music / Columns

Ask 411 Music 10.17.12: Bob Dylan, Five Stars, Really?

October 17, 2012 | Posted by David Hayter


This week we’re taking a question that frustrates the uninitiated and annoys the artist’s long term fans who are fed up with media pandering:

Why Does Bob Dylan Get So Many Five Star Reviews?
Disclaimer: This will not be a slagging off Bob Dylan column, nor will it be a lengthy explanation of why classic albums (Blood On The Tracks, Blonde On Blonde, Freewheelin’ etc.) have been given five star reviews. Instead, we will be focusing on Dylan’s later work – those iffy albums keep giving five star reviews by publications like Rolling Stone.

Getting It Out The Way Early: I am most definitely a fan of Bob Dylan’s work, and multiple periods of his career. I am not a fanboy. I don’t try to redeem Self Potrait or his Christian period. In truth, I have to review so much music that I’m hardly a fan of anyone anymore. I enjoy hearing new exciting music, and I have to move on constantly. I rarely get to dwell on a record long enough to become a real fan these days. It’s an occupational hazard.

Why Was Dylan Loved In The First Place: He wrote beautiful, haunting, absurd music. He was scathing, mystifying and complex at a time when pop was simple. He always stayed ahead of the curve. His lyricism was beyond reproach during two incredibly purple patches (1962-1969 & 1975-1976). He’s one of the few musicians, who, like the great authors, is simply a joy listen to – to just hear his words.

Whether you care about unlocking the metaphors and imagery of “Ballad Of A Thin Man” or not, it’s great to just experience those contorted syllables and let your mind wander. In his early days Dylan wrote unmistakably direct polymics and in later life he went a bit Samuel Beckett, then a little James Joyce, before going all pissed off old man at the end. (Especially in his early period) Dylan practically invented a whole host of genres that sprang from folk, and he also revitalize certain aspects of American roots music in the late-60s.

His Voice: For the purposes of this question Dylan’s voice won’t be brought into question (only it’s decline). If you can’t stand Dylan’s voice the way some people can’t stand Thom Yorke or Matt Bellamy’s vocals, that’s fine – but he is not a bad singer, and the merits of his work won’t be dismissed as such. Let me explain.

He has a limited range, but his voice has an incredible ability to tell stories and convey character. He whole has moods that he does better than anyone else: wry pleading, intelligent rapture, derision, scorn, and harsh wit in particular. As Alexis Petridis of the Guardian put it: “No one has ever articulated furious contempt more vividly than Dylan at his peak”. Dylan in his youth had an incredible rises and fall to his voice. He could squeeze and contort vowel sounds delightfully, and believe it or not, he is often used as an example to trainee singers (we’re talking opera and pop here, the whole chi-bang). No seriously, his breathing patterns were astonishing. His ability to go quick-quick-slow-quick-ellongated note-quick effortlessly without obvious breathes or pause was sensational, and impossible to recreate in old age. In short, the way he enunciated dense lyrical passages, holding notes and changing tone, was literally exemplary.

Is he a great singer technical singer like Celiene Dion, no, is he a completely limited vocalist like Ian Curtis, no, he’s inbetween. He does somethings (typically involving inflection) incredibly well. Note: being a bad or good singer, does not make you a great artist.

Okay, So That’s Why He Was Good, But Why Does He Get Five Star Reviews In 2012?
In the modern Dylan era, there are three albums that could plausibly be given Four Star or above reviews: Modern Times, Love & Theft, and Time Out Of Mind
The first was a romping, and surprisingly Republican, rocker that empathized a rambling persona, poverty, and was played brilliantly by Dylan’s live band. It was all pre-pop, and in truth, pre-Dylan music.

The other two were surprisingly touching comebacks. Time Out Of Mind is a little overrated, but it’s understandable. It’s a surprisingly good Dylan record with no embarrassing attempts at modernism. It was tight and heartfelt. Love & Theft on the other hand is really quite good. It didn’t have the thrill of the new like Dylan’s classic records, but it did tracks like “Mississipi” that are just really good pop songs. The type of weary laments that only an old traveller can get away with.

The Iffy But Well Reviewed Stuff: So what about Dylan’s Christmas album or his new record? Well that’s harder to explain. They’re both incredibly indebted, and the word play is labored and anything but sparkling. The Christmas record is all pastiche and covers, while Together Through Life is a lightweight. Mediocre at best – even Rolling Stone couldn’t give it five stars and settled, rather ludicrously for four (although Blender gave it five).

