CK Retro Review: Under The Red Sky by Bob DylanPosted: July 10, 2013
While it is by no means the utter disaster that many critics made it out to be (nor is it the sneaky masterpiece some contrarians posit), Bob Dylan’s 1990 album Under The Red Sky is pretty much devoid of anything resembling a classic track. As such, it squandered much of the momentum Bob had going following Oh Mercy and his Traveling Wilburys success. At least it had an all-star guest list, as Dylan called on a wide range of instrumentalists to put this relatively listless batch of songs in play. Here is a song-by-song review.
10. “T.V. Talkin’ Song”- While I guess you could say Dylan’s concerns over the influence of television on impressionable minds were prescient, he makes his points so thuddingly obvious that he sounds like a crank. Incisive commentary this is not.
9. “Wiggle Wiggle”- There is way too much 90’s rock gloss laid on this opening track, deadening what could have been a decent groove. Dylan’s vocals are lifeless, the lyrics are forgettably simple, and the whole thing lacks punch for an up-tempo number.
8. “10,000 Men”- Just as Bob’s boogeying piano giveth some life to this song, his vocals, which sound as though he recorded them right after waking up, taketh away. The lyrics are all over the place, starting off sounding like an anti-war screed and turning into something pretty incoherent.
7. “2 X 2”- When the most exciting thing about a song is the list of instrumentalists who play on it, there are problems. Elton John and David Crosby are the bold-faced names, but sessionman extraordinaire David Lindley is also along for the ride on bouzouki. (And, the Dawg himself, Randy Jackson plays the bass, as he does on a few tracks on the album, doing an especially nice job on “Born In Time.”) All of that talent is put to the aid of a numerical rhyming game with no melody whatsoever. They do make it sound good, I suppose.
6. “It’s Unbelievable”- I think this song was meant to be of the same ilk as “Everything Is Broken” or “Political World” from the previous Dylan album, Oh Mercy, sort of a catalog of the world’s ills. Alas, “It’s Unbelievable” is a bit too vague and not biting enough to make the same kind of impact. Still, the band produces an effectively churning rock groove to lend some heft.
5. “Cat’s In The Well”- The closing track on Under The Red Sky has something akin to a 60’s go-go vibe thanks to the guitar riff that gives the song its solid momentum. Dylan gets a little bit lost behind the band’s thunder, but that’s forgivable considering Stevie Ray Vaughn leads the charge on guitar and gets in a couple brief but stinging solos. Bob gets the last word in, as a matter of fact the last words his songwriting pen would produce for seven years: “Goodnight, my love, may the lord have mercy on us all.”
4. “Under The Red Sky”- Dylan used pieces of nursery rhymes throughout the album for seemingly ironic purposes (although who knows what he was trying to do really.) On the title track, he plays it straight and seems to have written a children’s song; the album was dedicated to his daughter, after all. It’s a charming effort that benefits from some nice slide work from fellow Wilbury George Harrison and keyboards from Al Kooper that could easily produce some Highway 61 Revisited déjà vu.
3. “God Knows”- It’s one of the few songs on the album that has an arrangement with some forethought behind it, as it builds from a spare opening into a chugging, mid-tempo rocker with expert guitar work from the Vaughn brothers and David Lindley. The God that Dylan invokes here is alternately benevolent and merciless, keeping the best interests of the faithful in the forefront even as those straying are threatened in none-too-subtle fashion. Again, it’s all a little vague, but it holds your attention.
2. “Handy Dandy”- Some of the old ambition crept into this character sketch of a damaged and damaging dude. The track swaggers along with a cocky stride, getting extra muscle from Al Kooper’s colorful organ and Waddy Wachtel’s strutting solos. Dylan overstuffs his lines like the good old days and sings with a little attitude for once on the album. I think the fact that it’s on a lesser album makes people overrate it a bit, but it’s fun, has several great lines, and you can dig into it and come up with something.
1.”Born In Time”- Dylan’s accordion-playing (Who knew?) is an oddity on this sweet ballad, but it’s his open-hearted vocals in the middle sections here, seconded by David Crosby’s shaggy harmonies, that really engage the listener. The lyrics have some vivid imagery and the kind of wistfulness that Bob does better than just about everyone. He leaves open the possibility for a happy reconciliation for the couple at the end, singing “You can have what’s left of me” to his star-crossed lover. The heart and soul embedded in this recording makes it the best thing on this collection and one of Dylan’s underappreciated slow ones.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org 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 at all major online booksellers.)