Was Dylan Really Terrible in the 1980s—or Had We Just Forgotten Why We Love Him?

Pop, jazz, and classical.
April 2 2014 10:22 AM

It Ain’t Me, Babe


Was Dylan really terrible in the ’80s—or had we just forgotten how to listen to him?

Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan always keeps on doing the only thing he’s built to do, which is to mulch all incoming data into symbol, rhetoric, jape, and patter.

Illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker

The new tribute album Bob Dylan in the 80s: Vol. 1 comes with an unusually didactic goal, to redeem the “oft-maligned” “wilderness” phase of the singer-songwriter’s career—the lag time between his decade-plus as an unnervingly precise weathervane of American culture and his late-1990s renaissance as a dirty-grandpa sage of mortality, mischief, and musical memory.

Save for 1989’s Oh Mercy, his first collaboration with producer Daniel Lanois, Dylan’s 1980s records were dyspeptically reviewed and later lumped together as gawkily, half-heartedly crafted detritus. Dylan co-signed that account in his 2004 memoir Chronicles: Volume One: “The windows had been boarded up for years and covered with cobwebs, and it’s not like I didn’t know it”; “There was a missing person inside of myself and I needed to find him”; “I felt done for, an empty burned-out wreck … in the bottomless pit of cultural oblivion.”

Executive producers Jesse Lauter and Sean O'Brien want to rescript that story and have enlisted nearly two dozen (counting bonus tracks) hip-ish, young-ish artists, including Deer Tick, Blitzen Trapper, Glen Hansard, Elvis Perkins, and Widespread Panic. Dylanophile novelist Jonathan Lethem adds cred with a lively companion essay. And the team succeeds in its mission, less because of the mostly passable efforts on the record than purely in having posed the question: Does this material deserve all the manure that’s been slopped on it?

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Like Lethem, I grew up with 1980s Dylan. I’d glommed on to the early topical-folkie albums in my mom’s collection, then fixated on my own acquisitions of the mid-1960s rock milestones, but 1983’s Infidels was the first Dylan record I got to hear as a contemporary event.

I loved it. “Jokerman” (covered nicely but unnecessarily here by Built to Spill) seemed every bit as vital as most of Desire, for instance. “Sweetheart Like You,” with its video centered on a middle-age waitress, felt like a sideways protest song about have-nots, at least amid the lux Duran Duran interiors of oiled-up MTV. (Craig Finn, the sardonic-populist leader of The Hold Steady, lays claim to that song on the compilation’s single most successful track.)

I paid less mind to Empire Burlesque, Shot of Love, and the next few albums because I was past my classic-rock stage and hunting down indie, cult stuff. It was the face-slapping flash of light that is 2001’s Love and Theft that finally drew me back. But Dylan’s other vaunted late-resurgence albums are actually mixed bags, too. To me the 1980s records sound no less enjoyable alongside them now.

It is all the same elusive, imaginative, incorrigible Bob, one of pop’s premiere devils of disguise, more a Madonna than the musical MLK he gets made out to be. (Madge has been a protest singer, too.) He paid for his almost-incomparable streak of youthful inspiration by being driven to outrun his own shadow, into drugs, booze, religion, depression, stylistic quirks, and flagrant commercial betrayals of his purist 1960s savior myth. His Super Bowl car ad this year was just another move in that Seventh Seal chess match against his own legacy.

Yet I am as tickled and perplexed by the lyrical turns in a lot of 1980s Dylan as I am anywhere else. Take 1985’s stadium-soul “Tight Connection to My Heart,” which in retrospect sounds startlingly like queer solidarity in the key of surreally plain D:

Well, they're not showing any lights tonight, and there's no moon
There's just a hot-blooded singer, singing “Memphis in June,”
While they're beatin' the devil out of a guy who's wearing a powder-blue wig.
Later he'll be shot for resisting arrest
I can still hear his voice, crying in the wilderness
What looks large from a distance, close up ain’t never that big …

As for production, the kick drums and backup vocals are overmagnified, sure, but so were everyone else’s, and they were no less excessive than the strings on some of the 1970s records or the slide-guitar, soft-focus drowsiness of the later Lanois output such as 1997’s Time Out of Mind. All decades have their recording tics, and music lovers should embrace them with good-humored affection. And often Dylan sang better than he does now, too.

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