Bob Dylan received the Presidential Medal of Freedom yesterday afternoon, along with Toni Morrison, former Justice Stevens, John Glenn, the chair of the Democratic Socialists of America , and the deceased founder of the Girl Scouts:
So who knows what it actually means. To be honest, I tune out whenever anyone calls him a “modern-day troubadour,” because those people haven’t listened to enough Dylan.
In fact, how could they give the nation’s highest civilian honor to a musician as inconsistent as Bob Dylan? Does a man who deliberately antagonized his audience and refused to give them what they wanted, first by plugging in at the Newport Folk Festival, then by releasing the inscrutable (and generally awful) Self Portrait, and then, some said, by going disco in the ’80s, really deserve it?
Of course the award doesn’t imply an endorsement of his entire oeuvre. Indeed, one wonders if it’s not just an attempt to freeze a certain image of the man in the public’s mind. You know, the Dylan all of us hear first, the blowin-in-the-wind, times-are-changin’ Dylan, the one who brings “ancient traditions into the modern age,” as the disembodied voice from the C-SPAN feed said. So in the interest of a more complete understanding of the man, I rise now in defense of those much-derided ’80s albums that came out after his born-again fervor had cooled. The period contains some of his most forward-thinking music, before he took up the role of chief stylist of Americana and surged back to popularity in the late 1990s, the same thing he’s been doing ever since (excepting that Christmas album). One is even tempted to call it his last stand before becoming a folkie again. But that decade also contained–and I don’t think this is too much to say–some of the most anti-empire statements of Dylan’s career. Sometimes I wonder if it took someone like Ronald Reagan to draw his fire.
Musically, Dylan’s work through the 1980s often comes across as hackneyed and corny to modern listeners, and it’s hard to argue with that. But listen to the 1976 live album Hard Rain and try to tell me Bob Dylan doesn’t relish a corny backing band. Besides, you can’t front a group as talented and idiosyncratic as The Hawks forever.
For our purposes Dylan’s ’80s start three years late, with Infidels. Put yourself inside the head of an average fan of Highway 61-era Dylan in 1983. Out of nowhere, or rather, out of several years’ worth of gospel albums that nobody listened to, comes the lead single from his first album in two years, and it’s a montage of famous Western and non-Western art, cut with hammy close-ups of the Oracle of Hibbing himself. What on earth would you make of this ?
In their book  on the apocalyptic tradition in rock music, David Janssen and Edward Whitelock treat the “overlooked gem” Infidels at length, arguing it’s the best embodiment of the apocalyptic themes in Dylan’s discography.
When asked about his belief in evil–a relevant question as he emerged from the “Christian trilogy”–during in an interview with the Sunday Times just after the album came out, the notoriously evasive Dylan told Mick Brown,
“ever since Adam and Eve got thrown out of the garden that the whole nature of the planet has been heading in one direction–towards apocalypse…What it comes down to is that there’s a lot of different gods in the world against the God–that’s what it’s all about. There’s a lot of different gods that people are subjects of. There’s the god of Mammon, corporations are gods. Governments? No, governments don’t have much to do with it anymore, I don’t think. Politics is a hoax.
But despite that revelation, it was by far his most explicitly political album to date. There are songs about globalization (“Union Sundown”), homegrown American pacifism (“License to Kill”), and, depending on who you ask, Zionism or American imperialism or all of the above. In fact, “Neighborhood Bully” has become something of a touchstone  for Zionists, who relish lines like, “Every empire that’s enslaved him is gone, / Egypt and Rome, even the great Babylon. / He’s made a garden of paradise in the desert sand, / In bed with nobody, under no one’s command. / He’s the neighborhood bully.”
Unlike in the 1960s when his songs were coopted by the anti-war movement, his reputation had diminished by the mid-1980s and the songs just didn’t have the same impact they used to. So for 1985’s Empire Burlesque, he recruited gospel backup singers, summoned a Tower of Power’s worth of synthesized horns, and released an album of what some less sanguine critics called “Disco Dylan.” Spake Robert Christgau, “no longer ‘relevant’ enough to make ‘statements’ that mean shit to any discernible audience–vide Infidels or, on this record, “Trust Yourself” (only if you say so, Bob)–he’s certainly talented enough to come up with a good bunch of songs.”
It’s easy to see how critics could take the album’s slick sheen as pandering. The opening track, rolled over from the previous album’s outtakes is musically paper-thin, and four of the first five tracks are standard pop fare with barely a hint of Dylan’s penchant for prophecy. But the odd offspring out, “Clean Cut Kid” is a levelheaded and personal indictment of the Vietnam War, framed around the opportunities and potentialities that war closes off:
His mama walks the floor, his daddy weeps and moans
They gotta sleep together in a home they don’t own.
They took a clean-cut kid
And they made a killer out of him
That’s what they did.
Incidentally, that song was first recorded in the Infidels sessions.
He closes Empire Burlesque on his own terms, first with the penultimate, drum cadence-driven “Something’s Burning, Baby,” and then the unaccompanied, fingerpicked “Dark Eyes,” perhaps the only song on the album to make it into standard accounts of the Dylan canon. Here’s a great version:
1986’s Knocked Out Loaded and 1988’s Down in the Groove are both kind of duds, the former for being cheesy and scatterbrained and the latter for its inexplicable, lifeless covers of songs like “Shenendoah” and Wilbert Harrison’s “Let’s Stick Together.” The backing bands sound cold and mechanical, which makes sense when you look at the long  lists  of studio musicians who played on both discs. (Highlights: “Brownsville Girl,” “Death is Not the End”)
Which brings us to Oh Mercy, which most critics recognized as a return to form. Bono–of all people!–suggested that Dylan work with producer Daniel Lanois, with whom he had recorded The Joshua Tree the year before, and they went to work in a New Orleans apartment without the same studio support that he had enjoyed for the last two albums. Lanois made him play some of the guitar parts rather than hiring studio hands. But the main reason I return to Oh Mercy over most of Dylan’s ’80s work is that the songs are better. “Ring Them Bells,” “Man in the Long Black Coat,” “Political World” (the first song he wrote for the album), or “Disease of Conceit” all hold their own next to any of his classic cuts from the 1960s.
There’s a heaviness to the album as well, to go with the moss and taxedermied animals with which they filled the ersatz studio, and the first single from the album was the song Dylan was never quite satisfied with, “Everything is Broken.”
Dylan wrote about not wanting to “express myself in any kind of new way” on Oh Mercy, a point of frustration between him and the forward-thinking Lanois. So this is the album that really anticipates the Time Out of Mind/Modern Times, folk revival revivalist act he’s used to fill minor-league stadiums for the past 20 years.
And that, then, is really the paradox of yesterday’s award. The Presidential Medal of Freedom is an attempt by the powers that be to lift up an idealized version of the man, yet for the last two decades he’s been in his own world doing largely the same thing himself. That’s why it’s important to remember what came before Dylan’s turn homeward. In any period of his work there is experimentation, but the ’80s were the last time there was any real sense of uncertainty in his work. After he left the church and before he developed a consistent brand, to put it rudely. And though there will be very few songs from the ’80s on the obligatory online mixes put together for the occasion, they’re important to remember. His songs will be cherished and remembered by millions; what value could recognition from the empire of amnesia possibly hold for a man who lives where “life and death are memorized?”
I’m glad he didn’t take those aviators off.