Bob Dylan's 'Springtime in New York' Reclaims His Most Written-Off Period
Published Sep 14, 2021From a creative era that even Bob Dylan himself has suggested was fraught with self-doubt and a sense that all mastery of his craft was lost, we receive this remarkable treasure trove that demonstrates how hungry and impassioned he really was. It's a journey that begins with lovely, fun covers via studio band warm-ups, and reimagined versions of his own songs, perhaps just to draw heat from the incandescent spark of his past, followed by side-trips that yielded some of the greatest songs he ever wrote, some of which never even made it on to the most uneven albums of his career. Mixed-up confusion, for sure.
After converting to Christianity in the late 1970s, Dylan's music and infamous live shows of the time were thought to be a little judgy and hellfire-y, as the free-thinking boundary buster began to hector sinners and advocate for religious parameters. While it was generally assumed he'd created a trilogy of gospel records with Slow Train Coming (1979), Saved (1980), and Shot of Love (1981), he was purportedly perturbed that critics and fans connected Shot of Love to its predecessors, as he didn't see things that way; Jesus Christ was certainly invoked but, in general, the album's tone is less evangelical than the previous pair. In any case, he received the worst reviews of his life and it felt like the whole world was on his case so, fighter that he is, he went into his corner to figure out how he could dodge all of these jabs.
Springtime in New York picks up this story in the fall of 1980, chronicling Dylan's remarkable creative process via 57 unreleased recordings of songs some of us know from other takes on previously sanctioned releases or bootlegged iterations, but most of which are fresh because they've been trapped in what was "cutting edge" but is now obsolete 1980s digital recording technology. The set draws from sessions for the aforementioned and maligned Shot of Love, the 1983 "comeback," Infidels, and the 1985 "uh oh," Empire Burlesque, and it makes each record more fascinating than some of us have given them credit for. Far from a forlorn or lost artist, we hear Dylan in full vocal command, his imagination spinning the same song around in different arrangements, and putting his mind to future classics whose only fault lies within their creator's impulsive neglect (his confidence to make assertive decisions about album inclusions was shaky, even if his voice and mind were seemingly sure).
For fans of The Basement Tapes and also the "Rolling Thunder Revue" era of airtight looseness, the first two of these five discs are a fulfilling and bemusing romp — Dylan and his star-studded bands (in the course of this collection, we encounter contributions by Beatles, Stones, Heartbreakers, Sly & Robbie, Dire Straits, the E Street Band, and many more luminaries) playing with a kind of aimless joy during a good hang. After ramshackle-y runs on his own "Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)" and "To Ramona," there are truly soulful and infectious takes of "Jesus Met the Woman at the Well" and "Need a Woman," with background singers, Carolyn Dennis, Madelyn Quebec, and Clydie King, infusing such songs with character and inspiring Dylan to roar.
On covers like "Mystery Train" (featuring both Ringo Starr and Jim Keltner) and "Sweet Caroline," Dylan replaces their respective galloping pep with a measured melancholy; indeed, this version of "Sweet Caroline" could be played at Caroline's funeral. These takes on "Fever" and Hank Williams' "Cold Cold Heart" draw upon the previously untapped heat and longing of their sentiments, Dylan digging deep, sounding like he's set to explode. It's a cool, deconstructive phase — Dylan reimagining classics and recent hits by others, like "This Night Won't Last Forever," "We Just Disagree," and the haunting "Let's Keep it Between Us," in compelling and memorable ways.
Of course, such things will seem like larks for those clamouring for the great "lost" songs from this era, written by Dylan himself. In the excellent, invaluable liner notes, writer Damien Love traces the origins of jettisoned pieces like the raucous "Price of Love," the Desire-y "Don't Ever Take Yourself Away," the down blues "Fur Slippers" (eventually covered by B.B. King in 1999), the rollicking and astounding "Borrowed Time," the reggae-infused, low-key menace (Dylan's mid-song chuckle notwithstanding) of "Is It Worth It?" and soft-metal of "Yes Sir, No Sir," and why they might've been left behind.
