BOB DYLAN: UNDER THE RED SKY (1990)
1) Wiggle Wiggle; 2) Under The Red Sky; 3) Unbelievable; 4) Born In Time; 5) T.V. Talkin' Song; 6) 10,000 Men; 7) 2 x 2; 8) God Knows; 9) Handy Dandy; 10) Cat's In The Well.
I think that most of the critics misunderstood this album when it came out. Most of the reviews were starkly negative — after the oh-so-obvious and oh-so-welcome comeback of Oh Mercy, here was a cold shower that threateningly hinted: Oh Mercy was just an accident, and now we are back to the washed-up state of its predecessors. Rote, stale, toothless, simplistic rock'n'roll. And the lyrics? "Wiggle wiggle wiggle like a gypsy queen, wiggle wiggle wiggle all dressed in green". "One by one, they followed the sun; two by two, to their lovers they flew". "Handy dandy, just like sugar and candy". "Cat's in the well, the wolf is looking down". This is Dylan? Sounds more like Dr. Seuss on a bad day.
The only exception from the crowd was Robert Christgau, who fabulously gave the record an A- and populated his brief review with phrases like: "aiming frankly for the evocative, the fabulistic, the biblical, Dylan exploits narrative metaphor as an adaptive mechanism that allows him to inhabit a ʽmatureʼ pessimism he knows isn't the meaning of life" — as much as we sometimes hate The Dean for a variety of aesthetic reasons, this is clearly just a provocative hoot: The Dean thinks he can claim as good a right to be bullshitting his audience as Bob Dylan has a right to be bullshitting his. Hence, the only real difference is that most critics thought Bob had produced an unintentionally bad record, whereas Christgau probably thought it was quite intentional.
What they missed was the dedication of the record — «to Gabby Gabby Goo», later revealed to be Bobby's little daughter, Desiree Gabrielle Dennis-Dylan. The dedication explains it all: Under The Red Sky is nothing but Robert Zimmerman's idea of a «children's record», designed and executed through the vision frame of Bob Dylan. What would a four-year old kid do with Blonde On Blonde or Blood On The Tracks? A four-year old kid would much rather wiggle wiggle wiggle, or learn to count to ten, or hear about the cat and the wolf. And if most of the lyrics are absurdist and do not make any literal sense, the same can be said about quite a large percentage of children's literature as well.
Consequently, Under The Red Sky should not be put in the same league with Knocked Out Loaded. It is clearly Dylan's most «Traveling Wilburies-style» album, sharing the general lightweight atmosphere of that band, but then it goes further than that, stripping the melodies and the lyrical structures to their bare bones, and not even beginning to pretend to any depth, seriousness, or nuanced atmosphere. Unlike Knocked Out Loaded, Under The Red Sky knows exactly what it is doing, with one exception: as a «writer for kids», Dylan is not particularly well experienced, and the «fun» component of the album seems underdone.
That this is a specially concocted «Dylan lite» variety is most evident on ʽHandy Dandyʼ, I think, which opens with a bombastic organ riff, very similar to the one of ʽLike A Rolling Stoneʼ — but the lyrics are sheer nonsense, their delivery is rather expressionless, and the backing band has no particular idea of what sort of feelings it should be trying to convey. Most of the other «rock» songs are based on well-known rock'n'roll patterns (ʽUnbelievableʼ opens like ʽHoney Don'tʼ; ʽCat's In The Wellʼ is really ʽLucilleʼ; ʽ10,000 Menʼ is ʽGood Morning Little Schoolgirlʼ, etc.) that Dylan explores with gusto, probably drawing his inspiration from those early high school days when playing in a rock'n'roll band was still the only life for him — in other words, he is not simply writing for children, he is sort of reliving his own childhood. I guess you're allowed to do that as you turn 50, no?
The backing band assembled for the purpose is quite impressive — with guest appearances from Al Kooper (I assume it is him responsible for the organ on ʽHandy Dandyʼ, for obvious reasons) to Elton John to Slash to Jimmie and even Stevie Ray Vaughan (on ʽGod Knowsʼ). George Harrison makes a notable appearance on the title track (I can only assume the pretty slide solos there come from George's hand), Dave Crosby sings backing vocals, Bruce Hornsby contributes piano runs, and producer Don Was adds his own guitar skills. And all of this talent thrown together for a thirty-minute long kiddie album? Truly and verily, nobody but Dylan can pull off a stunt like that and get away with just a few negative reviews.
If we preserve that angle of view, Under The Red Sky has no highlights or lowlights. ʽGod Knowsʼ is actually a bit more serious than everything else, both lyrically and musically (due largely to Stevie Ray's participation), but it is lurking at the rear and does not add much coloring to the rest of the album. A deliberate throwaway, it would have fared much better had it been properly advertised — but Dylan hates proper advertisement, and it is a hatred I can empathize with. As an experiment, you can leave it in storage for your own little «Gabby Gabby Goos» and see for yourself whether Robert's paternal instincts were functioning correctly. Or, if you are ever in the mood to play the fool, you can «wiggle like a big fat snake» yourself, provided you have nothing better to do.
One last word about the album cover — I think the «Dylan in the desert» image, which, if you do not look at it hard enough, seems very much like a «Dylan in the dumps» image, generated more harm for the overall critical impression than the songs themselves. You listen to ʽWiggle Wiggleʼ, you look back at the cover, you listen to the title track, your glance returns to the cover again, and you do get the impression of a completely washed-up intellectual tramp, with nothing but sheer pity or utter disgust to evoke from the consumer. The photo and the songs just do not go together, no matter how much you twist the angle. Then again, come to think of it, Desire was probably the last time when Bob actually gave a proper hoot about the shapes, colors, and facial expressions on the album sleeve. I do wonder, though, if «Gabby Gabby Goo» actually enjoyed all the ashen grey on that photo.
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