Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Bob Dylan, 1978-94: Navigating Through the Rough Waters of His Middle Years

First Published in Pressplus1 Online Magazine:

Call it the lull, the calm before the storm- or at least before lightning struck again- but the fact remains: Bob Dylan in a near two decade period of his storied five decade career became a shell of his former self. Even if the idea of a career dip or two is not alien to even the greatest of performers, the years of 1978-1994 had a lot of people doubting his legacy and doubting he was capable of artistic genius again. Many people wondered aloud if Dylan could really recapture his former status or anything close to it. A lot of critics with high standards would even say he was noticeably sketchy after 1966 but that's a falsehood in my view, seeing as how he still created all those great "Basement Tapes" with the Band in 1967 plus the excellent albums John Wesley Harding and Blood on the Tracks, the very good Nashville Skyline, New Morning, Planet Waves and Desire, and a superb live album with the Band called Before the Flood.
All these worthy albums came in the 8 years following his infamous neck injury in a motorcycle accident. Since that point Dylan slowly but surely made his way back to touring and now can be found on the road as almost a permanent fixture of the concert scene. Despite being committed to this relentless touring since 1988, Dylan often- whether due to his own whims or health issues- can flummux or disappoint fans live, especially those that don't quite "get" his constant reinventions of his own works. But to be perfectly fair, Bob truly is a mixed bag to witness in concert and it's not overly critical to say so at all. When he's on, you feel like you're witnessing the flicker of the original genius. And even at his worst moments, he has outshone half the rock stars out there. But he must feel the music is his muse because he has rarely taken time off since his early 40s.

Once you set a standard as great as the one he set between 1962-1969, then again between 1974-1976, people don't expect to hear a man who sounds like he stopped caring. In his famed memoir, 2004's Chronicles Part One, Dylan admitted as much. Personal problems played a role at first but by all reports he was a more contented man in the 80s, having secretly re-married and fathered a daughter. However he again hit a personal low ebb in the 90s when he became disenfranchised enough to quit writing songs for a good spell. His time in the wilderness is not a time of great musical innovation but is an enthralling story to tell nonetheless. The events of Dylan's post-prime period can tell the proper background to his slump as well. It begins in 1967 with Dylan left up on the proverbial shelf, recuperating in upstate New York's West Saugerties region from that motorcycle accident. 

It had happened in August 1966 and soon rumours spread as to what exactly occurred. Had Dylan been mortally wounded? Paralyzed? Left a vegetable? Died? The myths grew as his many touring dates booked by manager Albert Grossman had to be cancelled. It was likely for the best since Bob was in a run-down state, more precarious health-wise than he would be until the mid-90s. A steady diet of marijuana, mphetamine and possible heroin use had turned Dylan into a zonked-out creature, not too far from the fictionalized portrayal of Cate Blanchett playing the very 1966 Dylan-based "Jude" in 2010's film I'm Not There. The scathing backlash of many in his fanbase to his adoption of electric rock music had seemingly rolled off Dylan like water off a duck's back. But deep inside the madness got to him and made him contemplate retiring from music, secluding himself or changing directions entirely. Luckily he opted for the latter two routes.  

The following year, Dylan relocated with his wife and started a family. He also took an integral part in the immortal Basement Tapes at the nearby cottage of some friends. The friends were the Hawks - later to become world renowned as the Band. These mostly Canadian fellows had been Dylan's 1966 touring band, reaching glorious heights by fusing their bluesy bar band/rockabilly nature with his folk leanings. His prolific songwriting would also rub off on them to fantastic results. Many of the tunes made the rounds on a popular bootleg album called The Great White North Album,which led to Columbia officially releasing many of the recordings (but not really close to all of them) in 1975. The sessions still stand as Dylan's own lost touchstone moment, signalling his immersion into a mythology by yarning a legendary string of songs seemingly borne out of a different time and place in American folklore, as if conjured up by world-weary bluesmen and then unearthed by Alan Lomax or Harry Smith stumbling upon some rural, cotton-picking Southern village. 

They solidifed Dylan as no longer a mere copyist or byproduct of the 60s culture he helped create, but as a timeless creative beacon. But in typical Dylan fashion, many of the recordings and songs weren't intended to see the light of day- the first sign that Dylan, willingly or unwillingly, didn't know what to do with his most stirring material. Eight years previous to the official release of these "tapes," Columbia was most certainly relieved when Bob eased back into the public eye- if only for a moment- with the release of John Wesley Harding at the end of 1967, a spare, country-tinged album that was hardly a followup in spirit to the expressionist Blonde and Blonde and contrasted with the flower power psychedelia ruling the rock world at the time. Columbia had tried to placate his void in the marketplace with a greatest hits release in 1967, an event that extremely rankled Dylan due to it being put out without his approval or consultation. 

Meanwhile, his woodshedding continued through 1968 in spite of the new material unleashed to the public. Everyone wanted a piece of the icon but he was content to release music every so often while raising a family with his wife Sara Lowndes, married to him in a secret ceremony in 1965. A foray into much more faithfully pure country came in 1969 with Nashville Skyline but all the while, Dylan was being pressured by the radical Hippies to become their champion and spokesperson against the Vietnam War. The counterculture saw Dylan as the pied piper and wanted to follow him on the march to peace. Dylan resisted, being a rather apolitical thinker when push came to shove. But the adulation and demand was starting to grate on him, so with 1970's double-LP Self Portrait, he somewhat intentionally made the corniest, squarest album possible in order to shake off the attention in both his private and artistic life. It was a set even Merle Haggard and his "Okie from Muskogee" types would consider simplistic.
If you take the album as a larf, it's actually quite enjoyable. If you view it on an artistic level, it flops more than a fish left on the dock. Serious questions arose about Dylan's once indomitable creativity and even though New Morning came out mere months later to quell a lot of the critical nattering, it appeared Dylan was in a bit of a mire. Then came a writer's block period over the next 3 years as Dylan released one protest single ("George Jackson"), four new recordings for his second volume of greatest hits in 1971 (two of the selections having been written in '67 during his convalescence), plus a soundtrack album to a movie he had a small role in, Sam Peckinpah's 1973 film Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. All this generated in the way of classic Dylan moments was "Knockin' on Heaven's Door." This certainly was not much to show for three years work, at least by the standards of the time.

