There are different kinds of super-groups. Some, like Cream and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, were established to create art, collectives consisting of top tier talent whose gifts, at least theoretically, complement one another's to result in ambitious masterworks. Then there are some super-groups designed with considerably less lofty aspirations in mind, rock outfits simply formed as recreational activities for like-minded friends, basically amounting to social functions for the members with a casual atmosphere that makes for amiable recording sessions.
The Traveling Wilburys definitely conform to the latter category. When Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne came together to found the band, it wasn't with any grand artistic vision in mind, but rather a simple desire to relax and enjoy themselves. Despite the A-list credentials of most of the artists involved, the band were defiantly simple and straightforward, producing, for the most part, insubstantial material that would be considered slumming it for any individual member, let alone a super-group of these proportions.
This may sound like a harsh criticism, but in reality the band's slight approach and relative lack of ambition is one of their greatest assets. It's clear that the band are thoroughly enjoying themselves for the duration of the album, and this jovial tone translates into a great deal of fun for the listener as well. It's rare for figures from the upper echelons of rock music to simply relax and unwind on tape, and while some would dismiss such a display as frivolous or immature the truth is it makes for a tremendously enjoyable listening experience.
Thus many numbers on Vol. 1 that would normally just come across as generic throwaways are imbued with a certain charm and disarming amicability, basic songs that are transfigured into minor classics in the context of The Traveling Wilburys' good nature and friendly chemistry.
It's clear that The Traveling Wilburys didn't take the most democratic approach toward allocating creative control to the five members, as Dylan, Harrison and Orbison rather transparently dominate the band in the songwriting department. This shouldn't diminish the contributions of Petty and Lynne, however, as it's the inter-member dynamics that truly breathe lift into many of the songs, and the marginalized duo are still given the chance to shine.
Admittedly many tracks don't betray much effort on the part of their writers. Rattled and Not Alone Any More largely come across as glorified showcases for Orbison's legendary vocals, while Petty's spotlight, Last Night, is pop at its most basic and predictable. Even songs like these, however, are ultimately quite enjoyable, if only because of the album's infectiously high-spirited atmosphere (not to mention that Orbison's vocals are legendary for a reason).
Harrison seems to invest his songwriting with at least a modicum of effort. Heading For The Light depicts him simply going through the motions, but the lead single Handle With Care is actually quite strong, with a profoundly catchy melody, charming lyrics and sparkling Jeff Lynne-production that suits the song (unlike most Jeff Lynne production on Harrison albums).
It's Dylan, however, who truly makes the album. From the darkly amusing Dirty World to the world-weary, sardonic anthem Congratulations, Dylan excels throughout the LP, which is particularly surprising given that his contemporaneous solo work represented the erstwhile Zimmerman at his absolute worst.
Dylan is also responsible for the album's one true masterpiece, the brilliant Tweeter And The Monkey Man. Marrying tenebrous atmospherics to a superb melody (including an unforgettable refrain) and one of Dylan's finest stories in quite some time, the track is an unmitigated classic, one that need never rely on the Traveling Wilburys-charm that animates so much of the album.
Thus Vol. 1 is an exceptionally enjoyable listening experience. While the high caliber of Tweeter And The Monkey Man is a misleading anomaly, the remainder of the material is quite entertaining in its own right, as even when the songwriting falters the innate appeal of the group proves sufficient to sustain the listener's interest. The Traveling Wilburys shouldn't be judged by the combined merits of the individual members, but rather by what the group aspire to be, which is simply an old-fashioned, enjoyable rock and roll band with few pretensions but abundant charms, and by these standards their debut album is most assuredly a resounding success.
In the intervening time between The Traveling Wilburys' two albums, Roy Orbison, one of the cornerstones of the eccentric super-group, passed away. Despite his loss the remaining members opted to persevere for one more effort, which is surprising not because it's disrespectful to the memory of Orbison but rather because Vol. 3 (a joke name, as there never was a Vol. 2) betrays little in the way of commitment to the Wilburys persona from those involved.
