CK Retro Review: Under The Red Sky by Bob Dylan

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.

TWO STARS

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.

THREE STARS

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 countdownkid@hotmail.com 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.)

http://www.amazon.com/books/dp/0810888238

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20 Comments on “CK Retro Review: Under The Red Sky by Bob Dylan”

  1. street legal says:

    only 2&3 stars songs… man you´re a joke, let me see what you got…

    • Jacek says:

      Come on, that’s no criteria. If the only people with valid say about what’s worth listening to or reading or watching were those who make great music and write great books and direct great films, the realm of analysis & discussion would be infinitely less cluttered with crap, true, but then hardly anyone would be speaking in the first place. That scenario would have its virtues but I don’t know, I kinda like mouthing off about the possible merits & demerits of Dylan albums even if I’m not much of a songwriter myself.

    • countdownkid says:

      I do like the quote, even if it is at my expense.

  2. Its not always the songs, but the producer. In this case if you read the interviews with the producer on this album you ll findout that he thinks he messed up. That Dylan himself wanted something completely different. had Dylan had his way the album would of been better.

    • countdownkid says:

      The production was definitely a tad disjointed on this one. No argument there.

    • Jacek says:

      It’s unclear, actually. Recently Don Was had the occasion to listen back to some studio tapes and was appalled to find himself rejecting Bob’s ideas offhand; but I doubt this was happening at every turn. Elsewhere, he has said that he believes Under the Red Sky would’ve turned out more or less as it did whether it was produced by the Was Brothers or (I paraphrase) “a couple of astronauts,” that Bob was very much in control despite the confusions or hiccups along the way. Note that hard copies of Under the Red Sky list three producers: Don Was, David Was and a certain Jack Frost.

  3. Joe Cox says:

    Put me on record as calling “UTRS” one of the underrated Dylan records. “Born In Time” and “Cat’s in the Well” are fine songs. Per Don Was, the title song is “about” Dylan’s home town.

  4. Jacek says:

    That said, I’m one of the contrarians you mention in the first line, Kid. I think this thing is delightful start to finish. The two “classic tracks” for me would be Handy Dandy and Cat’s in the Well, I think. In my head they compare favorably with any of the catalogue’s previous heights. But there’s no song here I’d want to do without. And “thuddingly obvious” though the insights in T.V. Talkin’ Song may be (not that we’ve taken them to heart, really: for our times replace “T.V.” with “computer” and whoa, that hits close to home… I’m guilty of it, anyway) the delivery of said insights is anything but! “Your mind is your temple, keep it beautiful and free / Don’t let an egg get laid in it by something you can’t see” is brilliant and makes me laugh. The little aside about the narrator’s own thoughts beginning to wander is another great touch. And as in all the best lesser-Dylan, the vocal delivery transfigures or in any case justifies the words.

    • countdownkid says:

      Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy listening to the album. It just doesn’t leave the same kind of impact as the better Dylan albums, for me anyway. It’s fun while it’s on, but I have a hard time remembering certain songs once they’re away from my ears.

  5. street legal says:

    i agree with you my friend, everyone should be free & should speak their minds, i couldn´t resist to use a dylan line. i think this is a good album & like all the songs. i would rate them 3/5 stars songs,

    • Jacek says:

      Well, knowing that it’s a Dylan quote puts a different spin on your post! I haven’t heard anything postdating this album yet, so I hope you’ll forgive my ignorance.

      • countdownkid says:

        Jacek, you have to let me know when you start listening to the ones you haven’t heard. I don’t know how you have the discipline to resist!

      • Jacek says:

        That I will, Mr. Kid! I suppose the discipline comes from my having used this method of exploring an artist’s catalogue many times in the past, and of it having been so rewarding every time; now taking things slowly, and being content to do so, seems to have become a habit. Thanks for your interest in my thoughts, and thank *you* for all your generosity in sharing yours (and doing it well)!

  6. k. cramsey says:

    It’s a fun album from Bob; not great, but enjoyable, not too heavy.

    Sure, “Wiggle” and “2 X 2” are pretty dispensable, but the title track is great. He could have sung it a little better perhaps, but I find George’s slide and what sounds like an accordian or harmonium quite beautiful.

  7. steve says:

    strange how all the songs work so well in concert !

  8. Shelley says:

    Have always enjoyed this record, it’s kind of like Lucky Wilbury made a solo album.

  9. street legal says:

    there are a lot of albuns bob made who were minimized by some critics, ignore them, just listen to the albuns, in my case there were several wich at first listening i was somehow disapointed, and sometimes after some years i gave them them a fresh listening and by now i love all bob´s albuns. But the best ones will never have official release, and those are the live boots, hundreds of amazing perfomances, beeing the highlight for me bob & larry campbell years, Go on and give your best to try to ear this shows, there are dozens wich anyone can download in a site named sugarland/bob dylan with amazing quality.


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