The renowned critic compiles more than four decades of writing about his favorite subject, who he has covered in such books as Invisible Republic (1997) and Like a Rolling Stone (2005).
The collection begins promisingly with Marcus’s most notorious single piece about Dylan, the caustic Rolling Stone critique of the two-LP set Self Portrait (1970). But this selection of album, concert and book reviews, features, liner notes, columns and academic papers is swiftly sabotaged by the author’s humorlessness, myopia and simple bad judgment. As ever, the writer relies on torturously scholastic readings of lyrics, odd and sometimes irrelevant sources and analogs and precious little musical explication to pick apart his thorny and highly inconsistent subject’s work. It doesn’t help that this book surveys nearly 30 years (1970–1997) of generally substandard writing and performing by Dylan. All too often, Marcus falls back on familiar tropes. He regularly flogs 1920s icons like Rabbit Brown, Dock Boggs and the other denizens of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music to make his points, and he hashes over Dylan’s 1965–66 collaborations with The Band—first essayed in Mystery Train (1975)—once too often. The author’s pieces about Dylan’s inspired latter-day work is muddled and uncomprehending. He perplexingly writes off the renascent album Oh Mercy (1989) as a “producer’s album,” yet lauds Time Out of Mind (1997), also helmed by producer Daniel Lanois. At times, his contorted attempts to make an unusual connection are simply wrong-headed. His fantastical 2000 piece relating “Desolation Row” to an 1888 canvas by artist James Ensor is as insupportable as it is egregious. In one review, Marcus assails some writing in Dylan’s memoir Chronicles Volume 1 (2004), saying, “That line calls attention to itself.” The same could be said for almost the entire corpus of the author’s work about Dylan.
In this fatiguing chronicle of a gifted musician’s work, quality never equals quantity.