3 Feb 2012

Bob Dylan In The Eighties - Beginner's Guide

Saved ( 1980 )
Dylan's crusade / tirade continues with the second of his so-called Christian trilogy. The least popular of the three ( which is saying something ), this is definitely the most in your face lyrically, but musically is full of interesting stuff and one of Dylan's most underrated albums. The production is fairly nondescript which makes this a bit of a challenge to get into, but it's worth the effort. What Can I Do For You is a winner, with it's committed vocal, and some of Dylan's best harmonica work. Pressing On has developed a deserved reputation lately, thanks to it's faithful John Doe cover on I'm Not There, and Dylan realised In The Garden's potential enough to keep it in his live set for most of the eighties. With a slightly better production job and less bible-thumping lyrics, this would stand up to favorable comparison with Slow Train Coming. ( 6/10 ) BUY IT HERE

Shot of Love ( 1981 )
Dylan chills out a bit with this, and presents his faith in a less provocative manner which makes it a far easier secular listen. The production and band performances are both a little shambolic and loose, but for the majority of this material this approach works. In Lenny Bruce, and Every Grain of Sand  it contains Dylan's first two masterpieces of the decade, while The Groom's Still Waiting At The Altar was hailed as a return to his mid sixties Highway 61 sound. Dead Man, Dead Man sounds like a blueprint for I & I from Infidels and In The Summertime has the feel of Van Morrison's contemporaneous material.  Unfortunately at this point Dylan began to lose a little confidence in some of his better material and two more ambitious and superior tracks ( Angelina and Caribbean Wind ) were left off in favor of some more pedestrian material. These weaker tracks bog things down a little, but generally this is a pretty consistent albeit unspectacular listen.   ( 6/10 ) BUY IT HERE

Infidels ( 1983 )
Producer Mark Knopfler brought in the big guns for this one. Reggae legends Sly & Robbie lay down the bottom end, Rolling Stone Mick Taylor joins Knopfler on guitars, and Dire Strait's Alan Clark provides keyboards. Unsurprisingly this is Dylan's smoothest sounding album since Slow Train Coming, but it's still a little on the inconsistent side, and suffers from the same track selection problems as Shot of Love. Jokerman is fabulous and shows Dylan's grasp of language at it's very peak. I & I continues in a similar vein and is moody and mysterious. The romantic tracks Sweetheart Like You and Don't Fall Apart On Me Tonight are pleasant but slight. The more politically oriented material, particularly Neighborhood Bully and Union Sundown come across in a less sympathetic light unfortunately and had Blind Willie McTell and Foot of Pride found their way on here instead of these tracks this would be a contender for Dylan's best album of the decade, as it is it's still a step in the right direction. ( 7/10 ) BUY IT HERE

Real Live ( 1984 )
Dylan's first tour since 1981 is captured here on the Infidels tour, but doesn't do a particularly good job of showing the tour at it's best. It's not as bad as it's reputation would have you expect, but it's not the lost gem you were necessarily hoping for either. There's a more adventurous selection of tracks than we've come to expect from Dylan's previous official live albums, which works in it's favor. It's also nice to hear a couple of the better Infidels tracks in a grittier setting. Dylan's habit of reinterpreting his catalogue continues here with mixed results, the highlights being a rockier version of Masters of War and Tangled Up In Blue given a major lyrical overhaul. Elsewhere this is a collection of semi committed performances which is good enough to retain my attention when it's playing, but not good enough to make me go to the effort of putting it on all that often.
( 5/10 ) BUY IT HERE

Empire Burlesque ( 1985 )
Dylan's mid eighties slump begins here with an album not even a mother could love. The garish cover tells you exactly what this is going to sound like, with horrible Arthur Baker production which must have felt dated a week after release attempting to disguise an uninspired collection of duds as contemporary pop. In all fairness the eighties wasn't a happy time for many rock legends - Neil Young and Joni Mitchell are two artists that come to mind who also found it hard to find their place in the eighties aesthetic. Several of the songs on here have since been given some semblance of respectability with more sympathetic live arrangements throughout the nineties, but here they verge on unlistenable. Closing track Dark Eyes on the other hand is a solo acoustic gem, which would stand out in far more esteemed company. ( 2/10 ) YOU CAN BUY IT HERE, BUT I WOULDN'T RECOMMEND IT

Knocked Out Loaded ( 1986 )
Where Empire Burlesque was at least filled with Dylan songs, his muse seems to have deserted him completely here, resulting in a set heavy on co-writes and covers. The production, while still dated, is marginally better which makes this an easier album to listen to, but still a hard one to enjoy. His cover of Kris Kristofferson's They Killed Him may be the worst track he released in the eighties, but Brownsville Girl does it's best to even up the odds and with more appropriate production would be held in very high regard. The rest of the material is generally bland and inoffensive, but to me Dylan should never be background music.
( 3/10 ) BUY IT HERE

