Monday, December 20, 2021

Bob Dylan All the Songs: The Story Behind Every Track by Philippe Margotin and Jean-Michel Guesdon

An entertaining and informative track-by-track retrospective
The substantial coffee table book Bob Dylan All the Songs lives up to what its title claims. French authors Philippe Margotin and Jean-Michel Guesdon discuss each and every song from Dylan’s prolific output of studio albums. I have the first edition (with a red cover) published in 2015, which covers Dylan’s recordings through Shadows in the Night. In January of 2022 a second expanded edition (with yellow cover) will be released that updates the coverage through his 2020 album Rough and Rowdy Ways. I believe this was the second All the Songs book compiled by Margotin and Guesdon, following a volume on the Beatles. They have since produced a whole series of such books on several classic rock bands including the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, and Led Zeppelin.

Each of the book’s chapters is devoted to one of 36 Dylan studio albums, presented chronologically. Each chapter begins with an introduction on the making of the album—how it was written, recorded, and what was going on in Dylan’s life at the time. This is followed by a few paragraphs of discussion about each song. The authors shed light on the inspiration for the song, older folk songs that influenced it, the meanings of the lyrics, the musicians who accompanied Dylan, and other production details. Only studio albums from the official Dylan canon merit a chapter. Live albums and the Bootleg Series do not, but previously unreleased selections from the Bootleg albums are included for discussion as outtakes of the albums for which they were originally intended. Odds and ends like isolated non-album singles and movie soundtrack songs are also covered. Each song is only discussed once, so alternate takes do not get their own entry.

Though commendably comprehensive, all albums and songs are not granted equal coverage. Dylan’s first ten albums take up about half the book, while the following 26 records occupy the second half. Even so, Margotin and Guesdon pay respectful attention to albums that many Dylan critics consider terrible or insignificant. The gospel trilogy in particular is reviewed positively and treated thoughtfully, with the authors demonstrating a thorough knowledge of Dylan’s biblical references. They also give due credit to Dylan’s recordings of the ‘80s, instead of, like so many critics, merely bemoaning the fact that they don’t measure up to the glory days of the ‘60s.

This book delivers a very entertaining and educational retrospective of Dylan’s career. It was fun to read a chapter, listen to the album, read the next chapter, listen to that album, and so on. Although occasional song entries come across as vague or conjectural, overall the authors provide much informed and insightful detail, going far above the common knowledge of the casual Dylan fan. The songs are not discussed in as great a level of detail as in Derek Barker’s The Songs He Didn’t Write or Michael Gray’s Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, but the former only discusses Dylan’s cover songs and the latter only singles out his “important” songs. Margotin and Guesdon cover everything. One annoying aspect of Margotin and Guesdon’s song reviews, however, is that they feel compelled to point out the “mistakes” in each song, such as Dylan sings a plosive at 1:56 or the buttons of Dylan’s jacket hit his guitar at 2:32. Who cares? If you’re a Dylan fan, you probably don’t.

The hardcover edition is attractively designed with many photos, making for enjoyable browsing. The main attraction of this book, however, is the detailed examination of Dylan’s songs, and one can appreciate Margotin and Guesdon’s insights just as well through the ebook edition.

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