Tearing the World Apart
Bob Dylan and the Twenty-First Century
Edited by Nina Gross and Eric Hoffman
American Made Music Series
Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2017
Hardcover. vi+196p. ISBN 978-1496813329. $65
Reviewed by Vincent Dussol
Université Paul-Valéry Montpellier 3
This new collection of essays on America’s songwriting legend includes eleven contributions focusing on Bob Dylan’s work as a songwriter and performer since the turn of the century. The book is a welcome addition to the scholarship as it sheds light on the more intriguing features of ‘late Dylan.’ One is the disjointed lyrics, the other, his drift from topicality to timelessness through his public embrace of the great American songbook.
From Rimbaud on, poetry has intensively trained readers into accepting gaps between semantic units and building their own bridges across them. If, right from his second album with such songs as “I Shall Be Free,” Dylan allowed himself excursions into loose narrativity, his 2YK lyrics have turned juxtaposition into the signature characteristic of his lyrics. Several contributors to the volume address this point, offering both useful descriptions of this style and insights into its origins.
Jesper Doolaard refers to Burroughs’s cut-up technique , Jonathan Hodgers to the Kuleshov effect, the main ingredient in cinematic montage editing, “where raw materials (not necessarily original) are juxtaposed by the artist to create meaning” .
The “not necessarily original” mention is a precious one, as it provides perspective on the accusations of plagiarism Dylan has had to face; so does volume co-editor Nina Goss’s characterization of a “songwriting technique involving myriad embedded quotations” as “collagist/magpie” .
This aspect of Dylan’s aesthetic makes much sense if it is considered jointly with the singer’s increasing willingness to highlight his connections to America’s musical traditions. Although no essay in the collection specifically deals with those Dylan albums that consist of nothing but covers, Andrea Cossu’s contribution goes a long way in bringing out the cogency of the discography in its analyses of what the author names “traditionalizing ‘Bob Dylan’” . What makes this traditionalizing so special is that it has been conducted by the artist himself: not only do his song lists now systematically blend covers and personal creations but, as Cossu shows about “It’s Alright Ma”, Dylan has performed his own songs in such a way as to bring out their roots in the American musical vernacular.
In other words, the growing timelessness of the music matches the timeless quality of lyrics in which “all the centuries are [often] jumbled together like tossed cards” as Anne Margaret Daniel puts it [68), either through the time jumps in what’s left of a ‘narrative’ or through the extensive intertextuality. “I cannot make it cohere,” Ezra Pound once wrote as he was reaching the final instalments of The Cantos. And was Dylan not voicing a similar feeling in “Highlands,” the 16:31-minute track that concludes Time Out of Mind (1997), when he had the poetic persona state “Feel like I’m driftin’, driftin’ from scene to scene/ I’m wonderin’ what in the devil could it possibly mean”?
How does Dylan pull off gluing together “the breadcrumbs of quotations and allusions” [Hodgers : 115]? One of the answers to the question, Fahri Öz suggests, lies in Dylan’s handling of the refrain. Over the years, Öz points out, Dylan’s refrains have been precious lifelines for concert audiences, who are often at a loss to identify the song being performed from its opening bars. In the same way, they are the necessary “architectonic element” ensuring minimal coherence, “the thread that brings together the loose filaments of impressions, anecdotes, images, and the like” . Invoking the Homeric rhapsode, Öz most convincingly portrays Dylan as a “poet […] redeemed of the obligation to act as the sole author of his own verses, […] a mere intermediary, a sibylline character voicing the voiceless, disclosing what has been hidden for centuries, even millennia.” “Dylan’s almost defiant attitude towards others’ work suggests that he acts as if he were an artist before copyright laws were introduced, when music and lyrics floated freely in the pool of anonymity, in the collective memory of the public” .
In what reads as an illustration of Öz’s vision, Anne Margaret Daniel’s essay on “Tempest, Bob Dylan, and the Bardic Arts” explores the ways in which the writer closest to a ‘common’ in the English language – William Shakespeare – informs Dylan’s 2012 opus.
In spite of the timeless aspects in Dylan’s more recent work, several authors in the collection show him as somehow still addressing contemporary issues. In Thad Williamson’s view, Dylan’s comments on today’s world simply speak to more structural ills such as poverty and deprivation, corruption or class-based powerlessness. Jesper Doolard analyzes the significance gained by the prophetic strains in “Love and Theft” (released on 9/11/2001) through the time-skewed mechanisms of trauma.
In different chapters, the racism against Blacks plaguing American society emerges as the singer’s single consistent concern; and his numerous half-veiled allusions to the haunting presence of slavery in the country’s culture tie into his ongoing conversation with the Black musical tradition. “Love and Theft” is the only title of a Dylan album displaying quotes in reference to a book on black minstrelsy.
However, Dylan’s drift towards a broader time scale is unmistakable, and could well have been partly inspired by a wish to slough off his former public identities as protest singer, voice of a generation or even prophet. Alberto Brodesco points out that while Dylan’s millennial work reveals an enduring “obsession” with apocalypse, it displays an equally typical effort to ward off the role of prophet: many mistaken or baffled predictors speaking from a time out of time haunt the songs, an eye on the end of time.
So, is Dylan’s 21st century a place of irremediable hopelessness? In their respective contributions on “Violence in ‘Love and Theft’ and Modern Times” and on “Dylan’s Direction Home Through the World’s Mighty Opposites,” Nina Goss and Jamie Lorentzen make rather convincing cases for a more nuanced view: here is an artist that will not sweep any of the human being’s darker sides under the rug, but whose ethics and energy prevent him from surrendering to despair. Lorentzen’s Kierkegaardian take on Dylan confirms that a wide-angle lens is useful to do justice to a world view that might otherwise be deemed incoherent.
Nick Smart’s essay on “The Last Bob Dylan Record” both as a concept and an actual work (Tempest) and James Cody’s “inquiry into the depth of place” (as an alternative to time?) via a song-by-song analysis of Together Through Life (2009) complete this wide-ranging survey of the 2016 Nobel-Prize winner’s millennial work.
Despite the occasional arid tracts due to ‘reference overkill,’ the book definitely deserves to earn its place as a milestone in Dylan scholarship, as it affords an insight into Dylan’s 21st-century work that brings home the consistency of his art as a lyricist and a performer.
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