All sorts of people can write a great song. It took Bob Dylan to rewrite our idea of what a great song can be. Now, as Dylan turns 70 and a ROLLING STONE panel anoints his 70 greatest songs, it’s worth asking: What are the elements that distinguish Dylan’s best work?
Dylan’s catalog is staggering in its size and ambition. It holds masterpieces and throwaways: narratives, protests, romances, put-downs, travelogues, warnings, comedy, tragedies and those nonlinear, oracular songs – like “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Ain’t Talkin’ ” – that long ago demanded their own adjective (“Dylanesque”). The only way to judge them – or, just as likely, to argue about them – is along the lines that Dylan invented for himself.
Before Dylan, there were widely accepted criteria for a great song. A pop classic in the Tin Pan Alley era needed a supple, singable melody and got bonus points for sophisticated harmonic underpinnings; its lyrics would tell a story or distill a universal sentiment. It needed to be adaptable to various tempos and treatments: crooners, swing bands, Broadway. It was a precise artistic miniature.
But Dylan’s songs observed no such niceties. “Subterranean Homesick Blues” rattles along on just three chords and a melody that’s more taunt than tune, verse after sprawling verse. And those lyrics . . . well, they do rhyme, but they just don’t make sense, at least not directly. Bob Dylan’s definitive songs don’t encapsulate one meticulous idea – they contain multitudes: prophecy and hogwash, morality and absurdism, apocalypse and intimacy. He has piercing psychological insights, profound aphorisms and sly punch lines; he has lines like weapons and lines like benedictions.
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Dylan also forced the world to accept the merger of singer and songwriter, even if the singer has a voice that has rarely been pretty. Back in the early 1960s, when Dylan’s voice was considered far too abrasive for pop ears, it seemed unimaginable that generations would come to cherish – not to mention imitate – his corrosive snarl and slur, his endlessly layered ironies and his moments of unexpected tenderness and rage.
After Dylan’s shock treatment, the elegance of the old pop standards came to sound a little too tidy. But for all the times in his career when he has been dismissed as tuneless, Dylan knows melody. Although he arrived in New York with the trappings of a folk singer, Dylan started his pop career recognizing the Tin Pan Alley songwriter mode: making demos that his publisher could shop to sweeter-voiced acts like Peter, Paul and Mary. (His autobiographical Chronicles: Volume 1 very deliberately begins with him visiting an old-line publisher.) He has written dozens, perhaps hundreds, of durable, beautifully contoured tunes like “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” and “Make You Feel My Love.” Songs like To’ Boy” and “Nettie Moore” have crafty, musicianly twists that Hoagy Carmichael might have appreciated. With typical backhanded humor, Dylan demonstrated the strength of his melodies on the soundtrack of his underappreciated movie Masked and Anonymous. It’s filled with wacked-out cover versions of his songs from all over the place, and despite translated lyrics and cheesy arrangements, they are still instantly recognizable.
As Dylan’s melodies trace psychological landscopes – think of the rises and falls in “Just Like a Woman” – his words exponentially raise the ante on old pop songwriting. Dylan learned, with words as he did with melodies, from all that had come before him, inside and outside pop songwriting: from the Bible and Shakespeare, from Celtic ballads and deep blues, from abstract poetry and street talk, from obscure movie dialogue and private lovers’ quarrels. His lyrics are as hyperlinked as the Internet and as polymorphous; they beg for explanation and elude it. His words carry us into labyrinths of ideas and emotions, into Desolation Row and down the Endless Highway – not toward one simple resolution but into more paradoxes and riddles.
There’s an exuberant, beautifully arrogant one-upmanship in Dylan’s amphetamine-fueled mid-1960s songs. “I Want You” has a chorus as monosyllabically blunt as anything in rock –”I want you so bad” –threaded with nifty instrumental hooks. Yet its verses, a world away from such Top 40 craftsmanship, invent an entire population – the guilty undertaker, the drunken politician, mothers, fathers, saviors, the Queen of Spades – to enact his longing and alienation. They don’t spell out the mood – they swarm it from every direction. Dylan’s songs continually rearrange themselves across history and time, perpetually addressing the present moment. He has a con man’s gift for bullshitting; it’s up to every listener to decide what’s doggerel and what’s revelation. (Case in point: “Looking in the window at the pecan pie/Lot of things they’d like, they would never buy,” from Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum”)
The most powerful mystery of Dylan’s songs is the way that, decade after decade, they shift with each new context. Every Dylan listener has had the illuminating, unsettling sensation of hearing a familiar song suddenly wrap itself around a new situation, with a well-known line suddenly revealing a whole new meaning. “All Along the Watchtower” applies to countless gatherings: economic summits (“Businessmen, they drink my wine”), political rallies (“Let us not talk falsely now”), battlefields (“Two riders were approaching”), rock festivals (“There’s too much confusion”) and every physical and existential dead end (“There must be some way out of here”). Universes of possibility – the potential of apocalypse and salvation as “the wind began to howl” – are tucked into just three chords, 130 words and a mournful incantation of a melody.
Dylan’s greatest songs don’t reduce the world to three minutes. They open it up to endless remappings, and force each of us to find our own way.