Dylan Disc by Disc, edited by Jon Bream (2015): Books

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Which is Bob Dylan’s best album? Which is his worst? What the heck was he thinking with Self Portrait, Dylan and Shadows in the Night? Was Christmas in the Heart meant as a joke or … what? Did you stick with him through the “Christian” albums or just give up?

Among Bob Dylan fans (and we really do like the guy, as crazy as he makes us), those questions are endlessly debatable and, also, endlessly fascinating.

In Dylan Disc by Disc, edited by Jon Bream for Voyageur Press, a group of more than 50 critics and musicians pores over Bob Dylan’s confounding, controversial and classic catalog. Two at a time, they discuss, with Bream acting as moderator, their views on the Bard’s 36 studio albums, starting with his eponymous debut in 1962 through 2015’s standards collection, Shadows of the Night.

Those sharing their views include everyone from Bob Dylan collaborators such as Eric Anderson and Tony Glover to famed critic Robert Christgau, as well as musicians from Rodney Crowell to Questlove.

Each commentator speaks of his or her own experiences of listening to Bob Dylan and the album at hand. Sometimes they love it, sometimes they don’t. They speculate about Dylan’s intentions and the meanings of lyrics. Sometimes the discussions provide answers, sometimes more questions. It’s a little like listening to Dylan himself, which is what you’ll want to do more of when you’ve finish reading.

Through the chapters, one for each album, we see how Bob Dylan’s early, timely songs have become timeless — and how maybe, depending on your point of view, albums dismissed upon their initial release weren’t so bad after all. Even Dylan — the contractual obligation album that the singer himself purged from his canon — gets a fair hearing.

Jon Bream’s “many voices” approach on Dylan Disc by Disc is a great way to explore Bob Dylan from all angles. There are few artists or musicians whose work can stand up to such multi-faceted scrutiny and still yield fresh observations. In some cases, however, Bream’s choices of commentators seem fairly random and offer little in the way of insight.

Ric Ocasek of the Cars, for example, doesn’t have much to share beyond saying he admires the poetry of Dylan’s lyrics but doesn’t analyze them. Suzanne Vega, on the other hand, uses her own experiences as a songwriter to dig in and examine Bob Dylan’s approach — praising the “the mystery and the beauty of the images and the sense of unlimited possibility” present in Dylan’s songs.

As a whole, Dylan Disc by Disc is a very enlightening and enjoyable book. Photos of Bob Dylan from throughout his career and detailed liner notes about each album, including release dates and featured musicians, are nice additions, as well.

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