The term “classic” gets thrown around a lot and, often, where the term isn’t actually deserved. A true, genuine-article classic is a thing that sets an enduring impression and standard to which others aspire, and/or would claim to be of a similar lineage; it’s an important portrait of a moment.
The Traveling Wilburys’ first album is such a work.
It is instantly recognizable as the work of a group of seasoned musical veterans but, rather than every bandmember collapsing inward to realize the creative whims of one member (as tends to be the case with most modern “supergroups” like Broken Social Scene, Them Crooked Vultures, The Dead Daisies and The Good The Bad and The Queen), all the members of the Wilburys threw their unique seasoning into a common pot, let a different member shape each dish, and then present the assembly as a sort of combination platter for patrons.
On paper, the idea sounds dicey to this day and, with personalities as big as those of George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne and Roy Orbison, the possibility of the results resembling little more than a formless, egomaniacal mess was very real. But it is a testament to the vision of these players that they were able to see the value of what they had before them and put their individual egos down to serve the project.
Now, as artistically magnificent and poetic as the explanation laid out above for why The Traveling Wilburys worked as well as it did the first time might sound, that doesn’t mean everyone involved wasn’t playing to their strengths to level bets.
From the moment “Handle With Care” bounds out brashly to open the album, it’s easy to hear the genuinely unique qualities of each player’s voice in the mix, and that it all falls together so smoothly is magical. There, Petty, Orbison, Dylan, Harrison and Lynne set the running theme or simply trade off lyrical stanzas verse-by-verse and roll along effortlessly. Listeners will be hooked by the sheer talent expressed in the performance. To this day thirty years after its original release, “Handle With Care” is still a solid gold entry point that hooks and pulls listeners with an ease which is absolutely remarkable.
After “Handle With Care” hooks and reels them in, listeners find themselves treated to a fantastic compilation of cuts from some of the genuine legends that rock n’ roll had to offer in the Eighties.
“Dirty World” sees Bob Dylan exercise some rarely seen libido in a way that’s as oddly heartwarming as it is crass (check out lines like, “You don’t need no wax job, you’re smooth enough for me/ If you need your oil changed, I’ll do it for you – free”), while “Rattled” presents the hands-down best and most essential boogie number that Jeff Lynne has ever done – both with and without ELO – before “Last Night” manages to make the island-imbued strains that innumerable UK rockers tried actually work, and Roy Orbison chips in the best cut of his late career (“Not Alone Anymore” to close the side.
While some critics may have brashly downplayed the coherence of the song selections or called Volume 1 a mixed bag of material (there’s no denying that the A-side selections reach in a tremendous number of stylistic directions), only the height of blind criticism and/or scenester-ism would cause anyone to try and deny the quality of the music here; each of the five songs on the A-side of this album effortlessly pivots into the next and makes a coherent impression which won’t let anyone who hears them think twice in regards to whether of not they want the second helping contained on the B-, it just goes without saying.
…And, when they do flip the record over and set their stylus into Volume 1‘s B-side, listeners won’t just find another set of similarly intoned cuts – they’ll find that The Wilburys still have more untapped magic in reserve. The B-side begins with the lugubrious and slow-moving “Congratulations” (which might just feature Bob Dylan’s most syrupy vocal take in recorded history) before before instantly snapping back to form with the Harrison-penned “Heading for the Light,” throwing in some throwaway Tom Petty and then really hitting the jackpot with “Tweeter and the Monkey Man” and ending strongly with the feel good Harrison composition “End of the Line.”
According to legend, “Tweeter and the Monkey Man” started out as being intended to be a parody of Bruce Springsteen’s verbose, early songs as envisioned by Bob Dylan – but the song would end up becoming one of the greatest and most definitive songs of both this album as well as The Traveling Wilburys’ entire repertoire. The scruffy rock cut (with which Canadian punks The Headstones would later make hay) remains a genuine epic over a sorrowful, nearly funereal arrangement; telling the ballad of a couple of doomed criminals trying to make “one great score,” but going down in a hail of bullets, “Monkey Man” is a unique inclusion into Bob Dylan’s songbook because there is no dramatic shift which might imply that any character came out ahead or victorious, or that any moral might have been learned. That fact – particularly within the context of Bob Dylan’s body of work – gives the song a really hypnotic vibe; the composition of it, its structure and performance are brilliant and represent a perfect peak and pinnacle for the album’s run-time.
After that, “End of the Line” comes along and ably sews the album to close it, but the song is the definition of a denouement and does contract the running to take it to a satisfying, mid-tempo close.
Now, with all of the background on the members of The Traveling Wilburys and the finer points of the music all a matter of public record now in this review, it should come as no surprise that Volume 1 has been reissued on several formats before (by a multitude of labels, including Rhino, Warner, Concord and more), but it’s worth pointing out that Concord’s new picture-disc vinyl edition stands out for several reasons.
Yes, the picture-disc edition is well-appointed with the band’s signature logo adorning the A-side and the image of the bandmembers’ guitar cases gracing the B-, but the most impressive talking point about this reissue is the sound of it. Meticulously mastered and pressed, the warmth of the analogue sound of this edition of Volume 1 is absolutely gorgeous; each guitar and every voice rings through cleanly, clearly and brightly, which makes for an incredibly satisfying experience that is impossible to tire of.
This is the version of Volume 1 to beat; the sound and presentation are both gorgeous. Even those who already own Volume 1 may find buying a copy of this reissue money well spent.