Larry Starr. Listening to Bob Dylan. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2021. 136 pp.
REVIEW BY David R. Shumway, Carnegie Mellon University
Larry Starr has written a book that should engage Dylan fans and scholars and surprise many in both categories. Starr’s premise is that Dylan has been regarded “primarily or even exclusively as a poet, or as a writer of lyrics,” and he proposed to attend to Dylan’s music as represented on his recordings (2). He claims, “Dylan’s art achieves its total impact as a complete package – as a personal, unique synthesis of words, music, and performance,” and he rejects the notion that Dylan is best understood as a mere songwriter, because he is also the performer of his own songs (2). If it weren’t for the way in which those songs were arranged, produced, and sung, would anyone be listening to them?
The notion that Dylan’s music needs to be understood as a complete package is entirely persuasive, yet Starr’s claim that Dylan is understood mainly as a poet or lyricist seems to me greatly overstated. The one bit of evidence offered is that he won the Nobel Prize in literature, which at best explains how a small committee of Swedes understood him. It may be true that in the world at large some significant number of people think of Dylan primarily as the writer of lyrics, but they would not be Dylan fans, scholars, or popular music journalists, who, of course, are the natural audience for this book.
What is original about Starr’s book is not that he deals with Dylan’s records rather than his lyrics, but rather that he applies a formal analysis to Dylan’s oeuvre. Others have explored Dylan’s recordings in some detail. Greil Marcus, for example, does this in both The Old, Weird America: The World of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes and Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads. A weakness of Listening to Bob Dylan is that it lacks citations, so the uninformed reader might never know, for example, that Marcus has already provided a very similar treatment of “Like a Rolling Stone.” What distinguishes Starr from Marcus and most others who have written about Dylan is that their analysis has been primarily concerned with the question of the records’ meaning, while his is concerned with how they work.
Popular music writing has traditionally been short of formalist analysis. Simon Frith memorably observed this in Sound Effects when he compared a musicological analysis of an Animals hit to an account by the songwriter entirely devoid of formalist language. The point is that neither pop music fans nor pop music writers have traditionally relied on formalist terms and categories in their experience and understanding of records. Fans and journalists tend to focus on the music’s emotional effects and cultural significance, and to invoke only a relatively limited range of aesthetic descriptors. That these descriptors have proved adequate does not, however, rule out the possibility that more detailed and precise accounts have something to offer.
Larry Starr’s book shows that for Dylan, careful formalist analysis is in fact enlightening. It is important to note that only a small part of this analysis is narrowly musicological, most of which is found in the two chapters on Dylan as a composer. Other chapters focus on such topics as vocal style, instrumentation, the harmonica, album arrangement, and live performance. Most of these chapters add significant depth to our understanding of Dylan’s music and often provide helpful new terms and categories that may well become the basis for further work by other critics.
As an example, consider Starr’s assertion that “You’re a Big Girl Now” from Blood on the Tracks is a song “in which the music is the most interesting aspect of the whole. . . . The lyrics to the song . . . are essentially a collection of clichés” (5). What makes the song work, according to Starr, is its use of two unexpected chords, one because of its relation to the home key of the instrumental introduction and the other because of its relation to the vocal melody. These musical choices establish an emotional tone that is appropriate to the lyrics, which deal with the experience of being dumped. One could quibble with Starr’s characterization of the lyrics, since he himself observes that Dylan intends a number of the clichés ironically, but he is convincing that the music allows the irony to work.
There are equally compelling insights to be had throughout the book. Starr’s classification of Dylan’s vocal styles provides a useful basis for talking about the singer’s enormously inventive range of vocal performance, and he ties these styles to Dylan’s pattern of inhabiting different personas or masks. The discussions of Dylan as a composer call attention to features of his songs that tend to get ignored because attention is more often focused on lyrical meaning and vocal performance. The importance of rhythm, for example, in Dylan’s songs is convincingly illustrated in discussion of “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” which shows that the ingenuity of the song’s phrasing is a matter of composition rather than performance “because it remains a pattern that governs the entire five-stanza song” (61). And Starr isn’t exclusively concerned with the strictly musical features of the songs. In the second chapter on composition, he focuses on the formal aspects of Dylan’s lyrics in relation to the music in a discussion of “strophic form,” wherein “a unit of music is used repeatedly for successive stanzas of lyrics” (65). Later in the chapter he takes up Dylan’s use of verse-chorus structures and of bridges. This makes us aware that most writing about Dylan’s lyrics has been so focused on interpretation that it has ignored their formal features.
Listening to Bob Dylan is an important addition to the critical literature about this great artist. Not the least of the book’s value is that it can make listening to Dylan even more pleasurable. And, you might want to carry it around with you, ready to hand it to the next person who tells you Dylan can’t sing or that his songs aren’t musical.