"People can learn everything about me through my songs, if they know where to look. They can juxtapose them with certain other songs and draw a clear picture." Bob Dylan 1990.
For any artist riding high on the critical acclaim and commercial success of an album like "Oh Mercy" the path of least resistance would be a follow up album of similar material. Bob Dylan has never been one to follow the path of least resistance, and consequently, "Under The Red Sky" which was released in September 1990 is a very different animal. Dylan turned to brothers Don and David Was to produce his new album and it turned out to be an inspired choice. Musicians in their own right (Don Was plays bass guitar on six of the ten tracks), the Was brothers were as well known for their work in the black music scene as for their own band Was (Not Was). The first session in early January of 1990 was encouraging, with four songs being recorded, one of which was "God Knows" an out-take from "Oh Mercy" that Dylan and Daniel Lanois had had problems getting right. It also gave problems here, but the other three songs ("10,000 Men" "Handy Dandy" and "Cat's In The Well") "...went much smoother" according to Don Was. Touring commitments took Dylan to South America and Europe in late January and early February and he returned to Los Angeles in March to complete the recording sessions. These did not go as smoothly and several lyrical rewrites and overdubs were required, as well as the use of such diverse musicians as old friends Elton John, George Harrison and Al Kooper, along with Slash, guitarist from Guns 'n' Roses. Dylan even had to fall back on "Born In Time" another out-take from the "Oh Mercy" sessions. The end result was an album that came in for much unfair criticism, largely due to its leaning heavily on nursery rhyme themes, the main offender being the title track. However, the stripped down production values coupled with Dylan's confident, self assured vocals combined to make a strong, interesting, if very different album.
Paul Williams, who has written extensively about Dylan as a performing artist says that "Wiggle Wiggle" gives the album "...a really wonderful beginning." I'm not sure that I can agree with him, but whether you think it is about fishing (which has been suggested) or whether you think it is loaded with sexual innuendo or just an amusing piece of nonsense, as the saying goes, you pays your money etc. I'm more inclined to agree with Paul Evans, who in his Rolling Stone review said "It's disheartening to find the writer of "Visions Of Johanna"...coming up with titles like "Wiggle Wiggle"" and when I first heard this track I thought that the rest of the album can only get better. Fortunately I was right, "Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle like a bowl of soup/Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle like a rolling hoop" is hardly the stuff of legends. Oddly, Dylan debuted this song at his marathon Toad's Place gig in New Haven on January 12th and again two days later at Penn. State University, where he introduced it as "...a new song," since then it seems to have disappeared from his repertoire.
Bob Dylan: Guitar, Vocals/ Slash: Guitar/ David Linley: Guitar/ Jamie Muhoberac: Organ: Randy Jackson: Bass/ Kenny Aronoff: Drums
The title track is without doubt an odd song, but it has a compelling intensity about it that grows on you after a few hearings. George Harrison's slide guitar and Al Kooper's organ perfectly complement Dylan's gruff but passionate delivery of this song that is rich in nursery rhyme imagery. It is easy to see why this song was ridiculed as being a nonsensical joke, but it has a depth to it that rewards sustained listening. It is the only song from this album to appear regularly in concert, it was included in 1994's "Greatest Hits Vol.3," and Dylan told Don Was "It's about my hometown..." The underlying menace of the empty promises of "...everything for you is gonna be new" and "...you'll have a diamond as big as your shoe" is realized with the childish horror of "One day the little boy and the little girl were both baked in a pie." These images, coupled with the "...key to the kingdom," "..the man in the moon" and the "...blind horse that leads you around" all seemed to be pointing Dylan in a new direction.
Bob Dylan: Acoustic Guitar, Vocals/ George Harrison: Slide Guitar/ Waddy Watchel: Guitar: Al Kooper: Keyboards/ Don Was: Bass/ Kenny Aronoff: Drums
The recorded version of "Unbelievable," bears little resemblance to the original version (it was rewritten at the overdubbing stage), and it sees Dylan in his favourite territory, materialism against spirituality. He has written better songs on this subject, not surprisingly in his so called Christian period of the late seventies and early eighties, but this remains one of the stranger songs on the album. "They said it was the land of milk and honey/Now they say it's the land of money" he tells us in one of his more prosaic lines. The song rocks along at a great pace, with some inspired drumming from Kenny Aronoff, as Dylan treats us to some of his off the wall observations, "You go north and you go south/Just like bait in the fish's mouth." Sadly, the lyrics of the song don't really go anywhere, and we are left wondering what it is really all about.
Bob Dylan: Acoustic Guitar, Harp, Vocals/ Waddy Watchel: Guitar/ Al Kooper: Keyboards: Don Was: Bass/ Kenny Aronoff: Drums
One of the best things about "Born In Time" is David Crosby's backing vocal, and one of the most surprising is that Dylan can play the accordion. This is one of the best songs on the album, and one of Dylan's most underrated. The evocative opening lines "...the blinking stardust of a pale blue light/You're comin' through to me in black and white/When we were made of dreams" pull you right into the song. There is plenty of emotion here, and this type of writing had been sadly lacking in Dylan's work of late, listen to the way he sings "Oh babe, that fire/Is still smokin'" and we get a flash of the old descriptive Dylan with "You were snow, you were rain/You were striped, you were plain" as he relates a multi-faceted relationship. A fine song, perhaps out of place here as it does not sit easily in the overall theme of the album, but there are some great touches, in the final verse, the phrase "...the foggy web of destiny" echoes a line from one of Dylan's classics, "Mr. Tambourine Man."
