Plotted Plain Press
There’s never been any shortage of books about Dylan but this is the first time someone has focussed on Dylan’s late period of work, basically taking in the period from 1997’s Time Out of Mind, and taking us up to last year’s Lockdown triumph, Rough and Rowdy Ways. That album was proof – if needed – that you write Dylan off at your peril. Equally, as soon as one tries to pin him down, as ‘interpreter’ rather than songwriter (after the Fallen Angels/ Shadows in the Night and Triplicate albums of non-originals) he comes back with albums like Tempest or Time Out of Mind, bursting with lyrical skills and ideas.
The author argues that this later period of work stands alongside anything from the revered Classic Dylan period of the mid-60s. Those albums defined my teens, and although there’s been plenty of great music since, it’s hard to move beyond seeing the Holy Trinity of Highway 61 Revisited/Bringing it all back home/Blonde on Blonde as unassailable peaks. But the author makes a convincing case here that the later work is just as important. He acknowledges early on that the ’80s were a pretty disastrous decade for Dylan, as anyone spending their hard-earned on albums like Under the Red Sky or Down in the Groove would attest. There were albums like Infidels that briefly hinted at a return to form – a bit like the false flag of 1973’s Planet Waves, but often it was easier to turn away and assume that his interest and energy was now more in the Never Ending Tour.
Most of the 60s/70s ‘rock legends’ contemporaries of Dylan’s concentrate on greatest hits tours or slavish ‘Whole Album’ recreations – with a few honourable exceptions like Robert Plant and Neil Young, but after the lost years of the 80s, he made a massive return to form with Time Out of Mind/Love & Theft/Modern Times. No more scraping around for a couple of redeeming songs among the dross, these were albums devoid of any comfort zone as Dylan as he confronted the curses of midlife – age, loss, and waning powers.
But typically, he was soon to shapeshift again, demonstrating a fixation with Frank Sinatra. But as he pointed out, much as he loved Sinatra’s style and work, the attraction lay in the songs, drawn from the legendary Great American Songbook. I have to plead guilty to zero knowledge of these albums, let alone the Xmas album that came a few years later, or equally the Theme Time radio shows – life’s simply too short. The constant stream of excellent reissues in the so-called ‘Bootleg’ series have made it easy for the long term Dylan fan like me to carry on unconcerned with new offerings – until now.
Author Chris Gregory has written previously on the Beatles (“Who could ask for more? Reclaiming the Beatles” and addressed another classic 60s zeitgeist work, The Prisoner in Be Seeing You). In addition, he’s written about Star Trek, and also writes poetry and fiction. In this book, he goes in for some really in-depth analysis of the songs in themselves, and in their wider context. I found it quite amusing to read that the book is pitched at anyone doing Dylan as part of their uni studies, remembering the cries of horror back in the day when a couple of critics like Christopher Ricks dared to say he was as worthy of consideration as a writer as Shakespeare or Chaucer.
If this is starting to sound a bit academic or too Lit Crit, there are regular digressions to report on Dylan shows and they add a really nice personal and emotional aspect to the main theme of the book. This also connects to how Dylan’s music has evolved over the years to absorb all kinds of influences from gospel, country and blues to name a few.
There’s also some fascinating work on his non-musical influences, ranging from ancient Greek myths, through the King James Bible to Shakespeare, plus the Romantic and Symbolist poets, along with TS Eliot & especially William Blake. It all goes to emphasize one of the book’s key points – Dylan’s refusal to be typecast by his past. Along the way there’s an examination of his overtly religious phases, and how they inform the wider ranging look at belief since then.
Every so often mainstream media remembers he’s still around – as with the fuss around his Nobel Prize a while back, and no doubt there’ll be more with his 80th birthday on May 24th.
Chris Gregory shows that he should be looked at like we regard any artist who’s still actively producing work. It’s interesting too that the author sees the book as “Not so much a work of ‘criticism’ as a “poetic reflection on the work of Dylan”, or a kind of “alternate biography” of Dylan over the last 30 years, which gives an accurate reflection of how the book is able to move easily between serious analysis of the songs and their craft while allowing for spontaneity and real feeling, especially in the live gig interludes. And if you’re in any doubt, have a listen to Murder Most Foul from Rough and Rowdy Ways.
Buy the book here
All words by Den Browne, you can read more reviews on his author profile here: