The early '90s found Bob Dylan in a curious spot as an artist after he'd floundered a bit through the '80s. He had come into the decade in the middle of his run of Christian records, and gave us the excellent Saved in 1980 and Shot of Love in 1981. From there, despite solid records like Infidels and Empire Burlesque, things got spotty. And though the poor quality of the other records has been oversold -- Knocked Out Loaded at least had "Brownsville Girl", Down in the Groove was all right if forgettable -- Dylan was surely in a rut. For a guy who had done nearly anything he wanted to this point, there seemed to be no place new for him to turn.
1989's Oh Mercy, though, produced by Daniel Lanois, was a lush and beautiful collection of tunes, a fine return to form that injected new life into Dylan's work. Unfortunately, he followed it up with the tossed-off rock-pop of Under the Red Sky in 1990. So he wasn't carrying any real momentum into a new decade, and Under the Red Sky felt like another dead end, like maybe Dylan wouldn't find another fruitful path.
Good As I Been To You - Columbia - 1992
But, being Bob Dylan, of course he would, though with its preceding years in mind, it's easy to see Good As I Been To You as a safe retreat. It's an album of vocals, guitar, and harmonica, which Dylan hadn't done since early in his career. And the songs themselves weren't his, but instead old and mostly traditional folk songs. On paper, it feels like a safe play. But in practice it is something far more thrilling. Dylan sounds wholly at home on these songs, and while the takes here are reverent they also feel like they are completely his. There are the well-known turns, like the bouncy "Froggie Went A-Courtin'" or "Diamond Joe" or the bluesy "Step It Up and Go" (played by Leadbelly, famously, as "Bottle Up and Go"), that should sound stale but Dylan's rasp is all vital energy, his guitar work brittle but spritely, moving over the frets effortlessly and strumming like he's trying to break a land-speed record with his pick. He also took songs pretty well tied to other singer and twisted them into something new. He took the complex blues picking of Mississippi John Hurt on "Frankie & Albert" (or the legen of Charley Patton over the same song) and broke it open into a country romp, full of brilliant rundowns and quickly circling chords. He also offers a chilling take on the murder ballad here, singing with a faintly satisfied hush.
In these moments, Dylan (himself a legend) stepped into the land of other legends and managed to stake his own claim. And as bright and lively as those moments are, there are more bittersweet moments that truly sell the album. It's hard not to link Stephen C. Foster's "Hard Times" with Dylan's career arc at the time, even if the times in the song are much harder than all that. But it's still a somber turn, a stark turn away from goof-off songs like "Wiggle Wiggle" on Under the Red Sky. It's a song that, like the best ones here, takes its time. Its a slow ballad among spunkier, bluesier tunes, and when he groans "Hard times come again no more" there's a strange effect. Dylan has spent his career obscuring himself in a shape-shifting persona, but on "Hard Times" the emotion feels wide-open in its honest, the words slicing through those layers of artifice to get at something true, something even close to his heart.
And that is how Good As I Been To You feels: honest. It's an inversion of Dylan's usual play. Instead of creating a voice to deliver his own words, he uses other's words to get at his own true voice. He may have lost his way in the years before this, but this album is him going back to the truth underneath it all, to the power of a good song sung with heart. It's not a retreat so much as it is a reminder, to him and to us, that the truly timeless songs are the ones that hit us in the gut, even after decades, even after we've heard them a thousand times. You can feel the thousands of times Dylan's heard these songs in his performances on the album. He's not digging through his stacks, but tapping into something embedded in his musical DNA, so no wonder sounds that aren't his sound so heartbreakingly personal.
World Gone Wrong - Columbia - 1993
World Gone Wrong follows the same path as its predecessor, but with even more impressive execution. We get the same mix of well-known tunes and obscure ones, but Dylan seems to be building up strength here, still mining the past but living in it more comfortably, readying himself for whatever comes next.
Perhaps no song displays Dylan's mastery on these albums more than "Delia". This is a classic tune, a murder ballad that has morphed into all kinds of different forms. The most famous, for modern audiences, came a year after World Gone Wrong, when Johnny Cash recorded his version (named "Delia's Gone") for his classic late-career American Recordings album. Cash's version is a simple tale, with the gun smoke and blood right up front, a bracing but also kind of flat tale, playing on Cash's gruff singing in a sort of surface way. That song renders Cash (the same way it would late, when he recorded NIN's "Hurt") as little more than another late-career avatar for Rick Rubin.
Dylan's version, however, is about as sweetly devastating as folk songs get. The true tale of the song focuses on Delia Green, a 14-year-old girl shot by her boyfriend on Christmas day, 1900. Or so the story went, though conflicting reports had the gun going off accidentally after a drunken fight in Delia's house. No matter, her boyfriend, a young black man, was sentenced to life in prison. Dylan's version captures all the complexities of the scene, telling us about Delia as " a gamblin' girl" and how the judge tells Curtis (the boyfriend) "you got 99." It's the heartbreaking refrain that circles around the story that makes the song so brilliant. "All the friends I ever had are gone," Dylan half-whispers at the end of every verse, echoing the late Delia, the unjustly tried Curtis, the forgotten community they both come from. The song reflects not only Dylan's powerful storytelling, but also the deep empathy that informs both his songwriting and, here, his deep love for music.
It's the best example of the great stories that fill up this album, from the title track to his take on "Stack O Lee" to "Love Henry." World Gone Wrong shows Dylan all the way back, finding clarity in the songs of others and thus bringing new focus to his own career. He's spent his records since delving into these traditions in his own ways, moving away from folk into the sounds of blues and country and Chess Records on great later albums like Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft, and his latest, Tempest. The younger Dylan dug into tradition to subvert it, to cut it up and reinvent it. As Dylan has aged, his approach has changed. He rides along with these traditions, making his own space in it. It's a change that has suited Dylan. It's another shift in his persona, sure, but it may be the most revealing one yet. Either that, or its his most convincing sleight of hand.