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Empire Dylanesque

How the ’80s almost destroyed Bob Dylan, and why we’re celebrating that period now

I’d like to talk about a new Bob Dylan tribute album that’s out today called Bob Dylan in the ’80s: Volume One, in the hope that I can make some sense out of it. As the title plainly states, Bob Dylan in the ’80s is focused on Dylan’s least celebrated decade, a period the man himself believes just about put an unceremonious end to his storied career. It features a few artists you might have heard of (like Built to Spill and Glen Hansard) and many you haven’t covering songs that Dylan himself rarely plays anymore. Saluting this era is analogous to erecting a statue in honor of “fat” Elvis or awarding a Medal of Honor to The Hangover Part III. It’s a toast to stasis, if not flat-out decay. I’m not suggesting that Bob Dylan in the ’80s is not a good record (it is!), but it’s very weird (and yet also somehow predictable) that it exists.

The case that Bob Dylan in the ’80s attempts to mount (as articulated by author Jonathan Lethem in the liner notes) is that Dylan’s Reagan-era work is “highly continuous with the stuff that precedes and follows it.” By “the stuff,” Lethem refers to albums that rank with the best and most important rock music ever made (Dylan’s ’60s and ’70s discography) and several of Dylan’s most critically acclaimed and Grammy-laden LPs (everything from Time Out of Mind on, excepting that batshit Christmas album). Lethem describes the likes of Empire Burlesque, Knocked Out Loaded, and Down in the Groove — records that conventional wisdom would tell us are “highly continuous with garbage” — as “gestures of freedom as well as confusion, gestures of self-possession and self-reinvention, explorations of what exactly it meant to be an Icarus who’d survived and now had to become part of a small tribe inventing what it was to be an aging rock ’n’ roller.” He also calls “Property of Jesus” (from 1981’s Shot of Love) a “boiling rocker.” Like I said, weird.

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I came to two conclusions while listening to Bob Dylan in the ’80s. The first is a general observation about music fandom in the 21st century: We must accept that there is no album (or series of albums) from the past that will not eventually be declared underrated or even a masterpiece, “boiling” or otherwise. We’ve reached a point in our collective saturation with media where people have become exhausted with professing the greatness of inarguably great music. Over time, old warhorses like Exile on Main St. and Pet Sounds will suffer in esteem not because the classics will sound dated, but because it’ll be less interesting to talk about them. The new canon will instead be stacked with Journey and Stone Temple Pilots records, where the music is less good but the conversation is fresher.

My support (or criticism) of these developments is situational. As it pertains to ’80s Dylan, I support it, because I kind of love ’80s Dylan. Yes, if I were to rank Dylan’s five worst albums, at least three of them would come from the ’80s.1 But I like those terrible albums. Dylan in the ’80s had one of the greatest “bad” album runs ever. Now, a few of Dylan’s ’80s records are just bad-bad, like Shot of Love and everything on Knocked Out Loaded save for “Brownsville Girl.” But several others (particularly Burlesque and Groove) are great “bad” albums. Here’s how I originally defined a great “bad” album three years ago:

It’s a record where the creators are clearly not fully engaged with the project, which is reflected in the degraded quality of the songwriting and musicianship and an overall feeling of boredom, detachment, or extremely undisciplined self-indulgence that’s palpable in the music. That makes it “bad.” But instead of making the record less enjoyable, this “badness” actually makes the album more fascinating — so long as the artist in question is a genius — because it provides insight into what makes the artist’s “great” records great, and demonstrates how functional he or she is even when operating on a lower level of artistry/sobriety.

Let me be clear: This isn’t about enjoying music “ironically.” It’s about appreciating the subtext of records that are more fun to think about than listen to. Granted, this works only if you happen to really love the artist in question. The biggest problem I have with Lethem’s essay is that he considers Bob Dylan in the ’80s an introduction to Dylan’s ’80s albums. But Dylan’s ’80s albums (with one exception2) shouldn’t be heard by anyone who isn’t already intimately familiar with his other work; the value of those bad records derives mainly from what they add to the understanding of Dylan’s good records. (This idea also applies to the fourth season of Arrested Development.)

Dylan’s infamous 1970 “fuck you” double-album shrug Self-Portrait is the Sgt. Pepper of “great” bad albums. But Groove is the rare great “bad” record that I would consider putting in the same company. Groove is 32 minutes long and contains nine songs, only four of which are written or cowritten by Dylan.3 It is essentially an “odds and sods” record, assembled from material left over from other albums and projects, and no attempt is made to disguise this. It’s a hodgepodge of afterthoughts where the staples and Scotch tape are haphazardly applied and clearly visible.

