Maybe it’s because it’s when I first discovered Dylan, but I’ve always had a soft spot for his much-maligned ’80s output. I was still an impressionable college sophomore when a friend gave me a mixtape of Dylan songs in an attempt to win me over into the Order of Bob, and he was ecumenical about his choices — he included then-recent songs like “Jokerman” right alongside ’60s tracks like “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again.”
Sure, you could tell which ones were newer by the general croakiness of Bob’s nasally whine, but I think coming at them without being predisposed as to which were the “classics” helped me appreciate just how intricate and often brilliant those newer lyrics were. Twenty-five years later, that’s definitely something that hasn’t been lost on the contributors to “Bob Dylan in the ’80s” (ATO Records).
This album, with many tracks by artists too young to actually remember the ’80s, much less Dylan in them, is one of the most consistent collections of Dylan covers to come along in a while — certainly more so than 2012’s mammoth Amnesty International set that encompassed his whole career and included as many clunkers as keepers.
“Bob Dylan in the ’80s” only has one flat-out disaster: Reggie Watts’ take on “Brownsville Girl,” easily Dylan’s masterpiece of that decade. Watts is more a comedian than a musician anyway, although his truncated, jumbled up version of “Brownsville” isn’t funny, just head-scratching. And the decision to go instrumental with Marco Benevento’s version of “Every Grain of Sand” is odd — the lyrics are some of the best from Dylan’s religious period.
But the rest of the tracks are all worthwhile, and some of them transcendent. Craig Finn was made to cover “Sweetheart Like You” — the line “You can be known as the most beautiful woman who ever crawled across cut glass to make a deal” could describe the female protagonist of pretty much every Hold Steady song ever. And Glen Hansard’s ragged “Pressing On,” from Dylan’s “Saved,” captures the simplicity and beauty of Bob’s “gospel” output, lost on 1980s audiences looking (justifiably) for another round of “Mr. Tambourine Man.”
Some of these songs were just so well constructed by Dylan that it would take a concerted effort to do them poorly — “Jokerman” and “Dark Eyes” come to mind, and the versions here, by Built to Spill and Dawn Landes with Bonnie “Prince” Billy, are suitably stunning. More impressive, though, are the “lesser” tracks that the cover artists make their own: “When The Night Comes Falling From the Sky,” a Springsteen knockoff from “Empire Burlesque,” becomes a jangly triumph in Lucius’ hands. And “Got My Mind Made Up,” a bluesy trifle from “Knocked Out Loaded,” translates much better in Langhorne Slim’s banjo-laden Americana version.
It’s been quite a year for Dylan covers — a few months back Columbia re-released Dylan’s “30th Anniversary Concert Celebration” on disc and video, which was a particular pleasure for me: I never get to events like that, but I did manage to score a seat at this Madison Square Garden show back in 1992. And the Blu-ray in particular captures the event beautifully — certain highlights, like Neil Young’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” and the late Johnny Winter’s searing, soaring take on “Highway 61 Revisited,” just explode off the screen.
But I was happy that at least some of Dylan’s more recent ’80s output was also represented in the setlist that night, also well preserved on the new discs. The O’Jays put a stunning gospel spin on “Emotionally Yours,” another forgotten “Empire Burlesque” track, and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ nuanced “License to Kill” from “Infidels” was a quiet highlight. Lou Reed, meanwhile, seems to be hanging on to the teleprompter for dear life but still manages to deliver a superb angry take on the masterful “Infidels” outtake “Foot of Pride.”
Time has pretty much shown that Dylan’s supposed fallow periods are still worth re-mining — even his “Self-Portrait” sessions, historically derided as a disaster, were rescued with the latest Bootleg Series release. The standouts from the “30th Anniversary Concert Celebration” and even more so from “Bob Dylan in the ’80s” show that era to be a more than worthy inspiration to Bobophiles and Dylan fans yet to come. Not to mention deserving of space on your Bob mixtape (whatever that is).
Stream the full album here:
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