You can get hooked on the wrong album at the right time – if you’re new to an artist with back-catalogue you sometimes used to put yourself through the pain of really working hard to appreciate their dud-new-album because it arrived right at the time when you were first hooked. Make sense? Well, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it when it comes to Bob Dylan’s 27th studio album.
I had about the best introduction to a revered songwriter like Dylan that a young kid could have – I heard the Masterpieces compilation and then the first three volumes of the now long-running Bootleg Series. I still think, some days, that Bootleg Series Vols 1-3 (Rare and Unreleased) 1961-1991 is the very best thing to explain Dylan’s genius. If you don’t get that fuck off – don’t worry about it, stop trying. It’s all there. And if it’s not for you shake hands and don’t let the fucking door hit you.
So. I had that. I knew a few other songs – a lot of Infidels had made its way to me though I was yet to hear the whole thing and a few other radio hits (like Tight Connections and of course The Traveling Wilburys – thank you mum and dad).
And then one of my brother’s friends, a massive Dylan fan, gave me a copy of the latest studio album – Under The Red Sky. He had bought it on CD and in some deal had been given the cassette tape too. I still played tapes. I was in!
The tracklisting was all new to me, none of these songs were hits. But the credits revealed a bunch of guest stars and studio-greats. I was into it because of who was on it. Guitar solos by Slash and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
First song: “Wiggle wiggle wiggle…”
I reckon most people that bag this album have just read about it – they haven’t heard it. Yes, it’s fucking laughable that the rock’n’roll poet of his generation started the album with that (I loved it when he started one of his shows in the mid-00s with it!) But some of the songs rise above that, and even when they don’t – quite – there’s a theory.
This album was dedicated to Dylan’s then four year old daughter. There’s a belief that some of the lyrics (“one day the little boy and the little girl were both baked in a pie”) were to interest her; this is Bob’s album for kids.
Hey, even if that’s not quite true – and as is always his way there’s no actual word from Bob on this, just do the work and keep moving – it does make sense.
And if you take that “baked in a pie” clanger out from the title track it’s a great song. Lovely creamy organ, a beautiful feel.
T.V Talkin’ Song is as good as a lot of what’s on Infidels, Unbelievable is a decent throwaway of Wilburys-style near-rockabilly. And there are guest-star moments that help save this album – Stevie Ray Vaughan in some of his final sessions assisting on God Knows.
Look, I’m not saying this album is good. It’s just not as shit as some people believe. It’s half of a pretty good album and it’s better than many other Dylan albums from around this time.
It’s just not really up to much when you think of it following on from Oh Mercy.
It’s notable, too, for signalling the end of Dylan chasing his tale with rock-by-numbers for the 80s and 90s; trying to keep up with the charts. The reinvention was coming. We didn’t know that when hearing this album at the time. But it was in the post. And worth the wait. Worth its weight.
I returned to this album recently – bought a copy on vinyl and started playing it a lot. And sifting around finding sessions and outtakes – there’s some gold that wasn’t on the album, always the way with Dylan.
Maybe one day that’ll all make it to the Bootleg Series and people will proclaim this a lost classic, or something approaching.