Bob Dylan: Accordion, Vocals/ David Crosby: Background Vocals/ Bruce Hornsby: Piano: Robben Ford: Guitar/ Randy Jackson: Bass/ Kenny Aronoff: Drums/ Paulinho Da Costa: Percussion
Whether "T.V. Talkin' Song" is based on real events or whether it is the product of Dylan's fertile mind, and why he should be so down on television is anyone's guess. He uses the analogy of an orator in London's Hyde Park (Speaker's Corner, that bastion of free speech) preaching about how insidious television is "If you've never seen one its a blessing in disguise" he says, and warns that "It will destroy your family, your happy home is gone/No-one can protect you from it once you turn it on." All this is, of course completely over the top, and Dylan gets away with it by hiding behind the third person of the song, falling back on his Christian ideals of a past era, he reminds us that the mind is a temple and we should "...keep it beautiful and free/Don't let an egg get laid in it by something you can't see." Perhaps not surprisingly, the crowd turns on the speaker and a riot ensues, and the irony of the whole situation is that "The T.V. crew was there to film it, they jumped right over me/Later on that evening, I watched it on T.V." This is not the first time that Dylan has used this ploy in ending a story/song, a similar method was employed in 1976's "Black Diamond Bay," but "T.V. Talkin' Song" had a far more sinister ending in its original version, with the speaker being hanged from a lamp-post. Don Was for one was not convinced that the new ending worked "I didn't think he was improving on it after a certain point" he said, "...I think it lost something."
Bob Dylan: Guitar, Vocals/ Bruce Hornsby: Piano/ Robben Ford: Guitar/ Randy Jackson: Bass: Kenny Aronoff: Drums
"10,000 Men" and "2 X 2" are the two weakest tracks on the album. The former, as far as I can see makes absolutely no sense whatsoever, the repetition of "Ten thousand men" (and later, women) with their various coloured clothing and unrelated activities is totally baffling. We are back in the realms of nursery rhyme and children's story telling here, with lines like "Drummin' in the morning, in the evening they'll be coming for you" and "Hey, who could your lover be?/Let me eat off his head so you can really see" and of course the reference to "The Grand Old Duke Of York" and his ten thousand men. But strangest of all is the final verse, "Ooh, baby, thank you for my tea/Baby thank you for my tea/It's so sweet of you to be so nice to me" which seems added on as an afterthought, assuming of course that there was any thought at all behind this song.
Bob Dylan: Piano, Vocals/ Jimmy Vaughan: Guitar/ Stevie Ray Vaughan: Guitar: David Lindley: Slide Guitar/ Jamie Muhoberac: Organ/ Don Was: Bass/ Kenny Aronoff: Drums
The same applies to "2 X 2" which has the distinct feeling of being made up on the spur of the moment, and Clinton Heylin calls it "...an incantation best left to Sunday school teachers," a sentiment that I cannot argue with. Again, the song relies heavily on childish rhymes and silly jokes, "Nine by nine, they drank the wine/Ten by ten they drank it again" is particularly reminiscent of playground hilarity. This song may have its roots in "Man Gave Names To The Animals" that I always felt was out of place on "Slow Train Coming" and perhaps it took Dylan an entire decade to get it out of his system, but this, along with the preceding track and "Wiggle Wiggle" is what cheapens the album.
Bob Dylan: Acoustic Guitar, Vocals/ David Crosby: Background Vocals/ Elton John: Piano: David Lindley: Bouzouki/ Randy Jackson: Bass/ Kenny Aronoff: Drums: Paulinho Da Costa: Percussion
Considering its lengthy gestation, "God Knows" sounds more spontaneous than it ought to. With its recurrent theme, this song could have failed dismally and fallen into the yawn, so what? category, but the short line structure and Dylan's vocal (possibly the best on the album) manage to keep it interesting. The theme is by no means new, and we find Dylan back in the pulpit with "God knows there's gonna be no more water/But fire next time" but there is a calm serenity about the couplet "God knows the secrets of your heart/He'll tell them to you when your asleep." This is the Dylan of 1979 and he deftly avoids the trap of preachiness as he did then. Many of the sentiments state the obvious, but he gets away with it because of the subtlety of his approach "God knows it's fragile/God knows everything" and "God knows it's terrifying/God sees it all unfold" are the best examples of this. And at the end he cannot resist another nursery rhyme allusion with the final "God knows we can get all the way from here to there/Even if we've got to walk a million miles by candlelight," a direct steal from "How Many Miles To Babylon?"
