Sounds Like: 80’s Bob Dylan

Folk legend Bob Dylan, is shown in London to help publicize the American-financed film "Hearts of Fire", Aug. 17, 1986 in which he will star as a retired rock star, which begins six weeks of filming later this month. Dylan, 45, protest songwriter/singer of the sixties, is doing film after an acting break of 12 years and is to write four songs for it. (AP Photo/Press Association)
(AP Photo/Press Association)

Welcome to the first installment of the ‘Sounds Like’ series, in which I travel back to a particular era or genre that is often neglected or misunderstood and try to make sense of it.

Saved (1980)


Dylan ended the 70’s with a prayer to Jesus and a big Fuck You to his fans who stuck around after Street Legal hoping for another Blood On The Tracks. Instead they got Slow Train Coming, a good album everyone hated because the prophet who once mocked all the men With God On Their Side now had God on his side. But hey, this is Bob Dylan. He’s just going through another phase and he’ll be back to his good old self and the 80’s are gonna be groovy man.

No man, not groovy.

Saved was Dylan’s second religious album in a row and his first for the new decade.

“Two religious Bob Dylan albums in a row? Nice knowing ya Bob.” – said every disgruntled person ever.

But here’s the thing – the album’s biggest sin is that the music is actually pretty good. Nothing particularly stands out, but taken as a whole this album manages to make sense as one entire unit instead of all of Dylan’s albums in the 70’s not named Blood On The Tracks (Yes, this means I don’t like Desire, but that’s for another day). It won’t rock your soul or get in you more in touch with Jesus, but you can do worse than spend 43 minutes of your time here.


Shot of Love (1981)


The third and last of the Christian trilogy, but at the time no one knew this would just be a trilogy. Maybe Dylan didn’t even know this would be his last Christian album. Or maybe he did. Either way it’s the same case here as it was with Saved; it’s pretty good music bogged down by an off-putting message. The music is less gospel and more rock & roll, but Jesus is still alright in these songs. However, unlike Saved, there is one standout song: “Every Grain of Sand.”


Infidels (1983)


“No more songs about Jesus? The first song sounds like Jimmy Buffett? Mark Knopfler produced it? Hallelujah!” – said every disgruntled person ever.


Empire Burlesque (1985)


Confession: I’ve never been able to sit through all of Empire Burlesque. It’s that bad.

Ok it’s not that bad. It’s just the most 80’s album you could possibly make. Which is pretty bad.

Is there any sort of redemption for this album? Yes, it’s called “Dark Eyes,” my favorite 80’s Dylan song. This could have been on Freewheelin’ all those years ago, and his voice and acoustic guitar has never sounded better.


Knocked Out Loaded (1986)


Right when this album was released it earned the high distinction of being the most universally hated Bob Dylan album ever released. Every single critic except Robert Christgau hated it. And almost 30 years later not much has changed. Maybe it’s because there’s nothing really offensive or funny about how bad this music is. When Dylan was bad before, the music was intentionally bad or the music was so brilliant that it required decades of listening to be understood (Self-Portrait). Album cover aside, this album doesn’t seem like it’s trying to make any statement or to piss anyone off. It’s just boring.

But hey, “Brownsville Girl” ain’t so bad right?


Down in the Groove (1988)


“Wait, this album also sucks? And Mark Knopfler produced this shit too? Gah, just give me ‘Silvio’ and leave me alone.” – said every disgruntled person ever.


Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1 (1988)


In which Dylan teamed up with George Harrison, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, and Jeff Lynne to record an album scientifically engineered for the sole purpose of selling a million records to fund everyone’s solo albums.


Dylan & The Dead (1989)


Bob Dylan playing a show with the Grateful Dead might have sounded cool in 1966, but in 1989 it sounded like the cash-grab it was meant to be. Not terrible, but not essential.


Oh Mercy (1989)


It was clear by the end of the 80’s that Dylan had created a habit of ending each decade with a huge curveball for his fans and critics. In 1969 he had become a country singer. In 1979 he was a born-again Christian. In 1989 he made a U2 record. Of course by U2 I mean Daniel Lanois, the mastermind who produced most of U2’s albums and Oh Mercy, the last 80’s Dylan album and by far the best one.

If you’re wondering what a U2-produced Bob Dylan album sounds like, it sounds nothing like U2. The music is dark in a literal sense; this is music you listen to alone at night in the back of a bar or outside under the stars, wishfully thinking and feeling both happy and sad about life and love. Dylan has made better music, but few albums sound anything like Oh Mercy.

Note: this album sounds much better after reading Dylan’s Chronicles: Volume One and watching High Fidelity.