Until recently it could have been argued that Bob Dylan peaked in the Sixties. The series of albums he released from 1962-1966 stands as one of the greatest achievements in American music. Then he confused his fans and critics with his next few recordings, the frustration climaxing with the release of Self-Portrait in 1970. It was not until 1975 that Dylan regained some the relevance he seemingly inexplicably squandered since 1967’s John Wesley Harding. However, Dylan has said that Nashville Skyline and Self Protrait were purposely designed to put some distance between himself and the myth that had grown up around him and had become constricting. With the release of Blood on the Tracks and The Basement Tapes Bob Dylan was important again. His records from the late ‘70s and 80s went through his Christian period and stagnated completely with several mediocre releases. People had begun to write Dylan off as just another 60s phenomenon gone to seed.
Aside from some isolated gems, Infidels, Oh Mercy, it was not until the 90s that Dylan resurfaced with renewed vigor. Since 1992 he entered a sustained prolific period of high quality work. Besides the nine new studio recordings this period has also seen Dylan curate several more of the Bootleg volumes. He has also branched out into a variety of media: art, the first of a projected three volume memoir, a movie and an excellent and quirky three year series of weekly radio programs.
Here’s an overview of Dylan’s amazing late career blossoming.
Good As I Been To You (1992)
It is composed entirely of traditional folk songs and covers, and is Dylan’s first entirely solo, acoustic album since Another Side of Bob Dylan in 1964. It is also his first collection not to feature any original compositions since Dylan in 1973. In its stripped-down intensity, Good As I Been to You recalls the midshow acoustic segments that in recent years have been a consistent highlight of Dylan’s Neverending Tour. Even more than that, the album’s intimate, almost offhand approach suggests what it would be like to sit backstage with his Bobness while he runs through a set of some of his favorite old songs. This is a passionate, at times almost ragged piece of work that seems to have been recorded rather than produced in any conventional sense. (Rolling Stone)
World Gone Wrong (1993)
It was Dylan’s second consecutive collection of only traditional folk songs, performed acoustically with guitar and harmonica. The songs tend to deal with darker and more tragic themes than the previous outing, Good as I Been to You. If Good as I Been to You was a strong traditionalist folk record, World Gone Wrong was an exceptional one, boasting an exceptional set of songs given performances so fully realized that they seemed like modern protest songs. Much of this record is fairly obscure to anyone outside of dedicated folk fans; “Delia” (covered by Johnny Cash the following year) and “Stack-A-Lee” are the most familiar items, yet they’re given traditional readings, meaning that the latter doesn’t quite seem like “Stagger Lee.” But even if these are traditionalist, they’re spirited and lively renditions, and Dylan seems more connected to the music than he has in years. That sense of connection, plus the terrific choice of songs, makes this one of his best, strongest albums of the second half of his career. (Allmusic.com)
Time Out Of Mind (1997)
For some fans and critics, the album marked Dylan’s artistic comeback after he appeared to struggle with his musical identity throughout the 1980s; he had not released any original material for seven years, since Under the Red Sky in 1990. Time Out of Mind is hailed as one of Dylan’s best albums, and it went on to win three Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year in 1998. It was also ranked number 408 on Rolling Stone’s list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time in 2003. Time Out of Mind is thick with faraway ghosts. Although the deluge of breakup songs on the album might suggest that it is a long-lost sequel to Dylan’s famed “divorce album” of 1975, Blood on the Tracks, the singer’s world-weary delivery hints at a broader intent. When he recorded Blood on the Tracks, Dylan was just entering middle age and was still a major figure in pop culture as he made a conscious return to the spare, folk-oriented intensity of his early albums. Twenty-two years down the road, Time Out of Mind finds Dylan on the culture’s fringe, confronting his advancing years and irrelevance.
He sings about love gone awry, but until the surreal conversation that occurs in “Highlands,” that loss never acquires a human face. It’s a memory, a dream, a specter, as if Dylan were singing not about a companion but about something far less tangible. He projects the unease of someone adrift in a world that he ceases to understand and that has ceased to understand him.
