The reviews have been negative, but I, being an American university student, had already pre-ordered my book from this site, and, by the time i saw the reviews, could not change that. not that i would want to. I am acquainted with quite a lot of Dylan scholarship-- Michael Gray's "Song and Dance Man", various biographical treatments, as well as the multi-faceted "With the Poets and Professors" (Muldoon's poem makes the book worth it), as well as some other studies of the lyrics-- as well as some of Professor Rick's work (The Force of Poetry, Essays in Appreciation). Of course, I am a massive Dylan fan with over 100 discs in my collection. Aware of the forces that were about to collide in this book (Dylanology, serious literary scholarship, and Dylan's lyrics), I had some idea of the outcome. Perhaps that is why I am so much less disappointed (not disappointed at all, from what I have read) of the book than the reviews have been. Dylan's Lyrics, I believe, demand close-attention. Dylanologists seem, on the whole, quite poor at bringing this attention to the words. Whereas they assume Dylan's work is poetry, they make scarce efforts to demonstrate it's internal merits, too often bandying comparisons with Rimbaud, Keats, Ginsberg, Milton etc etc etc. Where they pay attention to Dylan as a man, to the historical contexts of the songs, and, sometimes (but barely) to the music itself-- and this they do typically in florid descriptions of instrumentation--they fail to bring a sole devotion to the lyrics themselves. Which is what must be done if Dylan's lyrics are to be considered literary, in any sense. Christopher Ricks, qualified more than all but a few others in the English speaking world to flip out cheap comparisons with the canon, does not do this. He treats Dylan's lyrics as literature by actually treating them. He stays with the words. With a wit, verve, and razor sharp mind that can sew as well as cut, he shows that Dylan says all that fans always knew he had to say, but couldn't manage to rationally point out. William Empson, one of Ricks' heroes, discussing mood, a feature of pop/rock music that many would consider its dominant appealing factor, says mood is worthless if it cannot be analyzed. Ricks shows that the unique mood Dylan established record after record stirs the stomachs of thousands of fans for a reason. Even if we don't know how to say what that reason is.
Reviews have complained that Ricks ignores the politics, the biography, the times, the music: but for readers of Christopher Ricks, this is not news. Ricks performs the task that somehow has been ignored when looking at Dylan, but which was the task that established so many literary figures as great before the advent of modern cultural studies: close-reading.
The book is a firecracker in itself: entertaining, bristiling with puns, shameless allusions, fantastic digressions and possibilities-- these all make it worth reading, Dylan fan or not.
What the negative reviews missed was that the book does what has not been done, and that Christopher Ricks, more than anyone writing criticism can do well, look eye to eye at the words of the songs.