Even Bob Dylan‘s most devoted fans have a hard time getting behind his spotty ’80s material. Oh Mercy, which arrived at the tail end of the decade, is generally applauded for its moody new directions, and 1983’s Infidels, which broke up a string of not-loved gospel records, seemed like it may get back on track at times. But much of those 10 years is populated by below-Dylan-standard albums like Knocked Out Loaded and Down in the Groove.
If there’s one thing the singer-songwriter’s long-running Bootleg Series has taught us, however, it’s to never underestimate a bounty of unreleased tracks’ ability to forge exciting new paths for even the most scorned records in Dylan’s discography to travel. In this fresh light, the gospel era and even 1970’s much-derided Self Portrait are revelatory. So, while Springtime in New York: The Bootleg Series Vol. 16 (1980-1985) has its work cut out for it, the obstacles aren’t unfamiliar ones.
The period in question included three albums: Infidels, 1985’s Empire Burlesque and 1981’s Shot of Love, which also shared its era with the final LP of the Christian trilogy. It’s an unquestionably messy period, as Dylan struggled to regain some ground following the backlash that greeted Slow Train Coming (somewhat), Saved (more so) and then Shot of Love (totally). Time hasn’t been kind to those records, even if 2017’s Trouble No More – The Bootleg Series Vol. 13 / 1979-1981 found some redemption for them.
Springtime in New York‘s 57 tracks spread out over five discs make a similar case for Dylan’s rebuild during the first half of the ’80s. And while the results aren’t as eye-opening as the ones found on Another Self Portrait – mainly because Infidels isn’t nearly as wobbly as Self Portrait, so the surprise factor in uncovering some unjustly neglected songs isn’t as high – reevaluation of the period pays off.
Also not surprising: The best of the leftovers stem from the Infidels sessions: the fan favorite “Blind Willie McTell” (different than the version heard on the first Bootleg Series set from 1991), “Too Late” (in both acoustic and band takes) and an alternate “Jokerman” that sharpens Mark Knopfler and Mick Taylor‘s guitars while heightening Dylan’s searing vocal. A “fast version” of “When the Night Comes Falling From the Sky” and the nearly 12-minute “New Danville Girl” (later reworked as Knocked Out Loaded‘s “Brownsville Girl”) from the Empire Burlesque years are highlights, too. (Less worthy of rediscovery are earlier rehearsal covers of ’70s soft-rock staples “This Night Won’t Last Forever,” “We Just Disagree” and “Sweet Caroline.”)
The jagged blues of Infidels outtake “Clean Cut Kid” (which later ended up on Empire Burlesque in defanged form) recalls his key ’60s recordings in spirit, and a lyrical complexity briefly surfaces on songs like “Jokerman” and “Dark Eyes” to remind you of his legacy. So there was some clear intention on Dylan’s part to get back on point; it just didn’t always come out that way on record.
The Bootleg Series has often suggested that Dylan’s music was a continual work in progress: Just because it’s been released on record doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the last word on the subject. He’s proven that time and time again in concert, and the best volumes of these long-running sets reveal that the blueprints can be just as interesting as the final product.
Springtime in New York probably won’t change your mind about any of the albums from the period; the revelations aren’t as big this time out. But it does make them less easy to just outright dismiss.
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