An album to be released on March 25th will feature a curious plethora of artistes performing versions of various Bob Dylan songs which Dylan originally released between 1980 and 1990. It may seem an odd decade to be celebrated in this fashion, but I believe that’s also kind of the idea.
Personally, I’ve always had a special affection for Dylan’s work during the 1980s, quirks and all, but it is difficult for me to objectively discern whether this is due more to the music itself or to the timing: I came of age as a Bob Dylan fan during that decade. I was about 16 when Infidels was out, and I was becoming a fan with help from my friend Brendan and his older brothers’ stash of records. Empire Burlesque in 1985 was therefore the first Dylan album whose release I anticipated with spine-tingly excitement, rushing to the record store to buy. (Note to younger readers: “record stores” were box-like structures, just sitting on the street, with people inside them, where we would walk, barefoot at times, to obtain recorded music that had been scratched onto black vinyl discs or magnetically applied to ferrous tapes, in exchange for pieces of paper and coins that the people in the record store—and ultimately also the musicians—could then use to purchase food for themselves. This system worked quite well until Al Gore invented the MP3.)
New tablets from the mountain-top! What would Bob Dylan be saying to the world and to us, in our very own time? And I’d venture that Brendan and I were as excited about it as anyone ever was about a new Bob Dylan album in the 1960s. Hearing the first track, “Tight Connection to My Heart,” blew my mind, as “Subterranean Homesick Blues” surely did for the folks in 1965. I know now—and actually I knew then too—that there was nothing enormously groundbreaking about the song, but it didn’t matter; it was Dylan, and it was brand new, and it was exhilarating. (And I would in fact make the case that his singing on that track, his phrasing of the lyric, is quite unusual and compelling.)
Dylan’s albums of that entire decade range from the full-on gospel of 1980’s Saved—songs that I’ve always thought stood up well—to the strange, glossy pop-rock of 1990’s Under the Red Sky. In between were moments of brilliance and then moments that seem more like whims and missteps, although where one draws the line on those things depends on one’s own taste. The decade of music is probably too much of a mish-mash for any two people to agree on the best and the worst. Dylan himself has said he felt lost towards the end of the decade, and if any one album sums that up it surely is 1988’s Down in the Groove, although his versions of “Shenandoah” and “Rank Strangers to Me” are quite something and presage musical paths he’d take later. The album previous to that one, Knocked Out Loaded, is also bizarre to the point of comedy sometimes, but certainly has one crowning achievement in the magnificent “Brownsville Girl,” another track on which Dylan delivers a remarkable and mesmerizing vocal performance. One of the tracks that should make for very interesting (in one way or another) listening on Bob Dylan in the 80s is a version of that, titled “Brownsville Girl (Reprise)” by the mercurial musical and comic performer Reggie Watts. (Bob Dylan’s own relatively recent song, “Long and Wasted Years,” sounds almost like a reprise of “Brownsville Girl,” perhaps intangible in the narrative but suggested by the performance.)
The full track list for Bob Dylan in the ’80s: Volume One is as follows:
1. Got My Mind Made Up – Langhorne Slim & The Law
2. Jokerman – Built To Spill
3. Brownsville Girl (Reprise) – Reggie Watts
4. Sweetheart Like You – Craig Finn
5. You Changed My Life – Ivan & Alyosha
6. Night After Night – Deer Tick
7. Most Of The Time – Bob Weir featuring Aaron, Scott and Bryan of The National
8. Wiggle Wiggle – Aaron Freeman & Slash
9. Dark Eyes – Dawn Landes & Bonnie “Prince” Billy
10. Waiting To Get Beat – Tea Leaf Green
11. Congratulations – Elvis Perkins
12. Covenant Woman – Hannah Cohen
13. Every Grain Of Sand – Marco Benevento
14. Series Of Dreams – Yellowbirds
15. Unbelievable – Blitzen Trapper
16. When The Night Comes Falling From The Sky – Lucius
17. Pressing On – Glen Hansard
18. Death Is Not The End – Carl Broemel
So, every Bob Dylan album of that decade is represented, in addition to some songs that were only released on the official Bootleg Series, in addition to one Travelling Wilburys gem (“Congratulations”) and one genuine-to-this-day bootleg (“Waiting to Get Beat,” from the sessions associated with Empire Burlesque).
The executive producers of Bob Dylan in the ’80s are Jesse Lauter and Sean O’Brien, and it will include liner notes from Jonathan Lethem. As tribute albums go, its entire concept seems admirably perverse and even bull-headed. That’s a good start.
The album can be ordered via Amazon.com, via iTunes, and via the Bob Dylan in the 80s” website.