Pop music odyssey: the 1980s

March 15, 2015

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Alright, enough of that.

I have completed another decade of my pop music odyssey, and I’m here to offer a few thoughts. The 1980s are, in my imagination, a kind of desolation for popular music, when the airwaves were ruled by — well, by nobody in this odyssey. Quite a few of the albums I listened to since my last report were new to me, so I have taken my time, listening to many of them numerous times in an effort to get a good sense of them.

This leg of the journey has been composed of 13 albums by Van Morrison (where, as usual, I count bootlegs and live recordings too), 12 by Dylan, 10 by Neil Young, 6 by Tom Waits, 5 by Mark Heard (about whom more below), and a pair each by Nick Cave and Leonard Cohen.

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In my notes on the 1970s I deftly skirted the matter of Dylan’s gospel records, but I suppose I should say something here. The gospel period began with 1978’s Slow Train Coming and continued up through … well, it’s not entirely clear. There is no doubt that Saved and Shot of Love belong in this group, and I think it is pretty clear that 1983’s Infidels also belongs, but things get a little hazier when we come to Empire Burlesque a year later. A case could even be made for Oh Mercy — indeed, a case could be made for every album he’s made since.

If we stick just with the least ambiguous cases, it is fair to say that I don’t greatly care for Dylan’s gospel records. Too often angry, too often hectoring, too often downright paranoid — I find little to like. I want to honour the sincerity of Dylan’s religious convictions, which burned up in short order the goodwill he had storehoused with critics and the left-leaning social elites who had cherished him in the 1960s. Songs like “I Believe in You” and “Pressing On” are obviously the work of a man who has turned to God with his whole heart. But I cannot help thinking it a pity that the Christianity into which he converted was in the Hal-Lindsay-laced apocalyptic style, suspicious and rather shallow. Perhaps it was fitting that this most iconic of American talents should adopt a characteristically American branch of religion, I don’t know. But I wonder sometimes, late at night, what might have come if that seed had fallen into richer, more balanced, more nourishing soil. We’ll never know.

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Dylan has never been scrupulous about putting his best music onto his records, but the 1980s were an especially unscrupulous period for him. You can count on the fingers of one hand the truly great songs he put on his records during these years: “Every Grain of Sand”, “I and I”, and a few from Oh Mercy. One could make a case for a few others: “Sweetheart Like You”, “Brownsville Girl”, depending on how generous one feels.

But then consider the songs he wrote and left off his records: “Angelina”, “Caribbean Wind”, “Blind Willie McTell”, “Born in Time”, “Dignity”, “Series of Dreams”, “Foot of Pride” — all of them pure gold. That, in a nutshell, is what makes Dylan in the 1980s such a frustrating listen.

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Favourite anecdote:

Dylan: “How long did it take you to write “Hallelujah”?

Cohen: “About two years. How long did it take you to write “Isis”?”

Dylan: “About fifteen minutes.”

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The plan all along was for this odyssey to focus on a core group of artists, but to pull in others as my fancy led. Thus a few Nick Cave records were included during this leg of the journey, but I also decided to fold in the music — more or less all of it — of Mark Heard. Heard was a songwriter and singer who toiled without much recognition in the “contemporary Christian music” world until his early and unexpected death in 1992. I wanted to include him because most of his early work (beginning in 1975) was unknown to me, and because in the early 1990s he made three truly outstanding records that can stand toe-to-toe with anything else in this odyssey. Maybe I just wanted to hear those records again, in context.

Anyway, I did backtrack to 1975 and listened all the way up through Mosaics, from 1985. (I wasn’t able to find his side-project record, Ideola, from 1987.) I admit I was disappointed. Heard started out as a kind of James Taylor character, plucking his guitar and singing in a sweet tenor. Production values on those early records are poor — the sound is generally thin and flat — and, what surprised me more, the songwriting is pedestrian. In his last years Heard became one of the most incisive and personal songwriters that I’ve ever encountered, but in the beginning he was, it seems, not that. Those early songs are mostly one-dimensional, overtly and rather carefully pious, sometimes hokey, and generally forgettable. But there were signs here and there of things to come: an evocative little song called “All the Sleepless Dreamers” popped up on Fingerprint (1980), and as the years passed his sound became rougher around the edges, the voice more ragged, and the songwriting more thoughtful and probing, until I could hear the whole Mosaics (1985) record as a bridge to his first masterpiece, Dry Bones Dance (1990). It was an interesting and rewarding side-journey, even if it didn’t turn up as much gold as I’d hoped it would.

