on 9 October 2012
By the late 1980s, the once sacrosanct Bob Dylan had reached the lowest point of his career. During the mid 1960s, he was untouchable, a critical darling, and on a creative roll that has not been seen since. Things had changed drastically in twenty years. By the end of the 1980s, before the release of OH MERCY, many people thought he finally gave up the ghost creatively. While in some respects Dylan's 80s material is unjustly crucified, in other respects the critical assault was totally accurate about how bad he really got during that decade.
DOWN IN THE GROOVE is one of the prime examples of how badly Dylan's art had decayed. DOWN bears the dubious distinction as being the worst studio album in Dylan's catalogue. While Columbia's revenge album DYLAN from 1973 is arguably worst, at least Dylan didn't sanction that release. This album, however, is truly the bottom of the barrel. Dylan lost all artistic direction during this era of his career.
Just for a little context, by 1988 a lot of people had lost faith in Dylan. He hadn't released a decent record in years. Critics and fans overall found EB, his album from 1985, guilty of glitzy production and bad, dated arrangements, a consensus that has only grown stronger in the ensuing (though for my money, EB is as good as anything he's recorded post 1975). Critics panned his 1986 album, KNOCKED OUT LOADED, which barely dented the charts . In 1987, he started in a movie that was so bad it was never released stateside ("Hearts of Fire"), though the soundtrack had some decent songs. That same year, he did a notoriously bad tour with the Grateful Dead. Then in 1988, he released this dismal album. Things were looking pretty bleak for the Dylan faithful.
DOWN IN THE GROOVE is something of a sequel to the other critically reviled studio record Dylan released two years earlier, the aforementioned KNOCKED OUT LOADED. Unlike KOL, DOWN never raises above mediocrity. If anything, DOWN proves that KOL's methodology was not random. KOL pulled songs from several different recording sessions spread out over several years, with each track having a different backing band and filled with collaborators. The only real difference in this regard is DOWN's recording sessions were closer together, but still spread out with different backing bands.
DOWN, unlike its predecessor KOL, which had a number of highlights, is almost entirely bad. KOL has a number of songs that are just engaging, even though there are a couple that are flat out bad. While nothing on DOWN matches the horror of the worst moments of KOL, almost nothing on DOWN reaches the high, or even the enjoyable, moments on KOL either.
DOWN is just filled with simplistic, generic music and obscure covers from Dylan's life. Mostly, though, these covers are uninspiring and forgettable. The first half of the album fares the worst, filled with boring, generic arrangments that are never grating on the ears, but also never truly memorable. The second half plays better than the first half, with a few nice tracks sprinkled throughout. The entire album is filled with boring, generic synths, guitars, drums, and basic, run of the mill instrumentation.
There are only two Dylan originals here. "Death is not the End," an INFIDELS outtake, is very simple and a mildly pleasant song, though never one of my favorite. The song is a 1983 recording with some backup vocals overdubbed in 1988. "Had a Dream About You Baby," like the rest of the album, has that distasteful 1980s aura of Dylan being truly out of ideas. First recorded and released for the "Hearts of Fire" soundtrack, Dylan used an alternate recording for DOWN.
The other two Dylan songs, cowritten with Robert Hunter, The Grateful Dead's official lyricist, are "Silvio" and "Ugliest Girl in the World." Brent Mydland, Weir, and Garcia do backup vocals on "Silvio," easily the best song on the album. "Ugliest Girl in the World," like most novelity tracks, may be funny the first couple of times but there's nothing to return too. "Ugliest Girl" isn't even that funny to begin with, and sounds so bad that maybe even the Dead rejected it.
Despite how damning this review is, there are some bright spots to DOWN. For one, "Shenendoah" ranks among his best interpretations of traditional songs he ever recorded. "Rank Strangers to Me" is a nice little number. "Let's Stick Together" sounds like a companion to KOL's "You Wanna Ramble," if not nearly as memorable.
What's really sad is while DOWN sounds truly uninspired, there are several songs recorded during this era which would not only strengthen the album, but redeem it from being truly despicable to at least a "below average" Dylan album, a step up, in this instance. There are a number of outtakes that would change the entire record. "The Usual" and "Night After Night," both appearing on the "Hearts of Fire" soundtrack, are pretty good songs, better than eight of the ten songs on this record. "Who Loves You More", a fantastic outtake from EB, would have fit in well here, as would the other EB outtake "Freedom For the Stallion." "Important Words", which was released accidentally on the Argentina version of DOWN, was set to be released but was removed, and would have assisted the record.
The real sadness, to me anyway, is the three best songs Dylan recorded during 1986-1987 are almost wholly unknown to the general record buying public, and all three should have been on here. The first is "Band of the Hand," a 1986 song which appears on a soundtrack to the movie of the same name. The song recalls SHOT OF LOVE's "Groom's Still Waiting at the Altar," is one of the most hard-rocking, memorable songs Dylan wrote in the last thirty five years. It should not be consigned to a forgotten soundtrack to a forgotten movie. The second song is the very obscure "Hearts of Fire" outtake "To Fall In Love With You," a five minute gut wrenching work that is better than anything on DOWN or KOL, with maybe the exception of "Brownsville Girl." That song ranks among Dylan's best unreleased material. The third outtake is the Solomon Burke cover "Sidewalks, Fences, and Walls", an outtake that began circulating in February 2007. It blows KOL and DOWN covers out of the water.
Ultimately, DOWN shows us that even our heroes are only human after all. While Dylan purposefully designed the 1970 release SELF-PORTRAIT as a dovetail to get his radical fans off his back, by 1988, it's clear that he's simply running out of steam. With Dylan flooding the market with so many subpar records and products, it's clear he had no audience he needed to shed anyway, because by 1988 a lot of people stopped caring about Dylan. While nothing is absolutely horrible about DOWN, there is hardly anything good to say, which is a shocking statement in and of itself about a Dylan album.
This is a depressing album. A really depressing album. How the mighty have fallen.