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Dirty Work: Bob Dylan
Taking an in-depth look at the trashy "bad" albums in a great band's history and finding the gems.

 
By: Jeff Daily
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August 1, 2012
 

"I feel like I need to briefly explain what a great “bad” record is: It’s a record where the creators are clearly not fully engaged with the project, which is reflected in the degraded quality of the songwriting and musicianship and an overall feeling of boredom, detachment, or extremely undisciplined self-indulgence that’s palpable in the music. That makes it “bad.” But instead of making the record less enjoyable, this “badness” actually makes the album more fascinating—so long as the artist in question is a genius—because it provides insight into what makes the artist’s “great” records great, and demonstrates how functional he or she is even when operating on a lower level of artistry/sobriety. That makes it great. Dylan’s infamous 1970 debacle Self-Portrait is the Sgt. Pepper of great “bad” albums; the closest to a modern master of the form is Ryan Adams." - STEVEN HYDEN, "The Five-Albums Test," -AV Club 7/19/2011

The above quote, which informs my 'Dirty Work', describes Bob Dylan's Self-Portrait the Sgt. Pepper of GB albums. I agree with this, but as an admitted Dylanophile, I would like to venture into the lion's den and discuss a couple other albums that are more rewarding listens than Self-Portrait and just as GB. Dylan's catalog is the greatest achievement in popular song (let me just throw that out there). At his worst he manages to reflect the culture, at his best he is the culture.

In my opinion two of his most underrated and critically dismissed albums are amongst his best. Under the Red Sky (1990) and Shot of Love (1981) are flawed, but contain amazing songs with enough layers to keep listeners engaged on repeat spins. Both of these albums have been consistently overlooked by all except hardcore Dylan fanatics (yours truly) and I think its time to have a conversation about these albums. Before we get into my picks we should talk about the album that started it all.

Self-Portrait's unbelievable shoddiness is, in a way, its greatest conceptual achievement. The album lacks the kind of personal/confessional lyrical insight one would associate with a singer-songwriter record titled "self-portrait." The album tells the listener next to nothing about the inner-artist, which is, of course, a perverse thrill. The majority of the songs are folk and country covers along with a few originals - both studio and live - the live tunes are versions of Dylan's past glories (played raggedly with The Band at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1969). The studio cuts are laid back Nashville professionalism, lacking urgency or the slightest hint of caring about the finished product. Within these glaring flaws little gems do appear. The darkly melodic "Days of '49" is one Dylan's best covers and recalls the sound of the majestic John Wesley Harding. "Copper Kettle" is an outstanding performance from a vocalist many people consider a "terrible" singer. On the other hand his double tracked (not the traditional DT either, but two very different Dylan vocal tracks playing atop each other: one his smooth country croon - the other his cigarette scarred Guthrie voice) take of Paul Simon's "The Boxer" is a train wreck and a low point in pop history.

One would think that having The Band behind Dylan would ignite the live takes, but they are mainly treasures for devotees and add not a single note of worth to songs like "She Belongs to Me" or the iconic "Like a Rolling Stone." The non-live originals amount to very little here too. "All the Tired Horses" is interesting because Dylan doesn't sing on the song, leaving a group of female voices to sing "all the tired horses in the sun/how am I supposed to getting any riding (or is that WRITING?) done?" "Living the Blues" is basically an uninspired knock off of "Singing the Blues" by Guy Mitchell. But I digress...

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PROCLAMATION: Under the Red Sky is the template for the 21st century Bob. Hear me out...The bluesy rock band tracks that cradle his seemingly innocuous jokey rhymes that, on first listen seem meaningless, start to add to a greater whole after several go 'rounds; that's what Dylan has been doing since 2001 with great success! I think this is the album where it can all be traced. Dylan's always been a thief going back to his debut LP (stealing Dave Van Ronk's arrangement of "House of the Rising Sun). On Under the Red Sky his lyrics pull from a nursery rhyme tradition (that's "folk" too, but many critics missed that at first), while currently he's pulling from obscure (to our modern ears anyway) crooner tunes. Critics of the late 80s/early 90s loved Oh Mercy (1989), the album before Red Sky, thus feeling let down by the "light" childlike lyrics contained within. The lyrics are richer than they appear on first glance. In fact Oh Mercy hasn't aged as well in my opinion. It does have well crafted lyrics, but the overwrought Daniel Lanios production and sluggish tempos of the songs detract from the album. This album is also the first appearance of Dylan's "Jack Frost" alias regarding production.

Influential and talented rock writer Paul Nelson was one of the few critics of the day not to fling monkey shit when he reviewed the album for Musician magazine in 1990. He noted how the album "...seems to revel in its own mysteriousness, to celebrate the twang of the weird and just how fantastically strange and unbelievable everything we see and know and do is." What Nelson hints at is something like the mystery that surrounds Dylan's weird, old "basement tapes" and the characters he and The Band brought to life in Woodstock. The title track is a rock 'n' roll stroll about two kids who end up being baked in a pie! "Cat's in the Well" is lyrically and musically my favorite song on the record. Dylan lyrics often have a political timeliness about them regardless of the man's apolitical stance and "Cat's in the Well" features one of the more timely Dylan lines, "The cat’s in the well and the servant is at the door/The drinks are ready and the dogs are going to war." Tell me that isn't awesome and oh...wait...when was the first Gulf War? Yeah, Dylan doesn't plan these things, but his music just happens to be about what's happening.

