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So it's come to this: The canonization of Bob Dylan's 1980s albums.
April 1, 2014 1:01 AM   Subscribe

"Dylan was bad in the '80s because to be anything else would've been dishonest." Steven Hyden (who else?) has found a way to appreciate '80s Dylan: "It's about appreciating the subtext of records that are more fun to think about than to listen to."
posted by paleyellowwithorange (60 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

 
Always an extra thrill to see my brother's work pop up on my long time favorite blog!
posted by paulhyden at 1:59 AM on April 1 [8 favorites]


I remember a great Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare record * included a Bob Dylan track. It fitted nicely into the 1980s vibe of ska and jazz that I was enjoying at the time. Have to say Infidels was cringe making !
posted by Narrative_Historian at 2:04 AM on April 1


'80s Dylan' has been a thing for a while. Nobody is embarrassed by that ridiculous snare drum sound any more, and Bob still had a voice of some sort in that decade.

The song 'Shot of Love' is one of his very best ever.
posted by colie at 3:02 AM on April 1 [3 favorites]


records that are more fun to think about than to listen to.

In fairness, a lot of people say that about Crass, too.
posted by Pope Guilty at 3:18 AM on April 1 [5 favorites]


records that are more fun to think about than to listen to.

*dusts off turntable; puts on plate of beans*
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:29 AM on April 1 [5 favorites]


I feel bad saying this, but "more fun to think about than listen to" describes the majority of David Bowie's work for me

I'm so sorry
posted by DoctorFedora at 3:32 AM on April 1 [1 favorite]


Not afraid to say "Infidels" is my favorite Dylan album.
posted by davebush at 3:34 AM on April 1 [5 favorites]


Not afraid to say "Infidels" is my favorite Dylan album.

I am equally pleased to say that Oh Mercy is also a very good record. To listen to.
posted by FelliniBlank at 4:16 AM on April 1 [4 favorites]


'80s Dylan can't be all bad if he did this.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 4:22 AM on April 1 [5 favorites]


In the future, everything will be the subject of an FPP on Metafilter.
posted by hwestiii at 4:28 AM on April 1 [4 favorites]


I've always loved Infidels but have always associated it with his 70s Christian albums more than the eighties ones.
posted by octothorpe at 4:33 AM on April 1


Caetano Veloso's version of Jokerman, which I think came out of Dylan in the '80s, is kinda gorgeous.
posted by goofyfoot at 5:02 AM on April 1 [2 favorites]


"In the Summertime," "Jokerman," "Don't Fall Apart on Me Tonight," "Shooting Star," all rank among my favorite Dylan songs. I think a lot has to do with the poorer production on some of the 80s albums.

(Everyone seems to agree that "Every Grain of Sand" is a masterpiece, so that's something).
posted by sallybrown at 5:14 AM on April 1 [1 favorite]


In fairness, a lot of people say that about Crass, too.

Those are fighting words! (And a comparison I would never have expected to read.)

Caetano Veloso's version of Jokerman, which I think came out of Dylan in the '80s, is kinda gorgeous.

I've heard a bunch of Brazilian Dylan covers, and they are uniformly vastly superior to the original. In fact, I'm not sure I've ever heard a Dylan cover that wasn't an improvement on the original, but I'm sure there are some bad ones out there.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:31 AM on April 1


Built to Spill's cover of "Jokerman" is gorgeous. Especially when Doug Martsch sings "Half asleep near the stars with a small dog licking your face". Hard to believe it's a line Dylan ever sang, let alone wrote. The Ivan & Alyosha cover of "You Changed My Life" is equally revitalizing. It's a great tribute album.
posted by HerArchitectLover at 6:00 AM on April 1


The song 'Shot of Love' is one of his very best ever.

Totally. I was afraid to go near Dylan's Christian/80s stuff for a long time because of its reputation, but you can only play Highway 61 so many times. I got Shot of Love after seeing PJ Harvey's great cover of the title track and was amazed by how good it was. Shot of Love, Heart of Mine, Property of Jesus, Groom's Still Waiting at the Alter (not on original album I know), Trouble - these are fun songs to listen to. The album also ends with Every Grain of Sand. For this guy to claim that "a few of Dylan’s ’80s records are just bad-bad, like Shot of Love" is to just not have listened properly.

