Bob Dylan in 1990: the end of the era

by Tony Attwood

I chose to call my review of Dylan in 1989 Bob Dylan stalked by the darkness – which is my interpretation of his mood that year.   The writing that year was, to my mind, brilliant, but Bob was looking in very dark places to find his muse.

Not with every song, of course, but consider Disease of ConceitWhat was it you wanted, Everything is BrokenMost of the Time and Man in a Long Black Coat.  When has Bob been so persistently dark?

There had to be a response to this, a lighter touch, for his own psychological well-being.  And that is what Bob moved into in 1990 with a totally different sort of song.  Songs such as

It may have given Bob relief from the black hole that he had been peering into to produce those works of genius the previous year, but it was not (by and large) what the public wanted.  This was too much of a contrast, too light, too fluffy.   Why couldn’t we have more from the men in the long black cloaks?  Another Oh Mercy, not a Red Sky.

Well, Red Sky was what we got, and quite probably that gave Bob to escape from the ghosts that seemed to be haunting him, even though it met with very limited critical acclaim.

So it was probably with much relief that Bob could turn to the Wilburys for the second album.

For these sessions Dylan already had available Like a Ship written in 1988 and not used on that album and now contributed five perfectly decent pop songs and one pop masterpiece on top of that previously written fine song.

If you have read my comments elsewhere you will know that to my mind the masterpiece in this collection is “Where were you last night”.  Yes it is a straight lost love pop song, a bit of male angst over a woman breaking a date.  Hardly revolutionary stuff for Bob to get his teeth into, but compared with Disease of Conceit this is positively a light hearted romp and I suspect exactly what he wanted.

In short it was exactly the release Bob needed before shooting off on the 1990 round of the Never Ending.

Except that this time the Never Ending didn’t end.  It just kept going simply because Bob had stopped writing.  And I think we can see why from the chronology.  The darkness of the Black Coats was too dark, the relief of Red Sky was not welcomed by critics, and now he couldn’t trust his friends to do the decent thing with all those pop songs he had just written.

Bob is quoted as saying around this time that he had “had it” with songwriting, and if we put together these three episodes in his life the explanation is clear.   He had gone through hard times, had emerged from that to make an album of songs that in many ways looked back to childhood, and then enjoyed himself with some excellent pop work only to find his mate George Harrison not only easing out his vocals on many tracks, but also still refusing to include Like a Ship, while putting in silly nonsense like New blue moon and Wilbury Twist.

It was enough to make any self-respecting artist weep.

But Bob Dylan didn’t need to weep – he had the perfect alternative, the Never Ending, and so it carried on carrying on.  Yes there were a couple of new albums, but they were not of his compositions, and neither were they new compositions, and were very much his choice of music throughout.

So the Wilburys got the darkness of the previous year out of Bob’s soul, but he felt no ownership of the album, never mentioned it, never played any of the songs – and that is a real shame, because “Where were you last night” would be a great song to use on stage.

And thus began the gap years

What is on the site

1: Over 400 reviews of Dylan songs.  There is an index to these in alphabetical order on the home page and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages.

2: The Chronology.  We’ve taken all the songs we can find recordings of and put them in the order they were written (as far as possible) not in the order they appeared on albums.  The chronology is more or less complete and is now linked to all the reviews on the site.  We have also recently started to produce overviews of Dylan’s work year by year.     The index to the chronologies is here.

3: Bob Dylan’s themes.  We publish a wide range of articles about Bob Dylan and his compositions.  There is an index here.

4:   The Discussion Group    We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

5:  Bob Dylan’s creativity.   We’re fascinated in taking the study of Dylan’s creative approach further.  The index is in Dylan’s Creativity.

6: You might also like: A classification of Bob Dylan’s songs and partial Index to Dylan’s Best Opening Lines

And please do note   The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews.

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2 Responses to Bob Dylan in 1990: the end of the era

  1. DeGaulle says:

    The Oh Mercy I hear wasn’t, in the case of most of the songs, about the ghosts that were haunting Dylan himself. It was about dark places in the world around him and these themes continued into Red Sky.

  2. Frank Andrews says:

    I’d say Under the Red Sky is at least as dark as Oh Mercy. You can’t get much bleaker than the title song, a fairy tale where dreams most definitely don’t come true. “T.V. Talkin’ Song” concludes with a lynching. “Unbelievable” is a jeremiad. Even “Wiggle Wiggle” takes a sinister turn (“Wiggle till you vomit fire” sounds like demonic possession, and it ends with a snake, just like “Man Gave Names to All the Animals”). And the last words on the album are “Goodnight, my love, may the Lord have mercy on us all.” Nothing fluffy about that.

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