Collaborations with the Band in 1974 seemingly reinvigorated the mercurial Dylan. These LPs, Planet Waves and the double live set Before the Flood, gave the careers of both a much needed shot in the arm. A dispute with Columbia led to Planet Waves being distributed on Asylum, still the only release to date of Dylan's not on Columbia/Sony. Once back on CBS, it was the crumbling of Dylan's marriage that inspired him to head into a New York City studio in September 1974 to cut a song cycle that became Blood on the Tracks. The album was test pressed until Dylan had second thoughts about the sameness of the album, all the songs being recorded with simple acoustic guitar and bass accompaniment in the unique open E tuning. Dylan has recounted how his brother, David Zimmerman, convinced him to make the alterations by giving him constructive criticism along those lines. After re-recording several tracks back in his home state of Minnesota, the album in its final form came out in January 1975 and signaled that once again Bob Dylan had the incomparable creative juices flowing.
The album was a bleak, frank depiction of sorrow, heartache, betrayal and melancholy and towered above nearly everything he'd done since Blonde on Blonde. Riding this momentum, Dylan went for a denser sound on his next project, a sort of harkening to the days of jug bands and hootenanies. Desire was a fine album no doubt, a rousing experience in the face of the tormented Blood on the Tracks - though its final track, "Sara," made an explicit attempt to atone for mistakes and patch up the marriage. Nonetheless, Desire was an album where many tracks sound spontaneous but severely lacking rehearsal. Quite evidently, there are a lot of band slipups and Emmylou Harris sounds like a lost foal, as if she wasn't given a run-through of the lyrics before laying down her harmonies. With the communal mentality he discovered on the recording of the LP, Bob set out for his grand tour throughout 1975-76, an ensemble that became known as The Rolling Thunder Revue. 

The RTR consisted of numerous musicians Dylan has associated with over the years not to mention others with a wide divergence of backgrounds- everyone from Joni Mitchell to former David Bowie sideman Mick Ronson! The tour started off big enough, but got decidedly massive as it kept adding guests from show to show, sometimes those guests staying on for further tour stops. The wild party cocktail of drugs, alcohol and ridiculous fanfare was a true sign of the times. It also seemed to sap a lot of Dylan's creativity once the dust had settled. For the tour, Dylan adopted a more theatrical style than ever, donning a "mask" with eyeliner and white face paint (but don't worry, he didn't look like the lost third Jewish member of KISS). He gestured more noticeably with his physical movements and bellowed the songs in a hoarse, energetic voice completely unlike the laid-back, almost laconic Dylan of old. Amidst it all was the filming of one of his newest pet projects, a four-hour dirge of a film that became known as Renaldo & Clara upon its release in 1978. 

Work on that ultimately forgettable cinematic endeavour held up Dylan's next release. Amidst the filming of his eventual movie, the Rolling Thunder Revue tour finished in 1976 after generating much publicity and seemingly putting Dylan back on top of the contemporary pop/rock world. But Dylan, now 37 but with a wealth of experience behind him, was really in a crisis period personally. His marriage to Sara officially ended in 1977 despite the many attempts to repair it over the prior five years of cracks in the facade. In 1978, the newly divorced Dylan released the odd Street Legal, an album panned everywhere except in Europe, particularly Holland where for some reason it became seen as one of his most vital works (does this mean it needed Amsterdam marijuana to be enjoyed? Possibly so.) Of the 9 tracks, only "Changing of the Guards," "Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)" and "Where Are You Tonight (Journey Through the Heat)?" were worthy of being on an album issued by a name like Bob Dylan.  

Street Legal featured Dylan with a rather generic pro rock unit, equipped by multiple female backing singers- to become a trait of practically every Dylan album until 1989. The rather upfront and beefy saxophone of Steve Douglas added a Vegasy touch but the songs themselves lacked originality and though there were a few good ones, there were many that were truly pedestrian. It seemed an unatural, ill-fitting next step after the highs hit in the mid-70s. With a similar band on the road to the Street Legal tracks, Dylan took to a big world tour through 1978-79 but it was disparaged by most critics for its overblown sound and complete reinventions of old standards that rendered them either unrecognizable, schmaltzy or both. The double LP live document of the tour's Japanese visit was captured by the depressing Bob Dylan at Budokan. The presence of several African-American women backing him on the tour not only gave the music a gospel feel but brought Dylan to a point no one had contemplated was possible: a conversion to Christianity. 

The whirlwind of his life and the personal failures led him to converse with these black women about their faith. Bob also credited a Toronto concert where a fan threw a silver cross necklace onstage and the intrigued singer kept it for comfort. Then he apparently had a vision in a hotel room in Tuscon, Arizona, where he claimed to feel the spirit of Jesus joining him. When the tour concluded, he shocked many by becoming a born again Christian, a move many saw as hard to fathom, firstly because he was a Jew and secondly because his lyrics and attitude always seemed too intellectual and knowing to embace religion- at least that's what his secular and atheist supporters contended. Rumour had it that Bob was baptized in Pat Boone's swimming pool, but there's never been any proof of this happening. If true, Boone could've turned it into a museum for a quick buck from Dylanites I suppose. As a born-again, Dylan soon took to airing out his complaints quite heartily and vociferously. 

With this new faith, Dylan bravely made it clear and ever present in his live shows that he'd found Jesus, God, belief, etc. and that he was going to let everyone know. But most of the time, all the abundance of faith he acquired made him come across as angrier, more bitter with the world. That streak of outrage hasn't completely left his music to this day but it's more of a soft undercurrent compared to the dogmatic soapbox that was his Christian re-birth period. 1979's Slow Train Coming, produced by Dire Straits' Mark Knopfler, was the forum for these newfound beliefs and while the passion behind the more faith-based pieces equalled some of his 60s highlights, a lot of the blues-rockers were familiar sounding and only served for him to rant about those who were poisoning the world or going to hell. Yet it was one of these, "Gotta Serve Somebody," that strangely enough won him his first Grammy award. Despite the flaws, Slow Train was seen as superior to Street Legal in most circles, and some even claimed it to be better than Desire

Knopfler's clean, feathery production certainly hit the spot after the rather aimless production jobs done on Bob's previous two LPs. For a minute there in 1980, it seemed Dylan was going to turn it around and perhaps use his Christianity to become sensational once more, even if he had become so ingratiated in it that he was predicting the end times and the return of the Messiah. After all, such a spiritual rebirth had done wonderful things for Van Morrison when he was in danger of becoming stale. But no such acclaim was made toward 1980's Saved, a stiff and joyless effort that was dead on arrival and among his worst albums. Aside from the grandiosity of "Solid Rock" and the touching "What Can I Do for You?" featuring perhaps his best harp solo ever, Saved was a limpid collection of gospel and boring blues-rock with Dylan's singing voice declining to the point where he was almost talking instead of even trying to properly sing anymore. This was a crying shame considering video and audio footage of many of his concerts from around the same period show Dylan's religious vision and new compositions were surprisingly moving when done with the proper amount of passion and care.

