The Traveling Wilburys Collection
First Appeared in The Music Box, July 2007, Volume 14, #7
Written by John Metzger
Wed July 25, 2007, 05:00 AM CDT
As preposterous as it might seem, the two albums that the Traveling Wilburys released between 1988 and 1990 — Traveling Wilburys, Volume 1 and Traveling Wilburys, Volume 3 — have been out of print for a decade. Equally difficult to fathom is the fact that at the time that the ensemble was born, each of its members — Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison, and Tom Petty — was struggling to escape from a creative slump. By the time that their final outing was issued, however, their rebirths were complete: Harrison had Cloud Nine, Orbison had Mystery Girl, Dylan had Oh Mercy, Petty had Full Moon Fever, and Lynne’s career as a producer had gone into overdrive. Still, these comebacks weren’t exactly sparked by the genesis of the Traveling Wilburys. Instead, the outfit came together at what arguably was the only time during which this particular assemblage of talent possibly could have worked. Humbled by their failures but bolstered by their friendship, these five iconic figures refreshingly set aside their egos, let down their guard, and just let things happen. It is, then, rather fascinating to view the process through the prism of The Traveling Wilburys Collection, a two-CD/one-DVD set that culls together both endeavors, a quartet of bonus tracks, a documentary about the band’s formation, and the quintet of music videos that it made in its lifetime.
It all began on a whim. After producing Cloud Nine for Harrison, Lynne had begun working with Orbison on Mystery Girl. Harrison needed a new B-side for a single from his album, and so, he enlisted their help. The trio knew that they wanted to use Dylan’s studio to record, and as fate would have it, Harrison’s guitar was stationed at Petty’s house. The circumstances couldn’t have been better, and the organic evolution of the Traveling Wilburys carried over into the development of Handle with Care. Aside from the distinctive shimmer of its late ’80s ambience, Handle with Care is a perfectly scripted, impeccably executed pop tune, and its lyrics dealt playfully with the stases of the collective’s individual careers. It’s no wonder, then, that Mo Ostin and Lenny Waronker, the executives at Warner Bros., wanted more. Try as it might, the Traveling Wilburys never managed to top the composition. Nevertheless, on both Traveling Wilburys, Volume 1 and Traveling Wilburys, Volume 3, the ensemble, at least, succeeded in retaining its passion as well as its sense of free-spirited fun, despite the loss of Orbison shortly after the first installment was released.
Even so, there’s no denying that, if it is examined too closely, the music on Traveling Wilburys, Volume 1 and Traveling Wilburys, Volume 3, charming as it is, eventually reveals itself to be a little formulaic. As much as the Traveling Wilburys’ round-robin vocals and democratic approach played to the ensemble’s strengths, the material also begins, over time, to sound a little routine. At its core, too, the songs don’t come close to pushing the band to its limit. Instead, the tunes are, in actuality, rather ordinary. Not Alone Any More, for example, emulates the drama contained in Orbison’s groundbreaking work from the ’60s, while If You Belonged to Me sounds like a mash-up of Blonde on Blonde, Blood on the Tracks, and John Wesley Harding, albeit one that was produced by Lynne. Elsewhere, Heading for the Light easily could have fit within the scope of Cloud Nine, and on The Devil’s Been Busy, Harrison and Petty merely become reacquainted with The Byrds.
In other words, The Traveling Wilburys’ work presents the kind of situation in which critics and fans tend to clash. The former can’t help but to look for more substance than is present, while the latter are more easily swept up in the fun. Neither Traveling Wilburys, Volume 1 nor Traveling Wilburys, Volume 3, however, were about making statements. The fact that the lyrical conclusion to Dirty World was constructed by reading randomly selected snippets from an auto magazine is a testament to this notion. While all of the criticisms that have been leveled at the outings are valid, it’s also true that in overanalyzing the efforts — by desiring for them to be something that was never intended — many have missed the entire point of the proceedings. Granted, none of the material featured on The Traveling Wilburys Collection could be considered to rank among the best works of any of the involved individuals’ careers, but the combination of the enthusiasm, exuberance, and sheer joy that Petty, Dylan, Harrison, Lynne, and Orbison brought to these projects is downright infectious. ½
The Traveling Wilburys Collection is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2007 The Music Box