Something I’ve learned since moving from Florida to Boston two years ago is that, during those long, snowy winters, it helps with morale to get out of town for a few days here and there—to get someplace warmer and remember what life feels like when not stifled by a blanket of cold. In this metaphor, Dylan’s 80’s output is the long winter of his career. I, the listener, am the cold resident looking for a break. I’ve found that respite lately in Wilco (I’ve been listening to Sky Blue Sky on repeat this week), but I’ve also sneaked reprieves in from the Dylan discography itself. Last week it was Dylan and the Dead. This week I’m checking out The Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1.
The brainchild of George Harrison, the Traveling Wilburys feature Harrison and Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne of Electric Light Orchestra, and Roy Orbison. These singer-songwriter guitar heroes form, on paper at least, as formidable a supergroup as one could imagine. I’d always heard these late-80’s pop tunes—“Handle with Care,” “Last Night,” “End of the Line”—as examples of a group’s output being less than the sum of its parts. But listening to Vol. 1 now, I realize this group’s aim isn’t necessarily to revolutionize music and conquer the world. It’s more a collection of guys who dig rock and roll getting together and having a good time.
The songs, too, seem to refute the plasticized chromatics that had hijacked Dylan’s career dating back to Street Legal. These songs have solid backbeats, such as “Rattle” which seems to swoop in from a Texas honky-tonk. The horns, when employed, last for only quick, tasteful bursts, such as on “Last Night,” a Petty track about a one-night stand. And Jeff Lyne’s spacey keyboards complement Roy Orbison’s buttery vocals nicely on the next track when Orbison croons, “You’re not alone anymore.” Somehow this group succeeds where Dylan had lately failed: legendary musicians collaborating in the studio and producing unforced, quality music.
But the contributions of Lucky Wilbury—Dylan’s Wilbury pseudonym—are worth closer scrutiny here. His vocals first appear during the chorus of the lead track, Harrison and Orbison’s duet, “Handle with Care.” Dylan takes the low part as the group sings, “Everybody needs somebody to lean on / Put your body next to mine and dream on.” Imbedded in these sweet voices, Dylan’s rings like a grinding gear. The second track, “Dirty World,” undergirds a typically critical, cynical set of Dylan lyrics with a snappy, melodic arrangement. “Oh baby, I’m on my hands and knees / Life would be so simple if I only had a few good leads.” The musical integrity of “Dirty World” alone suggests, if Dylan had different producers and wasn’t subjected to the whims of his recording labels, he might’ve fared better in his late 30s and early 40s.
That optimism, though, doesn’t last long. “Congratulations,” a slow dirge in minor tones, is as dull and sluggish as his worst output of the decade. Later in the album, “Tweeter and the Monkey Man,” supposedly an imitation of Bruce Springsteen’s early, prolix noir, is a solid rebound effort, even if the chorus lacks sharpness: “Then the walls came down / All the way to hell / Never saw them when they standing / Never saw them when they fell.” Is it blasphemous to wonder what this group might’ve been with Springsteen in place of Dylan? Let’s not go there—The Traveling Wibury’s may just be the shot in the arm Dylan needs to kick his songwriting back into gear.
Do I get this album? It’s a bunch of superbly talented rock-star friends having a damn good time. Do I need Dylan’s previous albums to get it? If anything, Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1 brings into relief the distance between how far Dylan’s declined, and the level of excellence he should be capable of. Do I like it? Yeah, man.