Shot of Love from 1981 was a marginal improvement and despite two of his worst songs ever - "Property of Jesus" and "Lenny Bruce"- it contained at least some glimpses into Dylan's once golden touch, for example "Heart of Mine," "Groom Still Waiting at the Altar" and "Every Grain of Sand," one of his greatest 25 compositions in my humble opinion, a spiritual meditation that proved his Christian ballads could be quite deep and affecting when done well. Thanks to these two albums, Dylan's formerly strong chart power had all but disappeared. He could no longer crack the top 30 on the album chart and Columbia no doubt was worrying, even though for years he had been one of the only artists on their label they considered immune to getting dropped (this holds true today, even though Columbia is just a symbolic label, inherited when Universal Music bought them up).
To combat this, Dylan looked to Knopfler again, whose work had guided Slow Train to a decent finished product that struck the top 10 on the charts and impressed, despite being very much a non-secular work. For 1983's Infidels, Dylan had assembled his strongest studio band in years: Knopfler and former Stone Mick Taylor providing guitars, reggae duo Sly (Dunbar) & Robbie (Shakespeare) on drums and bass and the keyboards provided by Knopfler's Dire Straits bandmate Alan Clark. The songs he brought to the table were almost uniformly better than anything since Desire. Though Infidels was his shortest release on quantity of tracks, just eight in all, it only really had a couple disappointments in "Man of Peace" and "License to Kill" which was just arranged in a static, boring way despite being nothing terrible on paper. Plus, Infidels made the move to forgo most religious discussion and this would end his born-again period on record, as well as in life where he retreated from such intense bible-thumping after 4 years of getting to know the ugly side of Christianity, or so he claimed.
The spiritual lessons stuck with the man but if anything, it might've led him to rediscover his Judaism which he did in the late 80's. Infidels featured a great love song ("Sweetheart Like You") and a couple effective spiritual songs ("I and I," "Jokerman"). Despite his first batch of promotional "music" videos, the album wasn't much to crow about in regards to its chart showing, but it was a bounce back from his previous two releases that sank without a trace. However, Infidels was also noted for being a "could have been" masterpiece for excluding two superb songs, the bitter but fiery "Foot of Pride" and the mysterious "Blind Willie McTell," a true masterpiece with just Knopfler on acoustic guitar and Dylan on piano, delivering a standout vocal performance. After his second best live album to that point- though that's not saying much considering how average Hard Rain is and how awful Budokan is- in 1985's Real Live, Dylan went even harder for a contemporary buck and a little interest from the youth. 

But was anyone really going to go nuts over a 44-year old who could barely wheez out a song... unless it was totally out of character for him and highly mainstream? The answer was no but Bob gave it a shot with Empire Burlesque. For it, he reached out to the cream of the crop of rock session men, writers and producers but namely Eurythmics' Dave Stewart and New York-based dance and hip hop producer Arthur Baker. Despite its slickness, inadequate mixing and aimless electronic accessorizing, a lot of critics enjoyed this album and its songwriting isn't too shabby, even if its production often is. It only falls on its face for unfocused, throwaway cuts like "Never Gonna Be the Same Again" and the misbegotten "Disco Dylan" experiment, "When the Night Comes Falling from the Sky." But this time most of the love songs don't suffer from dullness and though the synthesizer hijinks don't improve a lot of cuts, they don't ruin any either. 

The LP even ends on a harkening back to the guitar-and-harrmonica folk days with the short, but memorable ditty "Dark Eyes." 1985 was a busy, busy year in the professional life of Dylan. He showed up on "We are the World," released a fantastic career retrospective "box set" called Biograph and performed at Live Aid in a rather slapdash, trainwreck acoustic set with technical gaffes and the unstable backing of an inebriated Ron Wood and Keith Richards of the Stones.
Then Dylan topped it off by innocently suggesting some of the money raised go to help struggling American farmers, a quote considered the genesis for what became Farm Aid. He even gave his first TV interview in years and when you look at it, 1985 is the last time the man could be seen everywhere in the media. The myriad of sessions Dylan was involved in from 1983-86 formed the basis of his next two albums, a pair of letdowns after Infidels and Empire Burlesque hinted at respectability.

The first of which was Knocked Out Loaded in 1986 and though it featured several notable guests in songwriting and instrumentation, one couldn't tell or really be excited about them. There are some of Dylan's worst tracks of the 80s- which says something- like the tossed-off "Maybe Someday," a horribly overwrought version of Kris Kristofferson's "They Killed Him" and even a right cheesy 80s adaptation of the traditional folk tune "Driftin' Too Far from Shore." The only good news with the garbage record was the 11-minute "Brownsville Girl," a winding, stortytelling affair that was co-credited to playwright Sam Sheperd. Remodeled from a 1984 version that was even longer, titled "New Danville Girl," Dylan enlisted his backing singers to do some call-and-response to his spoken word lyrics, not to mention Western film mariachi horns and vivid stories of a relationship weaved around trying to recall what Gregory Peck movie he had seen in a theatre years earlier. It was a departure into chutzpah for Dylan, but the good kind thankfully. 

