# A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

Miscellaneous - October 2012

  by Benjamin Howarth

published: 7 / 10 / 2012

Miscellaneous - October 2012


Ben Howarth in 'Condemned to Rock 'n' Roll' looks at critical reaction towards Bob Dylan in recent years

Even before Bob Dylan had plugged in his first electric guitar, he pushed critics to one extreme or another – he was either a fraud or a genius. The passing of time has rendered those debates fairly meaningless. In all fields, there are revisionists and cranks. But, for the most part, the consensus has formed that Dylan is a major artist, and a good one. Just as contemporary attacks on Shakespeare become nothing more than a historical curiosity, so too have the lingering Dylan-haters accepted that those of us who love ‘Blonde On Blonde’ and ‘Blood on the Tracks’ are unlikely to change our minds. Of course, there is still that voice. Bowie’s comparison of his rasp to “sand and glue” was meant as a compliment, but I wouldn’t want either in my stereo. Anyone reviewing a new Dylan record is obliged to point out – purely as a disclaimer – that the voice may grate. Yet, getting over his voice is part of the fun. You learn to love Dylan, just as you learn to love good Scotch or Test Match Cricket. Even if he lives for another thirty years – unlikely, given the smoking and hard drug use – we all know that Dylan’s career is in its final phase (debating exactly when each phase starts and ends will give critics years of fun). Leaving aside one mis-step (1990’s ‘Down in the Groove’, with its inexplicable opening track ‘Wiggle Wiggle’), Dylan has been on good form since 1989’s ‘Oh Mercy’. He has explored old age, while also reaching back into the music of his youth, and has done so with a sympathetic backing band that – to my ears – suit him even more than The Band. Most Dylan fans will tell you that ‘Not Dark Yet’, ‘Ring Them Bells’, ‘Mississippi’, ‘Workingman’s Blues #2’ and several others from his recent albums are equal to anything on his vaunted run of 1960s albums. The UK’s best selling specialist music magazine, ‘Mojo’, routinely gives his new albums glowing five star reviews – as they have with ‘Tempest’, his latest, released last month. ‘Uncut’ magazine are even more fervent believers, and ‘Rolling Stone’ dished out ten stars for his new album. This kind of critical consensus was always likely to annoy someone. Alexis Petridis from ‘The Guardian’ had dismissed 2001’s ‘Love and Theft’ as “cranky and erratic”, and suggested that it would please only the obsessive ‘Bobcats’, who were once again free to be the only people interested in their hero. He was one of several curmudgeons saying it didn’t match Dylan’s best work. Then again, most reviews of ‘Blood on the Tracks’ said the same. Clearly, Petridis remains perturbed by the fact that ‘Love and Theft’ was widely loved, to the extent that the numbers willing to defend Dylan’s later work grew considerably – as did attendances at Dylan’s many live shows. Perhaps unwilling to revise his judgement of Dylan’s late work, Petridis now reviews his fellow reviewers. Assessing ‘Tempest’ two days before its release, but several weeks after ‘Mojo’ and ‘Uncut’ filed their copy, he began by saying, “Bob Dylan's new album arrives and – as has become traditional – you can hardly hear the old boy for the clank of five-star reviews hitting the table.” Petridis’ reviews are also something of a tradition. In 2006, his review of ‘Modern Times’ was almost identical. “It's hard to hear Modern Times' music”, he wrote, “over the inevitable standing ovation and the thuds of middle-aged critics swooning in awe”. The funny thing is that Petridis likes Dylan. His three-star assessment of ‘Love and Theft’ was harsh, but he gave four-stars to both ‘Modern Times’ and ‘Tempest’. It’s unclear whether he thinks other reviewers are engaged in some kind of pro-Dylan conspiracy, or just that they’ve all got carried away. Perhaps this dose of perspective is needed. What, after all, do they know of Dylan who only Dylan know? I sometimes find anti-Dylan diatribes (such as Alex Macpherson’s savaging of ‘Tempest’, also published in ‘The Guardian’) thought provoking, if still wrong. Yet, it is far from clear why Petridis still bothers to review every new Dylan album. Each time, we’re left with a review that – in essence – says, “Like Allan Jones of ‘Uncut’, I like the new Bob Dylan album. But I’m cooler than him, obviously.” He wasn’t the only offender. Chris Cottingham, writing in ‘The Big Issue’, said that readers would want to take the “flim flam and exaggerated