Ranking Bob Dylan’s 39 Studio Albums- #35: Under A Red Sky [1990}
The countdown so far- #39- Dylan 1973 / #38: Down In The Groove- 1988/ #37- Knocked Out Loaded -1986/ #36- Christmas In The Heart- 2009. At #35- Under A Red Sky 1990- 2 stars.
There were big expectations after Bob’s 1989 comeback album- Oh Mercy- Dylan’s best album from the 1980’s. That made this album all the more disappointing. On paper it looked promising- produced by Don and David Was and musicians playing on the album included such stars as David Crosby, Elton Hercules John, Bruce Hornsby, Slash, superstar session player Al Kooper, the Vaughan brothers- Stevie Ray and Jimmie and on slide guitar his buddy from the Wilbury’s- Beatle George Harrison. It goes to show and all-star cast doesn’t necessarily always jell.
Dylan would later be quoted of saying about Under The Red Sky in a 2006 Rolling Stone interview- ” At the same time I was doing a Wilburys record.. then I’d go down and see Don Was, and I felt like I was walking into a wall. He’d have a different band for me to play with every day, a lot of all-stars, for no particular purpose. Back then I wasn’t bringing anything into the studio, I was completely disillusioned. There were too many people in the room, too many musicians, too many egos, ego driven musicians that just wanted to play their thing.”
Dylan would later himself disown the album as a disappointment. He would say that he’d go in every day to record and new musicians were there to play with him. No continuity. It was also at this time that Dylan was going through a period of disillusion with the music industry itself. When you look at his albums in chronological order- after Infidels in 1983- up his comeback album Time Out Of Mind in 1997- he released seven albums- there is only one of those seven which I would give better than a 3 star review to- that would be Oh Mercy in 1989. He was suffering from writers block in this period. After Under The Red Sky- he would go seven years without releasing an album of new material- the two albums released in that period were albums of old covers. I was talking to my brother the other day- he is also a big Dylan fan and I told him of this project- Dylan -worst to first and his first reaction was that Under The Red Sky was the worst.
There are ten songs on this album -all written by Bob Dylan. Again that is promising- but the problem- the album was dedicated to Gabby Goo Goo- which was the nickname for Bob’s then four year old daughter- and some of the songs were written in nursery rhyme style. The lead- off track “Wiggle Wiggle” is a strong candidate for the worst Dylan song ever.
In the past couple weeks I’ve listened to this a dozen times or more- it isn’t as bad as I thought upon release in 1990 but it is no better than mediocre. My favorite songs are the title track- Under The Red Sky- which Bob has played often over the years in concert and “Handy Dandy”- which featured Al Kooper on keyboards- just like he was on “Like A Rolling Stone” all those years ago. To throw in a couple others that I kind of like “Unbelievable” and “Born In Time.” Overall the album lacks direction- and Dylan’s great songwriting. This is one of those albums- that isn’t horrible by any means but uninspiring. One of Dylan’s forgettable efforts but certainly better than the ones I have ranked lower.