It has been nearly a decade since Bob Dylan was diagnosed with pericarditis, the heart disease that nearly killed him in 1997. The intervening years have been good to both his reputation and his income; according to the conventional wisdom, he's doing his best work since his first burst of popularity in the 1960s. After years of uninspired albums, the story goes, he had apparently given up on writing altogether by 1992, expressing himself instead with collections of traditional folk music and by reinventing his older material in concert. Then 1997 brought not just a near-fatal infection but Time Out of Mind, the CD that restored him to the good graces of audiences and critics. Since then he has collected more accolades than at any time since the '60s, a revival whose most recent bounty is Martin Scorsese's documentary No Direction Home, which debuts on PBS tonight.
This narrative is ubiquitous, but it took its most concise and ridiculous form in The Buffalo News, where critic Jeff Miers described Dylan as "the voice of the promise of the '60s counterculture…who donned makeup in the '70s and disappeared into a haze of substance abuse, who emerged to 'find Jesus,' who was written off as a has-been by the end of the '80s, and who suddenly shifted gears and released some of the strongest music of his career beginning in the late '90s." Dylan evidently found this Hollywood minute either accurate or amusing—my money's on the latter—because he now opens his concerts with a prerecorded introduction lifted directly from Miers' column.
But eight years after that infection threatened his heart, it might be time to retire the fable of Dylan's reinvigorated muse. Since 1997, the man has opened the vaults of his early career, allowing several excellent performances to exist as authorized albums as well as semi-licit bootlegs; he has written a well-received memoir and a poorly-received film; he has toured constantly; he has painted; and he has appeared in an underwear commercial. Yet aside from a few cuts for tribute albums and soundtracks, his output of new music has been limited to exactly two CDs in the last decade.
In the '60s, by contrast, he recorded nine albums, all of them good or great, plus hours of material that wasn't released until later (and, in some cases, still hasn't had a proper release at all). In the '70s, again, he managed to release nine studio albums; the quality was more uneven, but several are among my favorites. In the '80s, he churned out seven. To my taste, only Saved and Oh Mercy are good all the way through, but if he had held back until the end of the decade, kept the weaker, slicker material off the market, and compiled the best of the rest into one stellar record, he would have had another winner.
In those days, though, it would have been a severe career risk for an established rock star to wait eight years to put out an album. By the '90s he was clearly more cult figure than star, and could pass the time from 1990's terrible Under a Red Sky to 1997's career-rejuvenating Time Out of Mind by releasing two sets of other people's material, one live album, and no new compositions at all. It was four years before Dylan put out another studio recording, and the four more years since then have passed with plenty of new products but hardly anything in the way of new songs. This paucity of fresh material has been obscured not just by all those tracks from the vault but by the music industry's ideas about productivity, which have changed a lot in the last two decades: Today it's nothing for artists from Shania Twain to U2 to go a few years between CDs.
Mind you, I'm not complaining—indeed, I kind of wish he'd started taking this approach a decade earlier. But it makes it harder to accept this idea that it's his recent work that has revived Dylan's career. It doesn't help that I've always thought Time Out of Mind overrated, its undeniably powerful lyrics buried beneath Daniel Lanois' monotonous production, but you don't have to agree about that to suspect that it was Dylan's heart problems, and not the disc they preceded, that restored his audience. There's nothing like the sight of a boomer icon barely escaping the reaper to fill his former fans with fear, guilt, and nostalgia. If dying, as the old joke goes, can be a good career move, then almost dying is even better, especially if you plan to collect some of the royalties.
In Slate last week, David Greenberg complained that Martin Scorsese's film stops in 1966, the end of Dylan's tenure as The Voice Of A Generation but far from the end of his creative career. "Dylan," he concludes, "for all his efforts to keep living his life and making new music, remains trapped by our '60s fetish." On one level, I can't argue with that: From my post-boomer perspective, it sure looks like large swaths of his catalog are underpraised, from the Elvis-flavored country music of Nashville Skyline, which came out at the end of the '60s but alienated the cracker-phobic hipsters who thought that Dylan was one of them, to the surreal narratives of Desire and Street Legal and the fire and brimstone of Slow Train Coming and Saved. But if Dylan has been making new music lately, he's kept it under wraps. In business and in art, he's learned that less is more.