Ageing Gracefully in Music: Bob Dylan vs. Paul McCartney

Guest writer Joel Moran (@georgebensonandhedges) discusses the progressing timelines of two household names.

Photo Source: Getty Images

2020 was a hell of a year, right? Not only were we blessed with a brand new album of original material from Bob Dylan, but at the tail end of the year Paul McCartney ambushed us with the surprise of McCartney III. What a treat!

Nobody is going to refute the fact that both these guys are past their prime; standing in at 79 and 78 years old respectively. Now, that’s not to say that neither of them are still capable of crafting fine music, it’s just unlikely that any material released now is going to be as interesting and well crafted as their earlier works.  . In most cases when such ageing musicians release new material, the album quickly climbs to the top of the charts; only to then swiftly drop and be almost instantly forgotten about. How many people are still listening to Paul McCartney’s ‘Egypt Station’, released in 2018? Do you know a single person who owns a copy of the Who’s 2006 effort Endless Wire? I know I don’t.

So naturally, it came as a big surprise when Bob Dylan managed to climb to the top of the single charts with ‘Murder Most Foul’, a 17-minute epic concerning itself with the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Granted, there were some mitigating circumstances (i.e. a significant chunk of the world being in a lockdown, meaning they had the time to spare to listen to a track of such length), but not enough to allow the track to ascend all the way to the top spot. It’s one thing for an artist of such an advanced age to climb to the top of the album charts, but to top the single charts is almost unheard of. The album he released following this, Rough and Rowdy Ways, was equally well received. Friends of mine who had never before shown even as much as a passing interest in Dylan actively took time out to listen to the album, and found they enjoyed it.

Conversely, my die-hard McCartney fan of an Auntie, received a copy of his latest effort as a gift this Christmas. But did she enjoy it? With the exception of a couple of instrumental tracks, no not at all. Why is this? What is it about Bob Dylan that allows him to continue to produce music that resonates with the public, whilst McCartney’s music fails to rouse even the most dedicated of fans?

The answer is simple: “To live outside the law you must be honest”. True to his word, that’s what Bob Dylan is, honest. The man doesn’t shy away from his age. When you listen to Dylan’s recent compositions, you hear the grizzled voice of a 79 year old man, and all that he has experienced in those years. Whereas McCartney’s latest effort, sounds as if he is trying to outrun the sun. He still attempts to hit notes that he hasn’t been able to hit for well over a decade, and continues to work in the field of pop/rock that he has always occupied.

The songs on McCartney III could have been written by just about any contemporary rock musician. There’s nothing uniquely ‘McCartney’ about the music, or the lyrics, and McCartney could have written these songs when he was in his 30s for all we know. Dylan’s latest effort however, could have only been written by a Bob Dylan in his late seventies. Few active musicians are even going to know who Jimmy Reed is, let alone work his name into the chorus of a song, and then release it in 2020. Yet Bob Dylan does just this. 

McCartney conversely, is still trying to write catchy and repetitive hooks. “Do you, do-do, do you miss me?Do you, do-do, do you feel me?”. I wouldn’t be surprised if I heard this being sung by Scouting for Girls (what happened to them anyway?).

Bob Dylan has aged gracefully, and his music with him. There is no pretence, no sense that he feels the need to stay relevant. He does as he pleases. Even Paul himself admits this! In an interview with Uncut Magazine last year Paul stated “Sometimes I wish I could be a bit more like Bob Dylan”, “I always like what he does. Sometimes I wish I was a bit more like Bob. He’s legendary … and doesn’t give a shit! But I’m not like that.”.

And that is why Bob Dylan can get away with releasing a 17-minute epic about the death of JFK. He’s 79, and he makes no effort to hide it.

6 thoughts on “Ageing Gracefully in Music: Bob Dylan vs. Paul McCartney

  1. I agree and disagree. There’s nothing wrong with McCartney continuing to work in the pop field and coming up with catchy melodies or grooves (his bass playing is always top notch). But when he puts a lyric on top such as “Wanna get up up/Wanna take a bite/Gotta let me know/If we can throw a party every night” … and repeats that for 6+ minutes … then yes, I’m disappointed he doesn’t have something a little more insightful to sing about at age 79.

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    1. Yeah I think that’s the main issue for me as well, he’s clearly still incredible and writing melodies but after all these years he still has very little to actually say, fair enough if that’s not exactly what he’s interested in but it leaves me wanting. Conversely some of the lyrics on Bob Dylan’s Rough and Rowdy Ways, or Tempest, could only be written by a man with 70+ years of experience.

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  2. Bob is one of the few who was lucky to retain his trademark into old age. His hair. It is real. Maybe he tints it, maybe he doesn’t. But few old men will even grow their hair, even if they still have it. Those who can and do grow their hair will rarely let it show their wild side.

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    1. Dylan is like a shark, always moving, never able to truly settle. Whenever you think he’s about to stagnate he pulls something out of the bag to prove otherwise. He gives everything and nothing away. A true enigma, the world will be much worse off when he eventually leaves it.

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  3. So very well stated. I’m almost 67 years old and I LOVE Paul McCartney! Honestly mostly because he was part of “The Beatles”. But Bob Dylan? So much more depth and meaning to his music. Love them both, but Bob gets my vote!

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