I own a copy of Under the Red Sky on vinyl. It is the most recent album that I can say that about. I have no idea how or why I have this – I think that it was probably given to me by someone. It has all the marks of having never ever been played.
Under the Red Sky is commonly regarded as the astonishing crash back to earth after Oh Mercy – the return of the half-assed Dylan who is just sort of hacking stuff out for no good reason. I don’t think that the album is awful, but it is true that it really isn’t any better than Knocked Out Loaded or Down in the Groove. There are a couple of worthwhile efforts here, but for the most part it is completely forgettable.
If I had been paying attention to Dylan at this point, I’m sure I would have shared in the disappointment of this album. It is chock full o’ guest stars (George Harrison, Stevie Ray Vaughan, David Crosby, Elton John, Slash….) and was produced by Don Was, who was a hot commodity at the time (working with Elton John, Iggy Pop, Bonnie Raitt, and the B-52s). Some critics, notably Robert Christgau, really liked this album. One thing I have learned so far this year is that if Christgau says something is white, I’m positive that it’s black – we could not disagree more fundamentally on Dylan (I just watched a documentary about Dylan’s career in the 1980s and Christgau is in it and every single time he said something I disagreed with it).
Two of the songs here – “Born in Time” and “God Knows” – were left-overs from Oh Mercy. Not surprisingly, I would argue that they are two of the three good songs on this ten song misfire. Let’s take a look:
- “Wiggle Wiggle”. This is the song that regularly winds up at the top of “Worst Dylan Song Ever” listicles. It isn’t that – it isn’t even the worst song on this album – but it isn’t really very good either. Dylan dedicated this album to his young daughter, and “Wiggle Wiggle” is sort of a children’s song (only sort of, though) and, well, it seems few people want that from Dylan. Especially as the lead song on the album. I think that this would receive a lot less hate if it occupied, for instance, the spot “Handy Dandy” does. Which is to say that by the time people got to the song, they’d already mentally quit on the album. Slash plays guitar on this and he later covered it.
- “Under the Red Sky”. Also, I think, a children’s song. Dylan repeats the first two lines of each verse in a kind of nod to traditional songs, and the lyrics are very straightforward and fairy-tale like, including the old man in the moon: “Let the wind blow low, let the wind blow high / One day the little boy and the little girl were both baked in a pie”. To me this song doesn’t amount to much. George Harrison plays the slide guitar here.
- “Unbelievable”. I wrote about this the other day. I think that this is the best song on the album, but it’s not a great song. Nice little piece of boogie boogie blues and that’s about it.
- “Born in Time”. Bruce Hornsby is on the piano on this one. I think this is alright. It would probably have fit better on Oh Mercy, and that might have played up its gravitas a little better.
- “TV Talking Song”. I can’t stand this. Dylan singing about the evils of television. I hate it musically, lyrically, ideologically. Whatever. This is the worst song on the album – it’s the only one that I immediately hit skip on when it comes on. Dreadful.
- “10,000 Men”. This is the song with Stevie Ray Vaughan playing guitar. I don’t think that I get this song or what it’s really trying to accomplish. Dylan has played it live only once (in 2000) and it is just sort of a blank for me.
- “2 x 2”. This is the song with Elton John on piano. Apparently I was there for the last time he ever played this live (in 1992 at Massey Hall in Toronto), so that is somewhat cool. I feel like this may be a great forgotten Dylan song. It’s a simple counting song, which, of course, go back centuries. It has religious overtones (“Two by two, they stepped into the ark”) but it is very elusive. I feel like this is a song that a lot of people probably like a lot more than I do.
- “God Knows”. Stevie Ray Vaughan is also on this one. I like this, but I don’t love it. I think it should probably be more aggressive musically. It is a classic Dylan fake-out song. The first lyric is “God knows you ain’t pretty”, which sets you up for an anti-love song, but it then turns out to be a fairly straightforward return to Religious Dylan from the late-1970s.
- “Handy Dandy”. Rebecca’s choice for worst song on the album, because it gets stuck in her head like an ear worm. It’s true, this is garbage. I have no proof, but this sounds to me like a rejected Wilburys song – it has that lighthearted goofy Americana tone, but it just doesn’t make anything from it. The problem with this song is that the “Handy Dandy” of the title is actually supposed to be a person….
- “Cats in the Well”. A very slight nothing to wrap it all up. If on Monday, when I’ve moved on to 1991, you ask me: “Hey, did Dylan ever do a song called “Cat’s in the Well”?” I’ll tell you no, he didn’t, because there is nothing to remember about this song as well. Wallpaper
It’s not his worst album by any stretch of the imagination, but it is half-assed. A genuine retreat from what he accomplished only a year ago with Oh Mercy.