Built to Spill, Glen Hansard, Carl Broemel – Bob Dylan in the 80s: Volume One (2014)

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the age of waning religious zeal and disco experimentation, the epoch of brilliant outtakes like “Blind Willie McTell” and lackluster releases like Down in the Groove.

Most would agree that the 1980s were an uneven decade at best for the legendary songwriter. So it’s a mark of courage that the producers of Bob Dylan in the 80s chose to highlight just this period with their tribute to Dylan. The results on Bob Dylan in the 80s include both the expected (“Jokerman,” “Dark Eyes”) while others venture into more dubious terrain (“Wiggle Wiggle,” “Got My Mind Made Up”). The array of performers is equally varied, ranging from the unlikely pairing of Aaron Freeman and Slash to indie bands and singer-songwriters like Deer Tick, Craig Finn and Bonnie “Prince” Billy.

Kicking off with a boisterous attack on “Got My Mind Made Up” that easily overpowers Dylan’s original, the album makes a strong case for a second look at Dylan’s 1980s output. Idaho-based Built to Spill follows with a fierce take on the enigmatic “Jokerman,” putting the song’s symbolic lyrics in a new perspective.

Interestingly, two of the stand-out tracks here are taken from Dylan’s religious period: “Covenant Woman” is sung beautifully by Hannah Cohen, and Glen Hansard’s version of “Pressing On” brings to mind John Hiatt in his best moments. A more subtle but equally effective vocal is provided by Carl Broemel of My Morning Jacket in the stripped-down take on “Death Is Not The End” that closes the album.

Worth mentioning too is the duet by Dawn Landes and Bonnie “Prince” Billy on “Dark Eyes,” which recalls the live duets Dylan sang with Patti Smith. It’s telling that in his supposedly weakest decade, Dylan was able to write poetry as powerful as the concluding verse of this track, which some say prefigures the tragic death of Princess Diana a decade later:

The French girl, she’s in paradise and a drunken man is at the wheel
Hunger pays a heavy prize to the falling gods of speed and steel
Time is short and days are sweet and passion rules the arrow that flies
A million faces at my feet but all I see are dark eyes

To be fair, perhaps it wasn’t the best of times: The decade failed to yield classic albums like Highway 61 Revisited, Blood on the Tracks or Time out of Mind. Yet it wasn’t the worst of times either: in between evangelism, half-hearted tours with the Grateful Dead and a failed movie-project (Hearts of Fire, 1987), Dylan managed to record a scattering of songs that are up there with his best.

Bob Dylan in the 80s succeeds both as a tribute to this neglected period and as an interesting and varied perspective on contemporary indie music.

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Kasper Nijsen

When not submerged in translator's duties both tedious and necessary, Kasper Nijsen enjoys exploring the less-visited shores of popular music and writing about his exploits for various online magazines. Though born at the tail-end of the 1980s, his musical interests are often found to have strong links with '60s and '70s rock and pop music. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.