It’s a bad sign that even the most straightforward description of Bob Dylan‘s thirty-first album, Knocked Out Loaded, sounds like a parody. I mean, on this LP, Dylan co-writes a song with Carole Bayer Sager (“Under Your Spell”); collaborates with playwright Sam Shepard on an eleven-minute cinematic epic of Americana (“Brownsville Girl”); reworks a country-gospel standard as a lilting reggae ballad (“Precious Memories”); covers tunes by Kris Kristofferson (“They Killed Him”) and bluesman Little Junior Parker (“You Wanna Ramble”); teams up with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers for one number (“Got My Mind Made Up”); and tosses in a couple of what sound to be demos of tunes he wrote all by himself (“Driftin’ Too Far from Shore” and “Maybe Someday”). And the guests! Dave Stewart, Ron Wood, Al Kooper and T-Bone Burnett all turn up, accompanied by a gospel chorus and a children’s choir.
That this conceptual mess — the album includes no production credit, and for good reason — actually turns out to be likable is a miracle, perhaps the strongest argument Dylan’s yet made for the advantages of being born again. Because he evidently didn’t take Knocked Out Loaded at all seriously (the title itself, taken from the Carole Bayer Sager tune, is enough indication of that), Dylan sounds fresh and relaxed, singing with a gusto that recalls his best Sixties work.
On “You Wanna Ramble,” “Driftin’ Too Far from Shore” and “Maybe Someday,” Dylan’s pickup bands rock with loose-limbed blues-jàm fervor — they sound as if they’re having great fun. The steel drums on “Precious Memories” provide one of the album’s many small pleasures, as does the haunting, endlessly repeated melody that runs through “They Killed Him.” And while the ambitious “Brownsville Girl” wanders all over and never really gets where it wants to go, it’s sort of an interesting trip.
Still, Knocked Out Loaded is ultimately a depressing affair, because its slipshod, patchwork nature suggests that Dylan released this LP, not because he had anything in particular to say, but to cash in on his 1986 tour. Even worse, it suggests Dylan’s utter lack of artistic direction. Less bad than pointless, Knocked Out Loaded will prove most satisfying to those content to expect the very least from it.
This story is from the September 11th, 1986 issue of Rolling Stone.