1989. A year a lot of people were waiting for, waiting for the 80s to end. Yes, there were some good times in that decade, but many of us who lived through it couldn't wait for it to be over, envisioning a much more radical 1990s and the count up to a millennium that would either bring the end of the world or a new era of growth and change. For me, 1989 was also the year I graduated high school. I was more than ready to throw off the bonds of conformity and complacency and move on to life's next chapter. High school had more than a few good times of its own and I had my own personal coping devices to get me through. A major one, probably the biggest, was the music of Bob Dylan. I got into Dylan just as high school was starting. There weren't too many other Dylan fans at my school and when we found each other it was like exchanging a secret handshake. Of course, why would 80s high schoolers care about Dylan in the first place? He was a relic from a previous era who wasn't making much relevant music at the time. The Dylan albums I obsessed over were some 20 years old, primarily Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited. Like most artists of his time, Dylan spent most of the 80s making slick, over-produced albums of sub-par material. And as the contemporary bands I listened to, like The Replacements and Husker Du, were primarily ignored by the public at large, it seemed like I was living in an era where rock and roll was dead or dying. We needed to desperately slam the door on the 80s and try again in the 90s. Lo and behold, Bob Dylan played a major part in slamming that door shut. He released an album called Oh Mercy.
Now Dylan's previous 80s albums weren't all terrible. 1983's Infidels is pretty good and there are some gems to be found digging through Down in the Groove. What he really needed were sympathetic collaborators to help get him out of his rut. Bono from U2 suggested he hook up with producer Daniel Lanois. Dylan wisely took this advice and headed down to New Orleans to meet up with Lanois and a group of local musicians. It didn't hurt that he brought with him his best batch of songs since the mid-70s. The album opens with the fiery thrust of "Political World." This angry, impassioned number flew in the face of the entire previous decade. Everything is not alright, the captain is asleep at the switch, and the ship is going down. The bluesy "Everything Is Broken" echoes this message. But all is not doom and gloom. The hopeful and uplifting "Ring Them Bells" follows. It has a spiritual feel to it and is much more effective than the dogmatic Christian records he released in the late 70s and early 80s. It's been covered many times and old flame Joan Baez even used it as the title song for her 1995 album.
Another oft-covered song is the far more darker "The Man in the Long Black Coat." Corruption and temptation are given the form of a demonic creature who nonetheless converts all he encounters into following his wicked ways. But is it this mysterious stranger who is at fault, or those all too eager to follow? Perhaps the album's most haunting track is "Most of the Time." Dylan has been an expert at crafting infectious songs out of sexual politics since his classic mid-60s recordings. Here he confronts the lies we tell ourselves when a relationship goes sour and the longing that never seems to go away. It stands as one of the all time great Dylan songs of loss and regret. Self-doubt seems to dominate the rest of the album from the sparse "What Good Am I?" to the quietly funky "What Was It You Wanted?" The album closes with the poignant "Shooting Star" which assesses Dylan's perception of his own place in the world as a legend who may or may not have anything left to offer the world.
As it turns out, Dylan still had a lot to offer and still does to this day. His comeback wasn't firmly cemented with Oh Mercy as his next few releases were another mixed bag. But he reteamed with Lanois again in 1997 for Time Out of Mind, which may actually be an even better album, and hasn't looked back since. He has been as relevant to modern times as he was in his 60s heyday. High school kids even listen to him. And they have the advantage of having current Dylan music to call their own, in addition to all the great material from the past 50 years. There were several other cultural touchstones that came along in 1989 to help usher the decade out the door. Neil Young had his own comeback album Freedom. Faith No More and Nine Inch Nails released albums that would soon break through into the mainstream, heralding the alternative rock explosion of the early 90s. Yes, real rock & roll was back in vogue. No, the 90s weren't perfect and had plenty of problems of their own. But for me, I was in college, had a group of friends I could really relate to (and are still friends to this day), and didn't get weird looks when I told people what music I listened to. And that included saying that my all-time favorite artist is Bob Dylan.
- Adam Reshotko