Bob Dylan’s twenty-second studio album, Infidels, was released near the end of October, 1983. It produced three singles, but two of them will be dealt with next week, in 1984, when they were released. The first, “Union Sundown”, seems to have been put out exclusively in Europe. It charted at #90 in the Netherlands and nowhere else at all. It’s a strange song.
For a lot of commentators, this one seems to be a return to the Dylan protest song of the 1960s. That’s a form of wish fulfilment, I think. I previously noted how Dylan’s politics on the three born again albums began to drift into Reagan Democrat territory, with a focus on certain forms of xenophobia, nativism, and American exceptionalism. This song has a lot of the same hallmarks. This is not a union song in the model of Pete Seeger, rather it has an ambivalent “what are you going to do?” tone. The politics here are pretty simple. As the man sings,
Well, it’s sundown on the union
And what’s made in the U.S.A.
Sure was a good idea
’Til greed got in the way
Most of the song is a litany about the off-shoring of American jobs, which is at least an interesting idea for a song.There’s not much solidarity here, but there is some fairly typical Dylanesque finger-pointing:
Well, you know, lots of people complainin’ that there is no work
I say, “Why you say that for
When nothin’ you got is U.S.–made?”
Further, despite the title, it’s not really that much of a pro-union song. For Dylan (and here’s the Reagan Democrat part coming out again), the unions are a big part of the problem:
The unions are big business, friend
And they’re goin’ out like a dinosaur
Finally, the song continues a trend of Dylan being sort of obsessed with human space travel. In “License to Kill”, also on this album, he writes:
Oh, man has invented his doom
First step was touching the moon
While on “Union Sundown” he sings:
They used to grow food in Kansas
Now they want to grow it on the moon and eat it raw
I know I wasn’t that old and sophisticated in 1983, but I have no recollection at all of anyone advocating harvesting crops in outer space. Weird.
Anyway, this is one of the songs on Infidels that I least like. Indeed, there is an outtake version with no lyrics except the chorus, and I greatly prefer that one to the one that can heard on the official release. Indeed, somewhat bizarrely, I find that I prefer the religiously themed songs on Infidels much more than the politically themed ones (this and “Neighborhood Bully”), which is something I never would have guessed at the beginning of this year.