Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Dylan Album Project: Infidels

Infidels (1983)

Dylan is often described as chameleonic. He is known for going through changes. He’d started out a folkie, gone elecrtric, then gone country, gone gypsy, etc. Every time Dylan changed, the exodus of fans who didn’t like his new style was dwarfed by the amount of new fans he won over. That didn’t happen when Dylan went to Christianity and embraced the budding Christian Contemporary movement. More of Dylan’s fans were turned off by what they perceived as preachiness (and in concert Dylan often would preach). In addition to losing more fans than normal, you can’t really say that Christians welcomed him into the fold. Certainly some did, and initially a lot did, but there were some who remained unsure of how to take Dylan. Dylan was a bit old to appeal to the same demographic that groups like Jars of Clay would later appeal to, and so his popularity in Christian rock was limited. He decided to make an album that would return him to favor with both critics and his core audience. To do this he recorded some protest songs (“Union Sundown” covers outsourcing, “License to Kill” appeases the environmentalists, and then there’s “Neighborhood Bully”) and went for a modern sound by having the record produced by Dire Straits axeman Mark Knopfler, who played on it alongside ex-Stones’ guitarist Mick Taylor and reggae rhythm stars Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare.

When Infidels came out, it was lauded by critics and, although not a huge hit, it was his most popular album since Slow Train Coming, and probably his most successful with critics since Desire. Many (arguably correctly) saw it as a return to Judaism, and (incorrectly) as a turning away from Christianity. There are two reasons to see the album as a return to Judaism. One is the song “Neighborhood Bully,” a satire in which the titular bully, a metaphor for Israel, is made out to be a victim of slander. The other reason is a line in “Jokerman” the claims “the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, the law of the jungle and the sea are your only teachers.” The Jokerman doubles occasionally as Dylan, but is mostly Jesus; both of them are Jews and it is natural they would learn first from the Torah. More on this song below.

Christ is present throughout the album, though, as is Satan (who is perhaps even more present), and it is hard to imagine the albums turns away from Christianity at all. “I and I,” a song about a one-night stand, is rooted in Rastafarian concepts of Christ. “Man of Peace” imagines the coming of the anti-Christ. “Sweetheart Like You” starts off like a lewd come-on, but then tries to convert the woman, telling her “in my father’s house there are many mansions; each one’s got a fireproof floor.” While the album is more secular than the previous three, it can hardly be said to be a non-Christian album.

The years haven’t been kind to Infidels. Hailed as a return to form at the time, the production has become a bit dated (though not nearly as much as the production on his next album), and, as bootlegs of albums sessions have been released, critics have lambasted Dylan’s decision not to include many of the best songs recorded for the albums, including the elegiac “Blind Willie McTell,” the Christianity-meets-finger-pointing song “Foot of Pride,” which describes the earth opening and swallowing up a preacher who talks about the sin of homosexuality at a cross-dresser’s funeral, and even tracks like the heartfelt but maudlin “Lord Protect My Child” and the strange “Julius and Ethel,” a song eulogizing Russian spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Still, it is commonly held to be Dylan’s second-best album of the 80s, though they are commonly held to be his worst decade.

Best song: Man of Peace – Musically, it’s basically bar rock, but at least it isn’t too overproduced. Lyrically, it has some damn interesting passages.

Worst song: Neighborhood Bully – I support Israeli freedom, and I understand why the Jews want their land and all that, but this song just sucks. Politically, the rhetoric is just dumb, and politics aside, it isn’t much of a listen.

Best outtake: Blind Willie McTell – Blind Willie McTell was a great blues singer, but that’s not what really matters in this song. Dylan had been drawing comparisons between slavery in the U.S. and the slavery of the Jews in Egypt for several years when he penned this song, which beautifully describes both simultaneously, while lamenting the fall of man that spread from “New Orleans down to Jerusalem.” Images of false vanity abound in the song’s later stages before Dylan caps it off by noting that “God is in his heaven and we all want what’s his, but power and greed and corruptible seed seem to be all that there is.”

Notable live version: Jokerman – The music video for “Jokerman” is suggestive of numerous possibilities as to the Jokerman’s true identity, but in a song that opens “standing on the water, casting your bread” it is hard to deny the Christ imagery. What is also apparent is that the Jokerman is a trickster figure, a “dream twister.” The studio version is slow, drawn out, and dreamy, and also a bit overproduced. In 1984, Dylan went on Letterman to promote Infidels. He took an East LA punk band with him called The Plugz. They were working on songs for the soundtrack for the film Repo Man when Dylan heard them playing in somebody’s garage. He assumed they were neighborhood kids and offered to have them back him. “Jokerman” suddenly became rough and chaotic.

Rhymes: teachers/features(“Jokerman”); back/maniac (“Neighborhood Bully”); El Salvador/dinosaur (“Union Sundown”); put/barefoot (“I And I”); Louvre/move; waste/displaced (“Don’t Fall Apart On Me Tonight”)

Images: “the eyes of the idol with the iron head are glowing;” “dream twister;” “false-hearted judges dying in the webs that they spin” (1-3 from “Jokerman”); “he can ride down Niagara Falls in the barrels of your skull” (“Man of Peace”); “two men are on a train platform … waiting for spring to come smoking down the track” (“I And I”)

Axioms: “they say that vanity got the best of him, but he sure did leave here in style” “patriotism is the last refuge to which a scoundrel clings; steal a little and they’ll throw you in jail, steal a lot and they’ll make you king” (1-2 from “Sweetheart Like You”) “man is opposed to fair play” (“License to Kill”) “capitalism is above the law;” “they want to grow food on the moon and eat it raw” (4-5 from “Union Sundown”)

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