Lots of fine musicians play on Bob Dylan’s latest album Under the Red Sky : Elton John, Bruce Hornsby, the late Stevie Ray Vaughan, George Harrison, a host of top studio players who aren’t as famous but in fact do most of the work — it’s a long, long list. Trouble is, these people (even the stars) play on lots of other records, too, and the result is all too predictable. The boys sound both happy and professional. They maintain a wry, crisp sound, nicely matched to Dylan’s dry voice. But at the same time their playing seems entirely generic, as if they’d rock in the same blank but lively way for anyone who came along.
That drags the album down, especially since these days Dylan seems lost. He can’t tell us, as he once did, which way the wind blows; he’s tossed about by it too wildly himself. To make completely honest music, he’d need a band that mirrored his confusion. The last thing he ought to want are sidemen, no matter how good, who ignore the distress signals that come from both his songs and his singing.
The songs tend to be written like airtight nursery rhymes, riveted shut with phrases that relentlessly repeat. ”10,000 Men” is built from verses that tell us many enigmatic things 10,000 men (and, as the song proceeds, 10,000 women) once did; ”Wiggle Wiggle,” an annoying tune, belabors the bouncy word ”wiggle” 10 times (I counted) in each of its very short verses.
The content of the lyrics tries to run wild, but doesn’t get very far. ”Under the Red Sky,” one of the more evocative tunes on the album, tells what seem to be disconnected fairy tales: A boy and girl get baked in a pie; the man in the moon goes home; a river runs dry. In Dylan’s fiery ’60s songs, details that at first seemed just as random added up to incandescent revelation. Now they have no obvious meaning, except maybe as isolated symbols of distress. And when the import of a tune is clear, as in ”TV Talkin’ Song,” it’s far too obvious. We already know TV can mislead us; a man who once had the power to define an era is wasting our time if that’s all he can say.
You can hear the remnants of that power in Dylan’s voice. But at the same time, it’s plain that he no longer knows what to do with it. He sounds all at once angry, cold, coy, miserable — and resolutely shut off to any acknowledgment that he might feel that way. He opens up just once, in ”God Knows,” a song listing the many troubles of the world that God omnisciently sees. There Dylan sounds despairing, maybe because at last he’s speaking directly from his heart. C+