While plenty of Dylan’s albums are beloved by critics, his 53-year career has certainly had some divisive moments. Though critics have despised some of his work, are those albums really that bad? Dylan turns 74 on Sunday, which seems like a good time to re-visit his more controversial moments.
Self Portrait (1970)
When you’ve spent the past six years with the phrase “voice of a generation” around your neck like an albatross, how do you break free? By deliberately making an album that would anger and alienate all of your fans, of course. That’s what Dylan did with Self Portrait, which inspired Rolling Stone critic Greil Marcus to remark “what is this sh*t?”
Still, Self Portrait certainly has some strong moments: “(Quinn The Eskimo) The Mighty Quinn” is a rightful classic, but the weird-for-the-sake-of-weirdness of this album still drags it down considerably. “All The Tired Horses” opens the album without a single Dylan vocal, and it isn’t hard to think he merely included the song because he knew it would set his die-hard fans off. It’s self-sabotage, not totally different from Seth MacFarlane having a joke go on two minutes too long, or putting a full Conway Twitty clip into an episode just because he knows people will hate it, and he embraces that.
Dylan is too brilliant of an artist for a bad-on-purpose album not to hold some intrigue, but anyone who says this is a good album is kidding themselves. It’s a fascinating album that everyone should listen to at least once, but after that, you’re probably good.
The Christian Era (1979-1981)
In 1979, Bob Dylan shocked the world by announcing that he had become a born-again Christian. For three years, he would release albums with distinctly Christian themes; 1979’s Slow Train Coming, 1980’s Saved, and 1981’s Shot of Love. Of these three records, Slow Train Coming is easily the best. It’s a thoughtful, focused record that even non-religious folk can appreciate. From the bluesy opener “Gotta Serve Somebody” to the beautiful ballad “I Believe In You” to the sneering “When You Gonna Wake Up,” Dylan’s first foray into Christian-inspired music resulted in some of the best work of his career.
Unfortunately, the rest of Dylan’s Christian period is far more inconsistent. 1980’s Saved is a considerable drop-off from Slow Train Coming. Whereas that album felt like a genuine exploration of Christian themes, Saved feels more like simple Christian propaganda, particularly on the hopelessly generic title track. There’s nothing really interesting about this album, and nothing that gives it a uniquely Dylan feel. Honestly, you might as well just listen to Newsboys or Chris Tomlin.
Luckily, Dylan’s Christian period ended on a fairly strong note with the underrated Shot of Love. Lyrically, this one is far closer to Slow Train Coming than Saved. He still wears his Christ love on his sleeve, but the dull platitudes of the last album are mercifully out the door. He even momentarily puts aside the religious themes for “Lenny Bruce,” a tribute to the provocative comedian.
Dylan’s religious period may not be the strongest era of his career, but it’s probably a little underrated.
Empire Burlesque, Knocked Out Loaded & Down In the Groove (1985-1988)
Production was a problem that plagued just about everyone in the ’80s. So many great artists were subject to the bland, plastic-sounding scene of the day, and Dylan was no exception. Empire Burlesque was the first of three Dylan albums that were largely maligned by critics, and it really feels like the production is the biggest reason why. His lyrics are still on point, but the generic drum machines and synths that plagued this era make the album hard to get a great deal of enjoyment out of.
1986’s Knocked Out Loaded has a similarly rough reputation as a dull album made by a disinterested Dylan, but it’s main problem is just being inconsistent. There’s certainly some good moments here, like the rollicking opener “Got My Mind Made Up,” which Dylan wrote with Tom Petty. The album’s strong point is easily the 10-minute epic “Brownsville Girl,” which could have been included on any of Dylan’s best loved works. Knocked Out Loaded is far from Dylan’s best work, and it suffers from a lack of consistency, but it’s likely a lot better than you’ve heard, and it certainly deserves a listen.
1988’s Down In The Groove is certainly not a high point. The music feels like generic blues, and it never really changes. But it did gave us the classic “Silvio.” Basically, Dylan’s late ’80s work really suffers from hacky production, but there are some great songs if you’re willing to wade through all the sludge to find them.