This will be my usual contrarian take on Bob Dylan, which makes me a truer fan of his because nobody is more contrarian than Bob.
This latest in the Bootleg Series is available in the usual variety of formats, but on Apple Music there’s just the “double CD” version, so I have not gone too far into the weeds of the 5-disc edition. I’m not one for that kind of thing anyway.
I start from a contrarian position because I’ve never really been of the opinion that Dylan had a wholly terrible fallow period in the 1980s. I blogged about this previously. So I was fully prepared for some quality stuff to be revealed by this collection. I’ve been intrigued to read that some of this material was hard to recover because it was recorded using a now-obsolete digital recording technology. I’m assuming this might have been the brief period of 48kHz digital based around repurposed digital video hardware – or possibly it was very early 44kHz recording. Modern high-end digital recording will be based around 192kHz hardware, which is always downsampled to 44kHz, your original 16-bit CD format, whereas 48kHz was DAT/DV. So if something was recorded at with 48kHz sampling, it would be like tape recorded at the wrong speed.
Or something! The point (fnar) is, they had to do a lot of maths on some of these recordings, and if you’ve ever multiplied one number containing a load of decimal points with another number containing a load of decimal points, you know that you will end up with a lot more decimal points than your system can handle. The “word length” as it is called will end up being much longer than the number of bits you have. And even if they’re working within a 64 bit system, it all has to be downsampled to 16 bits for a standard CD release. It’s complicated.
Now, having said previously that Dylan wasn’t all that bad in the 80s, I’m now going to kind of contradict myself and say that this Bootleg Series release has revealed more bad than good. I’ll stick to a few highlights and lowlights rather than going through the whole thing.
The collection starts quite well with “Angelina”, a Shot of Love outtake, which is okay. But we’ve heard it before, on the original Bootleg Series, Vols 1-3. Still, Shot of Love was a decent enough record, and the stuff on here is pretty decent because the musicians-for-hire were very good. “Need a Woman”, “Let’s Keep it Between Us”, “Price of Love” and so on. Not bad. Not so keen on “Yes Sir, No Sir” and “Fur Slippers”, but okay.
The problems start with Infidels, which in comparison to Shot of Love is not so much the much vaunted “return to form” as a giant pile of mindless boogie with the occasional ray of sunshine. I’ve always considered this second outing for Mark Knopfler a huge disappointment compared to Slow Train Coming. Knopfler’s guitar playing is not suited to the tiny windows of opportunity offered by Dylan’s songs. It needs breathing space, which it doesn’t get with the tight rhythms and verbose lyrics. “Jokerman” is still good, but it’s one of many songs here in which Dylan tries to have a refrain/chorus that just doesn’t work. I honestly think “Jokerman” would be a better song without its title-providing refrain. “Ooh oooh oooh Jokerman” is, frankly, rubbish.
Controversial opinion incoming: I hate “Blind Willie McTell”. I’ve never understand why people rave about it. It’s another song with a pointless refrain. I’ve no idea what “Nobody can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell” has to do with the price of eggs in this song. I dislike the blues anyway, so whenever Dylan plays it (or boogie), I just switch off.
Another shit refrain is “Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight” – a song which is almost good until he gets to the bridge and then the chorus: “I just don’t think that I could handle it” is a line that belongs in the Queen Vic, spoken by one of the Mitchell Brothers.
And speaking of boogie. “Neighbourhood Bully”, “Foot of Pride”, “Enough is Enough” – all terrible. The band Dylan was playing with on Infidels is supposed to be great, but Mick Taylor is under-utilised, and Knopfler is wasted on dross like this. Frankly, Mike Campbell is a better guitarist for Dylan (or anyone, for that matter).
Lyrically, Dylan was struggling with his pointless refrains and dropping in too many clichés, like the one about being nice to people on the way up, which he’s so fond of he uses it in two different songs. One of them is “Too Late”, which I quite like, but it still has a fairly useless refrain, a pattern he keeps repeating on this record. Later on, he moves on to stealing dialogue from Humphrey Bogart films, which is infinitely preferable.
It’s interesting to hear “Someone’s Got a Hold of My Heart”, an early version of “Tight Connection to My Heart”, but it’s nowhere near as good. And the same is true of “New Danville Girl”, which is clearly the rough outline of “Brownsville Girl” but without the fully realised lyrics and sadly lacking the excellent Greek chorus backing vocals.
And while it’s very nice to hear Empire Burlesque songs without the shit 80s production, I think the BVs are mixed too low now, so I kinda miss them. If you’re me, you’re going to play most of this once or twice and then forget it forever.