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Most With Least Award: Van Morrison, “Daring Night” (from Avalon Sunset). There can’t be more than 3 or 4 lines in this song, but Van spins from them a pretty terrific 6 minutes of music.

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Neil Young in the 1970s was great; Neil Young in the 1980s was the opposite. Was he ever. Starting with 1980’s Hawks and Doves and continuing up through 1988’s This Note’s for You he released a string of 8 albums that could only be described as mediocre by an unusually generous listener. He seems to have temporarily mislaid his artistic identity, experimenting with whole records devoted to computer music (the execrable Trans (1983)), rockabilly (the likable but weird Everybody’s Rockin’ (1984)), and flipping from country to jazz to ill-judged synth-pop. A mess. And the songs were no good either, for the most part.

Now, it seems that at least part of the reason his music suffered so badly in this period was because, though he had a contractual obligation to release one record each year, his time and energy were absorbed in caring for his son, who had been born with a disability. In this sense his artistic declension was an honourable one, and I do not hesitate to praise his priorities, but honour and praise do not make the declension any less real.

He rallied, however, at the end of the decade, with Freedom, which saw him return to an even-more-crazed-than-usual Crazy-Horse style of fuzz-drenched rock. I’m not enamoured of the songs for the most part, but the sound of that record is outstanding: once again he is vital and passionate and really, really loud, and it suits him. “Rockin’ in the Free World” became a hit, making it perhaps the bitterest, most ironic stadium anthem ever written.

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Literary figures named in Van Morrison’s songs of the 1980s: Blake, Wordsworth, Rimbaud, Lawrence, Eliot, Whitman, Yeats, Donne, Coleridge, Gibran. That’s off the top of my head. Does Gibran count as a literary figure?

**

The 1980s were an exciting time for Tom Waits. It was, arguably, the decade in which he did his best work, and in which he reinvented his sound. The down-and-out lounge poet was replaced by some kind of maniac wielding a monkey wrench and milk bucket and gargling razor blades. The transition was especially sharp between 1982’s Night on Earth soundtrack, with its orchestral score and gravelly love duets, and 1983’s Swordfishtrombones, with its bagpipes, bang-on-a-can percussion, and phalanx of (yes) trombones. It was a tremendously good move for Waits; it opened up a whole new world of sound and songwriting that he has explored for the rest of his career. And yet, as I listened through the records, the sharp lines between this and that began to blur a little. Swordfishtrombones was indeed a radical record, but Rain Dogs, from 1985, seemed to backpeddle a little and it is not too hard to hear continuity with 1980’s Heartattack and Vine, especially on the more “conventional” numbers like “Hang Down Your Head” and “Downtown Train”. Rain Dogs set a template for his future work, in which hallucinogenic croakings often sit comfortably cheek-by-jowel with endearingly downtrodden sentimental numbers. It’s a winning combination, and one unique to Waits.

**

I am convinced that three songs on Dylan’s Oh Mercy are masterpieces, but which three varies day to day.

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As much as I count myself an admirer of Van Morrison, his records from the 1980s I have tended to neglect. Part of the fun of this odyssey is that I have opportunity to revisit and revise my thoughts, and I have been favourably impressed by these records.

I think it is fair to say that his mid-decade albums — from 1982’s Beautiful Vision up through 1987’s Poetic Champions Compose — suffer, if that is the right word, from a certain homogeneity. It is not always quite evident where one record ends and the next begins. Roughly speaking, the production values are slightly gauzy and there is a proliferation of mid-tempo musings. But if you can get past that the truth is that there are quite a few excellent songs to be discovered, and, more than that, there is a compelling through-line that makes of these records a unity greater than that afforded by mere musical similarities. He is stalking the holy. He is a dweller on the threshold of the transcendent. So many of these songs are about trying to grasp the ineffable, to behold a primordial beauty, to put himself in the way of ecstatic delight. “I’m a soul in wonder!” In these records — and it is a unifying thread through his whole catalogue, not just here — he is on an inner odyssey. And while it is true that he seems to be at heart beholden to the Romantic tradition of seeking a non-dogmatic transcendence (mediated most intensely through literature and art and nature), in his murky wanderings he does occasionally butt up against the solidity of religion. It’s a fascinating body of work, and I am thoroughly enjoying the time I am spending exploring it.