And that’s what makes Groove such a compelling listen! Down in the Groove prompts many pertinent questions: Why in the world does Down in the Groove exist? What in the world was Dylan thinking? Can I figure it out if I put this thing on for the 101st time? At the time critics hated Groove because they believed Dylan had reverted to coldhearted professionalism. (Robert Christgau called it “horrendous product.”) This seems like an odd criticism, because Groove is actually borderline amateurish. The musicianship is pretty generic, but not in a studio hack/overly technical way. Rather, the songs sound like they were bashed out in one take, before the musicians even had a chance to take their coats off.

Then you read the liner notes and Groove gets even wackier: Ron Wood, Eric Clapton, Kip Winger, and the producer of Ratt’s Out of the Cellar back Dylan on one track. Ex–American Idol judge Randy Jackson plays bass on two other songs. Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols and Paul Simonon of the Clash are grouped with Pat Benatar’s drummer on a cover of Arthur Alexander’s “Sally Sue Brown,” and it sounds like the Georgia Satellites imitating Foreigner.

Is this really the sound of freedom or just confusion? Because Groove doesn’t seemed guided by a person with any goddamn sense of what he’s doing. Everything about it is a joke that Dylan is not in on. Eighties Dylan was like the ultimate meme decades before the rest of the world knew what memes were.

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Bob Dylan File Photos

The second conclusion I reached while playing Bob Dylan in the ’80s is specific to Dylan fans: The biggest contrarian in rock history has cultivated the most contrarian fan base. I’m not just referring to Lethem, but also the artists on the record, who presumably chose the songs. Bob Dylan in the ’80s is perverse even for an ’80s Dylan tribute record. There’s nothing from Oh Mercy, typically regarded as Dylan’s best of the decade by a mile. But there are two songs from Under the Red Sky, not actually an ’80s Dylan album (it came out in 1990). And those tunes aren’t “God Knows” or “Cat’s in the Well,” the only decent tracks on that otherwise epic tone poem of wanton slapdashery. “Every Grain of Sand” makes the cut, as it should, but the composition widely considered to include the finest Dylan lyric of the decade is bizarrely covered as an instrumental.

Also: no “I’ll Remember You,” no “License to Kill,” no “Foot of Pride,” no “Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar.” The legendary outtake “Blind Willie McTell” is as egregiously absent here as it was on Infidels.

What is here is uniformly fine. Craig Finn’s version of “Sweetheart Like You” is reliably gnarled and lovely. “Dark Eyes” is a softball that Dawn Landes and Bonnie “Prince” Billy knock out of the park. Deer Tick rescues “Night After Night” from the cobwebbed clutches of the Hearts of Fire soundtrack with commendable chivalry. Hannah Cohen nearly steals the show with a quietly breathtaking redux of “Covenant Woman.” Missteps are minimal on Bob Dylan in the ’80s. Nothing is too (or at all) bonkers. Even the self-consciously “quirky” covers — Reggie Watts goofing on a truncated “Brownsville Girl,” Aaron Freeman and Slash Weening up “Wiggle Wiggle” — are intelligently conceived. Nobody interprets Dylan’s songs worse than Dylan himself did. A low bar, sure, but worth pointing out.

And yet, somehow, that doesn’t completely register as a compliment. This is ’80s Dylan we’re talking about here; “better” isn’t the point. What happened to all that great “badness”? The songs have been retained but not the sound — that big, terrible ’80s production with the Miami Vice drums, the overbearing backup singers, and the sluggishly steady metronomic synth gurgle that makes the version of “When the Night Comes Falling From the Sky” on Empire Burlesque feel like dying from a torturously slow cocaine overdose. The sound of those ’80s Dylan albums is where the real story lies. Bob Dylan in the ’80s reprints the legend in the interest of clarity. But the good taste of Dylan’s curators is an insufficient replacement for the poignancy — that “fallen Icarus” quality Lethem mentions — of the originator, who for many years was set adrift on albums plagued by his own malignant neglect and pained indifference to recording music in a manner that was pleasurable for other humans to listen to.

