If you buy only one Bob Dylan album this fall, make it….Playlist: The Very Best of Bob Dylan 1980s.
While the mono recordings are beautiful and the Whitmark demos are, ummmm, interesting – if a little like doing homework – the newest Playlist forcefully makes the case for what can be salvaged from Dylan’s worst decade.
As far as I can tell, the Playlist series is an attempt by Columbia/Sony/BMG/whoever is in charge this year to produce something the cool kids will like. Of course, it’s a ludicrous failure with its ‘we’re 100 percent recycled’ packaging and ‘it’s better than an mp3’ blurb. (Strangely, I think you can buy it an as mp3 set as well.)
On top of that, this particular set has some pictures of Dylan posing and preening that are, looking back, hilarious. But in their own, strange way, the pictures are perfect: they catch what Dylan sounded like in the 80s, the lost ‘look at me’ quality a lot of the writing had. (Never did Dylan write more awkwardly in the first person.) I think the pictures may be a tip-off, a wink and nod that someone who knows what he or she is doing is at work behind the scenes, and has assembled a thoughtful collection about some tough years.
It buttresses weak niche songs like “Silvio” by placing them with the decade’s strengths: “Blind Willie McTell,” “Series of Dreams.” “Brownville Girl” is rescued from its awful original album and sounds much the better for it. There are a couple of thoughtfully picked alternate takes – a different “Dignity” and “Most Of The Time.”
But the biggest thing I hear is how inadvertent the good lines and tunes were, how patchwork Dylan was then. Hearing the ‘good’ Dylan of the 80s in concentrated form, you might kick yourself for writing him off. Don’t; the lesson of Playlist is how close Dylan came to writing himself off, and how frayed the lifeline was.