Bob Dylan changed music (and the art of songwriting) forever in the 1960s. His continuing popularity is a testament both to the timelessness of his art, as well as to his uncanny ability to remake himself and his music, year after year. Dubbed the "poet laureate of rock-n-roll," Dylan's work has received more serious academic attention than any other folk/folk-rock musician out there, and for very good reason. Now comes Christopher Ricks, a well-known poetry scholar, to compare Dylan to some of the greatest poets ever: Wordsworth, Donne, Tennyson. The result is fascinating. I find it hard to believe that anyone could read this book and walk away from it without a renewed admiration for Bob Dylan and his music.
The book's structure has Ricks analyzing Dylan's songs according to the seven deadly sins, the four virtues and the three graces. This somewhat arbitrary classification feels sometimes strained, as Ricks struggles to pigeon-hole songs into one category or another. But far more fascinating than this academic chore is Ricks' exploration of the deep poetic and Biblical roots of some of Dylan's most popular tunes. With obvious love for his subject (and subject matter), Ricks shows, time and again, how Dylan makes use of the Great Poets in fashioning his unique and often haunted lyrics. Revealed is a musician who is not only a poet in his own right, but a well-read and thoughtful writer, who somehow accomplished the impossible: fashioning intelligent, thought-provoking music for a world obsessed with vapid vocals and meaningless "pop" standards.
Two minor flaws with the book. First: Ricks neglects a number of Bob's best songs--songs with fantastic lyrics and rhyme, songs that would seem to fit into his sin/virtue/grace framework perfectly (i.e., "Visions of Johanna," "Where Are You Tonight?", "Foot of Pride," "Black Diamond Bay," "Jokerman"). Of course, with over 500 songs to choose from, I suppose it's inevitable that some will be neglected. Still...
Second: Ricks is a fan of wordplay. Every page of the book is pregnant with puns, to the point where it becomes annoying. Too often, one is distracted from Dylan's brilliance by Ricks' literary showboating. Clearly a follower of the Vladimir Nabokov School of Alliterative Prose, Ricks struggles mightily for the appearance of cleverness, but his textual twists and turns frequently fall flat.
All in all, however, a wonderful (and serious) analysis of our greatest poet/songwriter, by a well-respected scholar. May Ricks' book be a launching pad for further serious studies of Dylan's work.