Under the Red Sky (1990)
Ever the unpredictable enigma, Dylan promptly stamped all over the good will built up by Oh Mercy by releasing this impossibly light and flimsy album which featured a host of star cameos (Elton John, Slash, George Harrison, Al Kooper, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and get this, David Crosby!) and a song called “Wiggle Wiggle” which is every bit as stupid as it sounds. The production is a step back towards the clean slickness of Slow Train. The lyrics are still very “list-based”, but now Dylan is making things even more formulaic by drawing on nursery rhymes. There is one really good song here, “Born in Time”, but there is a much better version on the Bootleg series. In fact, the same is true of many of the songs here. “God Knows” on the Bootleg series is awesome, you’ll find it on Volume 8: Tell Tale Signs. The problem with Under the Red Sky is not that it is bad – it’s a really enjoyable album to give a spin or two. The problem is that it is so light and inconsequential that there’s nothing to come back for. It has no lasting power. It’s a sugar puff of album, which may well be what Dylan intended.
Good As I Been To You (1992)
Speaking of unpredictable, after more than a decade of churning out these slickly produced albums, with this Dylan went down into his garage with an acoustic guitar and went back to basics to record his own versions of old folk songs, some of which were fairly obscure. So in a strange way, this is like a sequel to his very first album Bob Dylan. Although he didn’t write any of these songs, this sounds like his most intimate and personal album since Blood on the Tracks, and with the benefit of hindsight we can see that it was like a re-birth for him as an artist: reconnecting him with the material that inspired him in the first place. This album, and its successor, were both important for me in acting as a gateway to some of the awesome 1920s and 1930s folk artists that Dylan is covering here. For example, he mentions in the Mississippi Sheiks in the liner notes of World Gone Wrong. And I found out “Sitting on Top of the World” (on this album) was by them too. I remember – and this was back before the internet made everything easy – traipsing around Cardiff trying to find a single music shop that even had the Mississippi Sheiks on their system. It’s worth listening to their version of that song by the way, it’s incredible. Dylan’s is not at all bad either. His voice is notably altered here. It’s getting more worn now, not yet croaky, but showing serious signs of age – but that is not a detriment, it adds to these songs. Dylan’s guitar playing retains some of the punkish energy we find on his debut. There are some really great songs here: “Blackjack Davey”, “Little Maggie”, “Tomorrow Night”, “You’re Gonna Quit Me”, and “Diamond Joe”. This is just terrific stuff. It feels like the “real Dylan”, like he’d just be doing this sort of thing if he was left to his own devices. Johnny Cash’s late American Recordings are, correctly, given a lot of praise, but for some reason this amazing album is still slept on, perhaps because Cash was never a great writer and critics aren’t willing to heap praise on an album Bob didn’t pen. This is another “entry-point” – you could start your exploration of “late Dylan” here. His voice is in transition and the material is great.
World Gone Wrong (1994)
This is more of the same, only legend has it that Dylan recorded this on a cassette tape and sent that to Columbia, so it has some distortion in places. That “crackle” and poor audio quality actually enhances things. Also, Dylan’s liner notes were truly educational for someone with no previous exposure to pre-war American folk music. Dylan’s voice is even more world-weary here and even a little ghostly, eerie even – again, that serves to enhance the material. I think his song choices are better on this than on Good As I’ve Been To You. Where a lot of those songs were up-tempo, these are a more completive and contain more vivid imagery. “Blood in My Eyes” is a great example. That doesn’t mean that Bob can’t still take it up a notch and he gives us an impassioned rendition of Blind Willie McTell’s “Broke Down Engine”. “Delia” with its refrain of “all the friends I ever had are gone” is just heart-breaking. And one of my all-time favourite Dylan tracks “Two Soldiers” tells the tale of two soldiers going off to war and then only one of them coming back. This is just fantastic – like John Wesley Harding, it’s one of those albums that always sounds like you’re the only person on earth listening to it. Lost songs from a forgotten age being sung by this eerie ghostly voice. A masterpiece that is probably Dylan’s most underrated album period.
Time Out of Mind (1997)
For this album, widely touted as a “comeback” from the critics who’d ignored Good As I Been to You and World Gone Wrong, Dylan brought back producer Daniel Lanois who was able to harnass the new ghostly quality of our aging hero’s voice to stunning effect. This would be the place that the “late period” of Dylan’s career starts in earnest. He’s now adapting his ragged voice to enhance these songs of mortality, pain, regret and increasing disillusionment. The retreat to pre-war acoustic blues and folk seemed to have rejuvenated Dylan the song writer who really hits it out of the park here with his strongest suite of songs in a long time. “Love Sick” is by turns terse and biting then lonely and desperate, moving quickly from bitter hatred and regret to yearning and remorse. It sets the tone for the album: a man, unsure of himself, and coming to terms with being old, who can’t quite decide if he’s done with women or if he wants to keep giving it a shot. It’s obvious he’s been dumped recently: “Standing in the Doorway” and “Million Miles” make it fairly explicit. At times he feels down and out and resigned to it. On “Trying to Get to Heaven”, he may even he willing death to come to him. This all reaches a breaking point on the towering “Not Dark Yet” where he’s almost completely bereft of hope and is close to giving up completely:
I was born here and I’ll die here against my will
I know it looks like I’m moving, but I’m standing still
Every nerve in my body is so vacant and numb
I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from
Don’t even hear a murmur of a prayer
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there
Someone isn’t very happy, Dylan is seldom more despairing than he is here. But just when everything seems lost, “Cold Irons Bound” comes crashing in, and although the message is more or less the same – that he’s been left hurt and with a sense of nothingness after losing this woman – the tone changes from resignation to defiance and a refusal to give up: “I tried to love and protect you because I cared / I’m gonna remember forever the joy that we shared”. Incidentally, I much prefer the rockier version of “Cold Irons Bound” that can be found on the Masked and Anonymous soundtrack, mainly because I think it brings out this refusal to lie down more and this is one song on which Daniel Lanois’s atmospheric production is a hindrance rather than an enhancement. On “Make You Feel My Love”, there’s one last desperate cry of love – and although many have criticised its so-called sentimalised postcard lyrics, I think it’s a really lovely song. It was sung at my wedding. Then there’s “Can’t Wait”, which is the first song on which Dylan is really pushing his new voice in new and interesting ways. “The air burnnnnns” he growls, as he moves through this desolate landscape of grey skies and graveyards condemned to a purgatory of loving a woman he’s lost forever. Finally, there’s “Highlands”, a 16-minute epic closer on which he shows a welcome lighter side after the general gloominess that pervades the rest of the album. The humour is jet black, and the tone resigned, distant, beyond caring (“Feel like I’m drifting / Drifting from scene to scene”, “I got new eyes / Everything looks far away”). Here’s a typically fed-up stanza:
Insanity is smashing up against my soul
You can say I was on anything but a roll
If I had a conscience, well, I just might blow my top
What would I do with it anyway
Maybe take it to the pawn shop
This is a mode for Dylan. It’s a song he couldn’t have written as a young man. And he would go on to perfect it in my view on a song that doesn’t appear on a studio album, but on the Wonderboys soundtrack, “Things Have Changed”, incidentally a song for which he also won an Oscar. I’d recommend giving that a whirl once you’re done with Time Out of Mind, the first of his late masterpieces.
Next up: Dylan in the 2000s