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New Tribute Album Covers Bob Dylan’s Most Maligned Era: The 80s

Bob Dylan has had a level of influence on contemporary music shared by only a handful of songwriters in the last half century.

From his folk days in New York’s Greenwich Village in the early 60s to his recent string of top shelf albums that started with 1997’s Daniel Lanois-produced Time Out of Mind, Dylan has consistently proven himself worthy of his nickname “The Bard” and helped shaped songwriting across the wide spectrum of musical genres.

Like any career that spans over 50 years, Dylan’s album output has received various degrees of critical acclaim and commercial backlash. Perhaps no era is looked upon as a “low point” in the Dylan catalog as much as the 80s, which proved to be a difficult time for many musicians who came to public attention during the 70s and even earlier. A new tribute album aims to re-introduce a new generation to “80s Dylan”.

Bob Dylan in the 80s: Volume One, released on March 25th, paints an interesting interpretation of the aforementioned era with an eclectic selection of musicians re-imagining many overlooked gems. Artists contributing to the album include Langhorne Slim, comedian Reggie Watts, Elvis Perkins, Dawn Landes and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Deer Tick, The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn, Blitzen Trapper, and Glen Hansard.

On the album’s official website, co-producer Jesse Lauter talks about the idea behind the tribute:

“80s Dylan is by no means a celebrated period in his career. It was, in fact, the lowest point of his commercial success even though he released eight studio albums. Our goal was to showcase one of the greatest artists of our time during an off-rhythm period and bring a stronger sense of harmony to the material at hand. Sean [O’Brien, the other producer] and I did everything we could to make this album flow together sonically as if you were listening to a concept album.”

“Given the benefit of decades more hindsight, our Dylan was a lot better than anyone knew…Were one to begin compiling instances of greatness in the type of songwriting that defines our esteem for the earlier Dylan – complex, suggestive, glinting, cascading constructions – you’d hit a dozen examples even before the “comeback” of Oh Mercy.”

Rolling Stone first streamed a song from the album back in January, a cover of Dylan’s 1983 song “Jokerman” performed by Built To Spill (featured above in the video above).

Writing for Slate, Carl Wilson touches on why the 80s may have proven difficult for Dylan and other musicians:

Beyond rock’s internal growing pains, though, the ’80s were a time of cultural counterrevolution, led by stock brokers, family-values preachers, and the Reagan White House, demanding the total liberation of the market and the re-regulation of private life. Liberal millionaire celebrities didn’t fit on any side: They weren’t down with the agenda, but they were fat cats still. A new globalized order was emerging—the one we’re still living with—and the utopian platitudes of their youth didn’t have much to say about it.

Yet 1980s critics still expected rock to be about resistance, and rock was letting them down, Dylan maybe most of all. Which is silly, ultimately, because aside from his brief bouts of true-believer fervor for civil rights or for Jesus (and often even then), Dylan always keeps on doing the only thing he’s built to do, which is to mulch all incoming data into symbol, rhetoric, jape, and patter. In the 21st century, he’s applauded for it again, but in the 1980s his audience wanted more, and Bob Dylan’s never really taken requests—ask him for a shovel and he’ll give you an armadillo, shrugging, “Look, man, they both dig.”

In 2012, a massive four-disc Bob Dylan tribute album, titled Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan Honoring Amnesty International, was released with all proceeds going to Amnesty International. The soundtrack for the 2007 Todd Haynes-directed I’m Not There, which featured six different actors taking on the role of Bob Dylan, was a two-disc album of covers as well.

Bob Dylan in the 80s was released on ATO Records, a label founded by Dave Matthews and others in 2000.