From Saved in 1980 to Under the Red Sky in 1990, Bob Dylan had one of his most productive, least rewarding decades. Was he an Evangelical Christian? An Orthodox Jew? A zealot without a pause? His search for spiritual succor was reflected in lyrical feints to the Old Testament, New Testament, the Borrowed and Blue Testament. His albums were marred by a seemingly careless inconsistency: Empire Burlesque is docked by Dylanologists for its mismatch between songs and post-production work by dance maestro Arthur Baker; stale album-rock radio sound and bewildering song choices have hurt the reputation of Infidels. It is this strange period to which Bob Dylan in the 80s: Volume One devotes itself, and it accomplishes the unlikely feat of imposing order on what seemed like Dylan’s mixed-up confusion.
Because Dylan himself set the bar so low, the 17 songs, done by artists who may have discovered Dylan during that era, aren’t burdened by the reverence and awe of previous tributes. A sense of freedom and discovery is audible from the start, on Langhorne Slim and the Law’s “Got My Mind Made Up,” which they attack as if it were their own signature roadhouse tune. Built to Spill finds treasure in the inscrutable “Jokerman.” Reggie Watts gives a straight and touching neo-soul cast to “Brownsville Girl (Reprise)”; Craig Finn of the Hold Steady finds the sweet spot between Southside Johnny and Gaslight Anthem on “Sweetheart Like You.”
Dylan’s spiritual longings, meanwhile, are captured by the gorgeous harmonies of Ivan & Alyosha’s “You Changed My Life.” The quiet showstopper is “Dark Eyes” by Dawn Landes with Bonnie “Prince” Billy. Landes takes a bitter lyric about the final days — the Empire Burlesque original could be the soundtrack to a Frank Miller graphic novel based on the Book of Revelation: “I can hear another drum beating for the dead that rise/ Whom nature’s beast fears as they come.” The album’s final track is “Death is Not the End,” performed by Carl Broemel of My Morning Jacket. As the “Volume One” in the title hints, this is likely not the end of either this project, nor of the resurrection of this once-lifeless corner of Dylan’s catalog.