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Revisiting Bob Dylan

Reflecting on his artistic legacy on his 80th birthday.

May 24 heralded the 80th birthday of musician Bob Dylan. His eclectic incorporation of references and the constant stylistic shift of his music since his first self-titled album in 1962, has created an expansive oeuvre; one that leaves his latest album almost unrecognisable from his first. Dylan’s debut (and critically unrecognised) album featured covers of traditional folk songs, his quivering howls and rich raspy voice pulsated by characteristic thick and heavy strumming, an idiosyncrasy which Dylan himself proclaimed as his primary originality during the early stages of his career. The feature lacking in the album was any evidence of a consistent song-writing talent, with only two of thirteen songs written by Dylan. This was quickly proven — and has continued to be so — for the indefinitely conclusive 58 years of his career. 

The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan became his first widely critically acclaimed album and marked the transition to complete songwriting. With this and his following album (The Times They Are a-Changin’) Dylan earned the title as “the voice of a generation,” a categorisation vehemently admonished by Dylan. Within the next several years, Dylan’s success and popularity snowballed. Like all of those achieving excellence beyond the scope of comprehension, any stylistic transition becomes immediately inadmissible to a certain audience, a slanderous act. No longer is this same originality gratified, but rather their degrading experimentation is labelled as arrogantly adulterous. This is especially the case when Dylan’s shift from acoustic to electric abruptly occurred in 1965 with Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited

This was a monumental transition not just for Dylan, but also for the music industry. It brought the declination (or rather the resubmerging) of folk music ideals, particularly the method of the communal melody, allowing for a mimicry of tune but subjectively expressive lyrics. There was no need for this method of creation now that melodies were individualistic, and lyrics could be implemented that were just as poetically potent, the poignancy of the words seeming to brighten the harmonious melodies. Lyrics were a focus of interest for audiences, particularly those discontented with their leaders, parents, and the mundanity of war, who heard Dylan’s lyrics as a brass trumpet cynically critiquing and redefining the world for a truth that seemed obvious, yet undefinable. Yet these lyrics were brutally honest and sought no popular faction with which they could be categorised; they were not lyrics written for popularity but an unbiased reflection on the society he saw. The only justifiable conclusion would be to say he opposed pointless death — not exactly a political stance. In the San Francisco Press Conference of 1965, Dylan stated that if drafted to war, he would act with what “needed to be done.” The ambiguity of this statement certainly does not constitute an entire labelling of his political motivations and obligations. Regardless, these assumptions have nevertheless continued.

Dylan’s career was consistently successful, with further albums that resulted in a menagerie of references absorbed unrestrainedly and without exclusion (which would prove a less-than-helpful attribute in the late 70s and early 80s). This culmination eventually resulted in his latest album Rough and Rowdy Ways, backed by Dylan’s self-reflections and the pensive melancholic observation which epitomises the tone of these works. It would be impossible to guarantee this album will be liked, the corroded rust of his voice possibly not preferable for a generation deprived of vocal inadequacies. It is not the continued success or acclaims won by Dylan (such as the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016) but rather his ability to constantly perform, tour or even falter so that we may appreciate his talent all the more. 

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