WAS DYLAN GOOD IN THE EIGHTIES?
A new five-disc box set helps us rethink the oddest period of his career
The eighties are widely regarded as the low point of Bob Dylan’s entire career, a time when he struggled to find relevance in the MTV era and released a series of tacky, rudderless albums. “[I was] pretty whitewashed and wasted out professionally,” he admitted in his memoir Chronicles.
But the newest chapter of the Bootleg Series, Springtime in New York (1980-1985), forces us to reevaluate this notion. The overwhelming amount of material — 54 unreleased songs total — proves he was still capable of writing great music, even if the best songs often didn’t wind up on his albums. This wasn’t a failure of creativity. It was a failure of curation.
The five-disc collection focuses on 1983’s Infidels, while also shedding light on the records that bookend it: Shot of Love, the last of his Christian albums, and the glitzy Empire Burlesque.
Springtime opens with rehearsals for Dylan’s Musical Retrospective Tour in the fall of 1980. The shows were billed as a return to some of his older songs, following his strict gospel-only set lists, but instead of “Simple Twist of Fate,” we get raw, intimate, even joyous covers of recent hits: Close your eyes during his take on “Sweet Caroline” and you’ll forget someone else wrote it.
The Infidels outtakes show that he left many of the best songs off the album; “Someone’s Got a Hold of My Heart,” later reworked as “Tight Connection to My Heart” on Empire Burlesque,
would have made Infidels
And then there’s “Blind Willie McTell,” one of the finest songs of his career. A great version was released on the first chapter of the Bootleg Series back in 1991, but this one is even better, as Dylan wails, “There’s a chain gang on the highway/I can hear them rebels yell,” with sparkling clarity. There are two takes of “Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight,” and the first, a desperate, slow-burning plea, arrives like a gust of wind to the throat.
The Empire Burlesque material has been stripped of producer Arthur Baker’s synths and gated drums. What remains are the tracks in purest form — like a sprawling “New Danville Girl” that clocks in at nearly 12 minutes.
The highlight of the box is Dylan’s legendary 1984 performance on Late Night With David Letterman,
backed by punk rockers Plugz. Their energy was so palpable that Letterman asked, “Is there any chance you guys can be here every Thursday night?” Would we see Dylan’s Eighties differently if he’d gone on tour with these guys, or released all these songs as we hear them here? It’s these what-ifs that make Springtime essential.