Down in the Groove ( 1988 )
The bland corporate rock continues here, with a bunch of superstar guests failing to light a fire under the floundering Dylan. The dirge-like Death is Not The End is held in reasonably high regard but is a leftover from Infidels. Silvio is a moderately engaging rock number which works a lot better live, while the acoustic cover of the Louvin Brothers classic Rank Strangers comes across particularly nicely, although one suspects it wouldn't fare so well on a stronger album. Much like Knocked Out Loaded, this is a decidedly average listen that's not offensively bad, but offers little in the way of reward for listeners. ( 3/10 ) BUY IT HERE

The Traveling Wilburrys Vol. 1 ( 1988 )
Whether it was being surrounded by quality musicians or just the chance to have fun with little in the way of expectations, Dylan seriously raised his game here. Sharing the writing duties would certainly have helped ease the pressure for Dylan, and his tracks on here are all excellent. Tweeter and the Monkeyman is a fantastic Springsteen pastiche full of drama and intrigue which would have seemed totally out of place on any of his own albums, but fits perfectly here. Dirty World is more fun than Dylan sounds like he's had for years, and Congratulations coasts along nicely. Lots of fun and a bit of an unexpected reward for those who'd been loyally buying up his previous albums as they'd been released. ( 8/10 ) BUY IT HERE

Dylan & The Dead ( 1989 )
It sounds good on paper, but there's a reason this took two years to release. Recorded in 1987 this has the Grateful Dead as a glorified back up band - a prospect that they don't seem to know how to handle. They're constantly wandering off into ponderous noodling, with Garcia's usually excellent spidery lead breaks being particularly ill fitting. Dylan's in rough form too and doesn't seem to have the confidence to take charge on what should have been a very interesting combination. The intriguing track list isn't given a chance to shine and apart from few moments of inspiration in Slow Train this is turgid and disappointing stuff. ( 3/10 ) BUY IT HERE

Oh Mercy ( 1989 )
Refreshed after his first stint in the Traveling Wilburry's, Dylan here comes up with his most confident and assured set of songs of the decade, and an album that compares favorably with his very best work. Most of the Time and What Good Am I? show a lyrical depth that we haven't seen from Dylan for a number of years. Daniel Lanois' production gives this an ambience which sounded fresh at the time and sounds timeless now, illustrated best on the fabulously spooky Man In The Long Black Coat, while Everything is Broken and Political World are brimful of pop smarts.  Dylan's best since Desire. ( 10/10 ) BUY IT HERE


  1. Oh Mercy isn't really 10/10, even though it's pretty good . . . "Disease of Conceit" is pretty bad, and again he left off some good stuff ("Series of Dreams," "Dignity") and kept some forgettable stuff. I'd say "Infidels" is the best of the 80s even with its exclusions.

    1. I'd agree with you about Infidels but only with the excluded tracks, without Tell Me, Foot of Pride and McTell, it rocks but doesn't burn with an everlasting flame

  2. I think your dead wrong on Empire Burlesque. It's Dylan's best and most coherent album of the eighties excepting Oh Mercy. I think it works way better as an album than the overrated Infidels (talk about TERRIBLE production, the outtakes sound way better and Jokerman certainly is not Dylan at his peak at all: even though it's not unpleasant, it I think it comes dangerously close to being "fake-Dylan", wordy, fake-profound/poetic, kinda like Changing Of The Guards - while his wordy and long masterpieces from the sixties always have something concrete about them (think Desolation Row, Mr. Tambourine Man etc.) Jokerman and Changing kinda leave me hanging, they're just a bunch of images strung together but there doesn't seem to be a connecting feeling that lets the songs hang together. I mean, they're nice to listen to but they leave me wanting (just my opinion, though)).
    Empire Burlesque, on the other hand, is a pretty nice collection of love songs (exceptions: Clean-Cut Kid and Dark Eyes) from different moments in a relationship. If you don't like the production, that's fine. I must say I kinda like it and think it does the songs justice and I think as a snapshot of mid-eighties Dylan at his finest a song like When The Night Comes Falling From The Sky is a better example than Jokerman.
    Also, I hope Columbia will release one of Dylan's November 1979 concerts really soon so we can all hear how great the songs fom the Saved album sounded in live performance compared to the tired and passionless performances that are on that actual album. Covenant Woman, What Can I Do For You, Solid Rock and Saving Grace are some of the greatest Dylan songs ever but you can't tell by their studio performances.
    All of this is not meant to disrespect you or your work but I thought if somebody who wants to check out Dylan in the eighties visits this page it might be nice to see a different opinion, too.

  3. You're one or two marks too kind for each album, but string them all together like this and maybe the decade doesn't look so bad after all. Pick out the twelve best tracks and you could make one single blinder of a record. Can I put in a word for 'Heart of Mine' from Shot of Love' - ramshackle performance but a charming tune.
    Chris Bailey, Sheffield UK