Recordings View: Shake, Rattle and Growing Old With the Wilburys
By Jon Pareles
The New York Times — November 4, 1990
Just about everyone has one or knows one: a garrulous elder relative, maybe an uncle, with a gift for puncturing family decorum. He’ll share a racy joke, grumble about the state of the world, make faces at solemn moments, gripe and snicker at signs that he’s not getting any younger. For their second album, “Vol. 3” (Warner Brothers 26324; all three formats), the Traveling Wilburys have forged a collective persona a lot like that uncle. From the youngest Wilbury, 37-year-old Tom Petty, to the oldest, 49-year-old Bob Dylan, they’re ready to lead rock into an unseemly middle age. “Wilbury Twist” is probably the first would-be dance craze to instruct “Fall on your ass/Get back up/ Put your teeth in a glass.”
The Wilburys appeared in 1988, when Mr. Dylan, Mr. Petty, the ex-Beatle George Harrison, Jeff Lynne from the Electric Light Orchestra and the rockabilly tenor Roy Orbison made “Volume One.” Their names didn’t appear on the album, but their faces and unmistakable voices did; so did sly allusions to their own past songs. More than most all-star efforts, the Wilburys amalgamated a style with traces of all their contributions: Mr. Dylan’s pithy, picaresque verbal style, Mr. Harrison’s and Mr. Petty’s rock tunes with pop twists, Mr. Lynne’s vocal chorales, Mr. Harrison’s legato lead guitar and pumping saxophones. Floating free of the other Wilburys’ nasal lead vocals, Orbison’s yearning tenor would declare things like, “I’m so tired of being lonely.” The songs juggled darkly sardonic tall tales with reassurance and the possibility of love.
After Orbison’s death in December 1988, the Wilburys lost most notions of romance. Like “Volume One,” “Vol. 3” stays close to 1950′s and early 1960′s rock roots, drawing on blues, doo-wop, rockabilly and Buddy Holly. But it is faster, jokier, lighter and meaner than the first album, as the band indulges its bile and paranoia along with humor.
Mr. Harrison, Mr. Dylan and Mr. Petty all have a streak of sourpuss in them. Mr. Harrison was the self-righteous Beatle, with songs like “Taxman” and “Piggies,” and Mr. Petty’s resentment carries hits like “Don’t Come Around Here No More”; spite fueled some of Mr. Dylan’s greatest songs, among them “Positively Fourth Street” and “Just Like a Woman.” But as a group, their petulance cancels out, leaving brusque gallows humor.
The songs stick to major keys and bouncy tempos, trundling along with comforting strummed guitars and jaunty drums; the production tries to suggest a singalong, although multilayered vocals dent the illusion. But within the good-timey music, the lyrics aren’t sweet-talking anyone.
Especially friends and lovers. Where the sexism of many rappers and hard-rockers might stem from youthful inexperience, the Wilburys are mighty long in the tooth to be portraying women primarly as sex objects (“She’s My Baby”), deceivers (the neo-doo-wop ballad “Seven Deadly Sins”), prostitutes (the harmonica-topped “If You Belonged to Me”) and gold-diggers (the catchy, countryish “Poor House”). “You Took My Breath Away,” with a stately tune and luxurious harmonies that promise pop romance, takes the figure of speech literally to portray a smothering relationship. Only the cha-cha-rock “New Blue Moon” sounds as if it were written with Orbison’s kinder voice and disposition in mind.
The Wilburys may sound relaxed, but they don’t trust anyone. “Where Were You Last Night?” escalates to “last week” and “last year,” sketching either a longtime obsession or a chronic battle; it could be addressed to a lover or a manager. Even “She’s My Baby,” with jubilant guitars and a riff from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, warns, “She’d better not leave me and go out to Hollywood.”
While liaisons in the Wilburys’ songs are crumbling, so is the outside world. Rarely has a rock album been so gleeful about rot, mildew, decay. In “Cool Dry Place,” Tom Petty sings (in Dylanesque fashion) about searching for storage space to hold his many instruments, a parable about possessions versus natural entropy; in “If You Belonged to Me,” Mr. Dylan tells a woman he’s purportedly courting, “You say that you’re all washed up/ Nothing else to give.” The eternal youth of pop songs is long gone.
On a larger scale, two songs contemplate a polluted environment. In “Inside Out,” grass, air, drainpipe effluvia and the future (if there is one) are all “yellow,” while the Wilburys point and shrug, “It’s so hard to figure what it’s all about” and counsel, “Take care when you are breathing.” “The Devil’s Been Busy” mixes personal and ecological fears — poison on the golf course, trucks full of toxic waste — oompahing along while an electric sitar adds twang. “Sometimes you’re better off not knowing you’ve been had,” Mr. Dylan yowls. The Wilburys’ activist years are over.
But they’re still surly, and that’s what saves them. During the 1980′s, many rock and pop musicians conflated self-importance with a sense of responsibility, and came up with songs that paraded sanctimoniousness as if it were useful. Individual Wilburys haven’t been immune, but together, they’d rather cackle and grouse, not letting maturity clean up their acts. They’re former angry young men who are ready to become rude, cranky codgers — proud to grow old ungracefully.