At the end of the 1980s, Dylan's most critically reviled decade, he went out on a high note, the critical darling OH MERCY. Expectations were running high that Dylan would continual the new found streak that he had started with OH MERCY. This proved to be not the case, however. Dylan dispensed with Lanois, hired Don Was for the producer, and recorded a brief, thirty five minute album comprised of some rather silly songs.
While OH MERCY sounded like the arty, coffee-house poet sound that the critics so desperately craved, with rich, atmospheric sound so rarely heard before from Dylan, UNDER THE RED SKY sounds more like Dylan calling up some old friends and well-known rockers and jamming to nursery rhymes. It sounds like someone just happened to record them than it does a serious and substantial release. Dylan, just like the rest of us, need a chance to blow steam and just have a good time, and that's what this record is: pure, simple minded fun. But this is a Dylan record, and he manages a couple of just fantastic songs (tellingly, one of the top songs here, "Born in Time", is an outtake to OH MERCY, and is as good as anything on that record).
Gianmarc Manzian, in an Amazon review from January 2000, said essentially that not everything Dylan records should be up for consideration in the next "Norton Anthoylogy of Literature," and bluesman recorded simple one or two chord rockers with simple rhymes and still made great music. Although I generally agree with Gianmarc Manzione in his Dylan reviews, his five star rating of this particular album, to me, seems a little over generous, to say the least. As for his comparison of it to BLONDE ON BLONDE, I can only shake my head at that comment. However, much of what he says holds true for this album. Not everything Dylan does should have to find a nice, little cozy literary allotment that anthologies generally tend to give artists. ("Now we come to Lord Byron, one of the leading romantic poets because . . ..")
Dylan's always been one for confounding expectations, and this is no exception. Coming off the heels of OH MERCY, Dylan's biggest critical success in years, this was immediately perceived as a disaster and essentially panned by critics and fans alike. It may have not received such harsh treatment as it did had it not come immediately after OH MERCY.
Dylan himself commented on the record being difficult to make and unfocused sessions. He was working on WILBURYS III (perversely the second and last album from that super group) during the day and recording this at night. Extremely unusal for Dylan as well was that the album featured a large number of celebrity cameos.
UNDER THE RED SKY, while far from a masterpiece, is a jaunty little record with loads of guest stars and sounds like Dylan's just having a high old time. The lyrics, considered by many to be banal coming from the man who wrote "Tangled Up in Blue," "Visions of Johanna," "Desolation Row," and literally dozens of others, do come across as childish and rather stupid - with the prerequisite in mind that everything Dylan does must be like the aforementioned songs.
Taken as a simple little record recorded in the spirit of fun and songs largely pertaining to children, this record is quite an enjoyable record and a very breezy one at that. "Wiggle Wiggle," "Under the Red Sky," "Born in Time," and "Handy Dandy" are my top tracks. The interpretation that "Handy Dandy" is about Ronald Reagan has quite a bit (i.e. textual evidence) going for it. Who says Dylan doesn't write political songs any more? And here of all places! It's a very good song. "Born in Time" was covered by Clapton on his (panned) PILGRIM CD. It's another good song. "Talkin' TV Song" is the most awkward song here, with a serious message to it that goes against the record's spirit. But it's an alright track in and of itself. "God Knows" is the great OH MERCY outtake, "Unbelievable" is as good as the OH MERCY material, and "Under the Red Sky" Dylan would return to in concert numerous times. Dylan seems to like the record, as he has sung "Cat's in the Well" as the opening song at his concerts for the past several years.
Coming from the man who gave us BLONDE ON BLONDE, he's almost inviting us to see if we can find any substance here. If you haven't heard, I'll tell you: there's about as much substance here as there is to cotton candy - and that's not necessarily a bad thing, as Gianmarc points out.
When it comes to longevity, this will be one of the first (along with KNOCKED OUT LOADED and DOWN IN THE GROOVE) to perish if any of Dylan's releases slip into obscurity. But while it's around and you just want some lighthearted music for your kids or your grandkids, give this a spin. Trust me, this won't be one of those that you spend all night trying to decipher meaning from Dylan's lyrics. But it will be one you can enjoy listening too for its uncharacteristic breeziness. While Dylan would nowhere near be the legendary icon that he is if all his music was this light, but hearing such featherweight music from his makes for a very interesting, if not necessarily great, or even good, record.
If you get out of the mindset that Gianmarc describes, it can be an enjoyable little record. If not, then prepare yourself to be disappointed. Just think, Dylan recorded a single album of lightweight, cotton candy music that doesn't have a lot of substance too it. Most, though to be fair not all, of Paul McCartney's solo career is made of cotton candy music. [Paul McCartney in his solo career recorded too many records to count that are insubstantial.]
(Dylan recorded the nursery rhyme "This Old Man", very much in the same vein as UNDER THE RED SKY, for the 1992 Aids benefit album FOR OUR CHILDREN, which also featured songs from Springsteen and McCartney.)