Dylan: Disc by Disc
(Voyageur Press, 2015)
In his review of Bob Dylan’s divisive 1970 album Self Portrait, Rolling Stone critic Greil Marcus famously quipped, “What is this shit?” Marcus was not alone with his vitriol—Self Portrait went on to be one of Dylan’s most poorly received albums, at least by critics. A bloated double album featuring mostly cover songs and a few live cuts—perhaps intentionally feeling like a bootleg, and not in a good way—Self Portrait divides opinion like little else in Dylan’s oeuvre. Some see it as a directionless hodgepodge of half-baked ideas and styles, many steps removed from the gospel of peak 1960s Dylan. Others, however, see it as a conceptually triumphant portrait of American styles, well ahead of its time even for an artist constantly pushing the boundaries of popular music.
The debate that surrounds Self Portrait represents one of the fundamental truths of Dylan: for every negative opinion on some aspect of his music, there is an equal and opposite positive opinion—Dylan’s Third Law. Today, this dynamic continues to spur on endless discussion about Dylan’s albums, the meanings of his songs, and, yes, his voice. It keeps the conversation ticking along when we think we might finally run out of things to say on the subject. Indeed, if it weren’t for his unique ability to inspire debate, there would be little need for yet another book to be written about him. Luckily for us Dylan fans, the new hardcover book, Dylan: Disc by Disc,is primarily concerned with this spirit of debate.
The book’s editor, Jon Bream, music critic at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, has outlined the chronology of Dylan’s career by going through it one album at a time. Bream’s book covers every single official studio album, from his self-titled 1961 debut to 2015’s Shadows in the Night, an album of standards once sung by Frank Sinatra—thirty-six albums in all. In each chapter, Bream moderates a discussion between two Dylan experts—an impressive roster of musicians, journalists, and critics—on the various virtues, triumphs, failures, and contexts of each album. The discussions are frank and the commentators are well matched with the albums they have been tasked to discuss. Each chapter is augmented with a beautiful selection of rare, archival photography from the time when the album in question was released, and the discussions are supported by a few preceding paragraphs of notes by Bream.
Each album is given equal consideration in Dylan: Disc by Disc. That is to say, the chapter on Highway 61 Revisited is the same length as the chapter on Empire Burlesque—politely, one of his more unpalatable albums. This refreshing, equal-opportunity policy guards against the kind of hero worship that can so often permeate this kind of work, but it also helps to enrich our understanding of many of the lesser-known albums in Dylan’s repertoire. Indeed, there are twenty-one albums discussed here that were released after Blood on the Tracks, which often comes up as something resembling a convenient halfway point for Dylan’s career. With so much attention given to the less-celebrated decades, I can assure you that you will find yourself, as I did, putting on 1990’s utterly forgettable Under The Red Sky to see if the song “Wiggle Wiggle” is really as bad as the commentators in its chapter make it out to be. Or maybe you will even sit down for a deep listen of 2009’s Christmas in the Heart—an album that tested the patience of many diehards—to determine if you agree with the chapter’s commentators that Dylan’s voice on “Winter Wonderland” is the best vocal performance of his late career.
Bream’s strength in overseeing this project resides in his ability to make sure the important points surrounding each album are considered while still keeping the tone conversational and breezy. Whether he’s asking self-important music critic Robert Christgau if he still stands behind the A- grade he gave New Morning in 1970 (he does),or asking the musician Questlove how Saved measures up as a gospel album (he suggests that it is instead an R&B record), Bream always seems to find the right questions to keep the conversations engaging and, most importantly, inspire debate. A particularly memorable debate concerns the meaning of the title Blood on the Tracks. Kevin Odegaard, a musician who played on the album, points to a line in “Idiot Wind” that mentions blood on a saddle, while David Yaffe, a critic who wrote a book on Dylan, explains that he thinks that Dylan is spilling his own blood.
Bream recognizes that what makes Dylan such an interesting subject is that people so often disagree on both sides of any given issue and that our understanding of him is still evolving. In the Self Portrait chapter Bream asks the commentators to consider if the critics—like Marcus—who panned the album were justified in their ridicule. While the feeling is that they may have been justified at the time, Dylan’s career arc since the album has given us a new understanding of how we should view the material. In fact, it was not until 2013’s official bootleg Another Self Portrait that listeners got a fuller understanding of many of the album’s songs. It is this level of hindsight, which Bream calls a “critical rehabilitation,” that continues to evolve and is enriched by the new bootlegs and archival releases that continue to trickle out to still-hungry fans. Yes, the debates will rage on.