None of these records is terrible, I’ll insist.
Empire Burlesque (1985)
Skip “I’ll Remember You,” the precursor to “To Make You Feel My Love,” i.e. a Dylan Song So Predictable that anyone can sing it. “Clean Cut Kid,” “Seeing the Real You at Last,” “Trust Yourself,” and, best, “Tight Connection to My Heart” show Dylan operating at peak levels of contempt. He hasn’t had quality control since 1965, though, therefore “Never Gonna be the Same Again” and the loathsome “Dark Eyes” appear, the latter, to paraphrase my friend and good critic Theon Weber, included to remind nervous boomers that he can (still) write acoustic plaints. I’m telling you: a nineteen-year-old who stumbles on “Tight Connection to My Heart” on Spotify will hear the soul girls and Ron Wood guitar and think, “What the fuck is going on”? His best eighties album. If your dad says otherwise, stab his throat with one of Dylan’s period earrings.
Oh Mercy (1989)
At Bono’s recommendation, or perhaps because he liked “Sledgehammer,” Dylan hired Daniel Lanois to class up a scattershot song selection, some of which we taxonomize as Serious because he reminds us, through a mix as moistly fetid as the Everglades in July, that we live in a political world and that conceit is a disease we got no cure for. But the in-house band persuades the ornery fucker into singing and playing as if he wasn’t performing “Bob Dylan”—often well—for the last decade. “Man in the Long Black Coat” is a mediation on sin that shames most of Saved, “What Good Am I?” and “Shooting Star” slivery admissions of weakness, and “Most of the Time” a nothing song dependent on Lanois’ six-guitars-in-the-bayou approach to recording. “Series of Dreams” made its first appearance on the first Dylan bootleg series — a song or an atmosphere?
Knocked Out Loaded (1986)
“When the Night Comes Falling from the Sky” got the Arthur Baker treatment; “Brownsville Girl” got the Sam Shepard treatment when Dylan couldn’t fake the gloss on his own. But the period echo and flattened horns on “Brownsville Girl” serve his purposes—think of the way memory distorts half-remembered songs. In its one-for-me/one-for-you manner, Knocked Out Loaded gives me more pleasure than Desire: the Tom Petty co-write, Carole Bayer Sager co-write, the Corey Hart synth sliming the opening of “Driftin’ Too Far From Shore.” To remind audiences that he could suck, he covers “They Killed Him” as if an assistant engineer reassured him about his “We Are the World” contribution.
What a reactionary record—was he hoping to replace George Shultz in Reagan’s Cabinet? Recording “Neighborhood Bully” and releasing it in the fall of 1993 sure made for fascinating timing. Mark Knopfler’s production transforms Infidels into a Dire Straits record with an even bigger superannuated gasbag at the mike. “Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight” wastes a pretty tune on a lyric that’s “Baby Stop Crying, Part II” (“I just cannot handle i-i-i-i-t,” check, please). Dylan Come Alive on “Jokerman,” in which he drops internal rhymes jingling with Old Testament imagery while Sly and Robbie’s reggae backbeat prods and pokes. I’ll assume Dylan’s inimitable stresses and hairpin glides across consonants he pretends don’t exist take their cue from that rhythm. To confirm his irascible asshole-ness, he left a few songs off this album you might know.
Shot of Love (1981)
Far from major and often worse than minor, Shot of Love has “Every Grain of Sand,” the single “The Groove’s Still Waiting at the Altar” appended to subsequent releases, and one of his certifiably worst compositions and performances (hint: LENNY BROOOSE IZ DEEEEEEEED). “In the Summertime” is one of those Dylan songs that sounds ridiculous sung by anybody else; the eighteenth century courtliness of the opening verse (“I was in your presence/For an hour or two”) and salt air-tinged harmonica work like they should. Bono and Van Morrison are fans of the title track.
The recent live gospel bootleg has saved this period from the fires of embarrassment and the exiles of iniquity, but his first release of the decade still sounds like it was recorded on a bus between Altoona and Atlanta. “Pressing On” is generic. Tim Drummond and Jim Keltner give “Are You Ready” some urgency by imitating George Thorogood. “EES da waaays of da flesh,” Dylan sneers over Keltner’s hyperactive drum, as if he can’t keep himself from eyeing Carolyn Dennis, who gives it to him right back.
Down in the Groove (1988)
A groove it’s got, and he doesn’t sound down. “Had a Dream About You, Baby,” comma and everything, is the greaseball shit his late nineties comeback could’ve used more of. Can you imagine the Jeff Healey Band storming through it in Roadhouse? I can. Fans embrace “Silvio,” why I don’t know; do they know about “Ugliest Girl in the World,” where the backup singers whom he once entreated to affirm his exhortations to the Lord now chant, “She’s so ugly/Man, she’s ugly.” What a harlot! Suffused with—undermined by?—irony, the cover of “Let’s Stick Together” makes clear he doesn’t believe a word of the chorus. Boomer critics used to say the same shit about Bryan Ferry. Death may not be the end, they also averred, but career impasses might be.