The Traveling Wilburys Collection
US: 3 Jun 2016
UK: 3 Jun 2016
Back in 2007, PopMatters’ own Michael Franco gave a glowing review to the then-just rereleased triple-disc set of Traveling Wilburys’ material called, rather unimaginatively, The Traveling Wilburys Collection. Here, it contained the two albums released by the supergroup—consisting of Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, George Harrison, and Roy Orbison—as well as a short documentary depicting the superstar quintet going to a house and recording what would become the very first Traveling Wilburys album, Volume 1.
Never taken as a truly serious project, this meeting of music legends following the commercial success of Harrison’s 1987 effort Cloud Nine (produced by Lynne) was very off-the-cuff and ramshackle. Although the song that inspired it all, “Handle With Care”, remains a rock-radio staple to this day, the sessions that followed featured the group in a fairly low-fi setup, culling their powers together to write a song a day, using auto magazine snippits to drive home the point of “Dirty World” while letting Dylan do his thing on the fan favorite “Tweeter and the Monkey Man”. As Franco noted in his 9/10 review, “the Traveling Wilburys were always the stuff of myth—of unlikely beginnings and heroes and, yes, even transcending death through creation. Thankfully, with their work back on the shelves, they will do just that.”
So why are we talking about it again? Spotify, of course.
The release of Collection in 2007 was a significant moment given that despite the Wilburys’ multi-platinum success, as their albums had been commercially unavailable for years, they were no doubt tied up in the fact that the band, justifiably, created their own record label to help distribute the material. Even after Collection topped the UK album charts, different label machinations and changes meant that Collection, once again, is available in the exact same format it was in 2007, now released through Concord Music Group, and now also available on streaming services. This is literally just a re-release of what came out nine years ago: there are no new frills or surprises awaiting within.
Yet when taking all this music in, the gut instinct is there: “I can’t believe all these superstars got together and made an album—it’s so fun!” There’s nothing in the Audience Appreciation Handbook that says every great piece of music must be serious in nature and considered in content, which is why hearing this handful of rock ‘n’ roll journeymen basically goof around in front of a mic was a thrill for all. The end result, however, especially when looked at nearly three decades after the fact, doesn’t hold up as strongly as one would think.
On paper, the idea of these five individuals coming together and creating something felt like some sort of Rolling Stone fever dream, but in practice, it’s easy to forget that all the members were in wildly different states of success at the time. It could be argued that Petty had it best, having just released the lukewarm Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough) in 1987. Lynne was in a bit of a pop-rock rut as a producer, his 1986 Electric Light Orchestra set Balance of Power proving to be one of the group’s lowest-selling sets in over a decade. Dylan was perhaps in the roughest shape of all, with 1985’s Empire Burlesque being laughed off as it became clear that Dylan had lost his songwriting muse long ago. Harrison, meanwhile, just scored a monster hit with “Got My My Mind Set on You”, and Orbison, beloved by all, ended up getting quite the career revival following both this and the prominent inclusion of “In Dreams” in David Lynch’s 1986 fever dream Blue Velvet.
As such, having a lark of a recording session meant that the guys got to unwind, and the light swinging horns than punctuate “Last Night” show off a side of the fivesome that isn’t always seen: upbeat, optimistic, and just a bit horny. Yet the problem with a lark is just that: quality control takes a back seat to all other considerations because c’mon guys: who isn’t having a good time here? Even when Dylan gets way too overt on his double-entendres during “Dirty World”, this still gets roped into the “goof off” section of critics’ hit-lists and is therefore safe from retribution, despite the fact that this would be qualified as instantly disposable had any other artist performed it. Yet Dylan, perhaps unsurprising given the circumstances, is the weakest performer of the bunch, with the dramatic dumbshow that is “Tweeter and the Monkey Man” feeling more like a rote exercise than it is a step forward, which, given the era in which this album came out, was something he was desperately searching for. Petty and Orbison are having the most fun here, while Harrison just sounds happy to be around at all.
Yet let’s get real: there are some profoundly bad songs contained within the Wilburys’ brief time in the spotlight. In truth, the only reason so many are willing to suffer through pedestrian schlock like “Congratulations” and other lesser numbers is because of Orbison, his distinct vocals and elder statesman gravitas lending a strange stamp of authenticity to the proceedings, as his swooping, trembling tenor elevates by-the-numbers fare like “Not Alone Any More” into something much more interesting and provocative.
As such, the passing of Orbison, and the guys’ own acknowledgment of his absence, is what makes the Wilburys’ Volume 3 such a sagging letdown. The fun times here feel forced (perhaps no more than on the utterly disposable “Wilbury Twist”), and even with 3 taking the shape of a deliberate genre throwback album, with references to rockabilly and doo-wop that feel nothing short of overt, that feeling of camaraderie feels more muted this time out, “7 Deadly Sins” rivaling “Congratulations” as the worst standalone song the group recorded. Petty ends up with one of the best tracks here, with the plaintive-but-playful “Cool Dry Place” feeling like a game where he tries to cop some of Dylan’s own moves while standing right in front of him, but Petty nearly ruins that goodwill with the cornball “You Took My Breath Away” (which follows his singing the title with the line “I want it back again”). Even with all the years removed since its initial release, the party line that the Wilburys’ first album is better than the second can be attributed as a stone cold fact at this point.
Although the more cynical among us will dismiss the very idea of this band as nothing but baby boomer catnip, The Traveling Wilburys works better when it’s not treated with reverence, and instead thought of as a not-so-serious meeting of minds, some at the peak of their powers and some clearly at their own artistic low points. Yet no matter where one’s opinion is on the Wilburys, “End of the Line” will endure for decades to come, and Gary Moore’s truly-scintlating guitar solo on Volume 3‘s opening number “She’s My Baby” would go down as the stuff of legend in any other context. Yes, the Wilburys were a landmark group, but only due to the names attached to the project, and while Collection remains a fun trinket and a hell of a souvenir trinket from the party that is late ‘80s rock radio, the fact that the Wilburys even happened is what will be remembered most about the group, less so the songs they wrote together.
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