The subversive spirituality of Dylan in the ’80s

John J. Thompson

When done well, multi-artist tribute albums can be revelatory, inspiring and fun. Such is the case with Bob Dylan in the ’80s: Volume One, which pairs contemporary hipster artists with the least hip era of Dylan’s career.

This may be perceived by some as just one more example of postmodern irony, but for those with ears to hear, the majesty of the master’s songs comes ringing through. As has so often been proven true, in the end Dylan wins.

Dylan entered the 1980s as a firebrand Gospel singer, but he eventually rediscovered the subversively spiritual voice that had served him so well prior to coming to Jesus. Too many rock critics and historians refer to his “Christian phase” as lasting from 1978 to 1982 and encompassing only three albums. It has long been my opinion, however, that a subtle but tenuous thread of faith permeates all of his ’80s material. T-Bone Burnett, who played in Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue band in the 1970s as Dylan was embracing Christianity, once said that as a believer one could sing about the light, or about what he sees because of that light. Dylan did the former for three albums - and many of those songs are featured on this set - and he did the latter from that point forward. Songs from throughout this transformation are represented here.

Standout cuts include the sublimely chilled-out version of “Covenant Woman” by Hannah Cohen, an emerging folk artist I will certainly be listening to more of this year. There’s also a predictably solid rendition of “Pressing On” by Glen Hansard (The Frames, Once, Swell Season). The album kicks off with a rollicking shuffle through “Got My Mind Made Up” by Langhorne Slim & The Law and an excellent take on one of my all-time favorite Dylan tunes, “Jokerman,” by indie stalwarts Built To Spill. Craig Finn of The Hold Steady zeroes in on the heart and guts of “Sweetheart Like You,” a song I always suspected might actually be about the Bride of Christ. Blitzen Trapper uses what sounds a lot like a recycled and inverted sample from their latest single, “Shine On,” as the backbone for their version of “Unbelievable.”

I have long identified with this version of Dylan: changed by faith and yet determined to keep speaking truth into the culture.

There are some weird moments too. Irreverent musical comedian Reggie Watts completely messes up “Brownsville Girl,” turning it into a barely recognizable dancehall reggae experiment. Aaron Freeman and Slash send up “Wiggle Wiggle,” removing the snarl completely. Why this song, from 1990’s Under the Red Sky, made the cut while there is nothing from Dylan’s amazing 1989 record, Oh Mercy, is a mystery. Yet even the songs that don’t really work on their own succeed in demonstrating that although Dylan’s production choices in the ’80s may have been dubious at times, his songwriting remained transcendent, inscrutable and thoroughly engaging.

The more I listen to Bob Dylan in the ’80s the more I like it. I have long identified with this version of Dylan: changed by faith and yet determined to keep speaking truth into the culture. There’s plenty more material lurking in his ’80s catalog for today’s audience to discover, too. Here’s hoping a Part Two is around the corner – a song-by-song meditation on Oh Mercy, perhaps?

Topics: Music, Culture At Large, Arts & Leisure