Pete's Blog

Dylan Apologia

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From time to time you'll hear someone claim to be "offended" by Bob Dylan's "Christian" songs. The usual charge is intolerance, code for the more generalized discomfort of people who resent Christianity. But really what these people object to is that "their" Bob, icon of whatever orthodoxy they embrace, has committed apostasy. The same hue and cry went up when he "went electric" and when he "went country." What these people (I have to stop calling them "these people") don't mention is that Dylan was always electric and always country. And his songs, from the earliest and most hair-raising jabs at the Establishment, have always come from the point of view of a spiritual person. The questions they ask are spiritual questions. This is not, however, to say that Dylan is a perfect artist above criticism. Anyone who has seen him in concert over the past twenty years or more can justifiably complain about his unwillingness to give anything like an enjoyable or even intelligible show. Dylan's greatest faults as a writer and performer have been his pomposity and self-centeredness. Most of his songs are able to overcome this through the lyricism of his individual lines and the rhythmic power of his phrasing. This is nothing new. Plenty of songs from the "protest" years are only barely saved from total snottiness. Listen again to "The Times They Are a-Changin'" or "Ballad in Plain D." Everyone has his own moment where he feels Dylan finally lost it, but I don't trust those who tie that moment to a particular stylistic shift, especially the shift into Gospel. I think the Slow Train Coming/Saved/Shot of Love/Infidels series (especially when you include the outtakes) constitute Dylan's last period of true greatness. As far as I'm concerned Dylan's decline dates from just around the time when all the music magazines loudly announced his return to form. Recent albums like "Love and Theft" and "Modern Times" have been greeted with critical hosannas nearly everywhere but to me they reveal a writer completely out of ideas. In fact, there have been some fairly well-documented charges of plagiarism levelled at the last two or three albums and on the most recent one his rewrites of Chicago blues standards include whole verses taken verbatim from the originals. One can hardly begrudge Bob Dylan a victory-lap, even one lasting twenty years. But the distinction still needs to be made: I'm turning my back because he's run out of things to say, not because he's saying things I don't want to hear.

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