As unlikely a combination as the first Traveling Wilburys album might have represented, the second one, cheekily titled Volume 3, upped the ante. First of all, the freshness of the first was gone. George Harrison, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne and Bob Dylan blew our minds by getting together under the same tent; now it had been done, and to great acclaim. They scored two hits with “Handle With Care” and “End Of The Line” in the process. But that was then. Now they were soldiering on without Roy Orbison, easily the anchor for their whole rock ‘n’ roll genealogy. It was rumored that Del Shannon was prepped to become a Wilbury, and while I’m sure that would have produced something interesting, it also would have been creepy. How do you replace Roy Orbison? Shannon’s suicide tragically removed this option.
So the pretense of anonymity was gone, as was a key member of the band — but what about the magic? Sadly, Volume 3 only occasionally rose up to those peaks, often had the feel of an also-ran recycler, and at its lowest points felt uncomfortably like a desperate move. To illustrate the point, my CD collection is not a neat, organized series of shelves designed for easy access. I have two, in fact, and they stay stocked with my go-to selections. The rest tend to wind up in boxes shoved here and there, pulled out and returned to service on rare occasions. It was this piece that prompted me to dig the disc out, and I couldn’t tell you when I last listened to it; I just don’t remember.
It’s kind of a shame, because there are a few really good tunes on Volume 3. The Lynne standout “New Blue Moon” is a nice example, as is Petty’s turn on “You Took My Breath Away.” Even the pointedly retro feel of “7 Deadly Sins,” couched in a southern doo-wop pastiche, is fine, but too often the rest feels forced, calculated, and not asmuch fun as the original. “Cool Dry Place” and “Wilbury Twist” seem to be aiming for lighthearted nonsense, tossed off in a jam and recorded as such, and yet sound incredibly labored, like all involved didn’t understand how they captured lightning in a bottle the first time out. Now they were actively trying, but trying way too hard. “She’s My Baby” and “Inside Out” both made decent inroads on the charts (#2 and 16, respectively, in the Album Rock category) but the true test is whether either song immediately comes to mind upon request.
No? Didn’t think so.
I couldn’t speak for anyone else but this was, for 1990, my most anticipated album. Volume One had been a constant companion in 1988 and even though I was aware of some of the limitations of future outings, I was ready to meet them head on. Even today I wonder if my lackluster response was because of the music or the insurmountable expectations for it, but blaming a little bit of both seems to make the most sense. The pop music landscape was changing, and even though the Wilburys were designed to be something of an instant artifact, who could have foreseen just how sharply they’d stick out? Gangsta rap was on the rise, as was modern R&B, always a contender, but now a crossover powerhouse thanks to the melismatic one-two punch of Whitney and Mariah. New Jack Swing was the thing and, in only a couple more years, the roar of the grunge movement would blow almost everything else off the map. The Traveling Wilburys always celebrated their classic rock status — how could they have known it would work against them this year?
There’s still a wellspring of love for the project, evidenced during recent Petty shows when Jeff Lynne would join him onstage. Did they do anything from Volume 3? Of course not; they did “Handle With Care,” and I’m afraid that’s just the legacy the album will have to accept.