Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Dylan: Disc by Disc by Jon Bream

Dylanologists’ cocktail party
Music critic Jon Bream’s 2015 book Dylan: Disc by Disc presents a series of discussions of each of Bob Dylan’s 36 studio albums. Each chapter consists of a track list, a roster of musicians who played on the album, a brief description by Bream detailing the circumstances surrounding the creation of the work, and a discussion, moderated by Bream, between two commentators. The interviewees in this latter category run the gamut from rock critics, Dylan biographers, university professors, and musicians, some of whom played with Dylan and some of whom are just ardent fans.

I wouldn’t call these discussions debates, because for the most part both parties are heaping adulation upon the Almighty Bob. They may get critical about some of the nitty gritty details, but it seems Bream selected most of the commentators based on their personal affinity for the particular disc they’re discussing. Only a few albums emerge scathed from this lovefest: the 1973 leftovers collection simply titled Dylan, and the late ‘80s duds Knocked Out Loaded and Down in the Groove. I developed a love for Dylan late in life and own about half of his albums. My taste in his work doesn’t always conform to the usual ranked list of his best albums, so it was great to read others praising some of my underappreciated favorites, like Modern Times, Street-Legal, or Saved. Reading about the albums that I’m unfamiliar with was also quite educational and got me to think about purchasing several albums that I might not have previously considered buying. In either case, the commentary also includes informative details and insightful perspective on the writing and production of the songs. Dylan: Disc by Disc does exactly what a book like this should do—inspires an enthusiasm and respect for its subject. In fact, it makes we want to go out and buy another ten Dylan albums.

I don’t always agree with what these Dylan pundits have to say, but I always enjoyed the conversation. In general, the encyclopedic knowledge of the rock journalists makes for more insightful and articulate criticism than the more sentimental perspectives of the recording artists, but each voice makes its own welcome contribution. Reading this book is like attending a cocktail party of Dylan aficionados and overhearing conversations between people like musicians Suzanne Vega and Ric Ocasek, Kansas City DJ Bill Shapiro, and Rolling Stone editor David Browne. The chapters are relatively short and addictive, giving an informal feel to the book that resembles a series of magazine articles, like what you might find in a “Special Collector’s Edition” on Dylan that Rolling Stone or MOJO might put out.

I consider myself a big fan of Dylan, but I don’t consider myself an expert, so I can’t say for sure whether a diehard Dylanologist would gain a lot of new insight from this book. It’s hard for me to believe, however, that any fan wouldn’t enjoy this appreciation of the master’s body of work. When in doubt, buy the inexpensive ebook edition. It may not have as many photos as the attractively designed print version, but it’s definitely worth the price.
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