Review: The Philosophy of Modern Song

I had a three-hour solo drive to do, so I went to the ol’ Libby app to grab an audio book. Ah, here’s Bob Dylan’s The Philosophy of Modern Song! With narration by a passel of respected celebrities!

I’m not a Dylan cultist, but I do know he’s got an encyclopedic knowledge of (American, at least) popular music, and he has written some great songs, so I thought it would be entertaining to hear a well-informed master of the craft give some insights into various songs.

WOW, was I ever wrong.

Here’s the format of the book: Dylan recites what amounts to some kind of prose poem about the song. So instead of the economical beauty of song lyrics (because I guess nobody wanted to pay to clear them) you get this messy, overlong word salad.

And then, if you’re lucky, he’ll tell you something about the artist, or the song, or he’ll elaborate on the theme of the song a little bit. These bits are far less painful than the aforementioned prose poems, but they’re incredibly uneven and unfocused. The whole project is basically Dylan free associating on a song, and because of the aformentioned encyclopedic knowledge and songwriting talent, sometimes there’s a gem in there. But mostly not.

The physical book is a beautiful object, and with the holidays approaching, I know some folks will be tempted to give this to the music lover in their life.

Don’t do it. This is a terrible book, and there is better music writing just about anywhere you want to look. (Season one of the Cocaine & Rhinestones podcast, for example, or the annotations done by randos on, which at least sometimes shed some light on an obscure reference). Do some digging and find someone who is actually going to deliver what this book promises. Or just, I don’t know, buy a Dylan bootleg or whatever.

This is a sloppy, halfassed project that doesn’t deserve your money or your attention. I made it through less than a quarter of the audiobook. Which means the combined talents of Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Alfre Woodard, Sissy Spacek and Oscar Isaac couldn’t keep me engaged.

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