For a great many artists of Bob Dylan’s era, the 1980s were a slap in the face. Their seemingly antiquated songwriting and production were being turned upside down in the mainstream in favor of a more drastic shift in popular music’s presentation.
Dylan traversed the decade headstrong, even if it was to the chagrin of many of his fans and music critics. Now, thirty years later, it would apt to say that the most misunderstood era of his career is actually one of its strongest. Here are ten songs that make a compelling case for Bob Dylan in the 80s.
# 10 – ‘Foot of Pride’ – Outtake From 1984’s ‘Infidels’
When Lou Reed had to find music to occupy himself on an incredibly long flight in 1991, he opted to spend the time with ‘The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3,’ the first of Bob Dylan’s now long-winding archival project. The song that struck him was ‘Foot of Pride,’ so much so that he performed it several years later at the Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary Concert. It appealed to Reed because it was within his own vein of abstract, poetic rambling.
‘Foot of Pride’ was recorded for ‘Infidels,’ Dylan’s return to secular music in 1984. The track never made the cut, though, and was left on the cutting room floor. It houses one of Dylan’s most passionate vocal performances, alongside a lyrical string of poetry that peels back like fifty layers of a giant onion. As Reed discovered in 1991, it’s a tune that we’re fortunate to have despite its discarding.
“They like to take all this money from sin, build big universities to study in. Sing ‘Amazing Grace’ all the way to the Swiss banks…”
# 9 – ‘Silvio’ – ‘Down In The Groove’ – 1988
Okay, so 1988’s ‘Down In The Groove’ isn’t a strong record. It’s downright cringeworthy at times as Dylan awkwardly stumbles through classics like Big Bill Broonzy’s ‘When Did You Leave Heaven?’ and the traditional ‘Shenandoah.’ ‘Silvio’ is a moment of complete brilliance, however, and remains one of the man’s most infectious tracks. From its sharply written choruses to its perfectly organized backing vocals, ‘Silvio’ is a gem floating amidst a sea of monotony on ‘Down In The Groove.’
# 8 – ‘License to Kill’ – ‘Infidels’ – 1984
As aforementioned, ‘Infidels’ was Dylan’s return to secular themes in his music. After a trilogy of highly controversial gospel records, the man donned his dark sunglasses once again to quarrel over themes of love, patriotism, outsourcing, and foreign affairs. (Particularly in regard to the Reagan administration’s position on Israel.)
‘License to Kill’ is one of the politically charged endeavors on ‘Infidels,’ though like tracks such as ‘Neighborhood Bully,’ it is guised by metaphor. ‘License to Kill’ ponders through several poignant points, including Dylan’s distrust of the moon landing, man’s inherent inability to not destroy things, and the way the US treats its veterans. For a guy that was completely enveloped in gospel music for four years, ‘License to Kill’ was a massive statement: Dylan was back.
“Now, they take him and they teach him, and they groom him for life. And they set him on a path where he’s bound to get ill. Then they bury him in stars, sell his body like they do used cars.”
# 7 – ‘When The Night Comes Falling From The Sky’ – ‘Empire Burlesque’ – 1985
In 1985, Bob Dylan released his highly anticipated follow-up to ‘Infidels’ – ‘Empire Burlesque.’ It wasn’t received as well, and some coined the album’s sound as ‘Disco Dylan.’ When you dig underneath ‘Burlesque’ and its synthesizers, drum machines, and copious reverb, however, you’ll find a remarkable exhibition of Dylan’s talent that holds up surprisingly well.
‘When The Night Comes Falling From The Sky’ is a post-apocalyptic epic on ‘Empire Burlesque’ that is home to an array of sonic treats. The searing electric guitar, fantastic piano rhythm, and Dylan’s 1980s growl is in fine form. (He began to develop a signature blues-esque growl that’s abundantly present on this song.) The song seems to orchestrate Dylan escaping a falling world around him in cinematic fashion. The track is Dylan fighting for relevance in the industry around him.
The rendition of the song released on the ‘Bootleg Series’ is far less “produced,” and as a result, may be a finer spotlight into the track’s true quality that continues to stand tall today.
# 6 – ‘Tight Connection To My Heart’ – ‘Empire Burlesque’ – 1985
‘Tight Connection To My Heart’ is another track off 1985’s ‘Empire Burlesque.’ The song opens the album with a truly wonderful offering. Dylan worked through this track in several iterations, as he often does. The original variation of the song was ‘Somebody’s Got A Hold Of My Heart.’ That later adapted into ‘Has Anybody Seen My Love?’ and ultimately ‘Tight Connection To My Heart.’
Dylan is backed by female R&B vocalists that accentuate his presence beautifully. The synthesizers are surprisingly tactful, and really offer a dynamic landscape for the song to occupy. Dylan was often backed by Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers during these sessions, and the energy the collaboration created is palpable even now. ‘Tight Connection To My Heart’ is a superb time capsule of Dylan toying with 80s tropes without becoming one.
“Well, they’re beatin’ the devil out of a guy who’s wearing a powder-blue wig. Later he’ll be shot for resisting arrest; I can still hear his voice crying in the wilderness. What looks large from a distance close up ain’t never that big.”
# 5 – ‘Pressing On’ – ‘Saved’ – 1980
Bob Dylan opened up the 1980s with ‘Saved,’ his most intense and direct gospel record. The distrust of Dylan performing gospel was rooted in his pre-established persona. As John Lennon alluded to in his angry ‘Serve Yourself’ parody, it was perplexing to see a man who once sang “don’t follow leaders” laying himself at the altar of a higher power.
