#31: Roxy Music, ‘Avalon’ (1982) vs. Bob Dylan, ‘Time Out of Mind’ (1997)

The best albums are creepers – you don’t like them at first, but they keep calling you back and, bit by bit, become favourites.

Avalon, the final album from Roxy Music, is a creeper. The first time I heard it, it was like an easy listening radio station – the kind of stuff that meekly fades into the background while you wait for the dentist to be ready for you. But it kept calling me back and now I know it’s not music for a dentist’s office, it’s music for headphones while walking the city streets at night. “It’s raining in New York on 5th Avenue,” sings honey-voiced leader Bryan Ferry, “and off Broadway after dark – love the lights, don’t you?”

Yes, Bryan, yes I do.

Avalon is a wonderful pop album for grown-ups: jazzy, layered and dreamy. “More Than This” and the title track, featuring sublime background vocals from Yanick Etienne, are obvious stand-outs. Melancholic masterpieces.

But the ultimate creeper-maker is Bob Dylan. There is no album in his massive catalogue that doesn’t get better with multiple listens. The man is light years ahead of all of us and all we can do is try to keep up.

In 1997, he was 35 years into his recording career and at a point when most people figured he was done making music that was pertinent and great. And then he came out with the moody and bluesy Time Out of Mind, and began an amazing late-career resurgence that continued with Love and Theft in 2001 and Modern Times in 2006.

The weary, old-man voice that has characterized his later work is in full bloom on Time Out of Mind, which is perfect for delivering such rueful lyrics. He seems weighted down by regret and thoughts of death on every track. On “Not Dark Yet” he declares:

I was born here and I’ll die here against my will
I know it looks like I’m moving, but I’m standing still
Every nerve in my body is so vacant and numb
I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from
Don’t even hear a murmur of a prayer
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there

Time Out of Mind was produced by Daniel Lanois, whose distinctive production style is called swampy by some and atmospheric by others. I’m in the second camp. It works when the artist is in a certain mood, and Bob was in that mood when he wrote these songs.

Two great, sombre albums by two mature artists. But only one can emerge.

JG

WINNER: Bob Dylan, Time Out of Mind (2 points)

BATTLE TALLY

80s: 8

90s: 12

EARNED POINTS
80s: 11
90s: 19

Next week’s battle – #30: Los Lobos, How Will the Wolf Survive? (1984) vs. Green Day, Dookie (1994)

#44: Bob Dylan, ‘Oh Mercy’ (1989) vs. Fugees, ‘The Score’ (1996)

 

All hail the master! The legend. The wizard of words. The  melody maestro. The trickster with a social conscious. No, I’m not talking about Bob Dylan (this time). I am talking about The Fugees’ Lauryn Hill. What a performance she and those two other guys put into their second and final album, The Score. Marvel at how she moves seamlessly and gorgeously between singing and rapping. What a voice! One minute, she croons achingly about how he’s killing her softly with his song, the next minute she’s tearing you a new one with her rapping:

So weep as your sweet dreams break up like Eurythmics
Rap rejects my tape deck, ejects projectile
Whether Jew or gentile, I rank top percentile
Many styles, more powerful than gamma rays
My grammar pays, like Carlos Santana plays “Black Magic Woman”
So while you fuming, I’m consuming mango juice under Polaris
You just embarrassed cause it’s your last tango in Paris

Seriously, how many references and rhymes can one person pack into a few lines? This album has humour, rage, political consciousness and beauty. I was aware of it at the time, of course, but paid scant attention to it. I’ve had it on repeat for the past week and I am thoroughly impressed. I’m actually surprised it’s not higher on the 90s list.

I say all this with an aching in my heart. Dylan is my guy, my favourite recording artist of all time (or maybe Neil Young). And Oh Mercy is a damn fine album; his improbable and incredibly welcome comeback album after a decade of mediocrity (the 80s were not kind to the greatest songwriter of all time), thanks to some beautifully moody tunes, and lush production and beautiful guitar from legendary producer Daniel Lanois. I bought it when it was new and I was also in the early days of vintage Dylan discovery, and it will always have a special place in my heart.

Alas, Oh Mercy is a minor Dylan masterpiece (he would have at least three bigger ones still to come), and it can’t compete with The Score, an influential and near-perfect album that also happened to be a massive hit that proved hip hop could be uncompromising and still appeal to the masses.

JG

WINNER: The Fugees, The Score (1 point)

BATTLE TALLY

80s: 4

90s: 3

EARNED POINTS
80s: 4
90s: 3

Next week’s battle  –  #43: Bruce Springsteen, Nebraska (1982) vs. TLC, CrazySexyCool (1994)