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The story goes that it was Leonard Cohen’s son Adam who pressed his father for a back-to-basics album, one where the most magnificent mutter in rock could operate unhindered by Cohen Sr’s taste for flamenco guitar and synths. We may have something as banal as pester power to thank, then, for this exquisite 14th album from the Montreal poet, held by recent Nobel laureate Bob Dylan – gnomic as ever – to be “No 1” to his “zero”.

Source: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/oct/23/leonard-cohen-you-want-it-darker-review-on-level-traveling-light-leaving-table-treaty-seemed-better

Can you help me with understanding the passage in bold which I am not able to fully understand. I am not sure to which part of the text the bolded passage is related. What does the author of the review want to say? Does it mean that Bob Dylan expressed the thank for new Lenonard Cohen's album?

  • I'm surprised you got past the most magnificent mutter in rock (I've no idea what that's supposed to mean). But the last bit just means that Dylan (who recently got a Nobel prize) has always been and continues to be "gnomic" (inscrutable). And that Dylan holds the position that Cohen is second only to him on the scale of great musicians. Apparently somewhat whimsically, Dylan refers to himself as "Number zero" on that list, rather than "Number one" as would be normal in such contexts. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Oct 31 '16 at 17:05
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    @FumbleFingers You may not know that The Leonard is known to mutter. The incomprehensibility of that sentence is a result of the writer's referring to LC twice: it is "Cohen Sr" himself whose tastes as an arranger do not hinder "the most magnificent mutter" on the album. (It's also a play on "mother", I suspect.) – P. E. Dant Reinstate Monica Oct 31 '16 at 20:49
  • @P. E. Dant: You're quite right that I was thrown by this use of LC's "mutter" as a synedoche for the (elder) man himself, followed in the same sentence by an explicit reference by name. I'm familiar with the father's music, so I did realise he can and does mutter & ramble sometimes. But the sentence structure implies the son is the famous "mutterer", which I couldn't make sense of. Imho it's not good writing though - just some muso hack getting carried away with hyperbole and florid style, in a misguided attempt to sound knowledgeable & sophisticated. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Nov 1 '16 at 14:40
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    @FumbleFingers Oh, it is incontestably an exemplar of clause-twisting, back-referencing whiz-bam-pow media critic bombastitudification. I wonder how many furrows were carved in his far from expansive brow in the quest for "gnomic". That one put his thesaurus to the test, I'm sure. – P. E. Dant Reinstate Monica Nov 1 '16 at 19:44
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It says that Dylan held that album to be "No 1" to his (own) "zero".

What Dylan meant by that is anybody's guess. Calling it "No 1" is probably praising it, but what the significance is of his "zero" I don't know.

Edit: (explaining the structure): it's a reduced relative clause:

this album [which was] held by... Bob Dylan ... to be ...

i.e. Dylan held that album to be ...

This uses a particular meaning of 'hold': to "hold X to be Y" means "to believe or maintain that X is Y".

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  • The writer's gnomic as ever rather suggests that he doesn't know what Dylan meant either. But I kinda doubt there's any hint of "compared to Cohen, I'm just a zero/nonentity". – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Oct 31 '16 at 17:18
  • Thanks. You both are interpreting the meaning. But I am just in the stage not being able to understand the syntactical structure. I mean that I do not know which part of the text the pasage in bold develops. – bart-leby Oct 31 '16 at 17:20
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    I suggest that it is the Montreal poet, not his album, which Dylan gnomically holds to be 0 to his own 1; and I think it likely that what Dylan means is that Cohen is the #1 artist in the tradition which Dylan launched. (Dylan's first album came out in 1962, and Cohen's first in 1967.) – StoneyB on hiatus Oct 31 '16 at 17:54
  • @StoneyB: you may well be right. There is no way internally to the sentence to determine exactly what the reduced relative clause attaches to. – Colin Fine Oct 31 '16 at 18:20
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In the source material the words “No 1” to his “zero” are linked to an article with this quote:

Dylan went on driving. After a while, he told Cohen that a famous songwriter of the day had told him, “O.K., Bob, you’re Number 1, but I’m Number 2.”

Cohen smiled. “Then Dylan says to me, ‘As far as I’m concerned, Leonard, you’re Number 1. I’m Number Zero.’ Meaning, as I understood it at the time—and I was not ready to dispute it—that his work was beyond measure and my work was pretty good.”

Actually, I'm going to capture StoneyB's comment on Colin Fine's answer because I think it's more accurate than my "better than best" thought:

I think it likely that what Dylan means is that Cohen is the #1 artist in the tradition which Dylan launched. (Dylan's first album came out in 1962, and Cohen's first in 1967.)

If you read the rest of the New Yorker article that was linked from the Guardian article, it's clear that Dylan admires Cohen's art and isn't interested in comparing his own music directly to Cohen's music. As P.E.Dant mentioned in the comments, artists like Dylan are probably not inclined to rank themselves relative to other artists.

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  • Leonard was wrong about that, though. Bobby meant that he is not part of any list at any number. That's been his thing since 1964 on Macdougal St. If you ask him what he does, he'll tell you he's a painter. – P. E. Dant Reinstate Monica Nov 1 '16 at 2:04
  • @P.E.Dant Thanks - I honestly don't know that much about Dylan. I'm one of those crazy people who just listens to musicians when they perform and ignores what happens off stage :) – ColleenV Nov 1 '16 at 2:30
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We may have something as banal as pester power to thank, then, for this exquisite 14th album from the Montreal poet, held [to be characterized by] by recent Nobel laureate Bob Dylan [as] to be “No 1” to his “zero”.

/held by/ here means: to be characterized by Bob Dylan as.

Funnily enough, it's like the US Declaration of Independence: "we hold these truths to be self-evident"=we characterize them as self-evident.

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