Oh my! What an adventure the past few weeks have been. In case you have not been following the blog at all in that time period (and who could blame you), I recently decided to take up a long-standing challenge from blogfriend Ben Vigeant to listen through every single Bob Dylan studio album released in the 1980s and somehow, by the grace of God, compile a “Best Of” playlist, taking at least one track from each album. This, in essence, was one of my favorite blog requests from anybody, for two distinct reasons: one, I love Bob Dylan and always have, and relish in the opportunity to dig deeper into his eccentricities; and two, I love rooting for the underdog, and how many records out there have taken the nearly-unanimous critical lashing that Dylan’s 80s records have – let alone record released by an artist of Dylan’s considerable stature?
Then again, to be fair, the conservative Reagan years were not kind to many 60s rock icons: besides starting ominously with John Lennon’s murder, Paul McCartney and George Harrison’s solo careers faded into irrelevancy, the Stones released a record with this fucking album cover while on the verge of a breakup, and even Neil Young – known for surviving the punk era with fearless tenacity – succumbed to 80s fever with Trans and didn’t recover ’till the decade was over. For 60s icons, the cold-blooded 80s represented a painful, awkward middle age, where they watched their legacies fade away in the shadow of new wave and dance-pop. And no 60s artist represented that generational gap better than Bob Dylan, for better or for worse.
But Dylan’s 80s period, to me, always felt a little different than everyone else’s. The Beatles, specifically George, just didn’t seem to give a shit about pop music anymore (funny, considering Harrison’s inexplicable #1 hit in 1988); the Stones were still riding high from the success of “Start Me Up,” and almost immediately dovetailed; and Young, in constant dispute with Geffen Records, seemed to make intentionally shitty albums out of spite. Dylan’s failures, however, feel a little more personal; by the time 1980’s Saved was released, he had already undergone a painful divorce, a critically loathed Vegas-esque 1978 tour, and a baffling conversion to Christianity. The critical and commercial goodwill afforded by Blood On The Tracks and the Rolling Thunder Revue had long since faded, and Dylan – once viewed as a keen, modern social observer – now just looked like a kooky old man who had no idea what he was doing. Listening through Dylan’s 80s records, you get the impression that he just didn’t have a sure hand in the creation of his own records, often writing songs that were horribly at odds with the sound of the record itself (especially the shlocky 80s production that popped up in his mid-80s work). This, not to mention a string of unusual and often baffling collaborations (Sam Shepherd? Full Force? The Grateful Dead??) confirm that perhaps he had lost faith in his own songwriting skills. But despite his lingering cultural confusion and songwriting troubles, the man just kept making records, transforming a series of mediocre albums into bizarre chronicle of one of the 60’s finest songwriters undergoing a state of incalculable writer’s block. It gives them a sense of nobility and tragedy lacking in many similar artists’ 80s failures.
There is no way I can hate these records. Even the worst of them. I just love Dylan too much, and he is all over this music, personality-wise – even the worst Bob Dylan record you can think of is still a Bob Dylan record, after all. He’s there, he’s singing, he’s wheezing, and ultimately he’s revealing another goofy facet of his personality that maybe you’ve never heard before. For me, it’s worth it, especially considering Dylan’s eventual comeback with 1997’s Time Out Of Mind; I haven’t heard Dylan’s 90s records yet, but I am looking forward to it. In that regard, you could even think of Dylan’s 80s period as the story of a down-and-out former champion, fighting for what was once his and, years later, finally winning back his title – isn’t that exciting??
Well, to me it is.
So before we get to the actual “Best Of” playlist itself – which will come in the second part of this post, coming shortly after this one – I feel that a brief review of each record is in order. Because, really, as awful as some of these albums are, a lot of them are genuinely worth hearing if you are a Dylan fan. And some, you know, aren’t. At all.
Well! Either way! Let’s get the ball rolling!!