When one removes themself from how bizarre the whole ordeal was, one will find themself left with some of the most elegant, interesting gospel songs ever written. Dylan’s deep immersion in Bible during these years resulted in remarkable lyrical journeys through poetic visions of faith.
‘Pressing On’ is one of many excellent gospel songs on ‘Saved.’ ‘Covenant Woman’ is gorgeous, the title track could get a southern Baptist church dancing in the pews, and ‘In The Garden’ is spine-tingling. ‘Pressing On,’ however, is special in its simplicity. The best gospel songs are simple. Dylan’s songs are often rooted in long-winded excursions through lyrical depth, which made his efforts in the genre abstract at times.
‘Pressing On’ isn’t like those. It’s a resolute declaration of faith that isn’t condescending. It’s honest, beautiful, and very simple.. “I’m pressing on to the higher calling of my Lord.”
# 4 – ‘Most of the Time’ – ‘Oh Mercy’ – 1989
‘Oh Mercy’ is often viewed as a critically lauded return to form for Bob Dylan. While there are some contentious tracks on it, it’s widely regarded as one of his most fully-realized efforts of the 1980s. (Of course, this newly found faith in Dylan would hit the fan a year later with the catastrophic ‘Under The Red Sky.’) ‘Most of the Time’ is the most understated song of the collection. It may be the best, too.
‘Most of the Time’ is one of the most human songs Bob Dylan has ever written. It strips down the folk hero/rock star guise of “Bob Dylan” and shows a vulnerable, hurt man who deals with the same kind of pain and frustration as everyone else. He’s a good man – an honest and loving one… most of the time. Like everyone else, there are times he falls victim to hate, to frustration, to anger. Nobody can be perfect, or even good – all of the time. ‘Most of the Time’ is a truly haunting, incredibly relatable looking glass into humanizing Bob Dylan. The acoustic version of the track released on ‘Tell Tale Signs’ in 2008 is especially good, capturing his emotion in an even rawer form.
“Most of the time, my head is on straight. Most of the time, I’m strong enough not to hate. I don’t build up illusion until it makes me sick. I ain’t afraid of confusion, no matter how thick. I can smile in the face of mankind; don’t even remember what her lips felt like on mind. Most of the time.”
# 3 – ‘Sweetheart Like You’ – ‘Infidels’ – 1984
Introduced toward the beginning of ‘Infidels,’ ‘Sweetheart Like You’ is one of the most jaw-dropping love ballads in Bob Dylan’s entire catalog. Mark Knopfler of the Dire Straits produced the album, and his production backing Dylan on this song is perfect. The soft organs and dueling acoustic and electric guitars create a lovely atmosphere unlike anything else from the era.
For die-hard collectors, snagging the bootleg releases of Dylan toying with this song in the studio is a worthwhile endeavor. The bootleg community has circulated the full studio outtakes of this song, including Dylan’s banter with Knopfler and the rest of the band. The guitar solo at the end of ‘Sweetheart Like You’ is unearthly, and it’s unfortunate the real man behind it wasn’t showcased in the music video in 1984.
(Mick Taylor of the Rolling Stones performed the solo, but for the video, was replaced with an unknown blonde woman.)
“You know you could make a name for yourself. You can hear them tires squeal. You could be known as the most beautiful woman who ever crawled across cut glass to make a deal.”
# 2 – Dark Eyes – ‘Empire Burlesque’ – 1985
We return to ‘Empire Burlesque’ once more as we wind down our final two tracks. ‘Dark Eyes’ is the exit of the album, and it’s a chilling ballad that has been the subject of many rumors over the years. Apparently, Dylan needed inspiration for a final song, and after seeing a woman in his hotel, he was inspired to write ‘Dark Eyes.’ He also apparently struggled with playing the song, and rumors have floated about for many years about him having to tape down three guitar strings to achieve the sound he wanted.
Those rumors, whether they’re true or not, exist because ‘Dark Eyes’ is such a masterful song. It harkens back to Dylan’s heyday, serenading with a guitar, his voice, and a screechy harmonica. When he toured with Patti Smith in the 90s, he gave her the choice of one song to perform together at shows. She chose ‘Dark Eyes.’
# 1- Every Grain of Sand – ‘Shot Of Love’ – 1981
Like ‘Dark Eyes,’ ‘Every Grain of Sand’ was a closing song to a Dylan album in the 80s. It was also stripped down and reminiscent of Dylan’s early work. Famously, a critic in the 80s aligned ‘Every Grain of Sand’ as a spiritual successor to ‘Mr. Tambourine Man.’ The existential, heartfelt lyrics are timeless, concreting their place as some of Dylan’s most extraordinary work.
The song’s placement at the end of ‘Shot Of Love’ was indicative of Dylan moving on from gospel music. The album was his final effort within the genre, but ‘Every Grain of Sand’ is only vaguely nonsecular. Its Biblical imagery isn’t necessarily presented in a connotation of faith, but rather as context for his realizations of his own humanity and fragility.
The instrumentation is just as fantastic as the lyricism, too. Dylan is backed by soft back-up vocalists, a guitar riff that has become a legend of its own, and a E-minor harmonica that’s completely unforgettable. It’s a masterpiece worth standing equal with ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ or ‘Tangled Up In Blue.’
“I have gone from rags to riches in the sorrow of the night, in the violence of a summer’s dream, in the chill of a wintry light. In the bitter dance of loneliness, fading into space, in the broken mirror of innocence on each forgotten face.
I hear the ancient footsteps, like the motion of the sea. Sometimes I turn, there’s somewhere one, other times it’s only me. I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man. Like every sparrow falling; like every grain of sand.”
Photo by Jean-Luc (originally posted to Flickr as Bob Dylan) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Updated Nov 11, 2020