"Brownsville Girl" was a fleeting moment of excellence in a time of dry wells of creativity. Still, Knocked Out Loaded made Infidels and Empire Burlesque look like chartbusters by comparisons, stalling out at a paltry on Billboard's charts without cracking the top 30. 1988's Down in the Groove arguably made no improvement even if it was an album of more consistency. But unlike Knocked Out, it lacked a true lynchpin track to get jazzed about. There were fewer writings from Dylan and more pointless, bluesy filler like "Had a Dream About You, Baby," "Let's Stick Together" and " At the same time, there was humour ("Ugliest Girl in the World"), stark folk covers to relive his halcyon folk prime ("Shenandoah," "Rank Strangers to Me") and a moving song taken to classic level later by Nick Cave ("Death is Not the End"), and also including a collaboration with vocal group Full Force. But cobbled together through so many sessions dating back so far gives it a giant personnel list and where else are you going to hear Eric Clapton, Steve Jones (ex of the Sex Pistols), Paul Simonon (ex-the Clash), Randy Jackson (yes, the same one of American Idol fame), Sly & Robbie and Kip Winger all on the same album? 

Even Dylan's sporadic role in a film in the 80s was a misguided attempt at achieving anywhere close to a decent standard. I speak of 1987's Hearts of Fire, a film that received limited release around the world, was panned by critics everywhere and rightfully so. If it was hard for Bob to figure out where his career was at by this point, it was even harder for audiences to accept. He still enjoyed the high stage musically, enjoying a slight resurgence in concert during a 1986 world tour with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers as his opening act and collaborators. The Petty tour, according to Dylan in Chronicles Part One, found him regaining his strengths of singing his older tunes in a way where he could reinvent them and find meaning in them again (this just 8 years after forgoing his older material because these songs supposedly weren't sent to him by God to write). Whatever path he was on when discussing this, Dylan surely must have been referencing what prompted him to turn to constant touring starting 2 years later. Out of several collaborations with members of the Grateful Dead, Dylan went out on the road with them for a period in 1987, resulting in the unfortunate Dylan & the Dead, a low point for both well established veteran acts that should best be left forgotten.

Bob also claimed in that memoir that he'd severely injured his hand in a boating accident and it made him question of he could play guitar again or if he should even bother with music anymore. Some have read into this beyond the ailing hand. One theory is that Dylan's crisis of confidence came from losing his singing voice as well and in his recordings after 1988-89, his voice took an inexplicable turn for the worst, losing range and being resigned to a low, crackled growl. Now it's not as if he could sing well when he had the full capabilities of his voice but since the late 80s, his singing voice has steadily worsened to this very day. As of the late 80s, Dylan craved a role where he could sink into the background and found that when he participated in the celebrated supergroup, the Traveling Wilburies. Though vocally and songwriting-wise his contribution were small, it did do well to boost the fortunes of his sagging career and his goofy "Tweeter and the Monkey Man" was a highlight of the self-titled record that followed late in '88. 

With his reputation still artistically shot on his own, Dylan found a temporary reprieve thanks to famed Canadian producer Daniel Lanois. Lanois had made waves in the past 3 years, producing commercial and/or critical smashes by U2, Peter Gabriel, Robbie Robertson and the Neville Brothers. With practically the same studio group as the one on the Nevilles' superb `989 album Yellow Moon, Dylan finally found a producer willing to do unique, breathtaking things with his sound. Lanois pushed Dylan to capture a feel and put some committment into arranging his songs where it had been severely lacking for the better part of a decade. Lanois has since grown tobe pigeonholed as carrying a distinct style, sometimes one predictable and cliched despite its majestic splendor. Heavy on reverb, slapback echo and other atmospheric touches like so many other Lanois works, 1989's Oh Mercy was nonetheless the tonic needed to bring life to some of the simplest, yet genuinely heartfelt collection of songs Dylan had written since Slow Train Coming
Recorded down in New Orleans, the meticulously crafted Oh Mercy could have been even strong had it not omitted the marvelous "Dignity" and "Series of Dreams" and a few others that were carried over to later albums. There were still clunkers on this "comeback" disc - "Disease of Conceit" and "Where Teardrops Fall" particularly - and tracks that could have been more special and developed than their recordings would present ("Ring Them Bells") but overall, relatonship compositions such as "Shooting Star," "Most of Time" and "What Good Am I?" were nearly the equal of his Blood on the Tracks confessionionals. It is possible he was still singing about Sara in some form or another, as the songs evoke the heartbreak of long lost love. Dylan found new ways at painting blackness in song with the mysterious "Man in the Long Black Coat" and "What Was it You Wanted?" This foreshadowed how that ability would serve to revive his career.
Heading into the 90s on a high, it would have been wise for Dylan to have taken into consideration not releasing an album every year or so which could allow for backlog of quality. Instead, being the relentless workaholic he was, Dylan soldiered on and followed up Oh Mercy with the confusing Under the Red Sky, an album so wildly inconsistent it led to the belief that Oh Mercy was a fluke and the brainchild of Lanois moreso than Dylan, even though that wasn't quite true. This time, Bob let superstar producer Don Was take the reins, hoping for Was to rub off on him the way he had for Bonnie Raitt's major comeback hit Nick of Time the year prior. But Was's adherence to a beefy classic rock sound wasn't becoming of Dylan at this stage in his career and paramount to all that, the songs were a weaker batch.

