I’ve developed a theory that Dyan’s “christian” phase that began with Slow Train Coming was less about him converting to a particularly dogmatic strain of pentecostal christianity, but about him implicitly moving into the same camp as French academic icon Michel Foucault (maybe the “new philosophers” like André Glucksmann could be thrown into the conversation here too). The reasons some people are skeptical of this part of Dylan’s career are the same reasons some people are skeptical of Foucault’s neoliberal-compatible “identity politics” theories, which are complete bullshit and evidenced a questionable kind of pandering and opportunism. But, anyway, this album was recorded in Muscle Shoals, and it has a smooth disco R&B/soul sound, like a mellower, less emotional counterpart to Bowie‘s Young Americans or even a more intellectual counterpart to the lily-white blues rock of Eric Clapton. It’s a little too easy listening for its own good, but it still manages to be decent with a few good new songs. The album benefits tremendously by having Dylan actually trying throughout, and having active involvement of producers other than Dylan.
One of the least interesting of Dylan’s pre-Desire albums. The opener “Main Title Theme (Billy)” is fairly good, and there is the classic “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” (though Television‘s live version on The Blow-Up is probably superior). The rest of this mostly instrumental music, well, offers very little. Dylan is surprisingly winsome and even new-age in his sound. It really doesn’t work. Sometimes soundtrack music is worthwhile only in the context of the movie. Sadly, this didn’t even work there.
When Odetta covers these Dylan songs, she seems to make extra effort to change the songs around and, especially, sing everything to completely new rhythms and phrasings. It gets very, very tedious. She’s also very theatrical in her vocals. What it reminds me of is singing songs in school or church when I was a small child. In school there would always be some teacher who considered herself a good singer, and would sing loudly, and sometimes a box of instruments, like an “african fish” (it was kind of like a wooden washboard with a stick dragged across ribs on the side to make a rhythmic, percussive sound) would be brought out for accompaniment. Similar things happened in church, though there was usually a skilled organist for accompaniment. In either case the showy, self-important manner of singing louder and more prominently than everybody else was the key. That’s what this recalls to me. That, and amateur theater productions my mom was in when I was young, when she would take me and my brother to rehearsals. I think I’m reminded of those times from childhood because this music feels like what you give to children because it’s safe, or whatever, and the kids just don’t relate and get bored immediately. It’s like a gravely mistaken kind of pandering that turns out to be more about imposing the performer on the listener than trying to flatter the listener.
The first side, where Bob Dylan makes his first real attempt at rock music, feels like a mere warm-up for Highway 61 Revisited. That side is good — very good even — but not great. Side two, with a more familiar folk sound, is better, truly achieving greatness with “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).”
There are a few essential Bob Dylan albums, quite a lot of decent but still mediocre ones, and a few that offer little or nothing to even the most hardcore Dylanite. Sadly, Under the Red Sky is one the man’s most forgettable offerings. In his defense, Bob invests in a musical palette that is broader than anything since Empire Burlesque, yet the songwriting here never quite delivers. Add to that the always questionable tactic of an “all-star” lineup of guest appearances and the fact that producer Don Was‘ efforts to polish this up were vetoed by Dylan makes this sound as sterile as possible, and the merits this has evaporate pretty quickly.
