When “Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1” was released in 1988, the album shot to No. 3 on the U.S. charts and eventually went double platinum. Later it was nominated for one Grammy (album of the year) and won another (best rock performance by a duo or group). The record’s central conceit was pretty straightforward: a band of wayward musicians, Nelson, Otis, Lefty, Lucky and Charlie T. — all of them sons of Charles Truscott Wilbury, Sr. — got together in a house and laid down ten easy-rocking tunes in ten days.
The Wilbury boys, of course, were actually named George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan and Tom Petty, respectively. (They were also accompanied by their pal Buddy Sidebury, otherwise known as venerated session drummer Jim Keltner.) The self-conscious supergroup’s debut album was uniformly well-received among both critics and fans, and its arrival at the tail end of the ’80s managed to earn its elder-statesman progenitors a modest share of the limelight, not to mention inject a precious shot of levity into the bloated musical proceedings of that decade.
To call such an album underrated, then, would be plainly disingenuous. But “Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1,” if it hasn’t yet shipped off to oblivion, seems to have made some preliminary reservations there. Doubtless, part of the reason it’s not so well remembered is the fact that it was out of print for a number of years, since Harrison’s estate never called for more copies to be pressed. The album finally enjoyed a re-release this summer, but unless this author’s missed something, the Wilburys haven’t exactly been generating a fresh fan base.
It really shouldn’t be all that surprising that “Vol. 1” has been reduced to little more than a cultural artifact 20 years after its original release, because as good as it is — and it is good, damn good — it’s not great. In fact, at times the album sounds like a deliberate experiment to see just how much goodness any album can pack on without ever achieving greatness. For all the superlatives that can be justly deployed on the record’s roots-pop buffet — catchy, polished, agreeable, energetic — not a single song (no, not Dylan’s offerings, and not even the irresistibly plucky group exercise “End of the Line”) rises to pantheon status.
That said, “Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1” may withstand repeated listens better than any other album ever made. The experience is akin to eating a jar of Jelly Bellies: each one delivers a uniquely appealing flavor that doesn’t last too long, and before you know it, you’ve worked your way through the entire thing. Orbison waxes operatic on “Not Alone Anymore,” Lynne does rockabilly on “Rattled” and Dylan gets to wear his Bruce Springsteen mask on the Jersey-centric story song “Tweeter and the Monkey Man.” The ensemble moments are endearing, too, especially “Handle With Care” and “Dirty World,” the latter being basically three and a half minutes of goofy double entendres.
Harrison and Lynne’s slick production makes the whole thing gel — think Harrison’s “Cloud Nine” or, less obscure, the Electric Light Orchestra’s entire catalog. But that production is so light, so crisp and breezy there’s really no mistaking “Vol. 1” for anything except a product of the late ’80s, even if the songs themselves bear little resemblance to those of U2 or, say, Poison. And yet, even if the Wilburys’ first record is covered in a thin sheen of studio corniness, most of the fun comes from the very realization that probably nobody involved was treating the undertaking too seriously in the first place.
Maybe that’s the best way to enjoy “Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1” — as a document of what those five uber-talents could do even when they were just clowning around together. Orbison died months after the album’s release; Lynne, Harrison and Petty were on their way out of a musical scene where they no longer belonged; and Dylan was still a has-been with a full decade to wait until his latter-day renaissance. For better or worse, the twenty-first century doesn’t easily lend itself to the idea of rock ’n’ roll supergroups, an idea the Travelling Wilburys managed to prove wasn’t totally doomed from the start. The world will be lucky indeed if it gets another chance to listen to group-clowning on par with that of Nelson, Otis, Lefty, Lucky and Charlie T.