Bob Dylan: Piano, Vocals/ Stevie Ray Vaughan: Lead Guitar/ David Lindley: Slide Guitar: Jamie Muhoberac: Organ/ Don Was: Bass/ Kenny Aronoff: Drums/ Paulinho Da Costa: Percussion
"Handy Dandy" is quite simply, brilliant. Once you get past Al Kooper's introduction where he sounds like he is trading on past glories, this is the high point of the album. Whether the song is autobiographical or whether Dylan just wants us to think that it is, is irrelevant. Witty, thought provoking and well performed, this is about the only track where he seems to be enjoying himself, listen to the superb delivery of "Handy dandy, if every bone in his body was broken he would never admit it" and the swaggering bravado of "...What are you afraid of?/He'll say, Nothin' neither 'live nor dead." But for all the bluster and arrogance, there is an undercurrent of loneliness and insularity in some of the paradoxes "...he got a basket of flowers and bag full of sorrow" and "He finishes his drink, he gets up from the table he says/Okay, boys, I'll see you tomorrow" are quite striking, but right in the middle we get "He's got that fortress on the mountain/With no doors, no windows, no thieves can break in" which may well be one of the most transparent lines that Dylan has ever written. "Handy Dandy" is a great song that will probably be overlooked because of the company that it is in, and also because Dylan chooses not to play it live.
Bob Dylan: Piano, Vocals/ Jimmy Vaughan: Guitar/ Al Kooper: Organ/ Don Was: Bass: Kenny Aronoff: Drums/ Paulinho Da Costa: Percussion/ Sweet Pea Atkinson, Sir Harry Bowens, Donald Ray Mitchell and David Was: Background Vocals
"Cat's In The Well" is probably the best example of what Dylan was trying to do with this album. The idea, though not original (think in terms of Orwell's Animal Farm) works well, and there are some lovely touches "...the gentle lady is asleep/She ain't hearin' a thing, the silence is a-stickin' her deep" is just wonderful. Pappa, presumably the farmer, is also oblivious to the apocalyptic events that are about to occur "...pappa is reading the news/His hair is falling out and all of his daughters need shoes" and the line "Cat's in the well and the barn is full of bull" has to be a joke. There is much scene setting here, with "...the dogs are going to war" and "...the leaves are starting to fall" but much like 1965's "Desolation Row" the threatened events never actually occur. The final line is a neat touch, "Goodnight, my love, may the lord have mercy on us all" is a signing off of the song and the album. Certainly one of the better songs here, it surprisingly only got its live debut in 1992 in Australia, but since then it often appears at Dylan concerts.
Bob Dylan: Piano, Vocals/ Jimmy Vaughan: Lead Guitar/ Stevie Ray Vaughan: Guitar: David Lindley: Slide Guitar/ Jamie Muhoberac: Organ/ Don Was: Bass/ Kenny Aronoff: Drums: David McMurray: Sax/ Rayse Biggs: Trumpet
Early 1990 was a positive time for Dylan. On January 12th he played a marathon gig at New Haven's Toad's Place where he performed four one hour sets, playing fifty songs, chatting with his audience and taking requests. His short "Fastbreak" tour of Paris and London was well received and he was relaxed on stage, being uncharacteristically interactive with his audience. "Oh Mercy" and the first Traveling Wilburys album (released a year earlier) had both received critical acclaim and were selling well, and the recording sessions for the second Wilburys album (amusingly titled Vol 3) in April had been productive. He had performed three songs at Roy Orbison's Tribute concert (Orbison had died the previous December aged fifty two) on February 24th in Los Angeles and appeared as a special guest at a Tom Petty concert there on March 1st. With the recording sessions wrapped up and the album in the can, Dylan went back on the road, touring Canada, northern Europe and then the States. "Under The Red Sky" was released on September 11th 1990, and the reviews were pretty poor, with most people concentrating on the childish nature of the lyrics. Paul Evans, writing in Rolling Stone called it "...at best, workmanlike; at worst, perfunctory" and that Dylan was "...taking it easy. Sad to say, he's taking it far too easy." Allan Jones in the British Melody Maker said that many would find it unlistenable, and that it "...has already come in for a fair amount of ridicule. And for sure it will seem to many a sharp disappointment after Oh Mercy, whose brooding introspection and melancholy reflections it puckishly refuses to echo or pursue." He did however go on to say that once comparisons had stopped being made, the album and the Was brothers production of it would be seen in a better light. More positively, Michael Gray, often one of Dylan's harshest critics, was kinder
"...the core of the album is an adventure into the poetic possibilities of nursery rhyme that is alert, fresh and imaginative, and an achievement that has gone entirely unrecognised." But it was this very point that had caused most of the negative response, most of which it has to be said was unwarranted. Apart from the two really bad tracks that were buried in the middle, and the opening "Wiggle Wiggle" the album stands up pretty well (I say this knowing that a lot of people really hate it). But all that aside, it would be seven years before Dylan released an album of new material, with his next two studio outings being "Good As I Been To You" in 1992 and "World Gone Wrong" in 1993, both of which consisted of cover versions. We would have to wait for 1997's brilliant "Time Out Of Mind" to see Dylan returning to his best form.