Bob Dylan’s Bootleg Series has built into a universe of its own. A place of possibilities refused and ideas left on the cutting room floor, it swaps Highway 61 for the road less travelled – and that makes all the difference.
‘Springtime In New York’ caught attention on its announce earlier this year, primarily because it covers such a divisive period in Dylan’s work. Opening at the dawn of the 80s, it moves from the tail end of his Christian evangelism – ‘Shot Of Love’ – through his often exceptional work with Mark Knoplfer, to one of his most reviled studio albums. It’s a period marked by poor choices, both in a production sense and in terms of tracklisting. All too often songs – like the remarkable ‘Blind Willie McTell’, which featured on the first instalment of Bootleg Series – were excised, while lesser works included.
So, can ‘Springtime In New York’ rehabilitate Dylan’s haphazard pathway through the early 80s? In the end, not quite – although it does come close.
Disc One opens with a flurry of rehearsal sessions, and it’s a reminder of just how potent Dylan was as the 80s dawned. Even if his Biblical lyricism irked some fans – notably John Lennon – the sheer heft of his live band is something to behold. ‘Senor (Tales Of Yankee Power)’ is a fantastic opening gambit, while re-workings of traditional fare such as ‘Jesus Met The Woman At The Well’ and ‘Mary Of The Wild Moor’ contain all the ancient brews that seemed to swell around the Basement Tapes.
It’s not all addictive listening – a cover of ‘Sweet Caroline’ is stodgy, maudlin, and unnecessary, while ‘Fever’ is little more than a rehearsal stroll – but performances such as ‘Abraham, Martin, and John’ and ‘Mystery Train’ are stunning.
‘Shot Of Love’ closes his ad hoc trilogy of gospel salvation, and outtakes from those sessions form the spine of the second disc. ‘Angelina’ pulses with feeling, while the vocal on ‘I Wish It Would Rain’ pulses out of the stereo. Alive with feeling, ‘Borrowed Time’ and ‘Cold, Cold Heart’ point to the ragged virility that drove forward his often-overlooked Christian triptych.
The ‘Infidels’ sessions fill the third and fourth disc; while strong, some of it is hardly essential, a series of alternate takes that don’t demonstrate enough distance from the original – extremely familiar – versions. Indeed, two different takes on ‘Don’t Fall Apart On Me’ illustrate the weakness here; undoubtedly of interest of Dylanologists, it won’t grip more casual fans.
Yet ‘Infidels’ retains a lingering attraction for good reason. The playing – an elastic ‘Someone’s Got A Hold Of My Heart’ or a quicksilver ‘This Was My Love’ – is simply exceptional, while an acoustic ‘Too Late’ allows you to practically see Dylan’s thoughts in motion. ‘Clean Cut Kid’ pulses with promise, a helter skelter ‘Tell Me’ entertains, while a full version of ‘Death Is Not The End’ provides one of the set’s true highlights.
In comparison, however, Disc Five is less riveting. 1985’s ‘Empire Burlesque’ has its fans, with some pointing to the strength of the basic songwriting, buried beneath the production. The alternate takes on display certainly strengthen that argument – ‘Tight Connection To My Heart’ stands head and shoulders above the released album, and the mythical ‘New Danville Girl’ is stately – but it doesn’t seal the deal. The songs simply don’t have the muscle of ‘Infidels’ or the purpose that runs through ‘Shot Of Love’; two different versions of ‘When The Night Comes Falling From The Sky’ seem to emphasise not Dylan’s dexterity, but his indecision.
Even here, though, jewels remain. The cult Letterman performance of ‘License To Kill’ – utilising an LA new wave band, who never performed with Dylan again – gains an official release, and it saves Clash having to endlessly re-watch the YouTube clip. Actually, who are we kidding? We’ll embed it below, and watch it again.
This isn’t a project for newcomers. ‘Springtime In New York’ – taken as a five disc whole – requires patience, and a degree of love for the core texts. As always with the Bootleg Series, however, it’s a chance to view Another Side Of Bob Dylan, a songwriter at his Freewheelin’ finest. At its best, this collection illuminates an often frustrating period in the Bard’s work -just maybe opt for the two disc version, and skip ‘Sweet Caroline’.
Words: Robin Murray
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