There was head scratching and dismay over seemingly child-like tracks all over the letdown LP, but that was alleviated in later years when it was speculated that this album was his attempt at writing nursery rhyme songs for his then 4-year old daughter- one the public was unaware of at the time. The speculation was borne out of the album being dedicated to "Gabby Goo Goo" in the liner notes. These nursery rhymes were nothing major though, being the amiable but ultimately mediocre "Wiggle Wiggle," "2 x 2," "Cat's in the Well" and "Handy Dandy." At other points Dylan sang generic blues-rockers but struck a deeper nerve with his more serious fare, which is actually the only thing preventing Under the Red Skyfrom being worse than Knocked Out Loaded. It's the title track, "God Knows" and "Born in Time" that resemble anything close to what Oh Mercy offered. Otherwise, Under the Red Sky is a better produced, but ultimately unsatisfying retread of his 80s mediocrity, filled with similar all-star ensembles (Get a load of this roster: Jimmy and Stevie Ray Vaughn, David Crosby, George Harrison, Bruce Hornsby, Elton John, Waddy Watchtel and Slash).
With all that talent it wasn't much to get excited about considering they were backing unremarkable Dylan compositions, sung half-heartedly and rather weakly even for his standards. A year later came the first three discs of The Bootleg Series, an ongoing, eye-opening insight into how prolific Dylan had been, revealing even that he contributed some great songs in the 80s but decided to leave them off his albums. His early folk era was covered by Volume 1 and just his first couple of years in the industry provided a dizzying amount of vault material. Volume 2 looked at his formative electric years right up to Blood on the Tracks. Disc 3 was the biggest revelation of all, showing that in his pre-90s, post-Blood on the Tracks era of drought, he could still create incredible chestnuts like "Angelina," "Foot of Pride," "Blind Willie McTell" and "Series of Dreams," four tracks better than anything on his worst four albums of the 1980-90.
Throughout all this, Dylan was touring constantly but often failing to light the embers of his former masterful artistic fire. If anything though, Bob was going to work like a dog through whatever doubts people had about him. 1992 brought a 30th anniversary in showbiz tribute concert thrown by CBS, Columbia Records' parent company. The show, held at New York's Madison Square Garden, didn't reveal many top flight performances outside of Neil Young and Lou Reed and the all-star finale was a letdown especially with Dylan off-rhythmically mumbling, growling and wheezing through a verse of "My Back Pages." Its most memorable moment might have been non-musical as Sinead O'Connor, then embroiled in a controversy for tearing up the pope's picture on TV, was booed off stage before she could perform Bob Marley's "War" (and was consoled in her distraught state by Kris Kristofersson, who quipped "Don't let the bastards get you down").

Despite the adulation and respect pouring in from his label and his musician peers, the consensus with many critics and fans was that his best was gone, he had nothing much left to give. Facing his first serious bout of writer's block in 20 years, Bob retreated to his roots for two folk cover records, 1992's Good as I Been to You and 1993's World Gone Wrong. Having barely arranged music just for vocal, guitar and harmonica since the mid-70s, it promised to at least be something different from the expected. Both were rather lo-fi for the day, merely being laid down by Dylan on a home four-track recorder with the same guitar and its old, worn strings. Troughing through his incomparable knowledge and repertoire of traditional folk and blues, Good as I Been to You may not have been Dylan at his best vocally or performance-wise but it was a reminder of the young troubadour, wowing the patrons of the Greenwich Village coffee clubs. It had plenty of lighthearted whimsy and grease to it, specifically with "Frankie and Albert," "Sitting on Top of the World," and even the children's rhyme "Froggie Went-a Courtin'." 

But the darker, more harsh realities of love and life were echoed in the best covers of the album- "Little Maggie" and "Black Jack Davey" for instance. It was with this bleaker side that Dylan ran with for World Gone Wrong, a reserved, subtle "fire and brimstone" affair that resembled Dylan's dim worldview of his Christian period, only this time applied to arrangements much less dense and more time honoured. It was hailed as a minor masterpiece, and finds Dylan evoking the dusty roads, plantations, run-down rural scenes and tragic realities of Depression era America. Coming off more like an old, wise traveller than a bitter, God-fearing codger has been Dylan's metier ever since. After World Gone Wrong, Time Out of Mind was the true major comeback that stuck. 2001's Love and Theft stands as the crowned jewel of this renaissance that continues on to this day. As for World Gone Wrong, it brought weary, bluesy, coal-dusted humanity back to Dylan's lexicon and was arguably his best album overall since Desire (where have we hard that before?). With fabulous numbers like the title cut, "Blood in My Eyes," "Love Henry," "Jack-A-Roe" and "Lone Pilgrim," Dylan enjoyed a surprisingly natural album than almost anything he'd done since the 70s.On World Gone Wrong, the organic and satisfying progression up from Good As I Been, Dylan stood like one of the aged, experienced Delta blues giants he had always tried to replicate. 

Following this, Dylan began to restore his reputation as a must-see touring act by working for years with a reliable core of musicians. He quit his worrying drinking habit and started writing again, allowing for a freshness not seen in years. Bob still pulls out crazy moves like his recent Christmas album- albeit, done for charity- and he can still confuse and bewilder in concert, but overall he has learned how to hit his senior years gracefully. The middle aged years were no picnic but it took a real time of reflection for Dylan to recover his mantle. He also understands how to spread out his releases, to pile up quality songs, though he was on a real tear by following up 2006's Modern Times with Together Through Life under 3 years later. But if his years on this earth are now down to a mere decade or two, every music fanatic can be grateful that he stepped up his game one last time, for however long it lasted. God willing, he will be providing music for a lot while longer because if he can continue his post mid-life renaissance, the end of his glory is far from near.

Reviews: Arcade Fire's "The Suburbs"

First Published in Pressplus1 Online Magazine:

Upon the 2004 release of Funeral, Arcade Fire's back story became one of acute interest and relevance to several. Just where in the hell had this supernaturally gifted band come from?, folks wondered. While their members had been working in music for years before their 2003 formation, their ascension was rather quick and it's not as if they burst out of a metropolis well known for breaking big new acts like New York or Los Angeles. Instead, they showed up out of Montreal, a city previously best known for a gamut of artists of varying tastes such as Leonard Cohen, April Wine, Loverboy, Corey Hart, Sam Roberts and Celine Dion. Arcade Fire has given Cohen some company in the category of best thing musically to come out of Montreal. They arguably provide the best Can-Am mix of talent since the Band (a 4/5 Canadian group, meanwhile Arcade Fire's only American members are lead singer Win Butler and his lead guitarist brother William). When Win Butler hooked up with native Montrealer Regine Chassagne (raised in St. Lambert, the same town my mother grew up in I'd like to brag) Montreal wound up as the hotbed for the group to rise out of and it was a fertile time for the city's music scene then too.

