BOB DYLAN: KNOCKED OUT LOADED (1986)
1) You Wanna Ramble; 2) They Killed Him; 3) Driftin' Too Far From Shore; 4) Precious Memories; 5) Maybe Someday; 6) Brownsville Girl; 7) Got My Mind Made Up; 8) Under Your Spell.
It would take more time to type up the names of all the musicians responsible for this record than to listen to all of its thirty-five minutes — two ominous signs for Dylan, whose best records have always tended to be recorded over brief periods, with minimal staff, and run for far longer than the usual 40-45 minutes; the «country-western» period of 1968-70 being a notable and perfectly intentional exception. But Knocked Out Loaded is not even a proper album, in a way. It consists of outtakes from previous sessions, throwaway pieces hastily and fuzzily knocked out (loaded) with members of Tom Petty's band during rehearsal breaks on the True Confessions tour, and a random selection of covers by various people, without any organizing principles or quality control. Whatever in the world made Bob want to put this stuff out as his next LP is beyond me. Out-of-control drug and alcohol consumption on the tour seems to be out of the question, but so far, this sounds like the optimal explanation anyway.
Without Sly and Robbie at the wheel, the record sounds less electronic and «plastic» than Empire Burlesque, but its heavy reliance on synthesizers, echoes, and monotonous paid-by-the-book gospel background vocals, somehow ensures that everything is even more tired and boring than it used to be. The rock'n'roll numbers have no drive, the ballads have no feeling, and the melodic hooks are not even an active topic. You'd think that a Dylan/Petty collaboration, of all things, could have gone down real well (especially in the light of the Traveling Wilburys' revival just a couple years later), but ʽGot My Mind Made Upʼ turns out to be just a semi-improvised blues-rock jam without any redeeming qualities, other than maybe some nifty, but noisy acoustic slide playing, and even that is dissolved in the grayish production.
At least once the whole story borders on the ridiculous: Dylan covering Kris Kristofferson's freshly written ʽThey Killed Himʼ, a young-adult retelling of the uneasy common fates of Mahatma Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Jesus Christ Superstar. The song is trite from each and every point of view, melody and lyrics included; at least in the days of Self Portrait, Bob used to come up with interesting rearranging and artistic twists to justify inclusion of such material, but this is downright crazy — why take a bad song and cover it if you do absolutely nothing to compensate for the corny atmosphere? Then again, it was barely a year since Bob took part in the ʽWe Are The Worldʼ embarrassment (although that one at least made some sense in that some of the money went to charity; ʽThey Killed Himʼ will only begin making sense when Bob decides to throw in an extra verse on Kenny, but I don't know how well he gets along with South Park these days).
The one song that, in stark contrast with the rest of this «album», has usually gotten rave reviews was ʽBrownsville Girlʼ (formerly ʽNew Danville Girlʼ, as the tune dates back to the Empire Burlesque sessions). Its format is certainly unusual — not only does it return us to Dylan's «epic» length that we haven't really seen since the days of ʽJoeyʼ, but it also features alternating, «clashing» sets of lyrics that revolve around several sets of memories, one of which involves a movie starring Gregory Peck; ironically tinged «taunts» from Dylan's backup singers from time to time; and some sax solos that add some sort of muscular Springsteen grandeur to the proceedings. In a different age, this could have worked. Unfortunately, the sound of the song is just as colorless and mucky as everything else on here — big stupid drums, meaningless guitar and keyboard rhythms, echo and reverb all over the place, and a bombastic chorus whose bombast is only slightly louder than the bombast of everything else, so do not really hope for a grappling build-up effect. It is certainly an intriguing tune when compared to everything else around it, but truly that is not saying much.
Thumbs down, of course, although calling this «the worst Dylan album ever» or at least a worthy candidate and shooting fat fish in a tiny barrel would be acts of comparable importance — like I said, this isn't even a proper «album», more like an uninteresting drunk escapade of which Bob himself might not be retaining any particular memories. Had he ever stated that the songs were released by Columbia without his approval (again!), I think nobody would have a hard time believing him. Like that silly album from 1973, it is best to forget Knocked Out Loaded, as an object that adds nothing credibly positive or starkly negative to the man's legacy. Even the album sleeve is probably the silliest picture in Dylanology.
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