Friday, 11 June 2010

Dylan In The 80s - Revisited

I've been listening to and re-appraising much of Bob Dylan's 80s output recently.

Whilst I'm fascinated by a lot of songs featuring religious imagery, I don't have the stomach for evangelical posturing, no matter who's preaching. So I find parts of 1979's Slow Train Coming hard to take, the first of his so-called trilogy of 'born again' albums, which in turn pretty much informed my decision to not touch Saved, the album he opened the new decade with.

Shot of Love holds a certain fascination for me, because it was released the year I was born (1981). And though it is considered his last hard line Christian album before moving on to more secular topics, only Property of Jesus unsettles my agnostic ears. It also contains a few sparks of genius, particularly The Groom's Still Waiting At The Altar, and Every Grain Of Sand, which, whilst still being a little bit churchy, still has the power to resonate within the heathen.

I got Infidels, from 1983, a number of years ago, but didn't really begin to appreciate it until recently. 'I And I' is one song I keep coming back to. I appreciate a good rant as much as anyone, especially when it contains such lyrical gems as 'Someone else is speaking with my mouth but I'm listening only to my heart/I've made shoes for everyone, even you, but I still go barefoot.' Wow. The reggae stylings that gently permeate the album make for a welcome departure and a rewarding listening experience.

I've always enjoyed Oh Mercy, it's probably my favourite Dylan album after Highway 61 Revisited. He ended the decade on a high, that's for certain. Most of the Time is just as moving and as bittersweet as anything on Blood on the Tracks, and, I'd like to imagine that he is singing one final kiss off to the very same woman who inspired that landmark album, his ex wife Sara. Many Dylanologists seem to agree on that point. It's also the album from his much maligned decade that was the most critically acclaimed, and seems to sound the most fresh. I love Daniel Lanois' somehow 'swampy' but minimal production. Shooting Star also deserves a special mention, a gentle romantic lament and a great album closer. Although the song seems to be about a separation, the very first line makes me think of my wife, it makes me smile.

The biggest surprise to me was 1985's Empire Burlesque, which despite some very dated production and a terrible front cover, contains some great moments. Dark Eyes sticks out like a sore thumb here, mercifully free of drum machines and synths. Tight Connection To My Heart is frequently commented upon as a stand out moment, Emotionally Yours in my opinion also deserves a look in.

Real Live, recorded on his 1984 stadium tour of the UK and Ireland, seems to be universally derided, hated even by its maker (it wasn't even available on CD until recently). It does however contain a fascinating rendition of Tangled Up In Blue, with whole sections of the lyric completely rewritten. And it has some fine guitar playing, with Dylan trading bluesy licks with Mick Taylor and Carlos Santana. Whilst Hard Rain is still comfortably his best live album, I don't think Real Live is as flawed as others may suggest.

There are other hidden delights from that decade, many of which have now surfaced, first on Biograph, and then the Bootleg Series. Of my top five favourite Dylan songs, two of them, Series Of Dreams and Blind Willie McTell (left off Oh Mercy and Infidels, respectively) would have never appeared on an official release. Blind Willie McTell single-handedly puts to bed any snotty opinions about Dylan's vocal limitations, the power and control of his voice on display, along with sublime imagery in the lyrics, and spooky minimal instrumentation, all come together to create something truly astonishing. Similarly, Series Of Dreams, with its shimmering guitars, galloping drums and shopping list style retelling of dream sequences, leaves me awestruck every time I hear it.

I've never heard Knocked Out Loaded or Down In The Groove, apart from having Brownsville Girl and Silvio (both fine songs, each from a terrible album, seems to be the consensus) on compilations. I do wonder if either of those albums has a hidden surprise or two. I'll look into it.

Basically, in conclusion, some of the man's music from this period is creatively flawed, ill advised and over produced (not to mention the awful suit that he's wearing on the Empire Burlesque sleeve!), but all too often his entire decade is unfairly written off by self appointed judges. I encourage you to dig through the dirt to get to the gold. You may find something that gets to you, as I found a few things that got to me.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Stick it where the sun don't shine

Apple have just launched their new iPhone. I could not care less. If they can't make a pair of headphones that last longer than five minutes before disintegrating, I'm not interested in anything else they have to sell.

That is all.