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.
Tributes to Dylan, numerous as they may be, are no exception. As a matter of fact, they’re often much worse than comparable fare. The problem owes not to the quality of the material, of course, but to the sheer inscrutability of much of it. Swimming with allusion, dizzying turns of phrase, and unfathomable mysteries, these songs pose a serious, often insurmountable, challenge to the prospective interpreter.
All these reservations aside, I nonetheless had relatively high hopes for Bob Dylan in the ‘80s: Volume One. If nothing else, I was impressed by the audacity of the conceit. The first volume (if the title is to be taken at face value) of a series of works exploring the bard’s most maligned decade (not exactly rightfully so, mind you). I was eager to hear what the participating artists would make of the material.
Sometimes, they make quite a lot of it. Langhorne Slim and the Law give “Got My Mind Made Up” the joyous treatment the slight composition has always cried out for, complete with a gleeful rockabilly vocal. Built to Spill bash out a winning take on“Jokerman”, reimagining the reggae-lite original as an alt-rock anthem. Craig Finn renders “Sweetheart Like You” a boozy come-on, and with excellent results. Hannah Cohen transforms the fundamentalist dogma of “Covenant Woman” into something far more accessible and no less sincere, treating the beautiful melody with a tenderness Dylan could not muster.
Still, there’s a lot of shit to sift through here. On “Congratulations”, Elvis Perkins resorts to mere impersonation, and while he may very well be doing his best Dylan, it isn’t good enough to save this rote performance. Reggie Watts reduces “Brownsville Girl” to a stuttering, electro-reggae travesty. And the less said about “Wiggle Wiggle”, the better. While the rest of it isn’t quite that bad, it is lifeless. Although the bulk of Dylan’s work in the 1980s was indifferently crafted, performed, and produced, it was almost never boring. Baffling, ponderous, preposterous, even infuriating? Perhaps. But it was never boring.
I suspect that the purpose of this album, at least in part, was to turn people on to this relatively obscure body of work. But because more often than not these interpretations fall flat, I doubt too many listeners will be so moved as to hunt down copies of Infidels or Empire Burlesque (though the latter in particular comes highly recommended, if for no other reason than its remarkable cover). That’s a shame, because there are considerable rewards awaiting those who haven’t yet explored the work. Suffice it to say, Bob Dylan in the ‘80s is no place to start.