This article seems flimsy in general. As Colie says, people have been digging 80s Dylan for a while now, and I don't think the author of this piece is identifying anything interesting or new. Some of what he's saying is pure internet jibber jabber, e.g.:

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.

This kind of exploration of the nooks of an artist's doesn't have anything to do with "music fandom in the 21st century" or "collective saturation with media" or any such blether. It's always been the case that some people at some times have found it interesting to explore lesser works, not only because they "provide insight into what makes the artist’s 'great' records great" or because they are "more fun to think about than listen to" (whatever that means), but because once you've forgiven someone for not putting out something that matches up to Blonde on Blonde (and the forgiveness can take years), you can find that there's something of worth there anyway. People have been finding interesting things to say about Dylan's 1980s work since - guess what? - the 1980s, but nobody's calling any of them a "masterpiece" (in fact, people who use this kind of language are more likely than not to be found clinging to the orthodox) and nobody's really putting down any of the "old warhorses" either.
posted by cincinnatus c at 6:03 AM on April 1 [3 favorites]


I don't think Dylan is really an album kind of guy anyway. He needs a group of musicians in a studio and someone to get the tape rolling, but once it's over does he have much interest in the artefact itself? 'Street Legal' has bum notes left in the mix. It's just a process for him. Lennon also famously had little or no idea which Beatles songs were on which album.
posted by colie at 6:29 AM on April 1 [2 favorites]


"The Grooms Still Waiting at the Altar," is an outtake from one of the 80's albums and a damn good song IMHO. Rocks harder than most Dylan, too.
posted by jonmc at 6:55 AM on April 1 [1 favorite]


That was a really well-written piece, quite hilarious. He's right about the song selection on the album as well. Some excellent choices, some absurd ones (Wiggle, Wiggle??) and some obvious omissions. But that's the way it goes. My Bob Dylan is not your Bob Dylan. I think it's safe to say that Bob did release one great album in the 80s, but it was spread out over seven records.
posted by antihostile at 7:04 AM on April 1 [2 favorites]


Ive got many hard core Dylan fan friends. Some of them even seem to like the 80s stuff, only because it's something that he did not because anyone would would argue it was good.
posted by Liquidwolf at 7:25 AM on April 1


Nobody is embarrassed by that ridiculous snare drum sound any more

The Nile Rodgers "Like A Virgin" snare sound? That was EVERYWHERE?

Now where did I put my noise gate and reverb?
posted by thelonius at 7:33 AM on April 1


'80s Dylan can't be all bad if he did this.

That version of Jokerman is incredible, one of my favourite Dylan songs ever. But I've never been able to find anything else online with the same backing band.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:35 AM on April 1


I must say I love Bob Dylan threads on MetaFilter. The only person in know IRL who also likes Dylan is also highly annoying to talk to about any subject for more than about 2 minutes.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:37 AM on April 1 [2 favorites]


In fact, I'm not sure I've ever heard a Dylan cover that wasn't an improvement on the original,

you're really not trying hard enough.

as frrr Dylan in the 80s, it's going to take a lot to shake me from my overall notion that, short of the odd song, he fell out of his Christian thing into a deep, dank, kind of useless trough defined not so much by bad songs as utterly lost production (and vocal performance) ... until Daniel Lanois' stepped in and helped pulled things together with Oh Mercy ...

And it's all been pretty decent ever since.
posted by philip-random at 8:52 AM on April 1


Oh Mercy is up there with his best. There, I said it.
posted by jimmythefish at 8:59 AM on April 1 [3 favorites]


In fact, I'm not sure I've ever heard a Dylan cover that wasn't an improvement on the original,

you're really not trying hard enough.


In fairness, no one else could do justice to "Like a Rolling Stone." Same with "Rainy Day Women # 12 & 35."
posted by Mental Wimp at 9:07 AM on April 1 [1 favorite]


Spirit did a very credible take on Like A Rolling Stone -- not better but different (and heartfelt) enough to be well worth a listen

Also, Jimi Hendrix
("didn't even rain - no buttons to push")
posted by philip-random at 9:27 AM on April 1 [2 favorites]


Dylan's Christianity as a theological push against Reagan's optimism, is fascinating, and I love both The Groom is Waiting at the Altar, and You've Got to Serve Somebody as an example of that. I am also fascainted by this idea of songwriters from the 60s, in the 1980s, who didn't double down on the traditonalism not knowing where to go next.
posted by PinkMoose at 9:38 AM on April 1 [1 favorite]


In fact, I'm not sure I've ever heard a Dylan cover that wasn't an improvement on the original, but I'm sure there are some bad ones out there.

