EN: Love an Theft is a great album and Modern Times certainly ranks with it. On what basis do you consider these albums the most significant since Blood on the Tracks?
What you had in the mid-1970s revival is an instance where Dylan finds himself re-energized through collaboration, in particular his collaboration with The Band. Blood on the Tracks seems the natural outcome of Dylan having the joy brought back into his music as a result of this collaboration. Following that, I believe Dylan's music again took a downturn as a result of his divorce, probably numerous other reasons . . . who knows. Nevertheless, the gospel era, whatever its strengths (and they are myriad), did mark another slow descent into mediocrity, similar to the one descent that occurred a decade before. What re-energized him was again collaboration, this time with the Grateful Dead. Though there is not much to recommend the music Dylan performed with the Dead, he did come to realize that their model of performance (ongoing live concerts and touring) was a viable alternative to maintaining and fostering a core audience of devoted fans. It also took some of the pressure off of coming up with new music to record, something Dylan was at pains to do from the mid-80s to mid-90s.
Then came a different sort of collaboration, this time with the folk tradition, both in live concerts (notably the Supper Club performances from '93) and the two albums of folk "covers", Good As I Been To You in 1992 and World Gone Wrong from the following year. Essentially, Dylan managed to brush aside the immense weight of living up to the work he produced thirty years before (describing himself in one interview as digging in the trash outside the palace of past triumphs). As Neil Young related to Charlie Rose, Dylan no longer knew the young man who wrote those songs. Accepting that he would never again ascend to those heights freed him from the burden of trying and, ironically, allowed him to once again to produce in a decade's time a trio of albums (Time Out of Mind in 1997, Love and Theft in 2001 and Modern Times in 2006) of considerable merit. They weren't nearly as good as the stuff from '65 and '66, admittedly, but they were still substantially creative efforts that had the added benefit of being performed by a more self-assured musician than anything since '75.
EN: How did you choose these two and neglect the Grammy-winning Time Out Of Mind or the sequel to Modern Times, Together Through Life?
EH: Dylan expanded the musical lexicon so significantly that even now I don't think we fully comprehend the impact. And I mean the impact on both a cultural and social level. I mean, sure, to many, even maybe to himself, he's an artifact of the 1960s, and in some ways emblematic of that decade's cultural smugness and pretension. But I think if you really look at it closely, Dylan largely rejected the 1960s counterculture, even more than he did the folk and coffee house scene where he first made a name for himself. He transcends all these boxes that we put around him which I think points to the universality of his music. People listened to the songs and heard different things because they were written in such a way that it lent itself to all these myriad interpretations. And that to me is what great art does, or should do.
Deadline for abstracts: June 2012
Deadline for final papers: October 2012
Dylan art by Ennyman