New confidence in a new decade.
With the sixteenth entry into the Bootleg series we arrive, finally, at the 1980s. It’s a decade that left many established musicians somewhat non-plussed, searching around for a way to sound contemporary and embracing new musical directions with more or less success. To put it bluntly – they started to play with synthesizers and synth-drums by nailing them onto what they already had. Synthesizers and synth-drums have their place – if one wants to create a whole new sound whether it be the lush layers of orchestration of a Jean Michel Jarre or the three minutes of teenage anxiety and alienation of a Tubeway Army or Mobiles. But, as Rick Rubin would go on to prove, if that’s not really what you are about then you’d be better off boiling everything down to the essence and going whole out on that. Dylan would discover this for himself first, of course, as ‘Good As I’ve Been To You‘ and ‘World Gone Wrong‘ effectively reset his musical direction away from the shallow gloss and sheen of Eighties production. And whilst that was for the best in the long-run, it would be as much a mistake to dismiss Dylan’s Eighties as it is to dismiss Dylan’s “religious trilogy” of albums that preceded it and which the final album of the “series”, 1981’s ‘Shot Of Love‘, features heavily on this latest release. Where contemporaries such as Neil Young and CSN floundered through the decade Dylan did issue some pretty good albums, and as ‘Springtime in New York‘ advances the Bootleg story to 1985 we don’t yet have to face the prospect of ‘Down in the Groove‘ and ‘Knocked Out Loaded‘ outtakes – presumably these have been saved for the next instalment where they can be sweetened in the mix with material from the ‘Oh Mercy‘ sessions. That’s the future though – right now we’re going to stick with the first half of the decade, and thus be thinking about alternates versions and outtakes from ‘Shot of Love‘, ‘Infidels‘, ‘Empire Burlesque‘ as well as warmup songs from rehearsals, live cuts and live television appearances.
At five CDs this is a big collection (there are also 2LP and 2CD versions being released), which can be broken down as two discs each dedicated to ‘Shot of Love‘ and rehearsals including a number of covers and ‘Infidels‘, with Disc 5 concentrating on ‘Empire Burlesque.’ Far too much to try and cover on a song-by-song basis, and there are details on all the songs in the liner note, along with an insightful essay by Damien Love. It’s a good sign though when from Track 1 Disc 1 the music is superb – and the rehearsal take of ‘Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)‘ shows a band that has gelled and found a groove, and there’s a spine-tingle accompanying Dylan’s vocal. Of those covers, the standouts are surely ‘Sweet Caroline‘ and ‘Fever‘. The first is a revelation – transforming Neil Diamond’s song into a passion filled loser’s song of regret, lit up by powerhouse drumming courtesy of Jim Keltner and background vocals by Clydie King, Carolyn Dennis, and Regina McCrary. And ‘Fever‘? Well, it simply burns like a soul in torment. The outtakes from ‘Shot of Love‘ show Dylan at his most searching – ‘Yes Sir, No Sir‘ epitomises this as Dylan tries to merge gospel, folk and an Eighties take on American hard-rock guitar. It is as strange as it sounds.
Reaching the material from ‘Infidels‘ there are alternate takes of the album’s songs that Dylan had ideas of taking them slower – or faster – than the final cuts used. ‘Jokerman‘ might have crawled along, ‘Neighbourhood Bully‘ might have pushed the drums even higher and fuzzed the guitar parts to add tension. And there’s an example of song maturation as ‘Too Late‘ moves through an acoustic working through a band recording before finally morphing into ‘Foot of Pride‘, a song not destined to make it to ‘Infidels‘. At each stage beyond the acoustic more and more layers of instrumentation come in, words and tempos change and Dylan develops a harsher vocal approach. But perhaps the most fascinating song on Disc 3 is an alternate take on ‘Blind Willie McTell‘ which just emphasises the strangeness of its absence from the final running order of ‘Infidels‘ – this version has a full band and a dollop more blues harp. Perhaps not as intense as the version released on ‘Bootleg Series Volume 1-3‘, but a tantalising glimpse of what might have been. And speaking of what might have been, a live version of ‘Licence to Kill‘ from the Letterman TV show has Dylan backed by a whole other band – three members of Plugz who play an unvarnished rock backing sweeping away all of Dylan’s carefully constructed layers. And this recording was only five months after the album had come out, and already Dylan is deconstructing it on national TV.
There is less from ‘Empire Burlesque‘, but again what there is is vibrant and exciting. An even more retro-rocking version of ‘Clean Cut Kid‘ and the Buddy Holly inspired outtake ‘Straight A’s in Love‘ see Dylan looking further back into Rock and Roll’s lengthening history. Slow and fast versions of ‘When the Night Comes Falling from the Sky‘ are both credible readings of the song. The most important song though is surely an alternate take of ‘New Danville Girl‘. Running to almost twelve minutes it’s less a stream of consciousness tale than a series of interrupted thoughts – like riding on a long car journey with Dylan telling stories constantly whilst you sit half-awake, looking out the window at the sun coming up, hearing only half of what’s being said until something snaps through. Who is Henry Porter, and where has he gone? Who knows. The endless car journey Dylan describes “We’re going all the way ’til the wheels fall off and burn, ‘Ttl the sun peels the paint and the seat Covers fade and the water moccasin dies” is pure beat poetry – we’re on the road all right, and who knows what we’ll discover – poverty, violence and maybe love. It’s an astonishing song, and this is a fantastic take of it.
In short this is a treasure chest of superb music that is sure to reach beyond the lifelong Dylan appreciators – it completely puts away the suggestion that Dylan was losing his touch as he entered into the Eighties. If you have such revered albums as ‘Blonde on Blonde‘ or ‘Blood on the Tracks‘ in your back catalogue then, sure, it’s always going to be a struggle to outdo them on a new release – but ‘Shot of Love‘ was a solid collection and the songs recorded that didn’t make it to the final cut show a creative Dylan with no shortage of material. And that goes double for ‘Infidels‘, whilst ‘Empire Burlesque‘ is perhaps the most marred by the Eighties sound – and here the alternate takes and rehearsals bring a clarity back to the songs from that album. Some recent Archive releases from Dylan have been a little underwhelming, making one wonder if the Bootleg Series was running out of steam. Well, it isn’t, this sixteenth entry has put everything back on track – it really is an essential purchase.