The most honest way to look at Dylan is the way his young fans do. They admire him, but they don't adore him. And they understand that his career over four decades has had dramatic ebbs and flows. Between 1975 and 1987 he produced some memorable songs along with many otiose ballads and those hymns aptly described by Alex Ross as "snarling gospel." The best you can say about these experiments is that they were sincere. But they suffered from the enervation that comes of disengagement.
As a young man, Dylan withdrew in rage from the burdens of progressive politics, and that rebellion galvanized his most important work. But as he aged, he withdrew from the social world itself, and his gift was lost in the ether of salvation. Then, somehow, Dylan found the world again, and in 1997 he created a wonderful album of spare, melancholy songs, Time Out of Mind. He was back, though as he's said, you can't come back in the same way again.
Now a new generation has discovered Dylan, but not for his late style. They flock to his concerts to hear the early songs, those still-gripping sagas of alienation and outrage written when Dylan was lost in the wilderness, and they come to hear how Dylan will sing those songs today, since he always performs them differently. They know Dylan as he should be known--as a striving, fallible artist, not a saint.
I've learned not to overestimate the dude. That sandpaper voice still stirs the passions of my past, even when it's singing of a present that would stifle me. But I don't believe in Dylan. His words are not the Word. And I come not to worship him but to complicate him.