In concept The Traveling Wilburys were superb. Bob Dylan was in the process of recovering from a decade long slump, George Harrison was back in the public eye after far too long away, while Roy Orbison was back in the public eye after an even longer absence, and while his band mates were going through career lulls, Tom Petty had established himself as a songwriter to be reckoned with, and Jeff Lynne was carving himself a reputation as a hugely successful producer. With that much talent how could The Traveling Wilburys fail?
When you break this over-talented supergroup’s debut album down, Dylan had contributed two of his best songs in ages, Orbison had chipped in a couple of classics, and both Harrison and Petty were hardly being shamed by their output either. These were tunes that would benefit from a raw, sparse production, so that the skiffle-like tunes would be allowed to sound as organic and natural as possible. After all this was just five friends getting together and having fun, so it would benefit with sounding a little rough around the edges and slightly untidy, as if they had rocked up in Lynne’s living room and just pressed play on a basic recording device..
The trouble is, at this point in the 80s, Jeff Lynne just doesn’t do untidy. Even though Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 1 is one of Lynne’s more basic production jobs from the era, it still sounds overly synthetic and processed, which in retrospect is a real shame. It’s unfair to lay all the blame at Lynne’s feet though, as both Orbison and Harrison had both recently enjoyed successful albums with Lynne in the production chair, and Petty’s Southern Accents had been successful despite a similarly fashionable production job by David A. Stewart. At the time, Lynne’s production style sold albums, end of story. The trouble is that the subsequent decades since have proven that the albums he produced in the late 80s haven’t exactly dated tremendously well.
Song wise all five of the guys are on good form, “Handle With Care” and “End Of The Line” are great pop tunes. “Not Alone Anymore” is Orbison’s last great recording, and “Tweeter And The Monkey Man” indicated that Dylan had relocated his muse after an elongated search. Okay so “Margarita” is best forgotten, but for what could have easily been classed as a vanity project by a bunch of middle aged rock stars, there’s plenty of good stuff here.
That’s it though, it’s good, but it could and should have been brilliant. Bizarre though this may seem, with a little less polish and a few more natural blemishes Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 1 would have been a far superior recording.