From its title alone, you might assume that Bob Dylan’s new book would be a “treatise on the art and craft of songwriting”, But Dylan has always defied expectation – and it’s no great surprise that The Philosophy of Modern Song proves to be something very different: an “unpredictable, but always illuminating” compilation of 66 essays on the songs the 81-yearold singer “holds dear”. In these pages, Dylan seems to be “taking us closer than ever to his teenage self, the kid soaking up everything he heard on the radio in his bedroom”, One moment, he’s arguing convincingly that the “lazy-voiced child star” Ricky Nelson (and not Elvis) was the “true ambassador of rock’n’roll”; the next, he’s extolling the merits of Strangers in the Night by Frank Sinatra. “It’s unlikely, but it’s wonderful.” Despite being “prone to grumble”, Dylan proves an “engaging and lively” guide to the music he loves, mostly from the 1950s and 1960s.
This book is at its best when Dylan is making us laugh, Discussing the merits of wealth in reference to Elvis Presley’s Money Honey, he quips: “No matter how many chairs you have, you only have one ass.” And he writes of the Cher song Gypsys, Tramps & Thieves that it could easily be the answer to the question: “Name three types of people you’d like to have dinner with.” Yet elsewhere, the book is less successful. Some entries “feel dashed off”, or recycled from his show Theme Time Radio Hour; another problem is that it is “utterly drenched in testosterone”. Of the 66 songs, only four are by women – and there are passages, notably a “gut-wrenching” discussion of the Eagles’ Witchy Woman, where Dylan’s “disdain” for women “feels palpable”. There is nonetheless plenty of evidence here of Dylan’s “extraordinarily original and restless mind”, .
While he is generally on playful form, trying on “different personalities and contradictory theories”, there are moments of “piercing profundity” – as when a discussion of Edwin Starr’s War turns into a “complex and historically astute essay about the nature of conflict”. Some critics grumbled when Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2016, suggesting that a mere writer of songs wasn’t worthy of such esteem. “Yet this fantastic volume offers another justification for his standing as the greatest bard of our times.”