Pistols. Dawn.
posted by entropicamericana at 10:17 AM on April 1 [3 favorites]


I'll be your second if you want, entropicamericana.
posted by Dr Dracator at 10:33 AM on April 1


Dylan's Christianity as a theological push against Reagan's optimism

Dylan and politics do not usually mix well. What do hardcore fans think of 'Neighbourhood Bully' these days?
posted by colie at 10:36 AM on April 1


In fact, I'm not sure I've ever heard a Dylan cover that wasn't an improvement on the original, but I'm sure there are some bad ones out there.

Well The Byrds cover of "Mr. Tambourine Man," while fine in its way, smooths out all the rough edges and eliminates about half the words from one of the most lyrically transcendent songs ever written.

So there's that.
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:48 AM on April 1 [2 favorites]


Spirit did a very credible take on Like A Rolling Stone -- not better but different (and heartfelt) enough to be well worth a listen

Also, Jimi Hendrix
("didn't even rain - no buttons to push")


Yes, both nice, but...
posted by Mental Wimp at 10:50 AM on April 1 [1 favorite]


But yeah, while where there are some fun and interesting moments in the '80s (I'm partial to "Series of Dreams" - that was '80s, right?) to compare any of it to Dylan's epoch-defining work between 1963 and 1973 is just frankly silly.

It's like comparing Wings songs to "Let It Be." It's not that the new one is that bad, it's that the old one is one of the greatest works of art ever created, and if we fall into this relativistic hole of "But maybe the thing that's obvious not as good *is* just as good," it becomes hard to have any sort of conversation about art.

Sure, "it's all subjective," but is Bieber as good as Beethoven?
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:57 AM on April 1 [2 favorites]


It's like comparing Wings songs to "Let It Be." It's not that the new one is that bad, it's that the old one is one of the greatest works of art ever created, and if we fall into this relativistic hole of "But maybe the thing that's obvious not as good *is* just as good," it becomes hard to have any sort of conversation about art.

Mostly, people don't say "the thing that's obviously not as good *is* just as good" because that's not how art is to be enjoyed: it's not a desperate scramble to find the most "good" thing and fill your ears with it, forever. According to your logic, you should find the single best Beatles song (A Day In the Life? I dunno) and listen to it to the exclusion of all other Beatles songs (all other music even).

You should note, by the way, that there are at least a dozen Wings songs objectively better than Let It Be, which is a pretty lousy song by their standards.
posted by cincinnatus c at 11:27 AM on April 1 [2 favorites]


there are at least a dozen Wings songs objectively better than Let It Be, which is a pretty lousy song by their standards

Well, I was thinking about "Let It Be" the other day. Even I (I own "London Town" on CD....) will admit, that song is somewhere out there on the scale of kitsch. It's got enough musical virtue (to me) to keep from being a total Hallmark audio card, but it lacks.....subtlety.

BUT. That song has had great meaning for people. It has probably saved lives. My grandmother listened to it every day, during her final illness from cancer. It's a song that has brought real hope or solace to many listeners, and I see no reason for a songwriter to be ashamed of that.
posted by thelonius at 11:56 AM on April 1


I confess to partiality for Empire Burlesque -- not only was it the first "new" Dylan I ever bought, but it spoke to me at a certain time in my life. Glad that "When the Night Comes Falling from the Sky" is on this collection as it's still one of my favorites, even if it's not objectively as good as, say, "Tangled Up in Blue" or "Lily, Rosemary & the Jack of Hearts" (similarly long story-songs). I will note here, as I probably have before, that I once heard a blues musician do a fantastic solo cover of (most) of the song live on Chicago radio, but I've never found out his name or any recording. It fit beautifully (and yes, excised the ridiculous, trendy electronic drum). From that album, "Tight Connection to my Heart (Has Anybody Seen My Love)" is probably the next best song, "Clean-Cut Kid" is solid but seemingly out of place culturally (though it's probably intended as metaphor rather than an actual anti-war song), and "Dark Eyes" is the loveliest of the more poetic and emotional fare. The rest of the songs, with the iffy exception of "Never Gonna Be the Same Again" sort of merge together for me as one-note sentiments that might have been better juxtaposed against each other in one or more songs, leaving them feel trite and/or unfinished, and "Emotionally Yours" is probably my personal nadir of the batch. But the glossy production, overall, is probably the biggest killer here, as it seems to subtract 10% or more from every single track.