The original master take of "Jokerman" from Infidels, among the great technological rescue missions here and an inarguably all-time great Dylan song, soars thanks to the rhythm section of Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, and swirling guitars by the Rolling Stones' Mick Taylor and — one of Dylan's key collaborators in this era — Dire Straits' Mark Knopfler. This momentous configuration spurred Dylan to reach for the sky and he touches it.
Meanwhile, "Blind Willie McTell" continues to live this mysterious life as a forgotten child that was inexplicably banished from Infidels. After a stark, acoustic piano and guitar version appeared on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 (Rare & Unreleased 1961-1991), fans were left awed, angered, and baffled. Ever since 1969's Great White Wonder, rock's first major bootleg and a remarkable alternate history of Dylan's recorded output began circulating, some of his more obsessive fans engage in all manner of conspiracies about just what kinds of other songs and information the Dylan camp was keeping from the world. 2021 brings us this alternate, full-band version of the monumental "Blind Willie McTell" on this collection, which is gorgeous, plus yet another version that Third Man Records has pressed as a single. It's such a staggering, poetic song about America and racism and history, Dylan himself was shook by it, never feeling like he recorded it well enough to do it justice; with these unearthed versions, at least we're getting closer to receiving every attempt he made.
Indeed, the Infidels sessions include some of the most intriguing "what if?" scenarios for both Dylan and his fans, with songs that didn't make it out alive either being re-worked for its follow-up, Empire Burlesque ("Someone's Got a Hold of My Heart," "Clean Cut Kid"), or transforming from one auspicious thing ("Too Late") to another that was still tossed aside ("Foot of Pride," perhaps best-known for Lou Reed's live version at the 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration for Dylan in 1992).
Pondering what kinds of sounds Dylan could've chased, Love reflects upon the Late Night with David Letterman version of "License to Kill" included here, which featured Dylan backed by members of the Plugz, an obscure L.A. punk band: "Among all the attempts people have made at creating their own 'ideal' Infidels, the most ambitious might be by Canadian musician Daniel Romano, who in 2020 released a cover version of the entire album done Plugz-style."
For its part, this set also offers us an alternate tone and sound to Dylan's 1980s than we've come to accept, as his most awkward, out-of-step era between decades of genius. In an age where acolytes like Bruce Springsteen were lauded for dispatching artful, multi-layered socio-political songs, Dylan released tunes like "Neighbourhood Bully" and "Union Showdown" and was stung by not-altogether-inaccurate readings that suggested they were vaguely pro-Israel and pro-America, respectively, furthering chatter that because he was older, he was both out-of-touch and cravenly seeking relevance. To clarify, if not correct the record, versions of Empire Burlesque songs like "I'll Remember You," "Tight Connection to My Heart (Has Anybody Seen My Love)," and "Emotionally Yours," have been stripped of their dated production elements and are now, suddenly timeless.
That's the greatest gift of Springtime in New York: it turns one of Bob Dylan's most confusing sonic eras on its head, liberating all of this material from its time and place. Next to his speed freak mid-1960s snarl, Dylan's 1980s "We Are the World" nasal voice is the one that comedians and impressionists have latched onto for the most mockery. Their source material isn't quite at its most pronounced by 1985 but even more than that, this collection actually, and surprisingly, shows off Dylan, the singer and player, in one of his most commanding phases. The desperation of being dismissed and ridiculed in his third decade of public life propelled him to draw out the courage of his convictions and sink his teeth into, say, "New Danville Girl" and "Dark Eyes," which close this set out and sound like a gunslinger rising to a disrespectful dare. With Springtime in New York, Dylan and his archive custodians take on his most written-off period and re-write it, capturing its lost glory. (Legacy/Sony BMG)