Lately I have been trying to discern what in particular gives Dylan’s writing a unique power. Entire books have been written on the topic, entire semesters have been taught. I am not going to solve the conundrum here.
However, as someone that has spent more time than is healthy studying song lyrics, there is something I notice time and time again. Dylan has not only been prolific for most of his career, but his words also often gain power through sheer volume. I am a huge fan of Morrissey. Although he has written expansive songs like The Queen is Dead, he often writes couplets that are powerful statements in and of themselves. Leonard Cohen, someone by whose own admission is not prolific, yet is closer to Dylan in style, spends a lot of time finely crafting certain lines.
If you take many Dylan couplets, although with his huge catalog he has written brilliant couplets as well, they are not always powerful in and of themselves. But by the time you get to the 7th couplet in 4th verse of a Dylan song (hypothetically), Dylan songs are often astounding for the sheer amount of language he packs in them, they begin to take on a cumulative poetic power.
Where some writers get their power from cutting back until what lies before them is a finally crafted sculpture, Dylan almost seems to stand out of the way and let his subconscious pour forth. Line after line, image after image, floats past until the amount of imagery leaves the listener overwhelmed and breathless.
Sure, that is not all he is doing. There is a difference in power between Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone and Springsteen’s similar wordy Blinded by the Light. (I love Dylan and Springsteen, but I would be lying if I said the latter contained the poetic force of the former.) Dylan performs alchemy. He does get that missing piece of the puzzle that many others cannot find no matter how talented they are.
This is not to say that Dylan cannot write shorter more traditional songs. He can of course. Again this is also not to say that Dylan cannot write great one liners and couplets, as he has done that as well. There are also many other elements at play to make a song powerful. However, I think, if you are interested in what Dylan does, this is a good facet of his writing to examine.