As drjimmy11 said, as well. Sure, there's only one "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon", but even a minor sketch by Picasso is considered a valuable work of art.
posted by dhartung at 12:02 PM on April 1 [1 favorite]


Well I don't want to go all full-on revisionist on Dylan's 80's, come on, the world is way too full of a number of things for me listen to, say, Down in the Groove ever again. But Shot of Love, dang, that's a fine album. Lenny Bruce is Dead is probably underrated, maybe even by Dylan (who, propensity for Wiggle Wiggle aside, seems like actually a pretty good judge of his own stuff, at least going by what he tends to play live.)

But yeah, even though it's no Infidels (and I will offer to internet-fight anyone who doesn't think that's a great album, come on!) it has a few great songs. To wit: I went looking for the Pretenders version of Property of Jesus and found that, but holy fucking oh my goodness is it 80's-looking! I think I have a different version of it somewhere that sounds better. But oh well, because how about what Sinead O'Connor does with it? There's no video, but that's OK, you can hear her snarling. Damn!

Also: I was never a big fan of the gospel albums in general, but I recently (well, in this decade at least) heard the Massey Hall concert from '80- it was apparently multi-track recorded with a view to releasing it, so it sounds awesome- and it's really something to hear, with what sounds like a small choir backing him up. I imagine it will come out one day in the Bootleg series or something but meanwhile of course you can find it and I recommend doing so!
posted by hap_hazard at 12:55 PM on April 1


And yeah, Dark Eyes is also a great song. I've always been partial to the duets he did with Patti Smith in '95 when they toured together. It's particularly touching because if you listen to recordings of him singing live with people, it seems like he often makes a point of tweaking his phrasing to throw the others off. Not this time, awwwww.
posted by hap_hazard at 1:01 PM on April 1


Dylan wrote what is arguably his best song in the 80s, although (oddly) it wasn't released until later.
posted by goethean at 1:26 PM on April 1 [2 favorites]


I think this observation from the article is dead-on, and articulates something I hadn't quite been able to put my finger on:

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.

That's an excellent point, and it explains so much about the weird aspect of pop-culture reporting that rehashes music, books, and movies from 20-30 years ago claiming that bad = good. (A music blog that I generally like just posted an article extolling the pleasures of Ratt. Fucking Ratt.)
posted by Frobenius Twist at 1:31 PM on April 1 [2 favorites]


I remember reading a Lester Bangs essay from towards the end of his life where he went on a rant about how Today's Music (in this case the early '80s) wasn't as good, objectively speaking, as The Music He Liked. To illustrate his point he stated that he was certain there weren't going to be any Throbbing Gristle or Gun Club (he mentioned other bands, I think, but those are the only two I can remember) retrospectives in 20 or 30 years, which shows that he severely underestimated the power of nostalgia, and of time to reassess and/or rehabilitate artistic reputations.
posted by The Card Cheat at 2:31 PM on April 1


Just to be clear, this concerns Dylan as a recording artist. As a performing artist he's been bad (to put it mildly) since the 70s.
posted by oluckyman at 3:31 PM on April 1


I've copped many times on the blue to being a huuuuge Dylan fan. While Mr. Zimmerman has made his share of subpar albums, Infidels definitely ain't one of them. It's not a masterpiece, but it's held up very well, IMO.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 3:37 PM on April 1 [1 favorite]


I loved 'Infidels' and continue to love it to this day. But then I'm not a huge Dylan fan overall. I think it was mostly time and place for me, with that album. So.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 4:50 PM on April 1


You should note, by the way, that there are at least a dozen Wings songs objectively better than Let It Be,

you should, by the way, have to name these dozen songs ... because I honestly can't come up with more than a handful that I'd even think to rate in the same general category as Let It Be (the song), and at least two of these are effectively Paul McCartney doing John Lennon impressions, and one isn't even Wings -- it's credited to Paul + Linda McCartney (Too Many People). The other is Let Me Roll It (from Band on the Run).
posted by philip-random at 4:58 PM on April 1 [1 favorite]


Let It Be, Hey Jude, and The Long and Winding Road are pretty weak songs to my ears. (I'm not trolling, but I've watched the rest of the world love these songs, along with others like The Smiths' How Soon is Now, while I shrugged.) But the rest of Abbey Road, plus Two Of Us, Across the Universe, and Get Back are just lovely.