Chassagne has been studying jazz vocal but those plans were scrapped and what a career move that's turned out to be. Her presence in the group has given a French appeal and Chassagne frequently refers back to the destitution of Haiti, where her family emanated from and had to abandon during the dictatorship of Jean-Claude Duvalier. Eventually the two became husband and wife but only after several members had passed through Butler's group over the years and they had finally formed Arcade Fire out of those ashes with Win's brother William, Richard Reed Parry, Tim Kingsbury, Dane Mills and Brendan Reed on their first EP lineup. Previously, Josh Deu and Tim Kyle had participated in the group. The lineup has remained pretty similar since formation and the number of members has grown to seven with drummers Reed and Mills gone, Howard Bilerman through and gone as well, and Jeremy Gara in the drum position ever since (that makes for 5 drummers in the band's history, but hey Pearl Jam has gone through over a dozen!). Violinist Sarah Neufeld is a wholesale addition added after the original 2003 formation. Thankfully, it hasn't become a group owned and run by the Butlers and Chassagne as they credit compositions to the band name rather than individuals. And it seems fitting they're such a big outfit these days, because when you have a violinist as an official participant of the band, you're pretty darn unique and can't fit your vision into a mere quarter or quintet (don't tell me ELO did the strings-as-members first and best, please).

After their beginnings in Montreal, they earned word of mouth respect and praise for their first EP and it culminated into a fortuitous moment where their first full-length release, Funeral, was greatly anticipated in underground circles, leading to a worldwide critical smash through 2004-05. For a change, the UK press took to a North American act like it was their very own. 2007's Neon Bible received similar acclaim, though more muted. However, many say time will iron out the wheat from the chaff and prove Neon Bible to be their true opus. The less hearty response to it was possibly due to slight backlash on the hype vapour trails left by Funeral. In this reviewer's opinion, Neon Bible was the truer masterpiece of the two. Neon Bible, other than its wickedly cool title, was a landmark album, perhaps the best of the previous decade and one of the few in recent memory that really was a rich experience to discover, as if nothing like it had come before. We get plenty of albums lauded and written about feverishly these days but many of them aren't breaking new ground or even traipsing over old ground in a way not seen or heard before. However, Neon Bible was, even if the influences were highly detectable at times. It was at times harrowing, disturbing and definitely took on a more cryptic tone than Funeral, though it had its lighter moments.

A band with as much to say each time out as Arcade Fire deserves to go every three years between studio albums and this is the case yet again as The Suburbs has now arrived in August of 2010. And while one might roll their eyes and find the critical adoration for this new album to be too gushing, almost a given and a self-fulfilling prophecy (and that person would be foolish and cynical anyway), the album really and truly is a new spin- a wide reaching attempt from Arcade Fire to draw in more casual listeners. Without sacrificing their essence, it appeals to a bigger audience with more emphasis on hooks and catchy keyboard melodies as well as increased presence of electric guitar. Now, the Arcade Fire is a bit like what you'd get with Tom Waits' instrument arsenal, if you gave it to more competent musicians trying to sound more professional and recorded it with state-of-the-art equipment. Often their songs are adorned with more traditional instruments of Americana like bottom end horns (tuba, french horn, etc.), accordion, odd percussion, old keyboards (ie. pipe organ), strings, mandolins and hurdy-gurdy but yet you can't call what they do rootsy or traditional. Their choice of goodies to play is as if they raided the basement of an old music hall and opted to go with the strangest stuff they could find for a rock band to use. The more obscure, the better.

And like the touring configurations Brian Wilson has been backed up by, namely the Wondermints, the band has enough hired hands to accomplish this all on stage without hiring different trained classical musicians for each tour. And they're good enough to make it sound as polished as a studio recording too. With Chassagne's Haitian background, they're also in tune with folk musics of that land and of her home province of Quebec. They can be an intimidating sight to behold on stage: a massive band beating out near-symphonic rock on many unorthodox instruments and getting caught up in the whirling dervish that is their music, as if in some secular congregation. If that's the case, Win Butler is their pentecostal preacher, summoning up the fire and brimstone as well as the sanctity and the salvation. Even though his voice conveys heaven-and-hell emotional pull like similar woebegotten or dramatic predecessors (Ian Curtis, Bono, Ian McCulloch of Echo & the Bunnymen- a more minor, less brilliant Arcade Fire of the 80s, David Bowie, Tom Verlaine), he never gets too pompous and on stage seems to be one of the more stoic, which still means he moves around and gets into it quite a bit. If there's one thing missing from the Arcade Fire in concert, it's a few instrumentalists who stay rather quiet, motionless or peaceful a la John Entwistle. Instead, they all get swept up in it and while one can argue the merits of their merry chants and choruses en masse, the music that results is arguably timeless.

While heavily weighted expectations are never something I like to see or wish to saddle on a band, I can definitely say that Arcade Fire are the best thing to happen to contemporary music in the past 10 years. They represent a ray of hope, riding on a crest of very interesting, hip indie music in the last 5-7 years. But where other indie giants have failed to go into the collective consciousness, the Arcade Fire has thrived by understanding it's best not to get too dogmatically serious or ambitious for the average listener. That is perhaps why The Suburbs is a scaling back of grand ideas just a tiny bit. For how can one hope to follow up Neon Bible with a record that opts for the same tenor? Perhaps it's because of their mutli-layered approach to recording, but I doubt we'll see them become U2 or Bruce Springsteen down the road, touring to packed stadiums around the world. That said they're not adverse to marketing their live work which is shown in how an August 5 show at Madison Square Garden was not only broadcast live on the net but also filmed for an upcoming concert movie. But in true, surreal Arcade Fire fashion, it's being directed by Terry Gilliam, the Monty Python animator/writer/director, famous for grim but cartoonishly imaginative movies such asTime Bandits, Brazil, The Fisher King and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

With two albums under their belt that have their underground and indie reputations cemented, it could be a risk to go for something more catchy but it all falls in to place quite well on The Suburbs. Who says pop has to be shallow? Often, when done right, pop music can be beautiful and glistening as well. This album reminds me of some of the more friendly releases by new wave/post-punk heroes that Arcade Fire owe a debt to, such as XTC, Echo and the Bunnymen or the Talking Heads. There's more electronic glow to the album as opposed to the frenetic, horn-driven wall of noise from previous releases. Already the album has received a ton of praise and has debuted at #1 in several countries, namely the UK where the Arcade Fire are a more victorious option to the dulcet tones of Coldplay, Keane or James Blunt (all mellow, but still one of these things is not like the others). With this kind of acceptance, the worry many critical allies, supporters and loyal fans will have is that the establishment will all of a sudden "wake up"- to use a pun- to Arcade Fire's marketing potential. They aren't the kind of band to let their persona be used for global corporate reach like the Black Eyed Peas (the model of what not to do if you're an underground favourite seeking massive popularity but trying to retain some measure of dignity). But I don't think a band like this can be spoiled too badly or will even let it come to that so there's no reason to panic.

