Release Date: Mar 25, 2014
Record label: ATO
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Adult Alternative Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Indie Rock, Album Rock, Alternative Singer/Songwriter
Bob Dylan opened the '80s as a born-again Christian and closed the decade with Oh Mercy, a critical comeback that rejuvenated his career. In between came a decade in the wilderness, where he found religion and lost it, went with the flow of MTV, hit the road with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers and the Grateful Dead, anchored the Traveling Wilburys supergroup, and released seven studio albums while he banked a bunch of unreleased material that had drifted out over the years. Dylan had some hits along the way -- 1983's Infidels and 1985's Empire Burlesque both went gold -- but this is generally considered an unfocused era of excess.
It seems downright unreasonable to accuse an artist like Bob Dylan of ever flipping his on-off switch the wrong way, but that’s the impression left by the entirety of his solo material from the 1980s: seven studio albums, the lone keeper being the Daniel Lanois-produced tumbleweed Oh Mercy, from 1989. This is what Dylan in the 80s: Volume One, a compilation of covers mostly performed by Americans under 50, aims to salvage. DFA Records pal and current Bud Light commercial star Reggie Watts transforms “Brownsville Girl” into kaleidoscopic reggae, subtracting the whole Gregory Peck bit and, all told, seven and a half of the original 11 minutes.
In hindsight, Bob Dylan's recordings in the 1980s deserve their bad rep less for the songs – which can be tremendously potent – than for the bland production and often half-baked performances. This revisionist tribute drives that notion home. Two standouts come from 1983's Infidels: Built to Spill turn the smooth reggae rock of "Jokerman" into a prickly, guitar-centric anthem of flailing faith, and Craig Finn makes the cosmic barroom come-on of "Sweetheart Like You" seem both sleazier and more sincere than Dylan's.
To be perfectly frank, the words “a tribute to” in the title of an album or the accompanying promos do little to inspire my confidence. Rarely do tributes hang together as a whole or reward repeated listening. It’s rarer still that such records stand proud alongside their inspirations. Instead, at best, they may boast a few minor revelations and a surfeit of the merely so-so or the outright ghastly.
I think as a society we can collectively agree that the 1980s was not a golden age for Bob Dylan. With a few exceptions here and there, the albums were even worse than his output during his flirtation with Evangelical Christianity (I think it says a lot about the talent of Mr. Dylan, that we are willing to pretend that his stint as the Scott Stapp of the late ‘70s never happened.