In the early 90’s, Bob Dylan was entering his third decade of studio albums. His early work revolutionized folk, and then rock. In the 70’s, with The Band, he fueled the Americana revival that thrives today. The 80’s, characterized by gospel and synthesizers and neon flourishes, saw a decline in his voice, his songwriting, and (let’s be honest) his ability to give a shit. But his first two albums of the 90’s–Good as I Been to You and World Gone Wrong–signaled Dylan getting back to the basics: folk tales, acoustic texturing, a biting, caustic tone.
Dylan was entering his 50’s, and he along with his colleagues and admirers felt compelled to put his career into perspective. They did so with two albums. The first, a compilation from the 30th Anniversary Celebration Concert Neil Young dubbed “Bobfest.” The second, an MTV Unplugged album that presented the artist in his most natural state. Career retrospectives, one gets the feeling these two albums serve to put context around the arc of Dylan’s fading career.
A powerhouse of musicians came out to celebrate Dylan’s 30th musical anniversary, and the album itself features a slew of now-classic performances. Eddie Veder belting out an acoustic “Masters of War”; Tracy Chapman shining like an updated Joan Baez on “The Times They Are a-Changin'”; Eric Clapton absolutely killing the blues on “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”; Neil Young just getting nasty on “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” (“‘The joke was on me, there was no one even there to call my bluff / I’m going back to New York City, I do believe I’ve had enough”).
But it’s not just the covers of the old stuff that shines through on this concert recording. With dueling lead vocals ramping up a soulful “Emotionally Yours,” the O’Jays demonstrate the power some of Dylan’s 80’s material can have when placed in the right hands. Petty follows suit with a poignant “License to Kill.” And the Spotify version of this album contains a track missing from the double-CD I had as a teenager: a fabulously heartfelt “I Believe in You” by Sinead O’Connor.
The star power, the production value, the strength of the material serve as a reminder of and a testament to Dylan’s genius. That’s the only word that fits. Genius.
And yet, ironically, the weakest tracks are the ones Dylan performs in himself. But we’ve become accustomed to Dylan’s nasal wheeze by now. We’ve come to expect his messing with the phrasings and stresses to jar our expectations. “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding” plays like some epically poetic sneeze. His stepping up for the last verse on “My Back Pages,” after Petty, Young, and Clapton all nailed their parts, evokes drifting from the highway onto the rattle strip, and makes one wonder what the Traveling Wilburys would’ve been with Young, or Clapton–or both–in Dylan’s place. Dylan’s highlight remains “Girl from the North Country,” befitting his success ratio of late: about 1 in 3.
The same ratio holds true for Bob Dylan Unplugged, a title which is a bit of a redundancy for an artist well at home behind an acoustic guitar. Two tracks here make their first album appearance: “John Brown,” which immediately ranks among Dylan’s finest folk war-protests, and “Dignity,” another commentary on humanity’s struggle to do what’s right, made upbeat by a capable backing band. On the other tracks, however, that band can’t hardly raise Dylan up to the level of his studio efforts. “Desolation Row” feels spare and forced, falling miles short of the haunting guitar jams from “Highway 61 Revisited.” The “Like a Rolling Stone” here, robbing folks of the “How does it feel!” peak of every chorus, is an embarrassment to those electric mid-sixties recording sessions. If nothing else, these songs remind us how great Dylan was back in 1965.
On the whole, these two albums could have easily recapped Dylan’s career and sent him loping into the folk-rock sunset. This moment in time certainly feels like a farewell tour, a move toward closure. Of course, we denizens of the future know better. But one could easily forgive a Dylan fan in 1995 for considering Dylan’s legendary creative fires burnt out, and for anticipating him relegated to performing sporadic and mediocre greatest hits tours from here out.
Do I get these albums? In both cases, the honor and respect for this folk-rock legend is palpable and powerful. Do I need the previous albums to get them? Absolutely–nowhere else does an education help more. Do I like them? The 30th Anniversary Concert remains imminently listenable; Unplugged imminently forgettable.