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I’ll close with some lists. First, my favourite odyssey-albums from the 1980s, in rough descending order:

Tom Waits — Rain Dogs (1985)
Bob Dylan — Oh Mercy (1989)
Tom Waits — Swordfishtrombones (1983)
Van Morrison — Avalon Sunset (1989)
Bob Dylan — Infidels (1983)
Van Morrison — No Guru, No Method, No Teacher (1986)
Leonard Cohen — I’m Your Man (1988)
Van Morrison — Beautiful Vision (1982)
Neil Young — Freedom (1989)
Van Morrison — Common One (1980)

The first four I consider essential. Not perfect, and not as masterful masterpieces as the same singers produced at other times, but they are records that I can, and do, listen to again and again, and they bear the scrutiny.

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Choosing a list of just ten favourite songs is tough, but since I am forced to do so by arbitrary convention, here I go:

Leonard Cohen — “If It Be Your Will” (Various Positions)
Bob Dylan — “Blind Willie McTell” (Infidels sessions)
Tom Waits — “Johnsburg, IL” (Swordfishtrombones)
Bob Dylan — “Foot of Pride” (Infidels sessions)
Bob Dylan — “Shooting Star” (Oh Mercy)
Bob Dylan — “I and I” (Infidels)
Van Morrison — “Summertime in England” (Common One)
Van Morrison — “When Will I Ever Learn to Live in God?” (AS)
Tom Waits — “Jersey Girl” (Heartattack and Vine)
Van Morrison — “In the Garden” (No Guru)

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What was the worst album in this leg of the odyssey? Going in I expected it to be Dylan & The Dead, the concert album that Dylan recorded with the Grateful Dead in 1987. I’d never heard it, but its noxious reputation has achieved canonical status. To my surprise, I found it not all that bad! Bad, yes, but not greatly worse than many of his other live albums, and — more to the point — nowhere near as bad as Neil Young’s Trans, as ill-conceived and unlistenable a record as I have ever heard. It takes the broken palm.

As for worst song, I’m going to stick with Neil Young again. So many candidates! How about “T-Bone”, from Re-ac-tor (1981)? There is just one line in the song: “Got mashed potatoes, ain’t got no T-bone”, repeated ad nauseum. The song is over nine minutes long.

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Next time: the 1990s.

9 Responses to “Pop music odyssey: the 1980s”


  1. I’m mostly in agreement with you here, although I never heard much from Van Morrison from this period that I could get very enthusiastic about. I had written “anything” in that sentence, then remembered that Common One came out in 1981 or so. I like it quite a bit. Never heard the Neil Young stuff at all as I had pretty much lost interest in him. “Foot of Pride” is a great song. And I don’t have to wait for a generous mood to rate “Brownsville Girl” as one of Dylan’s finest from this period, although it’s dragged down somewhat by that boring refrain.

  2. cburrell Says:

    Certainly Van Morrison’s stuff from the 80s is not as close to my heart as what he did in the 70s (or in the 90s, for that matter), but, as I said, there is some good material there. Common One is from 1980.

    Apparently “Brownsville Girl” was originally called “New Danville Girl”, but I’ve never heard it sung that way. It seems to me the original title would not scan properly.


  3. By the way I meant to say how great that Daniel Amos song and video are.

  4. cburrell Says:

    It’s a fan-made video, I believe. I love it.

  5. Grumpy Says:

    Enjoying this thread, belatedly.

  6. Skip Gregory Says:

    I enjoyed your ’80s survey and conclusions and agree with some. I see Dylan’s gospel albums differently, however. I found “Slow Train Coming” honeymoon-sappy, “Saved” an expression of full commitment, “Shot of Love” (underrated, in my opinion) the first signs of struggle and doubt, and “Infidels” a strong indication that his affair with Christianity was coming to an end. Waits was astounding, and Cohen fascinating if uneven. Thanks for posting your very thoughtful, intelligent, and articulate review.

  7. cburrell Says:

    Grumpy, it seems everything happens belatedly around here lately, starting with the posts themselves. Nonetheless, thanks for checking in.

    Skip, you make some good points. I would need to spend more time with the gospel records to see if I agree with your arc, but it’s pretty clear there’s an arc of some sort. I can still hear “Infidels” as a gospel record, albeit one in which he has started writing songs again, rather than sermons (if I can put it in such a tendentious way). But Dylan is hard to figure out, before, during, and after the “gospel period”, and I don’t know that I’ll ever have a confident reading of what was going on with him.

  8. Alan Says:

    Damn, lighten up, Francis! What an uptight twat you seem to be. “Trans” isn’t that bad; and “T-Bone” is great. So what if there’s only one line. It doesn’t need any more. And if you think “This Note’s For You’ is ‘jazz’, then you sure as hell don’t know what jazz is.

  9. cburrell Says:

    Hello, Alan. Sometimes I like to let a comment sit there for a while, so that everybody can think about it.


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