Sunday, February 27, 2011

Bob Dylan's Album Covers, 1979-2009

This is the second of a two-part look at Bob Dylan's album covers. Part one can be found here.

As we enter the 1980s and beyond, Dylan of course ceases to be a cutting-edge figure of the Zeitgeist. Well, perhaps that became true in 1966, in fact... but it wasn't until the 80s that we start to see hackwork from Dylan - albums released for no other reason than to maintain an album release schedule.

Then, for the past fifteen years or so, it's been 'elder statesman' time. Dylan can release whatever he wants - Columbia would never say no to him, and critics would be forgiving. His albums get decent reviews upon release, and then sink back into obscurity. Most of the albums whose covers we're about to look at are quite a bit more difficult to find in stores than, say, Highway 61 Revisited. And since they don't matter much, their covers tend not to be dwelt upon much. But while many are run-of-the-mill, there are still a few that stand out. Let's take a look... And remember, a simple click will make these big-as-life. It'll be like having Bobby Zimmerman right there in your, er, Zimmer with you.

The first cover of Dylan's 'born-again' period is maligned as heavy-handed. I disagree, though. It's Christian imagery, but it's tasteful. And it stands out as a cover design.

This cover was so hated that Columbia withdrew it and replaced it with a generic live cover. But I prefer this one: okay, it's not subtle. And it's pretty tacky. But it states its purpose on no uncertain terms. There's no mistaking the content of this album.

This is the third and final 'Christian album', and God it has a horrific cover.

I think in part one I claimed Blood on the Tracks was shot by Sara Dylan. I think I confused cover and contents - it's this incidental shades-and-holy-man-beard cover that his ex shot.

Okay, it's live, so a live shot for the cover. Fair enough. But it's not a nice one, yellow as hell and unattractive.

Empire Burlesque is the album that is castigated for its inches-thick 1980s production gloss. So it makes sense that it gets a thoroughly 1980s cover too. Is this Max Headroom?

I love this cover... seriously. It has a beautiful dime-store novel feel, two Latin American men fighting for the affections of a sarong-wearing hottie about to smash them over the head with a ceramic urn. None of it makes any sense at all and none of it has anything to do with Bob Dylan, but it's still awesome.

I've seen this album cover praised, but I think it's the first time in Dylan's career we see a descent into nostalgic self-parody. The whole image is much more in keeping with the Dead's ethos than with Dylan's, but the 'retro' Highway 61-era Dylan on the cover speaks to the image of the man 'his people' were trying to establish at the time. Blah.

A weirdly out-of-focus shot of Dylan strumming his guitar on the very edge of the Planet Earth. It's as if he's performing live, but nobody bothered to come.

Dylan's 'comeback' album. It's a decent attempt at breaking the conventions of album cover design - a wall, with a mural on it. It's not a great mural, though, and it has little to do with Dylan.

No, that sky is pretty grey. Nice picture of Dylan the Omega Man, after the nuclear holocaust. Bleak stuff, especially considering the clothing he's wearing.

The black-and-white is fine, and B&W makes sense for this stark collection of ancient folk ballads done solo acoustic-and-gravel-voice. But all the fussiness - the two walls of blue, the poorly chosen font - destroy this cover. It looked dated on the day of its release.

The album is Good as I Been to You part two, but the cover is way better, a great snap of Dylan returned to his status as world's-coolest-man with a top hat and a candle, while a mutant grimaces at him from the wall. Beautiful colours.

I should have mentioned that I decided for this part two to give up on all of the compilations and archival releases out there, because there are billions and their covers don't matter much. But I put this one in because parts one and two are included. But this is way worse than them, a thick black with an incidental picture, and strangey zigzagging yellow script. It doesn't look like a greatest hits album, and why not make it blue? Is that too much to ask?

It's kind of funny putting Bob Dylan on MTV Unplugged. And then having him run through his classics not solo but with a backup band. Shrug, whatever. He was a bit-player, though: the real star was that shirt. It's the highlight of a dated 1990s cover design.

Another comeback. Dylan's had a lot of them. Here, it's a blurry fisheye of the man in the studio. It's all very sepia, and it looks like it wants to be an Impulse! Records cover. Nice, I guess.

Moustache... And hair! Jesus, Bob, you trying to frighten us? This is a weird thrown-together little cover, with that hilarious photo clearly chosen at random from a handful of snaps and the appropriate names stuck on there. It's ony Dylan; why sweat the cover design, right?

A blurry taxi evoking New York City's hustle and bustle. It's a fine cover, I guess, but it seems to have nothing to do with Dylan.

A young couple make out in a car, crammed into the bottom half of the cover, which is otherwise taken up by a 'logo'-styled album- and artist-name image. While this has nothing to do with Dylan either, it has a retro/vintage feel that goes over well.

And his latest album. One hopes it won't be his last, as a Christmas album would make a bizarre epitaph. I guess this is what a Christmas album should look like - round and snow-globey, with old-timey family fun in the snow. Shrug. Who really cares?


  1. The latter half of Bob's career (so far) has seen some terrible album covers. For me, the worst iss probably 'Shot of Love' but, then again, 'Empire Burlesque' is quite vile too. Hard to choose!

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