In this sense, Time Out of Mind is a more fully realized version of Oh Mercy, the 1989 album that Dylan recorded with producer Daniel Lanois. The new album not only reunites Dylan with Lanois, it also expands on the tone set by such Oh Mercy songs as “Everything Is Broken” and “Man in the Long Black Coat,” in which Dylan sings, “People don’t live or die; people just float.” (Rolling Stone)
“Love And Theft” (2001)
The album continued Dylan’s artistic comeback following 1997’s Time Out of Mind and was given an even more enthusiastic reception. The title of the album was apparently inspired by historian Eric Lott’s book Love & Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class, which was published in 1993. “Love and Theft becomes his Fables of the Reconstruction, to borrow an R.E.M. album title”, writes Greg Kot in The Chicago Tribune (published September 11, 2001), “the myths, mysteries and folklore of the South as a backdrop for one of the finest roots rock albums ever made.”
The music evokes an America of masquerade and striptease, a world of seedy old-time gin palaces, fast cash, poison whiskey, guilty strangers trying not to make eye contact, pickpockets slapping out-of-towners on the back. Love and Theft comes on as a musical autobiography that also sounds like a casual, almost accidental history of the country. Relaxed, magisterial, utterly confident in every musical idiom he touches, Dylan sings all twelve songs in a voice that sounds older than he is, a grizzled con man croaking biblical blues and Tin Pan Alley valentines out of the side of his mouth while keeping one eye on the exit. Just as 1997’s Time Out of Mind drew on the doomy menace of Highway 61 Revisited, and “Things Have Changed” turned “The Times They Are A-Changin’ ” upside down, Love and Theft goes back to the quizzical American passions of classic Dylan albums like John Wesley Harding, The Basement Tapes and Blood on the Tracks. He’s rummaging around the past, but all he finds there are deeper riddles, more unsettling mysteries. (Rolling Stone)
Modern Times (2006)
The album was Dylan’s third straight (following Time Out of Mind and Love and Theft) to be met with nearly universal praise from fans and critics. It continued its predecessors’ tendencies toward blues, rockabilly and pre-rock balladry, and was self-produced by Dylan under the pseudonym “Jack Frost”. Despite the acclaim, the album sparked some debate over its uncredited use of choruses and arrangements from older songs, as well as many lyrical lines taken from the work of 19th-century poet Henry Timrod.
There is no precedent in rock & roll for the territory Dylan is now opening with albums that stand alongside the accomplishments of his wild youth. Love and Theft, recorded when he’d turned sixty, was his toughest guitar rock since Blonde on Blonde in 1966, a combination of the mojo Muddy Waters had working at age sixty-two on Hard Again and the sweeping dystopic perspective Philip Roth brought to American Pastoral at sixty-three. Modern Times is something different. It’s less terrifying, less funny on first listen. But it has more command, more clarity. There is none of the digital murk of Time Out of Mind, and the snakebite live sound of Love and Theft has softened. This music is relaxed; it has nothing to prove. It is music of accumulated knowledge, it knows every move, anticipates every step before you take it. Producing himself for the second time running, Dylan has captured the sound of tradition as an ever-present, a sound he’s been working on since his first album, in 1962. (One reason Modern Times is so good is that Dylan has been making it so long.) These songs stand alongside their sources and are meant to, which is why their sources are so obvious, so direct: “Rollin’ and Tumblin’ ” gives a cowboy gallop and new lyrics to Muddy Waters’ 1950 hit of the same name (with its own history dating back to at least 1929); “Someday Baby” mellow-downs Slim Harpo’s “Shake Your Hips”; “The Levee’s Gonna Break” jumps off from Memphis Minnie’s “When the Levee Breaks”; “Nettie Moore” lifts a line from a nineteenth-century ballad recorded by the Sons of the Pioneers; and Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” motivates “Thunder on the Mountain.” (Rolling Stone)
Together Through Life (2009)
Dylan wrote all but one of the album’s songs with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, with whom he had previously co-written two songs on his 1988 album Down in the Groove. In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Dylan commented on the collaboration: “Hunter is an old buddy, we could probably write a hundred songs together if we thought it was important or the right reasons were there… He’s got a way with words and I do too. We both write a different type of song than what passes today for songwriting.”