claims” made by other reviewers with a pinch of salt. But, he went on, “it mostly deserves its four- and five-star reviews”. So, what’s the problem? Petridis thinks “a decade of blanket praise writes white and might discourage people from bothering with Tempest”. For that to be true, there would have to be someone who is thinking, “I’d like to buy the new Dylan album, but now that I’ve seen it’s got five stars in ‘Mojo’ and ‘Uncut’, I don’t think I’ll bother”. Yes, there will be people who didn’t think ‘Modern Times’ lived up to its billing, just as there will be people unimpressed by Tame Impala’s new album (which gets five stars from Petridis). But, people wouldn’t keep buying new Dylan albums if they didn’t like them. Does Petridis expect me to change my mind and agree with his assessment of ‘Love and Theft’, a decade after the fact? I think the problem is a little simpler – modern critics struggle to write convincingly about Dylan. What can they say? I know, from my own experience, that it is much easier to review bands few people have heard of than established heroes. Aside from young listeners hearing Dylan for the first time, most people’s opinions of Dylan are fixed. Dylan reviews uniformly begin with the obligatory references to his illustrious past, a quick reminder that – after a barren 80s – albums released in the last fifteen years have all been well regarded. After this, its time to quote a few lyrics, seemingly at random. Finally, we find out if the album is another masterpiece or another sign that Dylan is “overrated”. Dylan’s status in popular culture is such that he simply doesn’t fit in to the normal rhythms of music criticism – a process that works for cult heroes and newcomers, but not household names. For example, in 1995, ‘Q’ – then Britain’s best selling music magazine – quickly had to revise its opinion of Oasis when they sold as many records as U2, despite the album being given a short, scathing review. Almost everyone will already have made their mind up whether they are going to buy a new Dylan album before they read the review. So, the only sensible option is to do what ‘Mojo’ and ‘Uncut’ do – stand down from the critics’ podium temporarily, and address your review directly to people who will definitely be buying the album, probably on the day it comes out, and who are excited to find out more about it before they can hear it for themselves. Anyone who doesn’t acknowledge this will end up looking ridiculous. Either you sound like Petridis – whose strong opinions about Dylan’s reviews make a bizarre contrast to his bland opinions about the music. Or you sound mad, like Michael Gallucci, who reviewed ‘Tempest’ for ‘Ultimate Classic Rock’. Dylan’s latest, he says, “is no better than a really, really good John Hiatt album. Let’s stop acting like it is.” So, while Dylan escapes any rebuke, the criticism is really for you – the Dylan fanatic reader. You like Dylan too much! Heaven forbid that you might genuinely prefer Dylan’s music to Hiatt’s hackneyed blues-rock. Petridis more recent reviews have been framed as an attack on critics, but his (slightly nastier in tone) 2001 review was aimed squarely at Dylan’s most devoted fans. Ultimately it’s the devotion he is suspicious of. Unless its teenage girls obsessed with Justin Bieber, an old-fashioned kind of fandom is increasingly rare in modern music. Gone are anguished decisions about which albums to spend your money on, because for the price of a single album, you can have access to more music than you’ll ever have time to listen to on Spotify. Instead, any music fan can do what music critics do, listen to an album – for free – once or twice (maybe not all the way though), make your mind up about it, pass judgement and move on. That’s not what will happen with the new Dylan album. Much of his fanbase – older and with less enthusiasm for staring at computers – will have waited until day of the official release to hear it for the first time. They will have listened to it several times since then – gradually deciding how it compares to previous Dylan albums, picking favourite tracks and changing their mind. They will re-read those ‘Uncut’ and ‘Mojo’ reviews, perhaps revising their opinions of certain tracks as a result. Ultimately, though, they will take their time and make their own mind up. I like the enthusiasm of someone who can barely contain their excitement about a new album – by Dylan or anyone else – far more than the detached cool you find too many reviews. It is a better and more rewarding way to listen to music.

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