Skip to navigation – Site map

HomeNuméros65-66Recensions21st Century Dylan. Late and Time...


21st Century Dylan. Late and Timely. Edited by Laurence Estanove, Adrian Grafe, Andrew McKeown, Claire Hélie. New York/London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2021, 236 p.

Cyril Camus
p. 352-355
Bibliographical reference

21st Century Dylan. Late and Timely. Edited by Laurence Estanove, Adrian Grafe, Andrew McKeown, Claire Hélie. New York/London: Bloomsbury Academic, ISBN : 9781501363696, 236 p.

Editor's notes

Index Nominum Theodor Adorno, Roland Barthes, Cate Blanchett, Johnny Cash, Larry Charles, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Todd Haynes, Donn Alan Pennebaker, Edward Said, Martin Scorsese

Full text

1As Johnny Cash passed away in 2003, and Leonard Cohen in 2016, 80-year-old singer-songwriter Bob Dylan may be construed as one of the last living patriarchs/poets/prophets of steel-string acoustic guitar-based Americana. Alive he certainly is! His iconic status seems to have expanded rather than waned in recent years, as shown by his being awarded a Nobel Prize for Literature. Only Covid could force him to pause his Never Ending Tour in May 2020, but it did not stop him from releasing Rough and Rowdy Ways, his first new album of original songs in eight years, the following June. Bringing together eminent specialists of music documentaries, poetry, American culture and musicology, Laurence Estanove, Adrian Grafe, Andrew McKeown and Claire Hélie’s 21st Century Dylan. Late and Timely documents and studies quite thoroughly the richness and versatility of this “late-period” Dylan, as well as the current state of his legacy.

2The volume’s first part, “Honest with Me: Late Dylan’s Performing Personae,” starts with Nina Goss’s chapter taking us on a tour of Revisionist Art, a 2012 exhibition of Dylan paintings parodying magazine covers, while reproducing and repurposing some real ones. Goss’s tone is that of musing, picking seemingly random images from the catalogue (and some remembrances from real-life attendance) of an exhibition initially depicted as baffling. With the help of Roland Barthes’s own musings or thoughts on meaning, passion and reception, and Edward Said’s on what characterizes an ageing artist’s work, Goss offers stimulating readings of those sibylline pieces of artwork, connecting the whole project to Dylan’s own journey as a songwriter and performer whose objective remains elusive.

3Jim Salvucci’s and Sara Martínez’s contributions are also concerned with Dylan’s penchant for elusiveness in their comparative studies of Dylan and Larry Charles’s movie Masked and Anonymous (2003), a work of fiction in which Dylan plays a differently named persona against the backdrop of a fictional civil war in an unnamed country resembling a generic Latin American dictatorship. Salvucci analyses the film in parallel with Dylan’s “book [that] is purportedly a memoir” (36), Chronicles: Volume One (2004). Regarding the latter, the author focuses on the unreliability, uncovered plagiarisms, and straight-up fiction that can be found in this nominally autobiographical book. As to the film, Salvucci examines parallels created between Dylan himself and the Dylan-like, larger-than-life figure he portrays in it. The chapter argues that these respective traits make these works two sides of the same coin, that is, Dylan’s “auto-mythmaking” and his self-styling as the willing plaything of a fortunate destiny, an object blowing in the wind rather than an ambitious subject. Then, Martínez studies the movie back-to-back with another cinematic experiment on Dylan’s protean public image: Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There (2007). Haynes’s movie is an anti-biopic, built out of six disjointed moments in Dylan’s life and career, with very different actors performing the very different Dylans who appear on screen one after another. Martínez’s main theoretical focus is the relationship between these “masks” Dylan dons to protect his privacy from the audience and the type(s) of masculinity the singer-songwriter, the filmmakers and the actors impersonating him opt for. Accordingly, Cate Blanchett’s cross-gender performance in Haynes’s movie serves as an effective epitome of the deconstructive approaches Dylan’s portraitists adopt to do justice to the musician’s consummate effort at sustained ambiguity.

4Charles Bonnot’s subsequent chapter also deals with two parallel perspectives on Dylan, but this time in documentary films: D.A. Pennebaker’s Dont Look Back (1967) and Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home (2005). Not only does Bonnot provide a breakdown of the differing perspectives and how they are influenced by their times and by their starkly distinct stylistic choices, but he also dissects the complex relationship between the two movies, that is created by Scorsese’s inclusion of Dont Look Back within No Direction Home, through excerpts as well as comments in hindsight from Pennebaker and others, as a mise en abyme.

