Dylan – Lost In The Eighties
Ah, the dreaded Eighties, when a whole new wave of younger artists arrived, toting their credentials and full of enthusiasm in the certain knowledge that they would put these 60’s dinosaurs to bed. The old attempt to record a near exact live performance with four or maybe eight tracks was now blown away by 32 and 64 track technology and synths that could (sort of) reproduce any instrument, drum machines to keep prefect and sterile time – what was the creative artist to do? At first Dylan tried to keep up, but he notoriously hated the tedium of recording. His method had always been to add a few unusual ingredients and see what magic occurred. His late eighties albums simply got worse and worse. 1985 saw Empire Burlesque, a mish-mash of an album, garnered from several failed attempts to record a new batch of songs with various session players and producers; Bob opting to produce himself (badly) in the end. If he was searching for a new sound he never found it, and mostly the songs just weren’t up to his usual standard. Or maybe this was his new standard, if so, we were waiting in vain. No songs really stand out on this rather poor album.
And by some serendipity CBS decided to issue a major retrospective; the three album Biograph came out in 1985. A sort-of retrospective but with a few unreleased songs and spectacular live performances. A fantastic collection – and it really served to point up the current poor quality of both Dylan’s songs and his performances. One almost wonders why he didn’t simply give up there and then. But Dylan always was a persistent bugger, and he carried on. Biograph contained a few ‘new’ old songs – ‘I’ll keep it with mine’, ‘Percy’s Song’, the splendid ‘Abandoned Love’ and ‘Caribbean Wind’ (both from Blood on the Tracks sessions) and ‘Up To Me’ – plus some scorching live versions. A great album – well worth having.
But it was as if this simply passed Dylan by – he seemed oblivious of his past, fixated on the ‘Eighties’ sound. In 1986 he released ‘Knocked Out Loaded’ – and it was pretty awful; lacklustre songs, cover versions and reworked out-takes. But it is redeemed by one brilliant songs ‘Brownsville Girl”; this is one of his long rambling songs, almost nonsense but with a great chorus. Apart from that, a poor album.
Dylan seemed locked in, incapable of writing great songs, chugging out live performances where he messed up both the tunes and the vocals of his old hits. Strangely, though his records didn’t sell well he was still filling stadiums. In ’88 he released two albums; Down In The Groove; another very underachieving record – only notable song was ‘Silvio’, but even that was hardly great. He also released Dylan and the Dead. Yet another live album, this time from a short tour with The Grateful Dead – un-notable even with Gerry Garcia’s sublime guitar notes; simply retreading poorly – much better album tracks. Even I, a hardened Dylan fan was beginning to despair – was he ever going to write another great song, make a semi-decent record even. Then in 1989 he spent a couple of months with Daniel Lanois (see L), a Southerner and a subtle record producer who had recently worked with U2. Apparently, the recordings went badly with Dylan nearly walking away, but Daniel persisted and at last dragged out some great performances and a superb album Oh Mercy. Dylan’s voice sounded world weary and the songs were slower and about the passage of time and mortality. Somehow the old magic had returned and despite an awful cover the album sold much better than his recent stuff. Best songs ‘Ring Them Bells’ ‘Man In The Long Black Coat’ and ‘Shooting Star’; but really not a bad song on the record. To help promote the album, which CBS suddenly realized was really good, a special promo CD (limited edition – but I have a copy) was issued – Forever Young. This is a Greatest Hits plus a few tracks from Oh Mercy – and very good it is too.