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Monday, Jan. 24, 2011

Informed, Thorough Analysis of ‘The Songs of Bob Dylan’

Clinton Heylin chronicles the work of seminal American songwriter

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In volume one of Clinton Heylin’s chronicle of a great artist, Revolution in the Air: The Songs of Bob Dylan, 1957-1973, the author meticulously cataloged and analyzed Dylan’s canon for the first half of his career. With Still on the Road: The Songs of Bob Dylan, 1974-2006 (Chicago Review Press), he brings the subject almost up to date.

Wisely taking each song according to when it was composed rather than when it was released, Heylin has assembled a unified folio of Dylan’s songwriting that is linear according to his artistic development: This produces a canon that permits analysis of narrative evolution according to artistic process, not marketplace entry.

Still on the Road
unites facts with Dylan’s comments where appropriate. Extraordinarily thorough regarding release information and revelatory in analyzing the lyrics, it charts the enigmatic imagination of the one artist who changed vernacular songwriting for centuries to come. Heylin is at once researcher, explicator and archivist.

Taking Dylan’s songs in sequential order of composition might seem to be an improbable project, but Heylin documents it with such attention to detail that one marvels at his provable and entirely correct timeline. With this successfully demonstrated, not only do we finally get a valid view of Dylan’s artistic decisions according to lyrical and musical content (a necessary and thus far missing entry on the unnecessarily sagging rock history bookshelf), but we can also examine how his writing was not always synchronized with his commercial product. For example, Dylan’s leap into folk rock, his integration of poetry with rock ’n’ roll, happened long before his 1965 epochal recordings in manuscript form.

Song choices were made for albums that ran contrary to the widening and deepening nature of lyric and music located in the pages of material and countless hours of demo recording to which Heylin had access. Still on the Road refutes the critical tripe still being written about Dylan’s intentions and epiphanies from album to album. He uncannily kept pivotal songs ready for release once cultural openings became available, obviously knowing that there was a proper instant for changing the world. If attempted at the wrong time, the result would have been lost on his audience.

Dylan was the seminal American songwriter from 1957-2006; that he was also the most calculated made him more of a genius and less of an enigma. Dylan was a cultural avatar who has used his vision to see what we would also envision when the era permitted.