Icons of Pop Music: Bob Dylan & Elvis Costello

[6 November 2008]

By Charles A. Hohman

Bob Dylan and Elvis Costello are arguably the two greatest lyricists in pop music history. Now, these wordy, nerdy, enigmatic rock-and-roll chameleons and occasional tourmates are the latest subjects of Indiana University Press’ Icons of Pop Music series. Reading these books on Dylan and Costello, by British academics Keith Negus and Dai Griffiths, respectively, one gets a sense of how truly similar these icons are.

Negus has the tougher task on his hands, for Dylan has been covered in hundreds of books and thousands of articles, the only rock musician ever literary enough to be honored with a Pulitzer. The man has even inspired his own academic sub-discipline, a distinction affixed only to history’s most exemplary wordsmiths (Shakespeare, Dickens, Twain). What new territory could Negus possibly chart?  Well, for starters, he spends less time on lyrics than most Dylan scholars. Instead, Negus approaches Dylan as a performer and musician, not as novel a take as Negus seems to think, but no doubt an underexplored one.
He wisely uses Dylan’s live performances over the past 20 years as grounds for insight, expanding on a breakthrough revelation in Chronicles, Volume One, Dylan’s 2004 memoir. According to Negus, Dylan conceives his songs not as recordings but as performances, best electrified and solidified in a live setting with an interactive audience, subject to sudden and left-field changes, re-arrangements, even thematic alterations.

Like any noble folkie, Dylan’s songs are fluid and sturdy enough to survive long after their tangible, mass-produced incarnations (LP’s, CD’s, MP3’s) disintegrate. Whatever the power of his records, a power Negus freely acknowledges, Dylan’s songs are more about performance. Expanding this argument, “Bob Dylan” is less a person than a grand performance, a freewheeling parade of masks and identities under one very expansive umbrella.

In light of this performance thesis, the album-by-album discography feels like padding, page space that could have been put to better use cracking other facets of the Dylan enigma, especially since Negus takes a grist-for-the-mill stance on Dylan’s albums, praising and excusing even his weakest discs. What could be refreshing revisionism on some albums becomes, taken as a whole, a fawningly worshipful synopsis. And while Negus focuses on Dylan’s influences, specifically his highly allusive music and lyrics, much of this analysis seems to be second-hand, trails tread by the many authors Negus cites with few new footprints added by Negus himself.

Elvis Costello also leans heavily on allusion and prior idioms to craft his own music. Griffiths makes this clear early on, and even provides diagrams detailing Costello’s lyrical and musical source materials. In the spirit of Costello’s pun-happy, triple-entendre verbiage, Griffiths gets some word-nerd kicks from sly references to familiar Costello turns-of-phrase, sprinkled liberally throughout his manuscript. It’s an amusing trick, and a refreshing change from Negus’s more straightforward expository prose.

But as was the case with his often dense and more often pretentious book on OK Computer from the ‘Thirty Three and a Third’ series, Griffiths can get carried away with his own smarty-pants showboating. He views Costello’s allusive nature with undue skepticism: if Dylan is the merry thief culling the past to innovate and enliven the present, Griffiths portrays Costello as a sponge reforming (if not regurgitating) his comprehensive absorption of the pop forms that preceded him. How, then, to be taken seriously as an artist?

Citing an endless parade of theorists and elitists, plus Costello’s own self-aggrandizing comments, Griffiths presents the issue of Costello’s post-pop strides towards supposed respectability, but takes no stand on whether classical music is truly superior to pop music, or deserves to be viewed as such, by Costello or anyone else. Instead, he takes the musical sophistication angle to an extreme, exhausting pages on diagrams and breakdowns decipherable only to those schooled in music theory. It’s masturbatory, perhaps appropriate for the man who penned “The Beat”, but unlike that song, thoroughly unenlightening.

Griffiths has a less daunting chore than Negus, as credible scholarship on Costello is surprisingly scarce. As such, he presents some novel approaches. For example, Costello’s reputation pretty much goes hand in hand with the rock press, so Griffiths astutely devotes an entire chapter to criticism, and rightly argues that critical reception is essential to comprehending such a critical sacred cow. Costello’s iconic status would be a much different (and much smaller) monster without the mediation of Christgau, Marcus and Kent.

Of course, for a man who famously dismissed music writing as akin to “dancing about architecture”, Costello has written (and spoken) quite a bit about music, both that of others and his own. The latter provides another key argument, as Griffiths draws from the elaborate, incisive liner notes produced in Costello CD reissues to constitute the autobiography Costello will probably never write.

Each chapter starts with epigrammatic quotes from writerly composers such as Paul Simon and Leonard Cohen. But like Negus, Griffiths minimizes the importance of lyrics while also spending a sizable chunk of the book analyzing the words.  And like Negus, he relies heavily on the entire catalog, rather than the canonized Costello goldmines. Late-period albums like North and Mighty Like a Rose are given more prominence than the punkish new-wave sugar-rushes that made Costello a star.

In addition to emphasizing the allusive and self-referential nature that has rendered both Dylan and Costello icons not just of pop music but the postmodern age, both authors employ underanalyzed works to view their subjects through a fresh lens. Griffiths, in particular, offers a closing revelation that challenges the assumptions about Costello’s peak achievements most readers take for granted. At the same time, both gloss over some crucial issues. For example, neither writer feels compelled to grapple with their subject’s gender issues: Griffiths gives some obligatory, inconclusive lip service to Costello’s highly troubling women issues, and Negus more or less avoids Dylan’s treatment of women altogether.

Whatever their respective merits, both books feel overextended: defining and analyzing these icons, and using their iconography to add something new to the oceans of ink already spilled in praise (and occasionally disdain) for these geniuses, feels like an insurmountable mission. Dissecting larger-than-life subjects, and their prolific catalogs, in compact form produces a kitchen sink approach that sometimes undermines the analysis.

Each book sometimes struggles to cram every facet of its subject into a limited page count, and each is guilty of often being all over the place, padding the manuscript with irrelevant matters while ignoring or glossing over greater issues. Like the less heralded albums both authors celebrate, even plead for, both studies ultimately prove worthy but inessential.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/icons-of-pop-music-bob-dylan-elvis-costello/