Even by Dylan standards, this album has had a strange, difficult birth. Its release was delayed for more than half a year, and the track listing was altered at least three times. If the musician credits are any indication, the songs that made the final cut come from half a dozen different recording sessions spread out over six years. A highly anticipated — if somewhat unlikely — collaboration with Full Force, the top Brooklyn hip-hop posse, turned out to be an old Infidels outtake, “Death Is Not the End,” newly garnished with some tasty but rather superfluous Full Force vocal harmonies. Dylan’s version of John Hiatt’s song “The Usual,” the one bright spot on the otherwise dismal Hearts of Fire soundtrack album, was dropped from an earlier version of Groove and replaced by another Dylan number from Hearts of Fire, the bluesy shuffle “Had a Dream About You, Baby.”
So aside from driving Dylanologists bananas — what is the Voice of a Generation up to? — what was the point of all the shuffling and delay? Down in the Groove is just as confusing, frustrating and intermittently fab now as it was in earlier incarnations. It begins and ends with strong covers, opening with Wilbert Harrison’s “Let’s Stick Together” (a good, raucous rocker with stuttering tremolo guitars and an aggressive Dylan vocal) and closing with the Stanley Brothers’ apocalyptic country hymn “Rank Strangers to Me” (a simple, heartfelt guitar-vocal performance with fusionesque glissando bass). But in between, it zigs and zags all over the place, one minute heading in a promising direction, like the striking, understated spirituality of “Death Is Not the End,” the next turning up a blind alley, like the anonymous garage boogie of “Sally Sue Brown,” which features ex-Pistol Steve Jones on guitar and former Clash bassist Paul Simonon, although to no special punk-rock effect.
The most annoying thing about Down in the Groove is that unlike Dylan’s last LP, Knocked Out Loaded, which was a bona fide mess, there is real possibility amid the chaos. “Silvio,” one of two numbers on the album co-written by Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, actually sounds more like Dylan fronting the Dead than the credits let on (Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir and Brent Mydland contribute background vocals). The song’s bright, rhythmic bounce and earthy folk-rock sound — sort of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” meets American Beauty — makes you wonder what might have happened if Dylan and the Dead had followed up their ’87 stadium tour with some serious studio work together. The best of Groove’s half a dozen cover versions also suggest that Dylan could indeed have a nifty Pin-Ups record in him if he put his mind to it. There is no mistaking the emotional vocal investment in his country-gospel treatment of the traditional folk song “Shenandoah” or the eerie morbidity of his delivery in “Ninety Miles an Hour (Down a Dead End Street”).
The most interesting thing about the album, on the other hand, is the fine print. Dylan obviously picked up a few tips on fan networking from the Grateful Dead; the inner-sleeve copy includes a mailing address for info on upcoming concerts, record releases, home videos and “preferential seating at concerts.” More questionable are the front-cover stickers; one reads, “A set of songs and ideas worthy of The Dylan legacy,” and lists the superstar session help — which smells of hard sell. Columbia also reminds us, not once but twice, that Dylan was a recent inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. What, lest we forget? Down in the Groove certainly makes you wonder where the middleage Dylan is bound; he still knows how to keep us guessing. But after all this time, no matter what he puts on record from here on out, he should never have to worry about being remembered for where he’s been — and what he left us along the way.
This story is from the July 14th, 1988 issue of Rolling Stone.