Through A Note Darkly is a weekly feature on thegreatalbums.com in which contributor Chris Villalta searches for lessons in an album he's heard a lot about, but has never heard in full before.
I never completely understood Dylan’s reason for rejecting the ‘voice of a generation’ label–my songs are just songs–but hearing the punchline to the optimistic setup that is “The Times They Are A Changin’” made me understand completely. Dylan’s reasoning is similar to that of what some may consider politically incorrect comedians: my jokes are just jokes. How could you call someone the voice of a generation when they don’t even have a voice? Listening to this record I don’t hear a single person, a prophet telling us how it is. I hear a physically distinct voice taking on characters that certainly include prophets (“The Time They Are A Changin’”), but also a pessimist who see the times changing into one not of peace, but of bleeding brains (“The Ballad of Hollis Brown”), a historian trying to make a point (“With God On Our Side”), a devil’s advocate recognizing the plight of a white man (“Only A Pawn In The Game”). I think it’s true when Dylan says he’s “one too many mornings/An’ a thousand miles behind.” These voice have overtaken who he is, leaving him only able to look, not experience, the room in which his love and him once laid (“One Too Many Mornings”). The frustration is clear. Dylan seems to have abandoned any sense of self to create the piles and piles of songs he’s graced several decades with, and yet it is very much possible he as a person will be remembered more than his work.
No one cares about cookie jars, we just want the cookies, but when it comes to artists there are times when we forget about the cookies and obsess over the jar with documentaries and criticism of a personality instead of the personality’s creations. It is one of those topics not everyone agrees on, but when it comes to separating the artist from their art, Dylan seems to have wanted to distance himself from his words as much as possible from the start. Perhaps Dylan hoped to take attention off of himself as the jar by rejecting the voice of a generation label, but that is exactly what the voice of a generation does. That “X Factor” he and the few legends able to be associated with him is certainly a plus for a career, but a burden on the work. Each song on this record has its own voice, none of them coming from the throat of the real Dylan, but whatever X Factor Dylan had going into record has doomed these songs to be seen as Dylan songs instead of just songs with their own story, opinions, voice.