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The ’80s in general were a rough time for the lost princes and princesses of ’60s and ’70s rock. If the era were boiled down to a sound, it would be the nightmarish vocoder from Neil Young’s Trans. If it were an image, it would be the cover of Dirty Work. For aging artists who had defined their times by constantly pushing forward to the next horizon, the ’80s were when technology and fashion cruelly turned against them. Some made it work: Leonard Cohen plugged into the sinister underbelly of synth-driven plasticity on the brilliant I’m Your Man, while David Bowie cashed in on essentially inventing the ’80s back on his late-’70s records with Let’s Dance. Also, boomer-era soul stars fared a lot better than their ex-hippie counterparts: Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin, and James Brown either matched or exceeded previous commercial watermarks with solidly “’80s-sounding” records.

But for the most part, revisiting albums made by Dylan’s contemporaries in the ’80s can be a similarly jarring (or unintentionally hilarious or merely depressing) experience. It’s like the coolest people on the planet graduated from high school and then returned the following semester acting and dressing like the incoming freshman class. It just felt wrong. Making matters worse was that rock stars had never been that old before. They had to figure out on their own how to navigate two equally difficult paths: One involved servicing a changing pop marketplace (as Grace Slick did when she appeared with Starship on the Mannequin soundtrack) and the other required catering to music critics and their constant craving for novelty (which might partly explain why Joni Mitchell made a new-wave record).

Dylan flailed in both directions. His ’80s records were both commercially inept and critically reviled. In his 2004 autobiography, Chronicles Volume One, he stacks metaphors on top of metaphors to tell and think and speak and breathe just how lost he was in the late ’80s. Dylan calls himself “an empty burned-out wreck,” a “fictitious head of state from a place nobody knows,” an “old actor fumbling in garbage cans outside the theater of past triumphs.” That’s what you hear on those original ’80s recordings — a guy fully aware that he has outlived his artistic relevance but unable to extricate himself from a dense fog — and what makes them worth hearing. Dylan was bad in the ’80s because to be anything else would’ve been dishonest.

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Dylan’s career was revived by two albums, both produced by Daniel Lanois: 1989’s Oh Mercy and 1997’s Time Out of Mind. Lanois was best known at the time for his work with U2 and Peter Gabriel, and he’s still the most producer-y producer Dylan has ever hired. Even people who like Mercy and Mind will occasionally demur over Lanois’s heavy-handed affectations; the sound is the real story on those records, too, with their highly stylized updates of the earthy instrumentation and doomy atmospherics of Elvis Presley’s Sun Records period. In Chronicles, Dylan writes about butting heads with Lanois during the making of Oh Mercy, in part because Lanois did his job and pushed Dylan to write better songs and record better (or at least multiple) takes. But Dylan also complains about the sound Lanois was striving for.

“The voice on the record was never going to be the voice of the martyred man of sorrow, and I think in the beginning, Danny had to come to terms with that,” Dylan writes, “and when he gave that notion up, that’s when things started to work.” Perhaps Dylan sensed that Lanois was cajoling him into a retreat of sorts, away from the outside world and into the safer, shadowy confines of a noir caricature. For all their faults, Dylan’s ’80s albums at least were aimed at contemporary pop culture. On Mercy, Dylan sounded like a Clint Eastwood character, the ancient gunslinger striking a mythic pose way off on the horizon.

By Time Out of Mind, “the voice of the martyred man of sorrow” was in full effect. Along with Johnny Cash’s similarly forlorn American albums4 from around the same time, Mind became the blueprint for how classic-rock artists could make new “relevant” music as they entered their senior years. Over time it became a trope, what I like to call the “art of dying” record, in which a weary codger “strips down” and “returns to his or her roots” to ruminate on the indignities of mortality and lifelong regret. What started with Dylan and Cash eventually trickled down to Neil Diamond and Glen Campbell.

In Chronicles, Dylan shares a telling anecdote from the Oh Mercy sessions about surprising Lanois with his love of rap artists like Public Enemy, N.W.A, and Ice-T. “They were beating drums, tearing it up, hurling horses over cliffs,” Dylan writes. “The audience would go that way and I couldn’t blame that. The kind of music Danny and I were making was archaic. I didn’t tell Danny that, but that’s honestly how I felt.”

Mind is a personal favorite, and easily better than anything Dylan did in the ’80s. But it also took Dylan out of commission as a present-tense figure. Now, it’s impossible to imagine him in the same context as Ratt or Kip Winger (or Justin Bieber or YG). His iconic luster was restored, but his humanity — which once beat with the power of blanched synths and tinny drums — became obscured behind sepia-tinted sonics.

Filed Under: Music, bob dylan, Johnny Cash, Daniel Lanois, Jonathan Lethem, steven hyden, Saved, Infidels, Knocked Out Loaded, Down in the Groove

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Steven Hyden is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ Steven_Hyden

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