As for what's inside the grooves on The Suburbs, what we have is some of the most carefree, triumphant work yet for this band, now flaunting an easier going side in heavier doses than ever before. The lead cut for the disc is also the title one and it's a bouncy, barocque sort of take on post-rock, built up beautifully as it winds along until taken over by a furious cascading of string ostinatos near the end. Win Butler uses his falsetto to great effect in one of his finer vocal tracks to date. The energy level goes from the jog of "The Suburbs" to an 100 metre dash as it segues right into "Ready to Start." On this cut- one of the jangly, fast tempoed centrepieces the way "Rebellion (Lies)," "No Cars Go" and "Keep the Car Running" were for previous albums- the tension is ratcheted up to the level we've come to expect from Arcade Fire. They do a wonderful job at fleshing out their already pulsing rhythms with a gloss of synthesizers echoing around the mix. A lot of the mass parts added to the record came after sessions where the group hammered out the songs' basic tracks like they were playing them live (standard practice for bands but necessary for a group trying to replicate a near orchestra of players on most tracks).

Despite having gone for such moments of drama and high anxiety on Funeral and Neon Bible, "Ready to Start" somehow does not feel old hat, as they've done enough alteration to the expected to come up with a what has the potential to be their first top 10 hit in Canada or the UK (the US hasn't been as receptive to their singles for whatever reason, though just give them an auto-tuned rhyming of words over a copped musical track and #1 is in sights!). On "Modern Man," tricky time signature changes are a wrench tossed into the machinery but it almost sounds like a continuation on "Ready to Start," just tightened up and quieted down a tad. It's again a suitably shiny affair, definitely indicating things are going to be slightly different on this LP. While The Suburbs is not an explicit concept album like we've come to know in rock, the tracks mostly flowing together and holding the theme of the 'burbs gives you the impression that it is. And Win Butler has said in press interviews that this was the life experience he was harping on throughout, so I guess we can call it somewhat of a concept album. At least, there's definitely more of a clear concept than their previous two albums. There's no connecting story arc or series of events so it's not the purest of concept albums but that's no problem.

A full musical, stage and film ambitious concept from the Arcade Fire would indeed be heady but we'll have to wait to see if it ever occurs. While adapting the work on Funeral and Neon Bible to some sort of other medium would be trickier, The Surburbs however does feel ripe for a movie or theatrical production adaptation. Win Butler's ruminations on growing up in such a scenario lend themselves better to that and you get imagery of innocence and paranoia and fear sometimes all in one song with this album. "Modern Man" is followed nicely by "Rococo," a more sedate, strange work, a slower but wilder piece with the guitar and string parts at the helm of several very psychedelic breakdowns that are reminiscent of how the best rock bands at using string backing have done it: a list that includes the Verve, the Beatles and Procul Harum. Heck, for that 60s feel there's both Hendrix-styled wailing feedback coupled with the shifty, glissando strings (not unlike the Beatles' "Within You, Without You") and even a harpsichord is played. Consider "Rococo" their tribute to psychedelia, and a fitting one at that. We're greeted right after "Rococo" by the solitary sounds of aggressively bowed strings, as if it's a Beethoven number about to occur. Instead, it's a grungy rock fist pumper entitled "Empty Room."

Chassagne joins in on vocals for this one and while she's the inferior of the two vocalists, she provides a different, more quirky tenor with her Yoko Ono-if-she-took-singing-lessons glee. One can't listen to Win Butler's breathless crooning all the time, right? "Empty Room" is a haunting rocker, the vocals awash in a chilly, almost industrial echo. Moving on, "City with No Children" reveals a newer side of Arcade Fire that proves at the core of their world-conquering denseness is a smart, able rock band. With a chunky guitar rhythm that sounds like William Butler was listening to some Keith Richards/Rolling Stones, they get a little bit heavier than usual. The words of this song seem to reflect on the coldness of an adult world, commenting that it feels like all the children have gone and left the city to leave the protagonist to wallow in their own "private prison." Fading in out of the ashes of that classic rocker is "Half Light I." Amidst triplets on guitar and tack piano, Chassagne breathily chimes in for what's another captivating tune. Without much of a backbeat, it's still the most majesty-swept of all the tracks to this point, swirling with an arresting string accompaniment that at one point plays a descending melody line somewhat like one from Isaac Hayes' "Shaft" but I doubt that was intended or noticed by many, except me of course (if I ever meet arranger Owen Pallett, I will show him what I mean). At 16 tracks, you can bet that there aren't a slew of lengthy performances here and not one track runs past 6 minutes, though a majority go past 4.

"Half Light II (No Celebration)" takes more of a defiant tone than the first part of its namesake, bubbling along like a prime early 80s dance floor number by New Order, Yazoo or Depeche Mode (a band that, along with Neil Young, Butler curiously enough said the songs sounded like a mix between in a Spin Magazine article from July 9). When it comes to electronics, this number is loaded with them and surrounds the other instruments with an alien, almost mechanical dome. But that's not a detriment whatsoever. There doesn't seem to be an instrument this band doesn't know how to utilize to its fullest. "Half Light II" is cinematic and gripping, with several stops, polyrhythms and melodic ideas propelling it into Brian Wilson territory for pop complexity. It never gets too overwhelming even though it's clearly not the first soaringly dramatic piece of the album at this halfway point. "Suburban War" goes for a folkier stripping down of things, bringing out Spanish acoustic guitar and guitar arpeggios on a 12-string Rickenbacker, a la the Byrds. There are even vocal harmonies in such a close-knit folk harmony style and "Suburban War" demonstrates that a folk-rock album from the Arcade Fire could be a true delight too. Indeed, they go off in so many directions with certain moments on this album. Often, you will hear a musical theme for a potential dozen different albums popping up, but the magic of the Arcade Fire is that they usually pack all that into each album of theirs anyway.

