Friday, February 24, 2017
Bob Dylan - Under the Red Sky (1990)
1990 seemed to herald a new, clearer dawn for Bob Dylan after nearly a decade in an artistic wilderness. Working with producer Daniel Lanois on 1989’s Oh Mercy delivered Dylan his best notices in years and his collaboration with The Traveling Wilburys garnered him renewed mainstream attention. The follow-up to Oh Mercy, 1990’s Under the Red Sky, short circuited his new found momentum.
Things do not begin auspiciously. “Wiggle Wiggle” is, arguably, the nadir of Bob Dylan’s songwriting career and the problems are manifold. Producers Don and David Was recruited a bevy of guest stars to widen the drawing power of Dylan’s newest release, but there’s little rhyme or reason to their selections. Guns ‘n’ Roses guitarist Slash appears on this track, but his neutered presence means he might as well played accordion on the song. The lyrics are absurd and Dylan’s delivery never rises above more than a slurry mumble. The title track is one of the album’s few lasting achievements. George Harrison contributes some evocative slide guitar and the style Dylan adopts for the lyric, quasi-cribbing from the fairy tale tradition, helps invest its subject matter with an added poetic veneer. It’s a clean, uncluttered production job here as elsewhere on Under the Red Sky and it provides a perfect frame for the track. “Unbelievable” attempts aping the romping blues blast of Dylan’s seminal Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited period but, despite a smattering of interesting lines, sounds like a pale imitation. Dylan musters up a mild amount of vocal enthusiasm, but it’s far from enough to elevate the song past middling
It isn’t enough. The album’s sole love song, “Born in Time”, originally hails from the Oh Mercy sessions and is a hit and miss affair. There are some well turned couplets and phrases scattered through the song and a sympathetic band performance, but the song’s point of view never settles and ultimately makes too diffuse of an impact to really stick with listeners. There’s some more flirting with the past on “T.V. Talking Song”. The song is cut in the mold of “talking blues” from early in Dylan’s career, but lacks much of the same charm. Much of the problem, lyrically at least, lies with the increasingly dour world view weighing down his words. The same man who, during this period, took to recording and appearing in public with a hood pulled over his head so people couldn’t take his picture (when asked about it during this timeframe, Dylan referred to the American Indian belief that cameras make ghosts of people) uses the song’s “storyline” as a thin cover to rail against the evils of television. There’s very little art here, just polemic, and its one grace note of humor comes when Dylan refers to Elvis shooting his TV. It isn’t enough.
“10,000 Men” is a throwaway. This is the sort of track that, on stronger albums of yore, wouldn’t have made the final cut and once again leans heavily on a “cataloging” lyric style to get over. It doesn’t work. “2x2” relies on the same approach, but there’s much more substance here and he’s joined by some additional star power, namely David Crosby singing backing vocals. The song has some nice lyrical turns and the subject matter can be interpreted a variety of valid ways. “God Knows” is another leftover from the Oh Mercy sessions that has remained a recurrent feature in Dylan’s set list over the years. Cataloging, again, but it’s effective here thanks to the obvious effort he’s invested in making it work and one of the album’s few truly inspired vocals. Another of those inspired vocals comes with the album’s penultimate track “Handy Dandy”. There’s a little self-referential winking going on with guest organist Al Kooper’s echoing of his legendary riffing in “Like a Rolling Stone”, but the wordplay is dazzling and Dylan proves he is equal to the task. The final track, “Cat’s in the Well”, conjures up some more of the album’s recurring nursery rhyme language, but there are also some of Dylan’s apocalyptic conceits working their way into the track. It ends a relatively mediocre album with an emphatic exclamation point. Under the Red Sky sputters too much, but there’s some memorable moments preventing it from being completely disposable.