5These chapters necessarily mention the issue of “authenticity” and how central it is to the ethos projected by the various Dylans, and to their reception. They show how it is simultaneously in uneasy tension with the very fact that Dylan has been fabricating conflicting and temporary personalities for himself, often shocking his fans into realizing the previous Dylan was an act. Andrew McKeown brings this matter to the fore with his interrogations over why Dylan appears in commercials. His chapter focuses on a 2014 Super Bowl ad for a Chrysler car and a 2004 commercial for lingerie retailer Victoria’s Secret, which both feature Dylan himself in the foreground, and his music in the background. McKeown explores all the potential facets of, or rationalizations for, those endorsements: new sell-outs from Dylan the sell-out? New practical jokes from Dylan the trickster? New deliberate blows to his own myth from Dylan the iconoclast? Crucially, to what extent is the question of authenticity relevant to those, or is it relevant at all? Erin C. Callahan then offers a broader, both more cynical and idealistic outlook on Dylan’s willingness to commodify his music and image. She first contextualizes this behaviour as something that has always been part of Dylan’s ethos, as he overhauled the anti-commercial, public domain ideology of the folk scene by actually claiming copyright ownership for his recorded songs. Then Callahan builds an overview of Dylan’s 21st century marketing strategy, of constantly conquering new marketplaces and broadening his audience through appearances in commercials and licensing his songs for commercial use. Finally, she argues that, beyond “selling out,” Dylan is rather constantly branching out to new audiences, allowing them in the process to become aware of the liberal ideals of the anti-war, pro-Civil Rights counterculture he was initially part of, and which he still very much symbolizes for most people.

6Julie Mansion-Vaquié refocuses the attention on music itself and its staging, while providing evidence of another aspect of Dylan’s constant self-reinvention. Her chapter provides a thorough description of the transformations Dylan has brought to the tempo, lyrical structure and instrumentation of his signature anthem “Blowin’ in the Wind,” from the original recording for the 1963 album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, to various performances. The latest of those is a 2016 concert in Berkeley, during which the song was deliberately made virtually unrecognizable apart from the consistent lyrics. Anne Marie Mai’s contribution concludes the book’s first section with a study of the lyrics as poetry, in connection with some of Dylan’s artwork. She explores occurrences of the expression of melancholy (both the psychological condition and the poetic theme) in Dylan’s Time Out of Mind album (1997) and Brazil Series paintings (2009-2010).

7The beginning of the second section, “Roll on Bob: Late Dylan in Text and Tribute,” follows up on Mai’s approach. Jean Du Verger’s survey features a broader corpus–Time Out of Mind, but also Love and Theft (2001), Modern Times (2006), Together Through Life (2009), Tempest (2012), Shadows in the Night (2015), Fallen Angels (2016) and Triplicate (2017)and more detailed targets than the catch-all theme of melancholy. His chapter tracks down references to world-weary subjectivity and introspection, to time (especially frozen time or time drawing to an end), to nostalgia, loss and loneliness, to wisdom and the life-symbolizing flow of rivers, an assortment of topoi that encapsulate, according to Du Verger, Said’s concept of lateness and Adorno’s notion of “late style”. Drawing on cultural history (and how the music album form fits in it), a study of Biblical intertextuality, and chord progression analysis, M. Cooper Hariss aims to show how concern for time, and for how an album should end, has taken an ever-more portentous significance in Dylan’s creative output as his awareness of his own approaching end is growing. For this purpose, Hariss relies, in particular, on a case study of “Ain’t Talkin’,” the closing song for Modern Times. Then, drawing on his own experience of organizing such an event, Denis Feignier provides illuminating insights into the attitude of cultural authorities and of Dylan himself towards the prestigious awards and honours the singer-songwriter received, and to the related ceremonies. Simon McAslan immediately counters this interesting examination of Dylan’s canonization, and brings back to the fore Bob Dylan the shape-shifting trickster, by discussing how the lyrics of his songs are purposefully changed, not only from one recording or live performance to another, but also from one publication of an authorized lyrics collection to another. These supposedly “comprehensive” and “definitive” (193) songbooks are thus shown to be systematically unreliable and incomplete, and as mutable as the songsmith who arranged and rearranged them.

8The volume’s second part ends on two short contributions by Christopher Ricks and Adrian Grafe in which they give their respective takes on the polemic on Dylan’s 2016 Nobel Literature Prize win. They oppose several counter-arguments to the naysayers arguing that his writing is not worthy, or that songs are not poetry per se. Adrian Grafe and Andrew McKeown’s review of Dylan’s new album, Rough and Rowdy Ways, rounds up the collection of essays in a last-minute coda, penned as the rest of the book was in proof stage. Once again, what strikes the authors is the versatility of the singer-songwriter. It manifests itself through the various moods and genres represented by the album’s ten songs, and the pliability of Dylan’s voice. It appears most clearly in the way the rich nostalgia-filled tracklist’s lyrical or musical references cover a large part of American history, culture, and popular music, from presidential assassinations to religion, from Whitman’s or Poe’s poetry to blues. In a nutshell, the result of the collective effort of the contributors to 21st Century Dylan. Late and Timely is a very rich, learned and insightful panorama of the countless facets of an artist who, after nearly six decades of writing, singing and touring, keeps on challenging his audience, and remains in the “state of becoming” (54) he described to Martin Scorsese’s camera in No Direction Home.

Top of page


Bibliographical reference

Cyril Camus, 21st Century Dylan. Late and Timely. Edited by Laurence Estanove, Adrian Grafe, Andrew McKeown, Claire Hélie. New York/London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2021, 236 p.Caliban, 65-66 | 2021, 352-355.

Electronic reference

Cyril Camus, 21st Century Dylan. Late and Timely. Edited by Laurence Estanove, Adrian Grafe, Andrew McKeown, Claire Hélie. New York/London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2021, 236 p.Caliban [Online], 65-66 | 2021, Online since 20 October 2021, connection on 06 December 2023. URL:; DOI:

Top of page



The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

Top of page
Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search