On the evening of February 13, 2011, Bob Dylan sang a baffling version of “Maggie’s Farm” at the Grammys. The performance came at the end of a medley of Americana acts that included Mumford & Sons and The Avett Brothers, two young bands that borrow from some of the same music that inspired Dylan in the late 1950s and 1960s. Each of their songs was marked by a sepia-tone melancholy and what sounded like an effortful sincerity, so it was all the more entertaining when Dylan emerged from behind the curtain wearing a silk shirt, ascot, polished white shoes, and an expression of bemusement.
The onstage collaboration was perhaps intended to be a passing-the-torch moment, with Dylan anointing a new generation of folk revivalists and New Americana troubadours. But the performance became something else entirely, as Dylan, despite the bad sound and his gruffer-than-usual voice, vamped and mugged wildly through “Maggie’s Farm,” throwing his arms wide as though he had learned his moves from Al Jolson. Beyond merely upstaging the two younger acts, he revealed them to be conservative and achingly earnest artists, and in the process he reasserted his nuanced, often contradictory relationship to America’s weird musical history in general and to his own past in particular.
Old-time music should not be approached reverentially. Rather than shorthand for authenticity or emotional directness, it can be as sophisticated as a Radiohead groove, as outrageous as a Lady Gaga outfit, as cruel as an Odd Future rap, and as lusty as an R. Kelly slow jam. But only one guy on stage seemed aware of all the possibilities.
Dylan wasn’t passing the torch at the Grammys. He was playing keepaway with it.
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That Grammy performance punctuated what has proven to be an especially productive and compelling period in Dylan’s career, one in which he shed the stigma of ‘60s burnout and emerged as a specter from some dark corner of American history. His career is notorious for its many highs and lows, for its hairpin turns and comeback feints. Starting out as a sincere folkie, he ascended – somewhat against his will – to the status of generational mouthpiece, which he reacted to first by plugging in and later by dropping out altogether. For the past forty years, Dylan has struggled, recording some one-off returns to form, like Blood On The Tracks in 1975, but those catalog essentials are outnumbered by albums that only his most ardent followers remember. While there are many fans who will argue ferociously in favor of his Christian gospel period or his Self-Portrait self-sabotage, there are so many phases in Dylan’s career when it seemed like one of America’s greatest songwriters had forever lost his spark.
That only makes the past fifteen or so years all the more impressive and seemingly impossible, as Dylan has not only released a handful of albums to rival his best work, but sustained a period of intense creativity. It began in 1997, with the release of his thirtieth album, Time Out Of Mind, which was his first collection of new material in seven years – the longest, most worrisome dry spell of his career. Following the commercial belly-flop of 1990’s Under The Red Sky, Dylan retreated with a pair of covers albums full of pre-rock American and British folk songs. The lessons of those old, weird tunes, along with a new, stream-of-conscious songwriting technique, inspired Dylan’s finest batch of songs in more than twenty years. Instead of a rock veteran coasting on fumes, he sounded like an artist whose trials and tribulations could lend his music new gravity and new electricity.
It’s ironic that the rebirth of his career is often mistaken for actual death. Upon release, Time Out Of Mind was interpreted as Dylan’s mortality album, even though the life-threatening pericarditis wasn’t diagnosed until well after the album had been released. That doesn’t mean, of course, that some form of obsolescence, whether biological or cultural, wasn’t on Dylan’s mind at the time. Although the songs sound highly personal – he inhabits that first-person pronoun boldly – Time Out Of Mind sounds like an album about the public Dylan rather than the private man: the larger-than-life legend projected by the real-life human being. So many long years in the wilderness had shrunk that figure considerably, such that intimations like “It’s not dark yet but it’s getting there” conveyed the doom of finality, no matter how Dylan himself tried to dismiss such an interpretation.
Dylan worked with producer Daniel Lanois, who had also helmed Oh Mercy, but his sonic landscape on Time Out Of Mind is much more nuanced and complex, with a reverb settling over every piece of terrain like a low, ominous fog. It’s an evocative melancholic setting for Dylan’s croaky vocals, although he and many of his fans dismiss the album for bearing the signature of its producer over that of its performer. And yet, in retrospect, it’s the right sound for the right moment in Dylan’s life, a deliberate warping of the “thin wild mercury” aesthetic he captured in the mid ‘60s.
Perhaps more impressive, however, has been Dylan’s ability to sustain that surge in creativity and relevance well into the twenty-first century, with more strong studio albums, countless reissues, a phlegmatic Christmas collection, a beloved radio show, an excellent memoir, a slew of movies and documentaries, and of course his Never Ending Tour. That run, even interrupted by a cinematic disaster like 2003’s Masked And Anonymous or a lackluster album like 2009’s Together Through Life, represents the longest period of quality and confidence in Dylan’s career, which is incredible for an artist who just turned 70.
What Dylan has experienced, then, is not exactly a comeback, but something more akin to Johnny Cash’s nearly simultaneous resurgence: it’s a reawakening, a redefinition of how a legendary figure can age and grow and become more human without sacrificing quality or mystery. How has Dylan been able to reach this comfortable point in his career, when he remains relevant enough to play with younger bands at the Grammys and feisty enough to leave them in his wake?