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Breaking news from the Weekly Standard: Bob Dylan's a fraud

Posted by Christopher Shea  November 3, 2009 09:57 AM

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Haven't heard the much-discussed Christmas album, but I think that Bob Dylan's previous two albums were overpraised. Sure, he and the band did a fine job of summoning up all sorts of rootsy, bluesy sounds and song forms, but there's not enough Dylan there, or the Dylan I like. In 1997's "Time Out of Mind," in contrast, the songwriter makes use of the olde-timey material rather than being mastered by it.

My thoughts, unfortunately, do not comport with Andrew Ferguson's witty "Dylan roots theory," which he calls "famous, to me at least":

Whenever Dylan did something artistically egregious, in poor taste, inept, schlocky, or otherwise incompatible with his reputation for genius, the reviewers would explain that he was a kind of musicologist, plumbing the roots of Americana, absorbing within himself the variegated traditions of our native music and transmuting them into art uniquely his own.

The first problem with this theory is that Dylan is, in a purely descriptive sense, a kind of musicologist. This judgment has little to do with the quality of various albums; it's not a critical get-out-of-jail-free card. (You can, as I did above, use the observation to criticize Dylan. He's doing too much rummaging, not enough songwriting.)

The second problem is that, pace Ferguson, Andrew Ferguson and Greil Marcus are not the only two writers to have noticed that Dylan's output is, shall we say, uneven. My trusty 1983 copy of "The New Rolling Stone Record Guide" gives "Self-Portrait"--an album Ferguson says critics fell for--one star, calling it "a disaster that crossed all critical boundaries," and offers a bullet to "Dylan" and "Live at Budokan" (a bullet translates as "worthless" under the guide's rating system). There may be critics who fawn over everything Dylan produces, hailing the rootsiness of it all, but I don't know of them.

Of course, the record guide I mentioned gives "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan" five stars, but Ferguson doesn't mention that one, because he thinks Dylan's output can be summed up by the 1990 song "Wiggle" ("Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle like a bowl of soup"). If that strikes you as a hilariously trenchant observation, then this is your critical take-down piece of the week.

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1 comments so far...
  1. I believe the "rating" of each of Dylan's albums is a personal preferance. Have you read his autobiography, if you had you may understand where he was coming from when he produced some of these albums. I have almost every one of his albums, there are a couple that are highly acclaimed that I don't like and some of his so called worst that are my favorite, personel preference, nobody is right and nobody is wrong. Bob Dylan is one of The most genius artists there are.

    Posted by tessiteg November 22, 09 03:02 AM
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