I kind of abandoned the Church of Bob in the late 70s before I wandered back in the 90s, but I loved that version of Infidels from Letterman -- thanks!
posted by maudlin at 5:41 PM on April 1


So am I the only one who thought the redemption from the 80's wasn't (the overproduced and generally meh) Time Out of Mind, but the fantastic one-two punch of Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong? As Llewyn Davis says, "This song never gets old because it was never new and it's a folk song."
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 6:48 PM on April 1 [2 favorites]


As a performing artist he's been bad (to put it mildly) since the 70s.

I've seen him three times in the last 20 years and have thoroughly enjoyed each show. But I'm guessing you prefer something a bit more polished, perhaps ELP?
posted by TedW at 7:15 PM on April 1 [3 favorites]


You're both right. Dylan is an incredibly erratic performer. He can be really good, or really terrible, from night to night.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 8:10 PM on April 1 [2 favorites]


I personally think Time out of Mind is up there with some of his best albums ever, and wish he wasn't afraid of going further with the production. It really suited him on songs like Love Sick, Million Miles, and Dirt Road Blues. Lyrically, as well, TooM is one of his most coherent albums. I was obsessed with his 60s stuff for quite awhile but am much more likely to put on TooM these days, or for that matter any of the 80s albums I haven't listened to as closely.
posted by malapropist at 8:15 PM on April 1 [1 favorite]


I love 80s Dylan. Especially Infidels. I'm not sure what that says about me, but I'm OK with it.
posted by snuffleupagus at 9:36 PM on April 1


Time Out Of Mind was the last Great Dylan Album as far as I'm concerned. Not that what came after wasn't good, but it didn't feel as essential.
posted by Dr Dracator at 12:10 AM on April 2


I personally think Time out of Mind is up there with some of his best albums ever, and wish he wasn't afraid of going further with the production.

Apparently Dylan hated Lanois' production. So much so that Dylan himself has produced every single album since then as "Jack Frost."

I do love Time Out of Mind. I was listening to it today as I went for a very long (all day) walk in the country, and I used to listen to it 15 years or so ago when I did a lot of driving (again out in the country) for work.

But Time Out of Mind sounds very distinct, very Daniel Lanois.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:40 AM on April 2


Time Out Of Mind was the last Great Dylan Album as far as I'm concerned. Not that what came after wasn't good, but it didn't feel as essential.

"Love & Theft" I think is an essential album. I love the exploration of pre-rock and roll musical styles.

I have enjoyed the albums after that, but I think Modern Times sounds really flat, and I thought the backing band for that particular tour was really boring, generic and uninteresting.

I do love Blood on the Tracks, though. He does such interesting things lyrically, shifting between points of view, often in the same verse.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:43 AM on April 2


(the overproduced and generally meh) Time Out of Mind,

I will cut you.
posted by entropicamericana at 7:47 AM on April 2 [4 favorites]


maudlin: "I'm not trolling, but I've watched the rest of the world love these songs, along with others like The Smiths' How Soon is Now, while I shrugged."

...there are people who *don't* like How Soon Is Now?

I gotta lie down.
posted by Chrysostom at 11:49 AM on April 2 [1 favorite]


I love almost everything else by The Smiths. Hell, after reading about them in the NME in the summer of 83, I turned on the radio and focused and KNEW after they played just a few bars of What Difference Does It make that this had to be the band. In fact, I still have the dusty cassette recording of the 3-ish minutes that followed that revelation (plus the first play of This Charming Man later on that day, and the Jensen Sessions version of These Things Take Time, which is the canonical version as far as I'm concerned).

But How Soon Is Now -- well, I may seem cold. I may even be the most depressing person you've ever known. Sorry.

/lays a few gladioli next to Chrysostom

posted by maudlin at 6:46 PM on April 2


Oh, maudlin, the more you ignore me, the closer I get.
posted by Chrysostom at 8:28 PM on April 2


there's a shyness at work here that's criminally vulgar.



... and Love + Theft has to rate high in any list of essential Dylan albums, if only for bearing the release date of 9/11/01. The lengths that Bin Laden went to in order to distract us.
posted by philip-random at 9:47 PM on April 2


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