Bob Dylan – The Bootleg Series Vol. 10: Another Self Portrait (1969-1971) Columbia 88883 73488 2 (2013)
Drawing primarily from the years that produced Self Portrait, Dylan, and New Morning, but also touching briefly on The Basement Tapes, Nashville Skyline, and the new material from Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Vol. II, this tenth edition of the “Bootleg Series” focuses on a crucial turning point in Bob Dylan’s career, when for the first time he was drawing criticism and seemed to be making missteps. But set that all aside. The first disc of this collection is mostly rather excellent, and stands all on its own. From this evidence, Dylan had not run out of ideas. He had plenty. He was also capable of touching, heartfelt performances. But somebody, Dylan, his managers, the label…one of them, or bunches of them, seem to have conspired to present Dylan in the worst possible light back at the time of the original releases. This collection give everyone a second bite of the apple, so-to-speak. It finds Dylan doing something akin to the folk that he made in the early/mid 1960s. But by the dawn of the 1970s, commercial interests were looking west toward the burgeoning singer-songwriter movement that utilized more ornate studio embellishments than the kind of spare, acoustic folk Dylan was still frequently recording. This gives the impression that it was (stupidly, in hindsight) decided that Dylan needed to do something else. So he did. Dylan’s albums from the era ended up flawed, even dreadful at times. The songs on the first disc here are demo versions, unreleased outtakes, alternate versions, and a few versions that appear to be the released versions stripped of some or all original overdubs (akin, somewhat, to Willie Nelson‘s Naked Willie). The latter discs add more of the same, plus some live recordings. The deluxe edition includes a full disc of “The Complete, Historic ‘Isle of Wight’ Concert, 1969.” In truth the extra material is of marginal interest. The best material is on disc one; a single disc edition would actually be the one to get, if it existed. But all those details aside, this collection is great because it shows how even (or maybe especially) a huge star like Dylan faced pressure to do something “different” even when it was clear that doing more of the same is what would have worked best. The evidence is right here, and with hindsight thankfully the best of his efforts of the era are now available for all to hear.
Most listeners look back on Bob Dylan’s 1980s output with regret, pondering what might have been. Now most people look right past Saved and Shot of Love (possibly a mistake; they are okay). They then look on Infidels with bemused sadness, wishing that “Blind Willie McTell” and other great songs hadn’t been excluded from it. Dylan had frequented some punk concerts around that time due to his son’s interest, and in support of Infidels he appeared on the TV show “Late Night with David Letterman” in early 1984 with The Plugz as his backing band. He captured a lot of punk energy on great renditions of “Jokerman” and “License to Kill.” But that proved to be the only appearance of Dylan with that particular backing band. Touring Europe later that year he instead enlisted Mick Taylor (who played on Infidels) and Ian McLagan. He did not bring along the bass/drums rhythm section of Sly & Robbie from the Infidels sessions. Real Live was culled from three July dates in England and Ireland. Carlos Santana makes a guest appearance on “Tombstone Blues” from one of the English dates. This touring band plays professionally, but largely without much personality. The results are at best a kind of traipse through pub rock versions of mostly old Dylan standards (had Dylan been inspired by his pal Johnny Cash‘s Rockabilly Blues with its similar pub-rock influence?). The general effect is one of aging rockers trying and failing to sound relevant to newer tastes. It does sound a hell of a lot more modern than maybe anything in Dylan’s catalog, though. It may not be the disaster that some make it out to be, but it’s still a pretty middling effort. Most listeners can skip past it. Now, if those Letterman recordings were released, those would be worth seeking out.
Bob Dylan – The Bootleg Series Vol. 5: Live 1975 – The Rolling Thunder Revue Legacy C2K 87047 (2002)
When Bob Dylan embarked on his “Rolling Thunder Revue” in 1975, it was part of his creative renaissance. It was his second wind after a hum-drum few years at the dawn of the 1970s. The revue traveled by train and included a laundry list of friends and collaborators, new and old. Before The Bootleg Series Vol. 5, Hard Rain had already been released documenting the tour. But Hard Rain was tired and disappointing. Here, Dylan sounds desperate, in the sense of being urged to go on.