On their second go-round The Traveling Wilburys simply don't sound as if they're having fun anymore. Whereas their first outing was animated by a certain playful mania, Vol. 3 is quite simply lacking this energetic exuberance. Part of this can be attributed to the album's position as a sequel; on Vol. 1 the band members were free to do as they pleased, not so much concerned with results as with having a good time. After the release of their debut, however, the band had amassed a decent following, and as a result The Traveling Wilburys now had to deal with outside expectations for their output. Instead of being a jovial, tongue-in-cheek project the Wilburys were now a band, and perhaps that's something that they never truly should have become.
Without the affable atmosphere of Vol. 1 the material on Vol. 3 lacks the freshness and spontaneity that made the former such a compelling experience. While Dylan, Harrison, Petty and Lynne still share an impressive chemistry in the recording booth, this no longer extends to the songwriting department; most songs on Vol. 3 fail to sound like band-efforts, but rather thinly disguised one-man numbers. Furthermore, as a by-product of a perceptibly escalating apathy toward the existence of the band as a whole, the songwriters do little to differentiate their Wilburys-tracks from their own oeuvre. Rather than adapting their fare to the Wilburys-identity, they contribute thinly veiled conventional solo tracks. The result is largely a parade of Dylan, Harrison, Petty and Lynne tracks that feel as if they simply had the Traveling Wilburys name slapped on them.
Yet again the creative balance is heavily skewed in favor of Dylan and Harrison, with Lynne and Petty once more assuming ancillary roles in the songwriting process. Unfortunately it rarely feels as if the senior members are devoting their full attention to the group, resulting in some rather perfunctory efforts that doubtless would have been weeded out of a more important project.
It's a testament to the gifts of The Traveling Wilburys that despite these liabilities Vol. 3 is still a solid, enjoyable experience. Few tracks are especially unique or memorable, and there are no classics on the scale of Tweeter And The Monkey Man, but the album remains consistently entertaining for its full runtime.
The band wisely bookmarked the album with two rockers, a genre that had been woefully underrepresented on their debut. While both songs boast little in the way of timeless hooks, they are tight and energetic and start and finish the album on precisely the right note. Of the two I'd pick Wilbury Twist over She's My Baby, but both tracks are quite enjoyable despite their tossed-off nature.
While few songs are outstanding most are perfectly enjoyable, though even amongst a merely 'decent' selection there are some instances of filler. 7 Deadly Sins is transparently a retro send-up, but the fact that its stupidity is intentional doesn't make it any less grating, while You Took My Breath Away and New Blue Moon are bland ballads that simply don't belong on a Traveling Wilburys album, reflections of how little the original spirit of the band is preserved.
Nevertheless, tracks like The Devil's Been Busy and If You Belonged To Me are entertaining, even if the latter was doubtless composed by Dylan on auto-pilot with barely any creative energy expended.
There is, however, one song that does come close to classic status, namely Dylan's opus Cool Dry Place. The song is ultimately unremarkable from a melodic perspective, though it is quite catchy, if simple, in its own right, but it's in the lyrical department that it truly excels . The lyrics in Cool Dry Place are by no means amongst Dylan's best, but nevertheless they're a throwback to a particular style that he'd abandoned long before, a style made famous on albums like Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde. The song wouldn't qualify as a classic on either record, but in the context of Dylan's nineties output it's a refreshing reminder of what he was once capable of. The song is a mixture of cryptic themes, witty wordplay and clever storytelling, a clear indication that this style still comes effortlessly to Dylan even after years of habitual neglect.
Thus Vol. 3 is indeed a solid outing, if far less exciting and inspired than Vol. 1. The Traveling Wilburys really didn't need to be revived, but at least their resurrection did result in another enjoyable listening experience. Sadly the album was simply treated as 'work' rather than 'recreation' for those involved, dispelling much of the charm of the debut, but with incomparable artists like Dylan and Harrison on-hand there's at least more than enough worthwhile content to merit a listen.