Saturday, December 17, 2011

Dylan Album Project: Under the Red Sky

Under the Red Sky (1990)

Although Dylan was garnished with critical acclaim for Oh Mercy, he didn’t have the catapult back into the popular spotlight he’d hoped Lanois would be able to give him. So he went to another superstar producer, Don Was of Was (Not Was), who had recently had a huge hit with the B-52s’ Cosmic Thing. It was Was’s job to make the album a hit, which he attempted to do by bringing in a slew of guests stars to record with Dylan, including Slash, Elton John, George Harrison and Stevie Ray Vaughn, among others. Dylan, for his part, brought a group of songs unified around a theme: nursery rhymes. Dylan dedicated the album to Gabby Goo, a nickname for his daughter Desiree Gabrielle Dennis-Dylan, born out of Dylan’s second secret marriage that was not to become public knowledge for another decade after the album came out. One view is that the songs were written for her enjoyment, but many of them are dark-edged, just as many nursery rhymes also are. Certainly some of them are based on nursery rhymes. The title track conflates “Four and Twenty Blackbirds” and “The Man In the Moon.” “Handy Dandy” (which not only sounds a lot like “Like A Rolling Stone” but features the same organ player) originated out of Jacky Dandy, which opens “Handy spandy / Jacky Dandy,” but the fortress imagery is also suggestive of the rhyme “King Pippin.” “10,000 Men” alludes to “10,000 Men of Bedfordshire” in both text and theme. This is only a brief skimming, and certainly there is much more worthy of analysis. Some of the songs work and others it is hard to tell.

What is certain about this album is that the production didn’t work. Whether Dylan or Was is to blame is another story. Slash says that he recorded a fantastic solo for “Wiggle Wiggle” that Was enthused over but Dylan wanted left on the cutting room floor. I can’t imagine much making that song good, but more Slash couldn’t have made it much worse. The sound is both thin and cramped, and the whole thing seems canned and inorganic. Even though I realize it is a better album from an objective standpoint than the albums between Infidels and Oh Mercy, I find it less listenable than them nearly all of the time. I find that sad, because I suspect there are some songs I would really like on it.

Despite a truly bizarre music video made for ‘Unbelievable,” which features a pig with piercing hanging out with Bob Dylan and Molly Ringwald, the album was a major flop. Luckily, Dylan finally gave up trying to be popular, which is what allowed him to again become popular.

Best song: Under the Red Sky – George Harrison plays on this, and for that reason it sounds almost like a Traveling Wilbury’s outtake rather than a Dylan song.

Worst song: Wiggle, Wiggle – Basically, its about a penis. “Wiggle till it whispers, wiggle till it hums, wiggle till it answers, wiggle till it comes,” Eek! Well, at least it falls in a tradition I guess, even though dirty blues is a tradition Dylan usually does best to stay out of.

Notable live version: Cat’s In the Well – this has long been a concert favorite. Once a rarity, the last few years have found it being a semi-regular opener. I saw it in 2007 in Kansas City.

Rhymes: soup/hoop (“Wiggle, Wiggle”); stick/quick; dignified/sanctified/satisfied; civilized/analyzed/criticized (“Unbelievable”); pursuits/fruits (“TV Talkin’ Song”)

Images: “the blind horse that leads you around” (“Under the Red Sky”); “smoke that vine, beat that horse, and saddle up the drum” (“Unbelievable”); “the blinking stardust of a pale blue light” (“Born In Time”); “spilling my buttermilk, sweeping it up with a broom” (“10,000 Men”); “a bag full of sorrow” (“Handy Dandy”)

Axioms: “they used to say it was the land of milk and honey; now they say it’s the land of money;” “all the sweethearts you can hold are hanging on a tree” (“Unbelievable”); “who could your lover be? Let me eat off his head so you can really see!” (“10,000 Men”); “grief is showing its face; the world is being slaughtered and its such a bloody disgrace”; “back alley Sally is doing the American Jump” (“Cat’s In the Well”)

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