This one opens with a blazing “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” (a song debuted on Nashville Skyline). It then drifts into a few rather dated reworkings of old songs. Dylan’s backing band may feature a lot of big names, but they play a kind of music that often suffers from the worst excesses of the era: ornate guitar wankery, hollow, tinny and effect-laden engineering, and a full and claustrophobic sound that lacks space. They are basically just self-indulgent hippie jams. But the end of disc one turns to folk. This highlights much of what was missing on Hard Rain and much of what came next in Dylan’s career. He started as a folkie, and he was a good one! He then went electric, which was what launched him to superstardom. His contentious concerts of that era would feature some acoustic folk and also electric rock. His albums of that era mostly did this too. Later though, particularly from the late 1970s onward, everything was more or less electric. He was far less successful in a purely rock setting. For whatever reason, there was only so much rock music that Dylan could put out at one time. It could be — let’s not forget — that when Dylan went electric it was before the modern rock era. It was only about a decade out from Elvis and other early rock that was not strictly urban. As that kind of stuff was left behind, Dylan didn’t adapt particularly well. Maybe folk seemed equally of the past at times (he did return to it though). But a set like The Bootleg Series Vol. 5 includes the right amount of folk. It’s some of the most consistent material here. For instance, there’s a great “Tangled Up in Blue” here (maybe better than the studio version). The set wraps with more electric material at the end of disc two. The last few electric songs work better on average than much of disc one, settling into a sound comparable to contemporary Grateful Dead. The second disc also features a lot of songs from the not-yet-released Desire, and the whole band seems engaged with the new material.
There is something hard in this music. It looks back more than forward. It is like a reaction to the 1960s. Not everything had gone as planned. Dylan couldn’t have anticipated his celebrity status. He probably wouldn’t have expected his career to start slipping in the 70s. What makes this interesting in how it tries to avoid defeat. But in doing that you can sense that much more than before the possibility of defeat looms larger in Dylan’s consciousness. This was it though. Desire, released a few months later, would be the last truly relevant Dylan album.
[One note about the packaging here. I checked this out from my library, so something might have been missing from the box, but there appears to be no listing of recording dates or personnel for each song. Presumably, this is culled from multiple concerts. It’s quite impossible to tell though.]
Count At Budokan among the group of most divisive albums in the Dylan catalog. Recorded in Japan on a 1978 tour, amidst sessions for Street-Legal, it finds Dylan making an attempt to develop a Vegas-style show with a horn section and backing singers. The template for this type of show is an Elvis Presley album like Elvis in Person at the International Hotel, Las Vegas, Nevada and Aloha From Hawaii Via Satellite. Like the former Elvis album, Dylan is doing new arrangements of his old hits. The problem here is mostly that flautist/saxophonist/etc. Steve Douglas is TERRIBLE! That flute is too loud and the sax is clichéd. And the band as whole is a little stiff. In hindsight, others have pointed out that shows from the tour in England were stronger and would have made for a better album. As it stands, one of this album’s biggest liabilities is that it’s far too long. At two discs, there’s a full disc worth of unnecessary reggae and easy listening mediocrity. That’s too bad, because some of this — “Maggie’s Farm,” “All I Really Want to Do,” and “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” — really sounds good in its new setting. And, hey, Dylan is actually trying to sing, and doing a decent job of it by his usual standards.
I’ve mentioned that Planet Waves was a bad omen. I think, at the time, it could be passed off as just lazy, a fluke misfire on some fundamentally good songwriting material. Street-Legal was something else. Here, Dylan was confirming that he was a brat, someone just unwilling to look outside himself. It’s clear what he was going for here. The backing singers, saxophone. This was a show band. After struggling and failing to make The Rolling Thunder Revue a commercial success, he seemed to be aiming for an Elvis-style Vegas act (see also At Budokan). Or maybe even some kind of second-hand Van Morrison approach, by way of Bruce Springsteen‘s E-Street Band. But Dylan really wasn’t that kind of a performer. He insisted on a “raw” sound recorded in some old warehouse dubbed “Rundown Studio” with temporary recording equipment set up with wires running out the window (similar to what was done on Elvis’ recent From Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee). In principle, that kind of an approach might work, but not with this material and this band. It’s as if Dylan just can’t commit himself to the commercial aspects of what his band proposes. This is one of those albums where he struggles to come to terms with the expectations laid upon him, and so he self-sabotages the product. A shame, too, because there are definitely some good new songs here, like “Señor (Tales of Yankee Power),” one of Dylan’s now rare attempts to do the kind of social and political commentary that he managed so adeptly back in his early folk days (“With God on Our Side,” etc.). So, Street-Legal was probably one intervention away from being a success. The committed will find things to like if they focus hard, but, at the same time, there is no excuse for the amount of effort necessary to appreciate this one.