Absolutely the most Christian album this man ever recorded. It’s not all bad. Doesn’t have any of the artful weirdness of Slow Train Coming – no funky “Gotta Serve Somebody”s to be found here – but Dylan’s flirtations with gospel are surprisingly enjoyable. You might remember “Pressing On” from Christian Bale’s appearance in I’m Not There – it’s a pretty effective song! Sadly, it’s still a painfully samey, preachy record. I can’t imagine it converting anybody. Not sure if that was really the point, but still.
Shot Of Love (1981)
I am so mixed about this one. The first side is arguably even more annoying and slipshod than the entirety of Saved, including the weirdest and dumbest tribute song he ever recorded, “Lenny Bruce”. The second half has some serious flashes of brilliance, though, especially the last few tracks. Finally Dylan drops the fire-and-brimstone attitude and starts writing songs that, while obviously Christian-themed, are more personal, universal, and empathetic (including the well-regarded “Every Grain Of Sand”) than anything else he recorded at time. And he finally brings back that fucking harmonica.
Pretty good! Maybe not great, but a definite improvement. Dire Straitsman Mark Knopfler produces, and he gives the record a more subtle, laid-back, reggae-tinged sort of feel. It works! “Jokerman,” “License To Kill,” “I And I,” “Don’t Fall Apart On Me Tonight,” and even the blatantly sexist “Sweetheart Like You” – good songs all. Might not hold your attention all the way through, I understand that. But a Bob Dylan 80s record that isn’t drenched with awful schlocky production is rare enough to warrant some merit.
Empire Burlesque (1985)
Begins and ends with two of the most adorable, lovable songs in the man’s oeuvre; everything in the middle is gross, gross, gross. Horrible 80s production tricks, corny female backup vocalists, synth horns, etc. etc. There could be some salvagable songs here (besides the ones already mentioned), but GOD that PRODUCTION – I just can’t stand it!! So many critics champion this one, even today. No idea why. Rob Christgau called “Clean Cut Kid” “the toughest Vietnam-vet song yet.” He’s a foolish fool.
Knocked Out Loaded (1986)
A tough one to listen to. Painful. I would say this is his worst record. It’s just a confused, sad, horribly recorded piece of work. “They Killed Him” is embarrassing. There’s a song with the Heartbreakers that should really be a lot better than it is. A lot of people love the Sam Shepherd collaboration “Brownsville Girl,” and I kind of like it too, but it’s not NEARLY enough to save the record (and definitely not as good as Empire Burlesque‘s highlights). Watch out for this one – all the critical hate is totally deserved.
Down In The Groove (1988)
I don’t think it’s that bad! Really!! It’s roots-rock. Production is much cleaner and more direct than the last two records, the covers are kind of fun in a goofy way, and a handful of songs here are genuinely good. Great, even. The tracks he co-wrote with Rob Hunter are surprisingly funny, and “Silvio” is wonderful. The “Shenandoah” cover feels like a precursor to his early 90s folk covers albums, maybe? I haven’t heard them yet, so I can’t say. I think I am a little more defensive of this one ’cause so many critics consider it to be his absolute worst studio record, but god, there’s no WAY that’s true. Especially not with Knocked Out Loaded sitting right there! Come on!! Then again, it’s pretty poorly paced and has a lot of mediocre tracks, but it’s at least worth a listen.
Oh Mercy (1989)
His first Dan Laonis-produced record, considered a comeback after a tough decade. I like it! It’s kind of slow, and some of the songs don’t go anywhere, but Dylan sounds like he’s finally settling into old age. In an appealing way! People complain about Laonis’s hazy, commercial production, but for the love of God – have those people heard Empire Burlesque?? I think Laonis’s atmospheric work here compliments Dylan’s songs well enough. Pleasing to the ear. “Most Of The Time” was in High Fidelity for good reason. It’s pretty! If you’re gonna spend your time/money on a Dylan 80s record, it might as well be this one.
So there. You. Go. I know I didn’t dig very deep with these reviews, but for good reason; I’m planning on doing that with the “best of” playlist. Then I can decipher some lyrics and talk about where Dylan’s head was at the time and all that. Man, that’ll be a good time!!