I don’t think that Bob Dylan believed in his 1986 album, Knocked Out Loaded. Of the eight songs on the entire album, he has played them a total of eighteen times. Fourteen of those were live versions of “Driftin’ Too Far From Shore” in 1988 and 1989. Five of the songs he has never played live at all. It seems to have been recorded and released for almost no reason in the midst of his tour with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Dylan played a lot of new music on that tour, and none of it made it onto this.
Released in July 1986, Knocked Out Loaded was the beginning of the end of my initial Bob Dylan phase. It didn’t end it by any means, but the damage was significant. Armed with my new stereo in my new room (we had moved to a new house), I can distinctly recall listening to the first side with a “what is the shit?” expression on my face. I think that days went by before I listened to the (much stronger) second side. I remember that I got this album right around the time I got my first Patti Smith album – I had begun to move on to the post-Dylan artists and this album gave me very little reason to look back.
Most of this album is completely forgettable. “You Wanna Ramble”, the opener, is just a rock song – the type of thing that sounds like a decent warm-up, but that could have been written by any of a hundred singer-songwriters in the history of rock. The cover of Kris Kristofferson’s “They Killed Him”, perhaps inspired by Dylan’s participation in the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day celebrations, is so cloyingly saccharine that it is hard to listen to – the gospel back-up, the horns, the children’s choir! Oh, it is awful. “Driftin’ Too Far From Shore” was held over from Empire Burlesque. It’s fine, at best. “Precious Memories” didn’t need this cover version. “Maybe Someday” is okay. This is a song where I find myself reaching to try to like minor moments. For instance, I like the throw-away line “I always liked San Francisco, I was there for a party once”, but my wife assures me that it’s awful. “Got My Mind Made Up”, which was released as a single (though I’m not sure that there’s a video – if there is it may have been expunged from the internet) was produced by Tom Petty, and I really hate it. “Under Your Spell” is actually sort of good as a final song. I like the last verse:
Well the desert is hot, the mountain is cursed
Pray that I don’t die of thirst
Baby, two feet from the well
I would be interested to have heard what Dylan might have done with this song live, but he’s never tried it.
In general, I’d say that Knocked Out Loaded is a strong contender for worst ever Dylan album. It’s even remarkable for its lack of information – the same image on the front and back cover, it doesn’t even come with a track listing. (Though the pulpy cover image is both unusual and kind of good). I would say that it is the worst of Dylan’s albums except for one thing: it includes “Brownsville Girl”. And “Brownsville Girl” may be the best song Dylan ever recorded….