It’s a perennial, never to be resolved debate. Although I don’t think it has to be a debate! I don’t think you have to choose sides! You can choose both. Although I do believe that you have to recognize there are, I’m not sure how to put it precisely, different levels of imaginative incandesence.
Here’s my friend Elizabeth Wurtzel writing in The Guardian about why some of us can love some Bruce, without diminishing the stature of Bob.
It’s mostly about Bruce but here’s her conclusion which turns upon the distinction between Bruce and Bob:
“Never quite the genius of language that Bob Dylan is – no one is nor will anyone ever be – what Springsteen lacks in lyricism, he makes up for in communication: he is among us in a way that Dylan is forever separate. Bruce is always hoping his audience will get it; he’s going for comprehensibility in all the places where Dylan might be looking for his own laughable obfuscation. That’s the richness in all Springsteen lyrics: the narrator feels for everybody – the good and the bad, the ugly and the gorgeous – and most especially for the person out there who happens to be listening to, or reading, the words. Bruce Springsteen is, above all, a songwriter of the people, for the people, by the people”
There’s a lot about that I’d agree with, although I tend to think that Dylan’s love songs are among the most oure comprehenible, almost primal even written. Think of “I’ll Keep It With Mine”, “If You See Her Say Hello”.
What I suggested to Elizabeth was another possible way of distinguishing them, one that overlaps in a way with hers. Earnestness and irony. I’d say that Bruce is always earnest. Bruce gives earnestness a good name, an urgency; he understand sthe true imortance of being earnest. . Dylan is sometimes earnest (in the love songs and some of the protest songs0 but never far from irony.
In fact the one time Bruice went for irony “Born inthe U.S.A.”, a lot of people misunderstood, calling it a patriotic anthem. Ron Kovic wrote a book that became an Oliver Stone movie, both withthat titlem nobody understood them as
“patriotic anthems”, but Bruce had the ability to invest the grandiosity he meat as ironic with an inerradicable earnest sincerity that made the irony easier to mishear. (Dylan is capable of misleading you with his beguiling melodies:It took me a while to realize that “Positively Fourth Street was a bitter insult revenge song because it’s melody was so (ironically I now realize) cheery and catchy.
I think another way they part profoudnly is the way they write about loneliness. Bruce makes it seem like all loneliness is alike (like all happy familes). for Dylan almost all loneliness is different. (“The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”)
I wonder if readers can suggest other distinctions–or convergences– in the comments.