Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Dylan Dismisses Modern Records with 'Sound All Over Them'

Bob Dylan tells Rolling Stone magazine:
"I don't know anybody who's made a record that sounds decent in the past 20 years, really...You listen to these modern records, they're atrocious, they have sound all over them..."
Ann Althouse cited Dylan's assessment of "modern records," setting off a typically Althousian discussion in the comments. I had to throw in my two cents:
"Sound all over them."

I think that it was Ralph Gleason who once described Dylan's music as "democratic art." By this he meant that lyrically, musically, and in terms of production, there was still room for the listener's imagination. With his often vague, but rich, lyrics and sparse musical arrangements, Dylan invites listeners to attach their own meanings to his songs.

Gleason's characterization of Dylan's approach fits with Dylan's "sound all over them" assessment of "modern records."

In spite of the many who have wanted to treat him like a deity, Dylan has never wanted to micromanage what people heard in his songs. In fact, he's always seemed to want the potential interpretations of them to be as many and varied as possible; the more different ways people can hear his music, the more people will likely want to hear it.

If the many interviewees--like Joan Baez--featured in Martin Scorcese's documentary on Dylan are to be believed, Dylan never was that committed to the politics with which his music was associated in the early-60s. And yet, many of the lyrics to those and later Dylan songs are broadly "political." That's probably all because of the room his songs gave us to hear...sometimes what we wanted to hear...in records [that] didn't have sound all over them.

It's no wonder then that Dylan is critical of recordings that are heavily produced and lyrically unimaginative and artlessly direct. They violate his sense of what should happen in and to a song.

Sparseness, vagueness, richness. These are the things this "song and dance man," as Dylan once jokingly called himself, has aimed to create. In approaching his music in this way, he has often been the musical equivalent of Greta Garbo, the person of mystery who never says exactly what he means--or does he?--but allows you to think that because you perceive what really means, you have a sort of exclusive Vulcan Mind Link with him. You co-create with Dylan in between his lines, in the holes of sparse arrangements.

In the things hinted at but unsaid and in the music implied but not played, Dylan invites you to entertain the notion that you too are an artist, that you too can poke fun at Mr. Jones for failing to get it.

Democratic art.
Of course, in his dismissal of "modern records," as on so many occasions, Dylan may simply be playing us all, suckering us into believing that he means more than he really does. Or something different, if in fact he means anything at all. Doing this sort of thing for decades, he's kept us listening and kept us talking about what he's singing. And of course, we've bought his records, which is after all, the point of making records.

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