CK Retro Review: Down In The Groove by Bob Dylan

For many Bob Dylan aficionados, 1988’s Down In The Groove represents a continuation of the alarming indifference Bob showed on his previous effort, Knocked Out Loaded. There is no doubt that the “Groove” was more like a rut in terms of Dylan’s songwriting; only two songs on the record were true originals, and they were far from top-notch. Yet the album’s sound was a vast improvement on its predecessor, there are no complete travesties to be found, and some of the cover versions have a sneaky resonance to them. Here is a song-by-song review.


10. “When You Did Leave Heaven?”- Dylan was at least trying to do something interesting here, using an atmospheric arrangement to try and imbue a little ambiguity in the sticky sweet lyrics. It doesn’t quite come off, in part because Bob’s vocals are wooden and the arrangement sort of falls apart by the end.

9. “Ugliest Girl In The World”- It is not as objectionable nor as brazenly humorous as its title might imply. Co-written by Robert Hunter of Grateful Dead fame, it turns out to be a pretty pedestrian rocker with lyrics that don’t rise to the level of the funny songs, like those from Chuck Berry or The Coasters, it wants to emulate.

8. “Let’s Stick Together”- As the first thing on Down In The Groove, you immediately notice how much better the thing sounds than so much of the half-baked, synthesizer-splashed stuff from Knocked Out Loaded. Still, Bob’s interpretation doesn’t add much at all to either Wilbert Harrison’s fun original or subsequent cover versions.


7. “Death Is Not The End”- A leftover original from the Infidels sessions, this ode to the afterlife plods along amiably even when it portends apocalyptic consequences for the Earth. Backing vocals Full Force aren’t really utilized to their full potential. The song does stand out from other religious material in the way Bob sings it, with a quiet confidence that dovetails nicely with the promise of eternity that the song makes.

6. “Sally Sue Brown”- Dylan gets some help from punk legends Steve Jones and Paul Simonon on this rollicking recording of the great Arthur Alexander’s ode to a girl who’s so irresistible it’s almost worth it to let her break your heart. Good fun.

5. “Shenandoah”- The song is a folk evergreen for a reason, so it’s hard to mess it up. Dylan’s arrangement is a bit quirky, and raising the key a bit might have allowed him to sing it better. Still, the power of the song wins out in the end.

4. “Had  A Dream About You, Baby”- You don’t hear Dylan writing too many flat-out rockers, but this one qualifies. The lyrics aren’t too complicated, but the song is about a primal attraction that oozes into the protagonist’s dreams, so the simplicity is fitting. A crazy backing band that included Eric Clapton on guitar and, I kid you not, Kip Winger on bass, bring the thunder just fine.

3. “Silvio”- Robert Hunter’s lyrics here consist of a lot of catchy phrases that don’t really reach any final destination, but they sound good coming out of Dylan’s mouth. The whooshing acoustic groove plays nicely off the exhorting back-up vocals, provided by Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, and Brent Mydland of the Dead, and the chorus is catchy as heck. It’s a refreshing cool breeze of a track.


2. “Rank Strangers To Me”- The dark outcome and conflicted emotions of this haunting song popularized by the Stanley Brothers were right in Dylan’s wheelhouse. He wisely keeps the arrangement simple and doesn’t overplay the vocals on his take. The sense of isolation that be brings to the recording is palpable, making this one a memorable choice to close out the album.

1. “Ninety Miles An Hour (Down A Dead End Street)”- The instrumentalists sort of play all around the melody of this moody cover, providing subtle accents but leaving the heavy lifting to the vocalists. Dylan gets expert help in this regard from R&B standouts Willie Green and Bobby King, pulling the song from its country roots in a bluesier direction. It’s a great little song about the perils of passion, and Dylan and friends get its tone of resigned woe just right.

(E-mail me at or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For a more in-depth look at the songs of Bob Dylan, check out the link below to my upcoming book Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs, available from all major online book-sellers.)

10 Comments on “CK Retro Review: Down In The Groove by Bob Dylan”

  1. Bob says:

    Interesting to compare Nick Cave’s Death is Not the End – he makes it sound more like a threat than a promise!
    Agree with much of this: some potent vocals, especially achingly on Ninety Miles, ( eg ‘I could never be your own’) and Rank Strangers – tho’ I think you’re over-generous to Ugliest…

  2. hans altena says:

    Rank Stranger makes me cry and not only because of its mysterious and lonely beauty, but also as it proves what the man still could do and he mostly just couldn’t get it accross in the right way in those dark days. Even thinking about the studio albums from Infidels to Down in the Groove makes me depressive again.

  3. Futzi Wailer says:

    One of my guilty pleasures, great to sing along to in the car. You can hear Dylan having fun, singing the songs he wants to sing. The overall sound is garage band great. One of those albums that would have been better if he had left it alone. Important Words and Got Love If You Want It were a much better fit sonically and style wise then Had A Dream About You baby and Death Is Not The End. Then it would truly have been Self Portrait II.

  4. Jeff says:

    That’s a fair assessment. I would have added Shanandoah to the 4-star category. His live renditions of Rank Strangers in the late 90’s were amazing with the backing vocals.

  5. Shabtai says:

    “Death is not the End” is a masterpiece, which should easily top this easygoing
    non pretentious album.
    It reminds me of the other Dylan poem ” And Death shall have no Dominion” .

  6. Shelley says:

    Thank you Kid, have always wondered who did Sally Sue Brown originally, Arthur Alexander sure had a lot of great tunes.

    While we’re talking about Dylan’s ’80s output, anyone remember his cover of John Hiatt’s The Usual from the Hearts of Fire soundtrack? Always thought that was a pretty good one that got lost on a soundtrack LP just like Band of the Hand.

    • Baggy says:

      Agreed Shelley, The Usual is a very good cover, and Band of the Hand is a great song. Put those two songs together with the best of Knocked Out Loaded and Down In the Groove and there is a very good album in there which would have done justice to what Bob was reaching for on those sessions.

      As it is though, there is no coherency to the material or sense in the sequencing of the two albums. Setting aside Brownsville Girl, which I do believe to be absolutely top drawer, the albums are a source of many guilty pleasures, in part because they are not consistently good.

  7. markrb1 says:

    Sorry, but couldn’t help laughing at ‘Had A Dream About You Baby’ getting the same number of stars as ‘Drifters Escape’ and ‘Buckets Of Rain’. Great series of posts though.

  8. whalespoon says:

    I’ve always thought that “Ugliest Girl” was one of the funniest songs Dylan ever recorded–a perverse send up of every love song ever written. Only Bob could get away with something like that. Best thing on the album, though that’s as much a commentary on “Down in the Groove” as anything else.

  9. P. Callas says:

    It’s nice to read a pretty upbeat review of Down in the Groove, which has been one of my favorites since its release. Maybe it isn’t a weighty album, but I find it fun listening. The arrangement of “Ninety Miles An Hour (Down A Dead End Street)” is fantastic, perfectly fitting the lyric.

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