What about Tempest – shock horror, it’s a pretty decent record. Unlike Together Through Life, four or a strong three stars would be appropriate, but five? That is taking the mick. Will Hermes’ Rolling Stone review is almost hysterical. He accurately points out what makes the record great (“Dylan is so close-miked you can practically hear the phlegm rattle” and “Duquesne Whistle suggests, how much can be channeled through a simple sound“), but then he goes into hyperbole overload:

“Lyrically, Dylan is at the top of his game, joking around, dropping wordplay and allegories that evade pat readings and quoting other folks’ words like a freestyle rapper on fire.”

I did not make that quote up. Firstly, Dylan is not on top form. There is nothing as cutting as “Idiot Wind”, as mystifying as “Ballad Of A Thin Man”, or as beautifully composed as “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”. Nor is there anything to match the big expansive swing of “Thunder On The Mountain” or the aforementioned “Mississippi”. This is good later day Dylan, not great Dylan.

Even more bizarrely, he picks out the two tracks that best illustrate Dylan’s decline and labels them “the two most powerful cuts”. Don’t get me wrong, “The Tempest” is a nice teetering track, but Dylan struggles to hold the listener’s attention for five, let alone thirteen minutes. The blistering word play and the confounding imagery of “Desolation Row” is not reproduced. It’s nice, descriptive, romantic, and that’s all – allegory or no allegory. While “Roll On John” is nigh on regrettable – latter-day Dylan doesn’t do meaningful tributes well, trust me.

Okay so the record isn’t a five star classic, but why did it get that rating?
I don’t want to call Dylan’s reviewers fanboys, but there are certainly a lot of ardent Dylan lovers in the media. I’m not saying the reviewers are going into his records deciding in advance that they are worthy of five stars, but there are certain critics who grasp at straws looking for the shadows of greatness. Taking the slimmest glimpse of inspiration and labeling it genius. Dylan can still make great music, and the critics don’t pull this stuff out of their arse, but they do stretch the limits of credibility.

I know the feeling, there are some artists who I fundamentally like as people or stars, and you do subconsciously look for the good, just as the bad seems more apparent in the work of an artist you despise. You mean well, and you take a positive tone, stressing the high points, but at the end of the day, you have to give an honest recommendation. You can give a great three star review, getting across all your enthusiasm without misleading your readership. I would love to ask the critics who gave The Tempest five stars if they would honestly put it on a par with Rubber Soul, Blonde On Blonde, Low, OK Computer, or whatever album it is that they consider truly great.

Finally, don’t forget certain magazines, Rolling Stone/Classic Rock are the guardian’s of the mainstream and the common music history perspective. They tend to play it safe, give people due once they’ve earned it, rather than in the moment.

What about live, how on earth does a man with an inaudible voice playing distorted versions of old classic get good reviews?
Well I have to admit. I’ve given Dylan two good (not five star) live reviews. Don’t misunderstand me, all the bad things you’ve heard are true. It doesn’t sound like vintage Dylan whatsoever, but it is captivating, and I find his shows oddly fascinating, perhaps because they’re so obstinate.

Here’s my conclusion on two Dylan sets;

The first time I saw him:

“Naturally Dylan isn’t the man he used to be, and he never will be again. If you approached the shows accepting the fact that you are seeing a 70-year-old road weary veteran, you found yourself treated to an artist enjoying a late career purple patch: fully capable of performing his new materiel, and offering a series remarkably well-thought-out reimaging’s of his pre-1980 works. There are some clangers of course. When he’s bad, he’s really band, and when the arrangement doesn’t click, it really doesn’t click, but these moments are too fleeting to sink an implausibly competent show, that left the crowd chanting: “We want Bob”.

The most recent set:

“Like A Rolling Stone” puts the finishing touch on a job well done, as the crowd legitimately roar so loud and so long that Dylan is unable to bid us farewell and instead simply takes a bow (not always the case at latter-day Dylan shows). As the crowd continue to bellow for a second encore that never comes, it’s clear that by focusing on what he does best, as opposed to what he once did best, Dylan has stumbled upon a formula that is both perfect for the more intimate surroundings of the Hammersmith Apollo and may just win back those fans who refuse to forgive a 70-year-old for not sounding like a wild eyed man of twenty one.”

Thats A Wrap! C’mon, I Know You Have Questions. We have A Couple Of Good Ones Lined Up, But We Need More. Maybe You Don’t Have The Imagination, Maybe You’re Scared, C’mon On Throw Something Fun At Me!


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David Hayter
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