The shock of his voice comes right away. Dylan starts the record as if he’s at a loss for words. “I love you, pretty baby/You’re the only love I’ve ever known/Just as long as you stay with me/The whole world is my throne,” he sings in the muddy samba “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’.” It is a plain, unpromising opening, except for the delivery: a deep, exhausted rasp that sounds like the singer has been beaten to a pulp, then left for dead at the side of the road. Ultimately, Together Through Life is a mixed bag of this decade’s Dylan — impulsive, caustic, sentimental, long done with the contrived details of contemporary record-making. The album may lack the instant-classic aura of Love and Theft or Modern Times, but it is rich in striking moments, set in a willful rawness, and comes with a wicked finish. (Rolling Stone)
Released on September 10, 2012 by Columbia Records, Tempest was recorded at Jackson Browne’s Groove Masters Studios in Santa Monica, California. Dylan wrote all of the songs himself with the exception of the track “Duquesne Whistle”, which he co-wrote with Robert Hunter. Tempest isn’t as revelatory as “Love and Theft,” from 2001, or “Modern Times,” from 2006, the benchmarks of Dylan’s late period. But it’s as spirited and vigorous an album as he’s made. It’s his longest one, clocking in at sixty-eight-minutes-plus; the title track, the song about the Titanic, is a Celtic-tinged waltz that runs nearly fourteen minutes and has forty-five verses.
The original Dylanological sin is to focus too much on the words, and too little on the sound: to treat Dylan like he’s a poet, a writer of verse, when of course he’s a musician—a songwriter and, supremely, a singer. “Tempest” reminds us what a thrilling and eccentric vocalist he is. He sings with a jazzman’s feel for rhythmic play, laying back behind the beat, rushing ahead of it, bending, distending, and cutting short his raggedy notes. He has dramatic flair that places him in the company of Sinatra, Billie Holiday, and George Jones: an actor’s way with line readings, a knack for making the musical conversational and vice versa. You can hear it in “Soon After Midnight,” a doo-wop-flavored love ballad, where he drops into dulcet coo to threaten a rival lover: “Two-Timing Slim / Who’s ever heard of him? / I’ll drag his corpse through the mud.” Then there’s “Long and Wasted Years,” which finds Dylan talk-singing, in a drawling, taunting tone, over a cascading guitar line: “I wear dark glasses to cover my eyes / There’s secrets in them that I can’t disguise / Come back, baby / Have I hurt your feelings? / I apologize.” Dylan may mean every word of that lyric; every word might be jive. Either way, unreliable narration has rarely sounded so good. (The New Yorker)
Shadows in the Night (2015)
The album consists of covers of traditional pop standards made famous by Frank Sinatra, chosen by Dylan. On January 23, 2015, it was announced that 50,000 free copies would be given away to randomly selected AARP The Magazine readers. Dylan made “Full Moon and Empty Arms” available for free streaming online on May 13, 2014. The album has received positive reviews from critics for its unexpected and strong song selection as well as the strength of Dylan’s performance.
While it may prompt some exasperated debates, Dylan has in fact been teasing this project for years, if not decades. A few of the songs on Shadows in the Night have appeared sporadically in his setlists since the 1990s, and in his 2004 memoir, Chronicles, Volume One, Dylan even professed his fandom for the Chairman of the Board, even if he subtly admitted that the crooner wasn’t exactly a popular figure among the folkies in the Village: “When Frank sang [“Ebb Tide”], I could hear everything in his voice—death, God and the universe, everything. I had other things to do, though, and I couldn’t be listening to that stuff much.” (Pitchfork)
Chronicles: Volume One (2014)
“I’d come from a long ways off and had started a long ways down. But now destiny was about to manifest itself. I felt like it was looking right at me and nobody else.”
So writes Bob Dylan in Chronicles: Volume One, his remarkable book exploring critical junctures in his life and career. Through Dylan’s eyes and open mind, we see Greenwich Village, circa 1961, when he first arrives in Manhattan. Dylan’s New York is a magical city of possibilities — smoky, nightlong parties; literary awakenings; transient loves and unbreakable friendships. Elegiac observations are punctuated by jabs of memories, penetrating and tough. With the book’s side trips to New Orleans, Woodstock, Minnesota and points west, Chronicles: Volume One is an intimate and intensely personal recollection of extraordinary times.