"Suburban War" reflects on the grown up phase after moving on from childhood haunts, with the mournful "My old friends, they don't know me now" line being a frequently sung one. Hard rocking venom is the order of the day with 'Month of May," a song with fewer pretensions than most Arcade Fire compositions, which can be a relief when the seriousness and weightiness gets too much (about the only flaw, if you can even call it that, that I have ever seen in the sturdy armour of this group). "Wasted Hours" is also pretty swinging, like a Kinks/Ray Davies observatory song from their late 60s period of suburban British pop shoegazing. There's more humanity and nostalgia involved in this outing for Arcade Fire, and tunes like "Wasted Hours" are a good example, with Butler expressing his regret over things from the past. "Deep Blue" is another finger-popping affair but much more orchestral in its presentation, even going for a rare guitar solo breakdown and that's maybe stretching it a little to call it that. It's stirring in its bottled-up manner, containing more ringing guitar parts than your average Arcade Fire track and lending toward The Suburbs being their most contemporary rock flavoured effort yet. Kicking off with straight piano triplets, "We Used to Wait" is another of the more guitar-based cuts. It's another fine effort and maintains a more hypnotic quality than others, thanks to its banging piano a la The Velvet Underground & Nico.

But this is part of the dichotomy Arcade Fire can set up, where you expect them to deliver something sophisticated and complex but you get something minimal and pedantic instead. And yet, both outcomes can thrill. That's their mark of authenticity toward greatness (even legends can have their one side be much more boring than their other. I can personally say that Bruce Springsteen's solo acoustic/harmonica efforts don't come close to his E Street Band recordings, and I think both Neil Young's acoustic and electric sides match up well but he is often less vital when doing pure country). There are some more strings beneath the surface on "We Used to Wait," which brings me back to Owen Pallett, a valuable contributor as the string arranger if I've ever heard one. Pallett, a violinist and in-demand arranger for others to no one's surprise, is a Toronto-born, classically trained musician that deserves his own gold star for his role, like how Paul Buckmaster could be closely associated with Elton John in his 70s prime. He really creates string parts that get great exposure in the mix and are hard to forget. Closing in on the finish, with "Sprawl (Flatland)" we get the theatric, sombre piece that sounds like a build up to a final climax that never comes as I found out. It's not without its vivid merit but it's a brief, rather sleepy number in comparison to the rest of The Suburbs.

But it plays its way into the bright, 80s techno bliss of "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)," another sharp commentary on suburbia that focuses on the constant commercial developments outside the city, hence the title of sprawl. It's also the sublime greatest song on the album, drawing on moody post-punk and electronica from years gone by while containing a bundle of excitement without going heavy on the musical dynamics or layering it with a billion overdubs. There's this sort of pondering throughout the album about whether this suburban sprawl we know today is really necessary and vital or simply just spreading civilization for the sake of the almighty dollar. We never get a full idea if Butler and co. really hate this kind of urbanization and the plundering of countryside but you do get a hint that the modern globalized community we live in is a bit of a boogeyman to them when Chassagne- in a fine starring role on vocals- sings "Sometimes I wonder if this world's so small/Can we ever get away from the sprawl?" The "mountains beyond mountains" term is used to describe the enormity of the mega malls now populating the suburbs they sing of throughout the CD (echoing the childhood of Butler and his brother- the two youngest members of the band by the way at 30 and 27 respectively- who were raised in a conservative Mormon household in the suburbs of Houston. Back when Win was known as Edwin!). It's often the contrast of the present, and what it means for the future, with the carefree past that is at the centre of focus on this album.

However, any question of whether this is some sort of scathing expose or not is answered if you take Win Butler's word for it. He told the New Music Express in a July 31 interview that the album is "neither a love letter, not an indictment of, the suburbs- it's a letter from the suburbs." Which gets me back to another dependable trait with this group is that they don't foist political beliefs and outrage on you like some jaded protest singer. They seem to have a liberal streak through them as most rock bands, speaking highly of folks like Barack Obama, but you just don't get a full view of what they truly think. They present the world in negative and positive lights, report on it all and then let that stand as their message. They're journalists moreso than activists. There's little deciding on what you should think from Arcade Fire and while some who enjoy their sociopolitical appetite to be whetted by such indie artists, most would rather not be drilled by it. And the Arcade Fire's is a welcome approach for many. A tacked-on finale is the lovely 1.5 minute "The Suburbs (Continued)" where Butler opines about the past, but insists if he could have that time back he'd waste it all over again, a revisiting of "Wasted Hours." A wry, heartwarming observation considering all the unsure thoughts and emotions the album frequently touches on through its first 15 tracks.

Alongside his wife, Butler then reprises the chorus of the lead cut and title track. Intriguingly, The Suburbs ends on that note without going for the raging finale you'd think was coming. Instead, it opts to come out of the gates crashing and bucking like a bronco and goes out nestling down in the grass like a foal. And I don't think I'd have it any other way for a tremendous third album from a major act that will hopefully keep us coming back for more of this artistry every three years. While not quite the equal of the symphonically fantastic Neon Bible, it's not far off and comes as a bit of a relief from that album's grim, eternal search through some sort of dark opera or dystopian world. Therefore, it's hard to write that this third one is inferior. It's just an apples and oranges dilemma, frankly. While combining all the elements of their previous two records, the Arcade Fire manage to make #3 the most uplifting, cheery and hopeful thing they've put out yet. Maybe they're getting nicer and happier as they mature. Who knows? So go ahead and award them Album/Record/Song of the year, etc., Grammy people. It will take a lot more than that to sour some of us on these gypsy rogues, the possessors of the ultimate brain power exemplified in contemporary music. Right now, they're making the transition from beloved indie heroes gone international music phenoms look rather easy. Once again, they've unleashed a work destined to be viewed as iconic and legendary.

Track Listing (Rating):

1. The Suburbs (5/5)

2. Ready to Start (5/5)

3. Modern Man (5/5)

4. Rococo (4.5/5)

5. Empty Room (5/5)

6. City with No Children (5/5)

7. Half Light I (5/5)

8. Half Light II (No Celebration) (5/5)

9. Suburban War (4.5/5)

10. Month of May (4/5)

11. Wasted Hours (4.5/5)

12. Deep Blue (4.5/5)

13. We Used to Wait (4/5)

14. Sprawl I (Flatland) (3/5)

15. Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains) (5/5- Best track)

16. The Suburbs (Continued) (4.5/5)

Review: 4.5/5 stars (A)