, it's taken me three weeks to have my say. And no, I'm afraid you won't get your answer here either. I'm an amateur in the field, with a dog in the fight. All I can offer is a heavy-handed, scripture-citing command to go to minute 5:18, fourth track, "I've Made Up My Mind to Give Myself To You."
My heart's like a river, a river that sings
It just takes me a while to realize things
Where do we start? With three pop song tropes — heart, river, sings — stacked right on top of each other, somehow creating a crescendo of a metaphor that you can both see and hear. Or maybe we've heard it before? Or it's just a throwaway line? Did he steal it? But we quickly find out, the sweetness will take a bitter turn: the simplest of thoughts, stripped away, a sigh to your lover over a cup of coffee. As a painter friend once told me: All great art is surprise.
Of course, such sleights of hand and crushing of hearts mean something different now, in the very twilight of his career. When he was barely 20, Dylan had a way of writing and singing with the voice of someone who had seemingly lived and seen a thousand lives. Now, when he sings "a while," we simply hear the sound of a lifetime.
Looking for words to describe Dylan's latest brings me to the one artist who, for me, has always seemed to be his mirror: for the sheer talent and expressionism, for never being prisoner to their own revolutions, and yes, for the longevity too.
We're in 1969 and the latest works from Pablo Picasso have just gone on exhibit. Jacques Michel, Le Monde's art critic, has this to say about the Spanish master, nearing the age of 90:
"Picasso paints here as a child would paint, a bird would sing. Nothing elaborate, the spontaneous restitution of electric jolts instead; Picasso does not seek, he finds .... For three-quarters of a century, he's done only that: find. Even today, the harvest is rich and will surely take on a deeper meaning later. Like self-portraits of Rembrandt, at the end of his life, or Van Gogh, attending to and depicting the drama unfolding inside themselves. What Picasso gives us here is the testimony of his destiny."
I'm just a news guy on loan to the culture pages, but the connections do feel stronger in times like these. The destiny of artists are tied to their subjects, and the subjects of the day to each other: George Floyd and Hattie Carroll, Columbus to Guernica, in sickness and in health. Dylan has come to remind us that, posterity or otherwise, it all begins with ourselves.
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