Dylan the Romantic

6 minute read
Dylan the Romantic


For weeks now, I’ve been immersed in Bob Dylan’s three most recent albums, “Time Out of Mind (1997),” “Love and Theft (2001),” and the newly released “Modern Times” (2006). The experience has reinforced an idea I first devised several years ago: that if I should ever have the chance to teach a course on the core musical repertory of German Romanticism, the song cycles of Schubert and Schumann— music that’s in mortal danger of being entirely forgotten by contemporary concert audiences— I would start by exposing my students at length to Dylan. When I was done, at the very least they would understand what Romanticism really is and would appreciate Dylan as its great modern practitioner.

“Romantic”– what a can of worms that word opens! As applied to 19th-Century music, especially, the word’s meaning has become hopelessly confused, getting mixed up somewhere along the way with the ideas of sentimentality and adventurous innovation. In this context, I’m using romanticism in what I understand to be its purest historical meaning: an artistic outlook that rebels against rationalistic thought and wells up from the world of dreams, symbolism and hidden meanings.

By this standard, Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” (from the album “John Wesley Harding,” released in 1967), is one of the most romantic lyrics ever written (and, for me, one of his greatest songs). In fact, I’ve long thought that the album as a whole serves very well as a 20th Century analogue to what is perhaps Robert Schumann’s greatest work, his setting of Joseph Eichendorff’s Liederkreis. Both consist of a collection of songs that lack a logical narrative thread but nonetheless seem to hang together with the strange logic of dreams in their respective worlds of nearly understandable symbolic imagery.

Dylan’s essential wit and sarcasm

On the other hand, wit and sarcasm— qualities that have passed right over my head if they are present in the original German Romantics— have always been an essential part of Dylan’s persona. I was reminded of Dylan’s humor a few weeks ago when, to my delight, I learned that a young friend of mine, Tracy, now 16, living in western Maryland and focusing her considerable musical energies on playing clarinet in her high school marching band, has devoted a large portion of her iPod to Dylan’s songs.

“What’s your favorite song?” I asked her. Without any hesitation, she replied, “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts.”

“Oh man, I haven’t heard that song in ages. Can I listen to it?”

So Tracy handed me her iPod, and for the first time in many years I became reacquainted with one of the great narrative masterpieces of American song.

With just a little more information....

There is not a wasted word in “Lily.” In 16 verses, Dylan tells a tale involving a mysterious stranger, two vividly sketched women, a love affair, a murder, a bank heist and a hanging, all in just under nine minutes. By the time he’s done, you’re sure that with just a little thought, just a bit more information, you’d be able to say just what actually happened. But of course, Dylan being Dylan, you can’t quite tell.

This is, after all, the songwriter who near the end of another narrative, the title track of “John Wesley Harding,” tells you “… soon the situation there was all but straightened out….” So before I get much further, I need to remind myself that articles about Dylan, this one included, are constantly in danger or coming to grief on the shoals of pomposity. Dylan himself has time and again made it clear that he has no patience with being taken too seriously by academic types like me.

Beneath the words and music, a voice on pitch

Dylan’s recent albums make “Lily” seem like a Euclidian geometric proof. Some songs, like “Tweedly Dee and Tweedly Dum” (the opening track of “Love and Theft”), I’ve found flat-out incomprehensible, even with the text in front of me. (Dylan’s lyrics are always just a Google-click away.) The song seems to deal with a pair of murderously psychotic misfits, but who knows? There are also several numbers that are romantic in the more conventional sense of the word– attempts at true love songs that many reviewers, myself included, think are the weakest work on the albums. And for the most part— except for a flash here and there and one exceptional song, “Highlands,” that I’ll get back to— Dylan seems to have lost his sense of humor.

Nevertheless, the strengths of Dylan’s current work win out by far over its shortcomings. For me, Dylan’s musicianship and his abilities as a singer have never been in question. As Louis Menand wrote in the September 4th issue of The New Yorker, “When he is in control of the instrument, no one’s voice … is more textured or more beautiful.” In recent years, Dylan’s musical control has done nothing but get stronger. The voice is raspy with age, but it’s always right on pitch (except when he chooses not to be). And on all three of these recent albums, which are beautifully engineered and arranged, his bands play with the same sort of controlled foot-tapping rhythmic vitality that drove “Things Have Changed,” the song that won Dylan an Oscar in 2000.

Swinging for the fences

Dylan has always been willing to swing for the fences; sometimes his lyrics are embarrassingly bad, sometimes they are nonsensical (maybe intentionally so), but more often than not, they still cut to the core of things in ways you never see coming. Of the 33 songs on these albums, ten or so will become permanent residents on my iTunes playlists– not a bad percentage at all– and two in particular are among his very best work: “Ain’t Talkin’,” the last track of “Modern Times,” and “Highlands,” the last track of “Time Out Of Mind, an homage to Robert Burns’ “My Heart is in the Highlands.”

Even by Dylan’s standards, the scope of “Highlands” is extraordinary, a positively Mahlerian 15 minutes-plus. It begins with an imaginary landscape filled with as much ineffable sehnsucht as any Schubert song, rambles aimlessly through a bleak urban landscape, has embedded in it a long, hilariously absurd conversation with a waitress in a diner in Boston, and ends with the closest thing to inner peace that Dylan has ever allowed himself in a song. If you think you hate Dylan, or if you’ve never really given him a chance, listen to “Highlands.”

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