You may have heard a little announcement out of Stockholm recently: Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, the first American to do so since 1993 and the first musician ever so honored. It was, to say the least, a controversial choice among the literati. As a writer and avid reader of fiction, I sympathize with the complaints that awarding a literary prize to someone like Dylan robs an actual author, often one whose name is hardly known in the U.S., of a well-deserved boost in sales and recognition. And as someone who strives to read poetry more regularly, I understand the necessity of interrogating whether someone who is known primarily as a lyricist can or should be considered a writer of verse in the same way laureates like Szymborska and Heaney are. And as a woman who has experienced her share of man-splaining, I nodded my head at the annoyance that rippled through many Twitter feeds that perhaps the ultimate white male artiste beloved by every pretentious dickhead who ever picked up a guitar received an award of this magnitude and prestige.
While I can lament that Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell have meant more to me personally and that, given the Nobel committee’s track record for honoring Americans, we may never see Don DeLillo or Philip Roth recognized at this point, I found the announcement a delightful surprise. Dylan was not an artist I grew up with, per se. Ours was a Fleetwood Mac/Simon & Garfunkel household. When my mother bought me a ticket to see him live my freshman year of college I was disappointed that his performance of the sole song I had heard before, “Mr. Tambourine Man,” was nigh incomprehensible. But while there’s merit to the criticisms of his borrowing from other blues and folk musicians and that his later work lacks immediate cultural relevance, he’s also the sort of artist that, if you’re a fan of American music, you don’t really “discover” because he’s so fully knit into the aural fabric of the country.
In the days since, there’s been a lot of chatter over his “best” work and sharing of personal favorites. My own honest choice is “Like a Rolling Stone” while my hipster obscure one is “Farewell, Angelina,” with Blood on the Tracks being the obvious (and correct!) best album pick. But, possibly due to extenuating personal circumstances, the song that I kept pulling up on Spotify was “Most of the Time” from his 1989 album Oh Mercy, which, beyond the stone cold classics I’d heard on the radio, was the first Dylan song I can remember treasuring.
Dylan, whatever his other many talents, is a superlative choice for post-breakup wallowing. The entirety of Tracks is the ideal option, given that it was made in the wake of his divorce, but the majority of his catalogue is touched by the sort of open-hearted yearning that anyone recently tenderized by love will appreciate. His voice at these times, which can otherwise sound strident or lackadasical, becomes that of a man perpetually left behind, reaching out for someone or something that has already disappeared. It’s there even when he’s doing the leaving, as in “Don’t Think Twice.”
But “Most of the Time” is something different. It’s the sound of a man whose yearning has withered to defeat. This makes sense as Dylan was well into the gravel-throated stage of his career at this point. It’s also a song that makes canny use of his reputation for repetitious (some would say endless) structures. While many of his earlier heartbreak anthems were marked by a certain resolve, the lyrics here take on the classic POV of an unreliable narrator, a man lying to both himself and his listener. “I can handle whatever I stumble upon/I don’t even notice she’s gone,” he says in the first verse but as the song unfolds, each subsequent careless statement is undercut by the steady insistence of the titular phrase until the aching subtext of his pain becomes almost unbearably raw. That it scored a scene in High Fidelity, one of the most earnest romantic comedies of the turn of the most recent century, is almost too on the nose.
Would it work without his knowing delivery? The melancholy shuffle of the music behind it? At this point it’s impossible for me to scan the lyrics without simultaneously running through the song in my head, but I think it does. Indeed, the pause he takes between “I don’t even care if I ever see her again” and “Most of the time” as the song ends is the sort of wry rhythmic flourish that will be recognizable to anyone who’s attended a coffee house’s open mic night. But is it “literature”? Does awarding Dylan such a prize open up the gates for, say, David Simon to one day be recognized for his contributions to television in the same category? That strikes me as beside the point when the boundaries between mediums are becoming increasingly porous, when the influence of Dylan’s knotty lyricism can be seen as much in the latest Michael Chabon novel as the newest albums from Conor Oberst or Beck. Such reach feels quintessentially American in the serendipity of it and certainly seems award-worthy to me, whatever genre some mysterious judging panel wants to slap on it. Most of the time, at least.