BOB DYLAN: DOWN IN THE GROOVE (1988)
1) Let's Stick Together; 2) When Did You Leave Heaven; 3) Sally Sue Brown; 4) Death Is Not The End; 5) Had A Dream About You, Baby; 6) Ugliest Girl In The World; 7) Silvio; 8) Ninety Miles An Hour (Down A Dead End Street); 9) Shenandoah; 10) Rank Strangers To Me.
A slightly delayed twin brother to Knocked Out Loaded in almost everything, beginning with the somewhat ironically self-deprecating title, not to mention the approximately same short running time, the surprisingly low ratio of originals to covers, and the rag-taggy origins: the album was scrapped together from at least six different sessions, and chronologically, the songs reach all the way back to the Infidels period. Small wonder, then, that it was received with even more hostility than its predecessor — and this time, there isn't even a single pretentious eleven-minute epic to feed as a juicy soup bone to the critical hounds.
On general terms, the record is certainly expendable: with such similar birth conditions, there is just no way one could condemn Knocked Out Loaded while at the same time patting its follow-up on the back. On a more particular note, Down In The Groove has always seemed ever so slightly more listenable to me, mainly because the production has improved a bit, and those rather pedestrian rockers that sounded all muddled and flaccid two years back now get a little extra bark by way of a sharper electric guitar sound and cleaner vocal mixing. Let's admit it, when the guitar and harmonica kick in at the start of ʽLet's Stick Togetherʼ, this does induce a bit of a jolt, doesn't it? Definitely a more intense and immediate sound here than on ʽYou Wanna Rambleʼ.
Furthermore, although ʽWhen Did You Leave Heavenʼ does greet you with a «plastic heaven» synthesizer onslaught, this is rather an exception: for the most part, Down In The Groove avoids soft adult-contemporary and concentrates on rock'n'roll — much of it simple, unassuming, and sometimes even humorous rock'n'roll, as if Bob was intentionally trying here to produce a solo match for his Traveling Wilburys image (or, rather, the reverse is more likely: early Wilburys material was being written and recorded at the same time as the first copies of Down In The Groove were finding their accursed way to the store shelves). In a different age, this wouldn't be such a bad choice, but for 1988, it was still a disaster.
As these rockers fly past you, one by one, there is nothing to distinguish them from one another — you get no idea of how «dear» they are to Bob himself, who sings them in the exact same monotonous tone, you sense nothing but bored professionalism from the backing bands, and at times, you start to suspect self-parody: I mean, what is something like ʽThe Ugliest Girl In The Worldʼ but self-parody? Play it back to back with ʽFrom A Buick 6ʼ and remind yourself of the difference — both songs poke fun at the singer's imaginary and slightly caricaturesque lover, but the former was all turbulence and garage rage, whereas this one is just a flat out dumb joke; too bad that the talents of Robert Hunter, the loyal / royal lyricist of the Grateful Dead, had to be wasted on this unfunny tripe.
Like its predecessor, Down In The Groove is usually let off the hook for just one song: ʽDeath Is Not The Endʼ, for which Bob is inexplainably joined by Full Force on backing vocals, is a quiet, suggestively «optimistic» outtake from the Infidels sessions, presented as a minimalistic gospel ballad, quietly mumbled and humbly arranged, in a very sharp contrast to the louder-than-good-taste-recommends-it sound of the rest of the album. It is repetitive and very sparse on musical ideas, but you can't go wrong with the nostalgic harmonica part, or the mesmerizing vocals, still connected through an invisible feeding tube to Bob's cauldron of Christian inspiration — Nick Cave, a big fan of Bob's Christianity, would later cover the song for his own spiritual purposes, and Nick's usually got a good taste in covers, so take his word for it.
Everything else is, at worst, ridiculous (ʽUgliest Girlʼ) or very boring (ʽWhen Did You Leave Heavenʼ), and, at best, mildly-pleasantly-listenable, like the acoustic rocker ʽSilvioʼ, punctuated for the pleasure of your attention by an extra ukulele part, but still coming across as a flimsy trifle for some reason. Maybe it would have sounded better on a Traveling Wilburys album. Even the attempt to cap off the record with something more subtle and sentimental, namely, the cover of Albert Burmley's gospel tune ʽRank Strangers To Meʼ, is only halfway credible: lazy guitar strum + echo-laden voice + dull backup singing = why should we bother? Thumbs down in the groove; much as I like disagreeing with mainstream criticism on Bob's low points, defending this album would be a disreputable affair. Funny enough, it does confirm the usual trend — the more time Bob Dylan spends on making a record, the worse it usually comes out. It's a good thing he never tried auditioning for Pink Floyd.
Check "Down In The Groove" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Down In The Groove" (MP3) on Amazon