Bob's Big Box

Bob's Big Box
As a music lover who just turned 40, I thought it was about time I explored the back catalogue of Bob Dylan, an artist I'd largely ignored previously. Right then...

Saturday, 3 October 2015

32. Under The Red Sky (1990)

Under the Red Sky is a curious album.  A glance at the tracklisting reveals the rummest set of titles since the Basement Tapes; Handy Dandy, Cat's in the Well, 2 x 2 - all these, lyrics as well as song names, would have blended in well with those quirky, often nonsensical 1967 home recordings.  But of course it's now 1990 and the music these ten songs are set to is very different, being tight, radio-friendly, R&B-infused rock.

The album was produced by Bob himself (credited on the sleeve as 'Jack Frost') and rock/pop producers and childhood friends Don Fagenson and Davis Weiss, better known as the Was brothers.

Things start badly with Wiggle Wiggle (no, I'm not making this up), which for a song that presumably is about sex ("Wiggle 'til it whispers, wiggle 'til it hums, wiggle 'til it answers, wiggle 'til it comes") is distinctly unsexy, with the return of the doof-doof reverby drums and a total lack of funk or groove.  Even as Bob exhorts whoever he's talking to to "Wiggle wiggle wiggle like a swarm of bees" there's a distinct lack of humour too, and I'm left wondering what exactly the idea is behind this oddest of songs.  Maybe there isn't one, but oh mercy, at least it's short at just 2:10 minutes.

Things pick up with the title track.  The strange lyrical content continues, with nursery rhyme references galore, but the music is much better, with some great slide guitar, a much improved drum sound and some fine organ. In fact it sounded so good that I was immediately moved to look up who was playing on the record, and to my surprise a whole roster of star names was listed, including my teen crush Slash (who apparently played on Wiggle Wiggle but you could have fooled me), Elton John, Stevie Ray Vaughan, David Crosby, Al Kooper and George Harrison, the latter two providing the aforementioned organ and slide.  Bob joins in with some rather decent accordion on this second track, but his vocals are decidedly dodgy at times.  This probably wouldn't be as much of an issue if the words he were singing weren't so lame, but the combination of half-arsed delivery and half-written, repetitive lyrics spoils what could have been a really great song.

(Don't you think the guitar on the intro sounds a lot like Barbra Streisand's Woman in Love?)

Unbelievable is a neat little rocker, again with some great, lively organ from Kooper and solid drumming from Kenny Aronoff.  Dylan's voice is for the most part good, but it occasionally veers off into an inexpressive "going through the motions" manner, and when at the end he sings "It don't matter no more what you got to say", I believe him.  Born In Time is the only ballad on Under the Red Sky, and although Bob's singing is invested with plenty of crackly emotion, sometimes it's hard to discern, as if he's not properly facing the mic all the way through.  The song was originally intended for Oh Mercy and an outtake can be found on the Bootleg Series Vol. 8.  I actually prefer this newer version though, particularly for David Crosby's beautiful harmony vocals and some touching lyrics like "In the foggy web of destiny, you can have what's left of me".

Presumably inspired by a visit to Hyde Park, TV Talkin' Song is a story about Speakers' Corner, where an anti-television orator eventually causes a riot.  In an echo of Black Diamond Bay the observer watches the incident "later on that evening", ironically on his TV.  This song doesn't work well at all, the difference in quality between the band and the singer coming over like a karaoke session.  I think it would have been more successful had it been done as a talking blues, as its title suggests.  Perhaps it did start off this way but Dylan changed it for some reason.  It certainly wouldn't be his first instance of last minute self-sabotage.

We return to the realm of nursery rhyme on 10,000 Men, a single-take bluesy rocker that sees Bob's vocal all over the place, and ends with possibly the worst verse of the album:

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

2 x 2 is a counting song that has the feel of a spiritual, and benefits from Elton John's electric piano and some more lovely backing vocals courtesy of Crosby.

These last two songs mark the beginning of the second half of the album, which to me is by far the better side, especially as it contains my favourite track, a statement of faith called God Knows.  It begins gradually, slowly building momentum before bursting into a melodic, energetic rocker with powerful, bluesy guitar licks from Stevie Ray Vaughan.  Even Bob's wobbly warbling can't drag it down.  It's another leftover from Oh Mercy, and again I prefer this newer version, as the one on Bootleg Series Vol. 8 lacks the terrific intro and guitar riff.  Like a lot of songs on Under the Red Sky it seems as though Dylan wasn't sure how to end it, so as a result it doesn't fulfill its potential, simply fading out after three minutes.

The first ten seconds of Handy Dandy are thrilling and full of promise, mainly because Al Kooper's squealing organ intro is reminiscent of Like A Rolling Stone.  But then in come dull, thudding drums and some off-kilter accordion farts.  The promise is broken and the story of Handy Dandy (Prince? Reagan? Dylan himself?) with his "...stick in his hand and a pocket full of money" disappoints, becoming just so-so.  Luckily, closer Cat's in the Well is on hand to round off the album with some simple but dynamic R&B where Bob's accordion playing and his singing both sound full of vim.  Stevie Ray's brother Jimmy takes over lead guitar with an equal amount of spirit, and even the horse " goin' bumpety-bump". It's a great finish, and more often than not makes me want to put the record straight on again - perhaps skipping over the opener, though.

Under the Red Sky is a great sounding record with a fair share of decent tunes.  However, despite the presence of its star players, it still somehow lacks a spark, and has an anonymous, generic sound that really could be any set of talented session musicians.  Also, Dylan's vocals let him down; frequently unfocused and often set to Full Phlegm, they generally fail to get his message across, although when that message is "Wiggle wiggle wiggle like a bowl of soup", I don't suppose it really matters.  In fact some of the time he really does sound as if he's embarrassed by the words coming out of his mouth - and I don't blame him.

Having said this, I think that some of the criticisms used to write off the album at the time of its release were a bit unfair; those about "childish" or "nonsensical" lyrics.  Of course Under the Red Sky is full of them, but I bet if some of these songs had been recorded in a basement with a bunch of Bob's cool mates 25 years before, many fans and critics would be raving about their 'naive charm' and 'topsy-turvey nursery wit', or some such other bollocks about old, weird America.

I don't have a problem with the lyrics on their own, it's just that they don't sit well with the type of music underpinning them here.  If you can get over this curious dissonance, it's a really enjoyable record; if you can't, then it's still a pleasant noise to have playing inoffensively in the background. If the songwriting were as tight as the playing, and if Dylan had injected more energy into his delivery, Under the Red Sky would have been an incredible album.  As it stands, it's merely very good.

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  1. Brilliant review although you got the last sentence wrong. Should have been "It's merely very bad" xx

    1. There's much to like on it, Stephen. Go on , give it another spin and report back!

    2. There's much to like on it, Stephen. Go on , give it another spin and report back!

    3. You like it so much you said it twice!

  2. You're very generous to this record Mini; I just find it an unsubstantial mess I'm afraid. But you're not alone - Michael Gray devoted no less than 4 and 3 pages respectively of his Dylan Encyclopedia to the title track and Handy Dandy.

    1. Crikey, I wonder how he filled so many pages on what is pleasant, but thin gruel.

  3. Haven't heard this album in 20 years after all my CDs were stolen. I remember it being wretched. P.S.- I love this blog. I know it's early days yet, but here's hoping that when done with the BobBox, you continue on to his most recent disc!

    1. Give it another whirl, it might not be as terrible as you remember. Would like to know if you feel different about it. And yes, I intend to get Shadows In the Night when I'm done!