“Touch of Grey,” the song of rejuvenation and reconciliation that opens In the Dark, is a fairly obvious state-of-the-Dead message, from its bright melody to its “I will get by/I will survive” chorus. But another one of its lines – “Oh, well, a touch of grey kind of suits you anyway” – also speaks volumes. Unlike the Dead’s shaky output since their last memorable album, 1974’s From the Mars Hotel, this album bespeaks an effortlessness long absent from their oeuvre. The tragedy of the Dead’s recordings since then was that a band accustomed to doing everything its way was reduced to hiring name producers and covering “Dancing in the Street.” Records like 1978’s Shakedown Street and 1980’s Go to Heaven tried to fit the band into a slick pop-singles framework – even though hooks were never the group’s forte – and turned the Dead into something of a parody.
In the Dark, their first studio LP since Heaven, reverses that sorry trend. Its seven songs – averaging six minutes each, just like old times – hark back to the sprawling, easygoing charm of their hallowed American Beauty era. Despite nods to technology in the form of synthesizers, sound effects and a startling “programming” credit, this sounds more like a Dead record than anything they’ve done in years. Rather than trying to come across as “contemporary,” the band revels in its strengths: the kinetic rhythm section of Bill Kreutzmann, Mickey Hart and Phil Lesh (which, until now, has been ill served on record), Jerry Garcia’s sneaky, slinky guitar leads and an overall tightness that makes the band sound not a day over ten years old.
“Touch of Grey,” surely one of the sunniest songs the Dead have ever come up with, is merely one indication of the album’s success; although it’s a viable candidate for the group’s first hit, it’s much more relaxed than earlier Top Forty bids like “Alabama Getaway,” “I Need a Miracle” or their remake of “Good Lovin’.” Likewise, Garcia and Robert Hunter’s playful love song “When Push Comes to Shove” lets the band settle into a groove similar to a “Wanderer”-like romp, while the clashing guitars of the Bob Weir-led “Hell in a Bucket” evidence a more aggressive Dead than we’ve come to expect. The song also proffers a new band credo: “I may be going to hell in a bucket, babe/But at least I’m enjoying the ride.” Another Hunter-Garcia collaboration, “West L.A. Fadeaway,” is the album’s requisite shuffle.
Alas, a Dead album wouldn’t be complete without filler. Here, it’s in the form of “Tons of Steel,” an unremarkable train-as-woman song written and sung by raspy-voiced keyboardist Brent Mydland, and “Throwing Stones,” a preachy seven-minute diatribe that finds Weir unwisely griping about “the rich man in his summer home.” But it’s the rehabilitated Garcia, the album’s coproducer (with engineer John Cutler) and coauthor of four of its seven songs, who is clearly the linchpin of In the Dark. Nowhere is that more clear than on the finale, “Black Muddy River.” A stately Garcia-Hunter ballad that recalls the Grear Plains grandeur of the Band, it’s as wistful as “Touch of Grey” is upbeat, but it shares the same future-looks-bright outlook. “I will walk alone by the black muddy river,” croaks a world-weary Garcia, “and sing me a song of my own.” Singing their own song hasn’t always been the case with the aging Grateful Dead, but with In the Dark, they’re finally doing just that.