Bob Weir was talking recently about the impossibly high standards people have for Dylan - but Dylan set those standards pretty high himself with the sustained home run streak of his first nine albums. So sure, Self Portrait was a deliberate mindfuck - it's easy to see how its embrace of the countrypolitan ethos could freak out fans of the "thin wild mercury" sound as surely as plugging in freaked out the folkies. But, you know, as Mark Twain said about Wagner, it's not as bad as it sounds.
These days Dylan says he himself is in awe of the young songwriter who penned such gems as "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)," remarking that "I can do other things now. But I can't do that." And Dylan himself got a little bit fed up with his own songwriting after the batting-average slump reflected in the latter three albums listed above ("The world doesn't need any more Bob Dylan songs," he grumbled). But any songwriter his age who can point to recent compositions like "Not Dark Yet," "Things Have Changed," "Mississippi" or "Ain't Talkin'" has no reason to envy the prodigy he once was.
The breadth and scope of Dylan's back catalogue leaves plenty of room for casual, tossed off ditties and frivolities. But that said, let me close out this series with a look at a few tunes that just rub me the wrong way.
Okay, okay, I get the joke. But forgive me if I don't shuffle it on my iPod. Complete lyrics, sung by a choir: "All the tired horses in the sun/how'm I supposed to get any writing done?"
Are You Ready? (Saved, 1980)
Dylan's very own rapture anthem, with a vengeful Yahweh smiting those who worship Him in the wrong church: "Have you decided whether you want to be/In heaven or in hell?" Um, let me get back to you on that one.
Band of the Hand (It's Hell Time Man!) (Band of the Hand Soundtrack, 1986)
What am I supposed to make of this? Hell time, indeed. As Wikipedia describes it, it's about "the ruthlessness of the vigilante justice which will be used to confront the immorality of the criminal drug world." Confront them with this movie and they'll repent their ways.
Joey (Desire, 1975)
You know, I'm ready to defend Dylan's singing voice to anyone who wants to argue. He's got a big nose, man, get over it. But more than, arguably, glorifying a gangster, it's the chorus that spoils this for repeated listening: "Jooooooooeeeeyyyyy, Jooooooeeeeyyyyyy...."
Neighborhood Bully (Infidels, 1983)
The geopolitical analysis here is enough to confirm the wisdom of his earlier abandonment of the protest-song format. Even in 1983, the idea of a helpless Israel with "no allies," who was "not supposed to fight back" was pretty ridiculous. These days, it's, in a word, "indefensible."
Night After Night (Hearts of Fire Soundtrack, 1987)
Mostly what I'm talking about here is the songwriting, not the actual performance on the recording. You could argue that he's written cheesier lyrics than these. But the cheesiness of the 80s synth arrangement certainly doesn't help matters. Kind of looks like Bob phoned this one in.
Precious Angel (Slow Train Coming, 1979)
Who was it that said "I become my enemy/in the instant that I preach"? The same guy who wrote "Now there’s spiritual warfare and flesh and blood breaking down/Ya either got faith or ya got unbelief and there ain’t no neutral ground." Okay, I hate to quibble, but isn't the word "disbelief"?
Ugliest Girl in the World (Down in the Groove, 1987)
Oh man. There is just no reason for this song to exist. Must have been what he had in mind when he swore off writing Bob Dylan songs for a few years.
Wiggle Wiggle (Under the Red Sky, 1992)
There's a lot of good stuff on this album, not necessarily recorded as well as it could have been. And then there's this number. If Bob wants to put out an album of children's songs, this might be a perfect inclusion. But as the opening number of the follow-up to Oh Mercy, one gets the impression Bob is not giving it his all.
You Wanna Ramble (Knocked Out Loaded, 1986)
You know, if Eddie Money had written this, you could call it a career highlight. But something has to settle in at the bottom of the barrel of Dylan's oeuvre:
I said "Baby, I knowI know what league Bob Dylan played in, too, and he didn't get there by throwing out songs like this. With all due respect – which is of course, immense.
where you been
Well, I know who you are
And what league you played in"