“How do you review a book of Dylan’s lyrics?”
Good question. It’s one that was asked of me by a friend on social media when I mentioned that I would be reviewing this book. Unlike All The Songs, 2015’s exhaustive analysis of every single Bob Dylan composition, or Chronicles, his critically-acclaimed 2004 memoir, this is about as simple and unadorned as you can get when approaching Dylan’s lyrics: a comprehensive collection of every single song Dylan wrote and recorded from his 1961 self-titled debut album up to 2012’s Tempest. No footnotes, no annotations, no analysis. A few photos and reproductions of Dylan’s longhand scribbling, but that’s about it.
Pessimists will groan and call it a “Nobel Prize rush job”, seeing as how Dylan was in fact controversially awarded the prestigious literary prize just a couple of months ago (more on that later). That’s fair. You could even whine about the crass commercialism of it — given the fact that Christmas is right around the corner — and what better way to let your aging hippie uncle know you’re thinking about him this holiday season?
There’s also the fact that Dylan’s lyrics have been bound and published as a single set more than a couple of times in the past — first in 1985 (in an edition I bought as a high school Dylan freak, complete with lovely charcoal illustrations by the man himself), again in 2001 and even later in 2014. The latter edition was a spiffy, doorstop-worthy volume complete with heavy stock paper and a fancy ribbon bookmark.
Dylan hasn’t released any original compositions since 2012; since then, he’s recorded and released two new studio albums: Shadows in the Night and Fallen Angels, but both consist solely of standards. So what’s new with this version? According to the publisher’s press release, “Well known for changing the lyrics to even his best-loved songs, Dylan has edited dozens of songs for this volume, making it a must-read for everyone from fanatics to casual fans.”
Additionally, while the lush, collectible 2014 version goes for more than $200 (unless you have better luck with eBay), the new version is a relatively budget-rate edition. Despite the considerably lower price, it still looks lovely, was obviously assembled with great care, has a cool red duotone cover with Bob’s 1966 face staring at you, and contains all the same lyrics, from “Song to Woody” to “Duquesne Whistle”.
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Arranged chronologically, the book is divided by individual studio albums, and in addition to the songs from the albums proper, you get all the songs that were later dropped from the albums’ final sequences (most of them later ending up on various editions of Dylan’s celebrated Bootleg Series). That means that in addition to “The Times They Are A-Changin’”, you also get the epic, oft-covered “Percy’s Song”. Multi-verse masterpieces like “Hurricane” and “Black Diamond Bay” from the Desire album sit comfortably next to outtakes like “Abandoned Love” and “Golden Loom”. One of Dylan’s most acclaimed outtakes, “Blind Willie McTell”, is here alongside the rest of the compositions from 1983’s Infidels. It’s a testament to Dylan’s creative prowess outracing his recorded input, particularly in the early days when you see that the self-titled debut album contains two official Dylan songs and 27 “additional early lyrics”.
Calling Dylan a “protest songwriter” is not unlike referring to Stephen King as a “horror writer”. While both writers are best known for those respective genres, they are certainly not limited to them. Songs like “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”, “Chimes of Freedom” and “Masters of War” are sterling examples of protest writing, but Dylan also excelled at surrealism (“Mr. Tambourine Man”, “Ballad of a Thin Man”), simple love songs (“If Not For You”, “Sweetheart Like You”), aching breakup songs (Blood on the Tracks is perhaps the greatest divorce album ever made) biographical epics (“Joey”) and everything in between. The Jewish born-and-bred Robert Zimmerman even experienced a detour of faith and brief conversion to Christianity, which is chronicled in a trio of much-maligned-yet-worthy albums (Slow Train Coming, Saved, Shot of Love). Poring over the lyrics chronologically, it’s a gentle shock to witness such a unique creative arc.
Regarding the Nobel Prize controversy: a great deal of fuss has been made by writers, critics, and fans of all stripes concerning Dylan’s award. Is he deserving of the Nobel Prize for Literature? Do song lyrics belong in the same category as the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Samuel Beckett and Pearl Buck? Like all artistic “prizes”, there are no technical units of measure on which to base the merit. You can’t tally up batting averages or home runs in literature, as you do in baseball. It’s worth is in the eye of the beholder. With 30-plus albums of material to drink in, this lovingly packaged hardcover collection of dazzling wordplay and unique vision goes a long way in confirming what millions of fans already know: Bob Dylan is master of the written word. You don’t need a gaggle of Swedish academics to figure that out.