How did you feel about Christmas in the Heart? If you loved it, then you are in luck! Here is a triple album of secular songs using a similar approach. If you hated it, well, sorry, but here is a triple album in a similar style. Although nominally a “triple” album, the content could have fit very comfortably on two discs. Anyway, this is just as self-indulgent as Patti Smith‘s Twelve and Dylan’s pal Johnny Cash‘s The Gospel Road. But I like to image that Dylan commissioned an academic study to determine what music best suits his ravages rasp of a voice these days. He then read the graph upside down and went with the music least suited to his present vocal abilities. Seriously, there are like good singers who have recorded this kind of music before, and those recordings are still available. This music would have been better as instrumentals, frankly.
This is some kind of sick joke, right? Bob Dylan does ALL of the popular christmas song canon. Well, to his credit, he puts together some good arrangements, and what was probably a near limitless production budget helps. Yet hearing the man croak his way through this stuff is easily imagined like watching Dylan participate in a reality TV show (oh what awkward and pointless task will he have to complete next?). But this just proves a corollary to the law of large numbers: anyone on a major label for more than ten years (of a christian persuasion) will make a holiday recording. No, this would actually be perhaps enjoyable if a decent singer was in place instead of Dylan, perhaps a competent female pop star, possibly PJ Harvey or even somebody from the country-pop realm (provided she could pull off vocals with a jazzy twist). No, instead of that we get this spectacle.
Easily my favorite Dylan record. I can respect lots of his albums, but I have to be in just the right mood to ever want to listen to Blonde on Blonde, and even Highway 61 Revisited, great though it may be, isn’t something I listen to much all the way through. But I always come back to this one. It’s got some of Dylan’s best songs, including some that are unfairly neglected in his catalog (I can overlook the fact that “Boots of Spanish Leather” recycles “Girl from the North Country”). He plays and sings with a kind of dedication that you might say is lacking on other albums, and his performances are much more effective than on his sometimes sloppy other early albums. I know some people accuse Dylan of being too serious or militant on this disc, but I have a hard time respecting anything less than that.
Flawed, yes, but Shot of Love is one of the more compelling Bob Dylan albums for quite a stretch both before and after. It has a sound resembling a lot of commercial rock of the day, like Pete Townshend‘s Empty Glass. It is music recorded in high contrast, stripped of subtle shadings and grainy texture. The major problem, as with Dylan’s next album Infidels, is what was left off the album. “Property of Jesus,” “Lenny Bruce” and “Dead Man, Dead Man” all should have been dropped in favor of the much superior tracks “Angelina,” “Need a Woman,” “Caribbean Wind,” and, especially, “You Changed My Life” all left in the vault (but later released on Biograph and The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3: (Rare & Unreleased) 1961-1991) — a demo version of “Every Grain of Sand” with Jennifer Warnes adding vocals rivals the official version and might justify a swap too. Also, the single B-side “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar” tacked on to later versions of Shot of Love bolsters the album. With those changes, this one would be secular enough, more emotionally bare and open, and would maintain an immediacy throughout. Dylan is engaged on just about everything here, and his vocals reflect considerably more effort than fans would find in most of his albums for at least a decade or so to come. This one may not be essential, but if the final tracklist had been done properly it very well could have come close.
Dylan’s albums from his “christian” period have aged surprisingly well, considering how frequently they are overlooked entirely or dismissed as unworthy. Saved is definitely the most dogmatic and preachy of the batch, and probably the least regarded. For sure, the religious content is rather drab. It doesn’t offer much. But taken in the context of where gospel music was around 1980, this is actually a very fine example of it. The highlights are “Satisfied Mind” and the title track. Dylan evokes some of the choir style (reference the “crown prince of gospel” Reverend James Cleveland, The Edwin Hawkins Singers, etc.), which was still one of the most popular styles in gospel, while at the same time giving this a more contemporary rock sound. [But who would have thought that Dylan would use the riff from The Allman Brothers Band‘s “Midnight Rider” for “Solid Rock,” on a gospel album?] It works fairly well.
Keith Richards quipped that Dylan only cynically got into his “christian” phase to sell records. But compared to what Dylan was doing just prior to and just after this period, it’s hard to deny that he was quite enthusiastic about this music. Not even in his later career critical resurgence did his music have the kind of energy it had at this time.
This one certainly is NOT the most compelling offering Dylan has put forth. But it’s a respectable album, and far superior to some of the dross the man would dump on the world a few years down the road.
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.