With time on the X axis and quality on the Y, the graphical representation of Bob Dylan's catalog resembles a child's sketch of mountains, or maybe a fibber's polygraph test. There are many juts and jags, though on average, he's been quite exceptional. On February 3, the 73-year-old returns with Shadows In the Night, a set of American jazz standards made famous by Frank Sinatra. It's Dylan's 36th studio album and seventh great one in a row, and that's counting the Christmas record he put out a few years ago.
He's prolific, eclectic, and unlikely to quit, and yet for all the amazing music he's given the world, Bob's most bountiful gift has been the "new Dylan," a rock 'n' roll archetype he unwittingly created back in the '60s, when he busted out of New York City's folk scene and became a star.
Dylan's list of disciples is long. Grammy nominees Ed Sheeran and Hozier are fans, as are Marcus Mumford's New Basement Tapes gang and the alt-country act Old Crow Medicine Show, both of which have fashioned new tunes from discarded Dylan lyrics. And, then there are new-jack troubadours like Jenny Lewis, Ryan Adams, and of course, Conor Oberst, who tumbles farther down a Dylan rabbit hole with each floppy black hat and album of abstract Americana. Last year, artists ranging from the Hold Steady's Craig Finn to Once star Glen Hansard lent their voices to Bob Dylan In the '80s Vol. 1 — a tribute to the man's least-loved decade — and in 2013, Miley Cyrus, Sugarland, Bad Religion, and Kesha were among the WTF assemblage of admirers to appear on Chimes of Freedom, a four-disc compilation of Bob covers benefiting Amnesty International.
Oh, and when Pharrell Williams wants to praise Kendrick Lamar for being the voice of his generation, guess who he compares him to. (Hint: His name rhymes with "villain," as the Beastie Boys pointed out on "3-Minute Role," a tune from their most freewheeling — and therefore Dylanesque — album, Paul's Boutique.)
One reason for all the Dylan imitators: There are so many Dylans to imitate. From coffeehouse howler to crooner of pop ballads, he's worn masks on masks on masks and played numerous characters. For about 10 years starting in 2002, Dylan listed off of his various phases in a pre-show stage intro almost certainly meant to mess with people's heads. "Ladies and gentleman, please welcome the poet laureate of rock 'n' roll," began this preposterous rap, which went on to chronicle Bob's adventures with makeup, drugs, Jesus, and more.
Each period of Dylan's career has yielded some terrific songs, and none should be dismissed out of hand. With Shadows In the Night looming, now's a good time to do what Bob said never to do and look back. What follows is a quick tour through 60-plus years of weirdness and wonder, revelation and trickery, god's honest human emotion and flat-out nonsense. Read on and follow this self-styled "creature void of form" as he rewrites rock's rulebook again and again.