Released October 1983
Recorded at The Power Station, New York City
Along with 1989's "Oh Mercy", 1997's "Time out Of Mind" and, of course, 1974's "Blood On The Tracks", this was hailed as one of Bob Dylan's great "comeback" and "return to form" albums. Rightly so, in many ways, despite the hackneyed cliches (that am also using!). After the comparative "wilderness years" of his spiritual quest between 1978 and 1982, Dylan widened his appeal somewhat, employing Mark Knopfler, widely respected reggae rhythm section Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare and ex-rolling Stones guitar genius Mick Taylor - this was certainly an improvement, all round, on the previous couple of slightly patchy albums. Yes, the Biblical imagery was still there in laces, but the full-on, in your face proselytism of "Slow Train Coming", "Saved" and "Shot Of Love" was not nearly as dominant. There was also a warmth to the sound - excellent quality, sumptuous guitar and infectious rhythms, not surprising given the personnel. It was the best sounding Dylan album since "Slow Train Coming".
2. Sweetheart Like You
3. Neighbourhood Bully
4. License To Kill
5. Man Of Peace
6. Union Sundown
7. I And I
8. Don't Fall Apart On Me Tonight
"Jokerman" is one of my favourite Dylan songs of all time, without a doubt. It is jam-packed to overflowing with Biblical imagery and all sorts of other images too. Couplet after marvellous couplet abound. I could quote the whole bloody lot, it is so good. There is an addictive, understated rhythm and a gently lilting guitar sound and Dylan's voice is intuitive and seductive as he spews out the stream of consciousness lyrics. One of the most memorable lyrical passages is this :-
"...You're going to Sodom and GomorrahBut what do you care? Ain't nobody there would want to marry your sisterFriend to the martyr, a friend to the woman of shame,You look into the fiery furnace, see the rich man without any name..."
Wonderful, peerless stuff, to be sure.
"Sweetheart Like You" sees Dylan at his tender, romantic and sensitive but world weary best. Dylan asks what his love is doing in a place like this. Warnings of the evils of Satan still prevail in the ambience of this album, but it is not as much of a preachy piece of work. It was nt so blatantly devotional. "License To Kill" is in a similar vein. Beautiful, melodious and sanctifying, with another addictive rhythm and guitar, plus harmonica from the man. This is as good as anything Dylan had done for several years. "Neighbourhood Bully" has Dylan rocking and ranting, maybe about Israel over a solid blues rock beat, as also does the grinding, pumping rock of "Man Of Peace". "Sometimes Satan comes as a man of peace" warns Dylan. Are we back into "Saved" mode? Yes, to a certain extent, but the quality of the backing and of Dylan's vibrant vocal delivery raises it above the slightly muffled material from that album. It rocks, big time. There is a fervour that is hard to resist on here that maybe wasn't there on the preceding few albums. "Union Sundown" certainly continues the rocking feel - an upbeat, bluesy rock number that sees Dylan railing about buying goods coming from overseas. Reading the lyrics, I am really not sure exactly what his gripe is, to be honest. Similar to "Neighbourhood Bully", when Dylan gets political, his lyrics and general approaches are often contradictory and oblique, as most of his lyrics are that way, they don't fit well with "single issue" political themes. As a rocker, it sounds ok, though. Many critics have questioned its inclusion on the album at the expense of songs that were left off, like the blues of "Blind Willie McTell" or the mysterious "Foot Of Pride". It is an argument that it is virtually impossible to counter, save by saying that Dylan wrote the material, therefore ultimately it is his choice. It is also a valid criticism to make, however, that Dylan seems to have considerable difficulty rating his own work. Bruce Springsteen has the same problem, and Van Morrison. David Bowie too. They all do, probably, one's work is a personal thing.
Back to this album. "I And I" is excellent - driving, bluesy, slight reggae influences in the lyrics and vaguely in the drum backing, subtle, mysterious piano, excellent guitar and one hell of a vocal delivery from Dylan. For me, it is one of the best racks on the album, along with "Jokerman", "License To Kill", "Man Of Peace" and "Sweetheart Like You". All up there with some of Dylan's finest eighties/nineties material. Then, there is the lovely album closer, the simply beautiful and romantic "Don't Fall Apart On Me Tonight", with its yearning, sad Dylan vocal, country-ish slide guitar. This is as soulful as Dylan has got, in any era.
There are a lot of similarities with Van Morrison's output from the same period - spiritual quests, soulful songs, impassioned delivery. Listening to this again has been a pleasure. I won't leave it so long next time.