When it comes to Bob Dylan’s opinions, the man often remains aloof. Still, he’s lived too much life and written and heard too much music to not have something to say. With Dylan’s new book, The Philosophy of Modern Song, he combines history with poetry and wry observation to give us something only he could. Why the notoriously private musician would bother to do so is the real mystery.
In 66 short essays Dylan ruminates on what he considers some of the most significant records in recent memory (humbly excluding his own). Everything from Sinatra’s standards, to punk rock, cowboy ballads, R&B, and Cher is worthy of his attention. Each chapter opens with him riffing on the song’s message, often in the second person, so that we live through the lyrics. In the next section, he discusses the history of the singer who made the most iconic recording, the song’s themes, and whatever else comes to mind.
We might not appreciate the crass or profane ways he sometimes puts things. One moment he’ll decry what divorce has done to society before springboarding into an argument for polygamy. A few chapters later he proclaims “The Lord’s Prayer” to be the greatest poem on prayer ever composed, and in the next he disgusts us with a graphic metaphor for something else. Given Dylan’s history of toying with anyone who dares ask for his opinion, he might just be playing us like an old keyboard. Or maybe not.
While he accepts the mantle of a sage dispensing poetic wisdom, or a cranky uncle we avoid, I don’t think Dylan cares if we agree with him. He wants us to be as aware of the music and human experience as he is. If upsetting us sparks a reaction, it’s all the more fun for him.
Psalm 96 encourages engagement through music. “Sing to the Lord a new song; Sing to the Lord, all the earth.” The rest of the poem is filled with commands to sing and proclaim the glory of God. If the rocks were to cry out, as Jesus said they would, might it be with melody? Music is a wonderful gift that we too often tune out. Dylan and David alike want us to savor how beautiful and powerful it is.
I wish someone would write about the Psalms this way.
The Philosophy of Modern Song audiobook is especially delightful, as Dylan shares reading duties with a host of Hollywood luminaries such as Jeff Bridges, Alfre Woolard, John Goodman, Helen Mirren, and more. There’s neither rhyme nor reason to why he shows up and when he passes narrative duties off to someone else. But that’s okay. All the words are indelibly Dylan’s.
Ultimately, it’s not about Bob. His book is a collection of love letters to the pieces of art that have spoken to him most deeply. We might differ in opinion, but his passion sticks with us like a melody. (Simon & Schuster)
About the Author
Trevor Denning is an alumni of Cornerstone University and lives, lifts weights, and spends too much time in his kitchen in Alma, Mich. His first short story collection is St. George Drive and Other Stories.