The conventional wisdom is that this is the first Dylan album after his weird trip to the Christian Music wilderness to really be worth listening to. I have deliberately avoided his late ’70s work because of its reputation, so I have no idea if this is his best album since Desire (1976) or not.
I do know that there is a weird partial, half-assed embrace of reggae, with Sly & Robbie seemingly playing on all tracks (I’m not making that up!) but with their presence, and the general reggae feel, being notable on only a couple of songs. Dylan has occasionally flirted with genres outside of his wheelhouse before and since, but this one is a weird one. It’s not that it doesn’t work, it just prompts questions. It’s better than him embracing Hair Metal anyway…
The draw, as always, with Dylan is the lyrics. These Dylan songs are very much in the manner of his Blood on the Tracks/Desire era writing; some of it may be at least partially confessional and it’s all far less convoluted and willfully difficult than his ’60s work, but still far, far more thoughtful, thought-provoking and complex than the average singer songwriter. Some of these lyrics do not come across well with age – particularly “Sweetheart Like You,” which is full of misogyny – but, as always with Dylan, you don’t have to agree with everything he says to still find the lyrics compelling. And this is a good set of lyrics, at least compared to what I was expecting given the reputation of his music between the late ’70s and late ’90s.
I will also say that I heard Elvis Costello’s version of “License to Kill” well before I heard this one, so I have a hard time with Dylan’s version because I like Costello’s so much.
But even though I appreciate that Dylan has come up with a decent set of songs, and taken a bit of a risk making a couple of reggae tracks, I’m not sure the record works for me as a whole. And like so much music made by artists well after their prime, I’m not sure it’s good enough to be recommended as much as it has been. Listening to this I’m not sure I would make the case you need to bother with Dylan post-Desire unless you really really like him.