It is fair to say that the most difficult comparison Bob Dylan ever faces is with his former selves. Still, over the years, there have been some selves that were undoubtedly worse than others.
He can be dogmatic, reckless with his gift, frankly quite ornery. And that was just the 1980s. So, we compiled a checklist of five avoidables the next time you’re loading up the MP3s.
Certainly, you say, 1985’s “Tight Connection to My Heart” — with a horrifying video that attempted to make this old scamp into (gulp) a sex symbol — or his yowling 1975 paean to the thug life “Joey” made the cut, right? Nope. We were looking for things that were far worse.
By the way, 1966’s caterwauling “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35,” which sounds like it was taped alongside a drunken street band, wasn’t considered, either. It’s simply too delicious, even now, to think that Dylan once worked a double entendre about getting stoned onto AM radio …
5. “RANK STRANGERS TO ME” (DOWN IN THE GROOVE, 1988): What’s maddening about this album is how clunkers like the half-baked, bizarrely distant, annoyingly crabby “Rank Strangers” stand in such stark juxtaposition with its smattering of successful moments.
Elsewhere, a pair of collaborations with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter (“The Ugliest Girl in the World” and “Silvio”) in particular show an infuriating level of promise, as if Down in the Groove could almost have been snatched from its own spiral of mediocrity. Instead, as with so much of Dylan’s work in the 1980s, this is just a mess.
He knows it, too: “I can still play those songs, but I probably can’t listen to those records,” Dylan said in 2004. “I was just being swept along with the current.” Thankfully, he finally washed ashore, though it would take a while.
4. “THEY KILLED HIM” (KNOCKED OUT LOADED, 1984): The worst song on an album so bad that it can’t even be saved by the 11-minute Americana epic “Brownsville Girl” — a moment which, oddly enough, points directly to the third-act successes Dylan is having today.
Don’t look for any of that kind of sharp-elbowed storytelling elsewhere on Knocked Out Loaded, this weirdly disjointed offering which somehow sounds simultaneously hodge podge (there are tracks from several previous sessions scattered throughout) and yet so absolutely corporate (from its synthesized horns to its glossy backup squallers). Yes, in two short decades, Dylan has gone from poking the establishment in the eye to suiting up for the latest plasticine trends.
Worst of it all, to my ears, was the maudlin mish mash “They Killed Him.” Creepy, creeping, and (worse really) too obvious, it finds Dylan retracing the awful deaths of Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Jesus Christ to the brief accompaniment of (gulp) a children’s choir. The only saving grace is the hindsight realization that this would be one of the final signposts in what turned out to be a blessedly brief, though deeply uninteresting, period of religious rumination.
[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: For all of the off-handed menace found in Bob Dylan’s ‘Tempest,’ for its many betrayals, the album offers commiserate moments of community, of gritty determination, of desire, of grace.]
3. “ALL THE TIRED HORSES” (SELF PORTRAIT, 1970): Shambling, at times willfully disconnected, Self Portrait remains one of Dylan’s most inscrutable albums — if only because we may never figure out exactly why he compiled this garbage-pail compendium of oddball covers, tossed-off asides and largely uninteresting leftovers.
Was Dylan trying to puncture the god-like status that had built up around him in the previous decade? Then the very-tiring “All the Tired Horses,” with its brain-meltingly repetitious two-line lyric from the faceless Dylanettes, would certainly do the trick.
Here’s the song, in its entirety: “All the tired horses in the sun. How am I supposed to get any ridin’ done?” Repeat. Seriously. It’s not hard, after listening to this for more than three excruciating minutes, to see why Griel Marcus opened his now-legendary review of Self Portrait in Rolling Stone magazine thusly: “What is this shit?”
2. “ARE YOU READY?” (SAVED, 1980): Certainly, there are rock albums with religious themes that are seen now as transcendent successes — not least of which is All Things Must Pass from Dylan’s old buddy George Harrison. This isn’t one of them.
Sunk by its utterly routine proselytizing, Saved is often a featureless snooze. And when it’s not, it is deeply, profoundly depressing — as heard on this, the album-closing rapture anthem. Dylan ends up seeming so very much smaller, like a sloganeer with a megaphone, rather than someone who helped frame a generation’s search toward something bigger than itself. This is the sound of someone settling for an easy out, this shattering realization even today.
And so, as an angry God rains fire and brimstone down on the unbelieving, Dylan becomes the schoolmarm fingerwagging his way through Armageddon: “Have you decided whether you want to be in heaven or in hell?” Yes, indeed I have. And, as far as I can discern, hell is this album.
1. “WIGGLE WIGGLE” (UNDER THE RED SKY, 1990): Dylan, it seemed, had started a long-hoped-for late-period resurgence after making some thoroughly enjoyable contributions to the Traveling Wilburys project, then issuing 1989’s Oh Mercy. He also had a smart series of collaborators on board for this Don Was-helmed project that included George Harrison, David Crosby, Kenny Aronoff, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Bruce Hornsby.
So, he goes and sinks all of those expectations with “Wiggle Waggle,” a song so unmusical and nonsensical that you wondered if Dylan’s career could, in fact, recover from its sweeping banality. The previous decade had been unkind to Dylan and many of his generation, as brethren like the Rolling Stones, Neil Young and Paul McCartney likewise struggled to adapt to the glossy, image-conscious times. Oh Mercy seemed to herald a step back toward relevancy, but Under the Red Sky in general and “Wiggle Wiggle” in particular represented an ass-over-tea kettle tumble backwards.
He’d morphed from “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Desolation Row” to this: “Wiggle wiggle wiggle, like a bowl of soup.” Wait, what? This was, really, worse than the Jesus stuff — which at least held together within its own tired literalism. More than two decades later, I still don’t get this one. There was, really, no where else to go but up.
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