By turns revealing, poetical, passionate and witty, Chronicles: Volume One is a mesmerizing window on Bob Dylan’s thoughts and influences. Dylan’s voice is distinctively American: generous of spirit, engaged, fanciful and rhythmic. Utilizing his unparalleled gifts of storytelling and the exquisite expressiveness that are the hallmarks of his music, Bob Dylan turns Chronicles: Volume One into a poignant reflection on life, and the people and places that helped shape the man and the art.
Whilst travelling on tour between 1989 and 1992, Bob Dylan created a collection of drawings that were published in a book entitled ‘Drawn Blank’ in 1994. These expressive works capture Dylan’s chance encounters and observations. The creation of these portraits, interiors, landscapes, still lifes, nudes and street scenes were done to “relax and refocus a restless mind”.
In the autumn of 2008, the National Gallery of Denmark contacted Bob Dylan through his manager and agreed to stage his first major exhibition in Copenhagen. Dylan regarded The Drawn Blank Series as a finished project and embarked on an entirely new series of paintings. It sparked a period of intensive work and creativity as Dylan produced a series of more than forty paintings in less than a year.
The Brazil Series is an interesting departure from The Drawn Blank Series, and is a product of Dylan’s bravery as an artist. Encouraged by the critical acclaim he had received, notably from such luminaries as John Elderfield (Chief Curator of Paintings & Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, New York) and Larry Gagosian, he was emboldened to experiment and expand his oeuvre. Despite being universally acknowledged as one of the most culturally relevant individuals of today, Dylan is at his core an artist, imbued with self-doubt and insecurity – his own biggest critic.
Masked and Anonymous
Masked and Anonymous is a 2003 comedy-drama film directed by Larry Charles. The film was written by Larry Charles and Bob Dylan, the latter under the pseudonym “Sergei Petrov”. It stars Dylan alongside a star-heavy cast, including John Goodman, Jeff Bridges, Penélope Cruz, Val Kilmer, Mickey Rourke, Jessica Lange, Luke Wilson, Angela Bassett, Bruce Dern, Cheech Marin, Ed Harris, Chris Penn, Steven Bauer, Giovanni Ribisi, Michael Paul Chan, Christian Slater and Fred Ward.
An iconic rock legend, Jack Fate (Bob Dylan), is bailed out of prison to perform a one-man benefit concert for a decaying future North American society. The film touches on many subjects from the futility of politics, the confusion of loosely strung government conspiracies, and the chaos created by both anarchy and Nineteen Eighty-Four-styled totalitarianism. It further reflects on life, dreams, and God’s place in a seemingly increasingly chaotic world.
In some ways, the film is political: it describes how Fate sees the political landscape (people fighting for no reason, a nation without hope, governments that cannot be trusted) but at the same time Fate makes it clear that he “was always a singer and maybe no more than that”. He produces no solutions to any of the problems the film presents. Rather, he makes it clear that he “stopped trying to figure everything out a long time ago.”
Theme Time Radio Hour
Theme Time Radio Hour (TTRH) was a weekly, one-hour satellite radio show hosted by Bob Dylan originally airing from May 2006 to April 2009. Each episode was an eclectic, freeform mix of blues, folk, rockabilly, R&B, soul, bebop, rock-and-roll, country and pop music, centered on a theme such as “Weather,” “Money,” and “Flowers” with songs from artists as diverse as Patti Page and LL Cool J. Much of the material for the show’s 100 episodes was culled from producer Eddie Gorodetsky’s music collection, which reportedly includes more than 10,000 records and more than 140,000 digital files. [Dougherty, Steve (December 17, 2010). “The Santa Claus of Christmas Songs”. The Wall Street Journal.]
Interspersed between the music segments were email readings, listener phone calls, vintage radio air checks, old radio promos and jingles, even older jokes from Dylan (“My grandmother is so tidy she puts newspaper under the cuckoo clock”), poetry recitations; taped messages from a variety of celebrities, musicians and comedians; and commentary from Dylan on the music and musicians as well as miscellanea related to the themes. The show was not live (Dylan taped his portions at various locations and while touring), and the studio location at the so-called “Abernathy Building” was fictitious. Most of the “listener phone calls” and emails were also fictitious, although at least one email read on the show came from an actual listener. [“Dreamtime – Commentary Inspired By Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour: Prom Night at Brookland-Cayce High School with The Swinging Medallions”. Dreamtimepodcast.com. 2009-05-27. Retrieved 2012-08-20.]