The playful couplets often add up to a rich tapestry like on the much-maligned "Wiggle Wiggle." The rhymes are simple, but the vocal and the knockout rock shuffle is as good as any on 2001's "Love and Theft" (see "Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum"), but that album is the anointed classic. Go figure? Late in the tune he sings, "Wiggle ’til you’re high, wiggle ’til you’re higher/Wiggle ’til you vomit fire," which is a fairly evocative image. Where as earlier he sings the more fun, "Wiggle to the front, wiggle to the rear/Wiggle ’til you wiggle right out of here." Both bridge couplets display a looser Dylan, but one that can have fun with a bar band recklessness. This is approach has been refined to the point where it is critically and commercially successful, Modern Times (2006) for example.

Maybe part of the problem for the album is it's missing that one BIG lyric that so many Dylan records have (meaning a classic poem-song that comes to define an era...such as "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," "Tangled Up in Blue," or "Not Dark Yet"). The album does have a strong contender with "Born in Time," but that song went through several revisions (see Clinton Heylin's Still On the Road: The Songs of Bob Dylan 1974-2008) rendering the Red Sky version only a shadow of what could've been. The song as is, is still emotionally riveting and ends with the weary stanza, "In the hills of mystery/In the foggy web of destiny/You can have what’s left of me/Where we were born in time." This particular song gets better with all the various releases it appears on too, like The Bootleg Series Vol. 8: Tell Tale Signs (2008) which features a recording of the song from the Oh Mercy sessions without Lanois' studio trickery.

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Shot of Love is the last of the so-called "religious" trilogy LPs Dylan recorded after finding Jesus in the late 70s. This "trilogy" idea is a journalist's trick to make albums part of a larger series when, in fact, Shot of Love is more transitional that evangelical. It does have a few songs that deal with Christianity, but it also contains a song about Lenny Bruce and tunes of the heart, i.e. love songs (could they be love of Christ sure, but Dylan's writing is always applicable to multiple situations). The album isn't all fire and brimstone preaching like the two previous albums, Slow Train Coming (1979) and Saved (1980). The songs have some of Dylan's strongest vocal melodies ("Heart of Mine" and "Dead Man, Dead Man") and roughest group playing in years. Like Under the Red Sky, the production of the album was part of the bad reviews, but in fact the undisciplined sound makes the record special. The "recorded in a garage" vibe of the album is a strength, not a weakness. There are few things worse than precious over-production in rock 'n' roll and Shot of Love flips the bird to high gloss production values. The title track is one of the great rockers in Dylan's catalog and a song he personally called his "most perfect song."

Interestingly this album went through a track listing change shortly after release. The dynamic  "The Groom's Still Waiting at the Altar" (originally the B-side to "Heart of Mine" and included only on cassette release) was added to Shot of Love as track 6 in 1985 (song one on side two of the vinyl LP), and has been present on all subsequent pressings. Take this song; coupled with the passionate "Every Grain of Sand," and listen to how two brilliant songs bring out the charms of their surroundings (I advise a quick googling of Dylan's lyrics. Read these songs in full!).  "Every Grain of Sand" can be read with religious overtones, but it is also an amazing poem in the Blakean sense. For example this stanza is beautiful, "Oh, the flowers of indulgence and the weeds of yesteryear/Like criminals, they have choked the breath of conscience and good cheer/The sun beat down upon the steps of time to light the way/To ease the pain of idleness and the memory of decay."

Shot of Love could have been even better though. It could have been a major statement. As Heylin (the best writer of Dylan books in my opinion) points out, Dylan wrote and made recordings of such masterpieces as "Caribbean Wind," "Angelina," and the aforementioned "Groom...," but he chose to omit all three (of course "Groom..." was later added). Luckily we live in a time when most major bootleg songs get released on compilation sets or reissues. "Caribbean Wind" in particular is one of the best tunes recorded by Dylan to be left off an album and it saw the light of day on the Biograph box set (1985). There is a live version of this song circulating as a boot that is even better, if in somewhat poor audio quality. SEEK AND YE SHALL FIND.

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The two GB albums this month have bland (if not downright stank) artwork. I think boring and forgettable are the right words for what you have to look at. Under the Red Sky is a black and white photo of Dylan crouching in rocks and gravel of some desert suburb. His gaze is off to the distance, not particularly heavy or cool or anything other than a mediocre snapshot. Shot of Love is pop art without the "art." Like a Lichtenstein print, the cover is just the title of the album exploding out of what we are supposed to gather is gunfire? The colors are nice, but it is such a shit cover, the listener has to wonder how much time was spent on it (me thinks very little).

Bob Dylan's catalog of definitive classics is sizable. His music goes as deep as a listener wants it to go, meaning, you get more out of the songs the more ya listen. I would encourage those who have his top tier albums like Blonde on Blonde or Blood on the Tracks to start digging and find the pot of gold that is within albums such as Under the Red Sky and Shot of Love. It's time to get excited once again because there is another new Dylan album coming out September 11th titled Tempest and we're all likely to be debating the merits of the new songs the minute we hear them.

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