A lavish, but mostly superfluous Greatest Songs set
his new Bob Dylan retrospective makes landfall during the same hurricane season as Todd Haynes’ much-discussed film I’m Not There, and the contrast is devastating. A visionary matching of artistic approach to subject, Haynes’s film dazzlingly fractures (then reassembles) as many as six distinct “Dylans” across a sly concatenation of musical and visual styles; here’s an irresistible opportunity for anyone—perhaps even Dylan himself—to rediscover afresh his songs and life, and to refocus the challenges for sustaining art, politics and private integrity amid war (whether Vietnam or Iraq) and overwhelming media jabberwocky. Next to the Dylanesque reinventions of I’m Not There, this Dylan collection arrives like a lumbering white elephant—the 51-song selections uninspired, lazy and rote, although the red- and black-embossed cloth 3-CD box is really classy, the rock ’n’ roll analog to a coffee-table book.
That Dylan is the exemplary artist of our moment is now past argument. To speak personally—and Dylan always commands a personal response—I feel lucky to have coincided however briefly on the planet with Beckett, Nabokov, Borges, Balanchine, Callas, Welles and Fellini. I got to meet Robert Lowell, Andy Warhol, Elizabeth Bishop, Sam Fuller, and in his last years was a friend of James Merrill. Giants walked the earth, and I wouldn’t barter those experiences for everything south of Heaven. Yet Dylan’s achievement over the past five decades looms so singular, so audacious, large and various that 100 years from now it’s his recordings and live performances that will advance the signature narrative of what it was like to live and create during his lifetime.
Dylan’s importance isn’t the pressing mystery of Dylan (only his fourth “greatest hits” package over a recording career that started in 1961), but rather how feebly and trivially the set responds to his importance. Since the mid 1990s, when Dylan suddenly reconnected his familiar restlessness to mastery, he’s consecutively released three of his strongest, most ambitious recordings, Time Out of Mind, “Love and Theft” and Modern Times; written a surprising, likely classic American memoir, Chronicles Vol. I; co-scripted a fascinating political film, Masked & Anonymous; and toured the world vigorously, playing upward of 100 shows each year. His management and record company, perhaps freed by Dylan’s own contemporary resurgence, launched a smart succession of vivid looks back under the designation The Bootleg Series—not a superfluous repackaging of his old standards, but stunning unreleased songs, illuminating alternate versions and legendary concert performances.
Out of all this activity and product, only Dylan, by my reckoning, adds nothing fresh or necessary to the vista. If you’ve just risen from a mid 20th century coma, then you could twig the first disc (“Song to Woody” and “Blowin’ in the Wind” to “All Along the Watchtower”) a revelation. On the second CD (The Basement Tapes through Empire Burlesque), only “The Groom’s Still Waiting At the Altar” (originally a 1981 B-side), “Changing of the Guards” and “Dark Eyes” might lift an eyebrow, as the otherwise automatic Blood on the Tracks, Desire and Slow Train Coming choices unroll.
Still, the third disc, spanning the early 1980s to the present, will startle listeners who checked out on Dylan once his picture proved too blurry or too weird, mostly by sequencing one gorgeous song after another, all since he supposedly stopped writing such songs. “Brownsville Girl,” a 1986 collaboration with playwright Sam Shepard, contributes the major frisson here, a lost masterpiece like no other in his catalog. Yet this final CD also underscores the arbitrariness of the Dylan project. Sure, “Ring Them Bells” and “Everything Is Broken” from Oh Mercy are included, but why not “Most of the Time,” “What Was It You Wanted” or “Shooting Star”? Yes, of course, “Not Dark Yet” from Time Out of Mind, but why “Make You Feel My Love” over “Standing in the Doorway” “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven,” or (especially) the epic “Highlands?”
Fortunately Dylan isn’t the sole “new” Dylan release scheduled for this fall. Besides the brilliant Haynes film, there’s Murray Lerner’s The Other Side of the Mirror, which collects footage from Dylan’s storied appearances at the 1963, ’64 and ’65 Newport Folk Festivals. Over three summers, Dylan ages in reverse—ancient traditional musician; folk God; rock ’n’ roll rake. If there were still lingering controversy about the audience or Dylan at the infamous ’65 electric show, Lerner’s film should dispel it. Between songs you hear real boos from the agitated crowd, and when Dylan returns with an acoustic guitar for ferocious performances of “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” those are real tears sliding down his face.