Oh Mercy, Bob Dylan’s 1989 album, showed the singer returning compellingly to form, flexing strengths ranging from the hot topicality of “Political World” to the blue, spare grace of “Where Teardrops Fall.” The latter song’s stripped-down, essential power suggested the simplifying strategies often adopted by artists in their maturity. Old masters sometimes pare their statements down stylistically to attain the mythic or universal — their work gets simpler, easier. Under the Red Sky, certainly, is Dylan taking it easy. Sad to say, he’s taking it far too easy.
It’s disheartening to find the writer of “Visions of Johanna,” and a hundred other cryptic, haunting songs that have inspired countless poets, coming up with titles like “Wiggle Wiggle” and “Handy Dandy.” Given a tough, trash-can production by Don Was, David Was and Jack Frost, the record’s trusty blues rock sounds strong; a host of rock royalty keeps things rolling — George Harrison, David Crosby, Slash, Bruce Hornsby and a truly fine Al Kooper. Dylan’s voice, as dazzlingly expressive as a great bluesman’s, sounds sharp, too. The drag is that Dylan doesn’t have much to say — or a really memorable way to say it.
There are highlights. Dylan’s trademark prophet’s rage resurfaces on “Unbelievable” (“Said it was the land of milk and honey/Now they say it’s the land of money”); “T.V. Talkin’ Song” has a bitter wit (“Sometimes you got to do like Elvis did, and shoot the damn thing out”); “Born in Time” is a moving lament. And the anxious hymn “God Knows” (“God knows the secrets of your heart/He’ll tell them to you when you sleep”) recalls the bracing air of New Morning in its uncanny, soul-baring candor — it’s terrific, full-bore Dylan.
For the most part, though, the record is at best workmanlike; at worst, perfunctory. Weakened by a few too many cute or softhearted lyrics (“Baby, thank you for my tea/It’s really so sweet of you to be so nice to me,” from “10,000 Men”) and diluted by tunes that rarely surprise us, Under the Red Sky presents a kind of Dylan-Lite. A pastel version of genius isn’t, of course, a bad thing — it’s just that Dylan’s evolving, fully chromatic splendor had made us hope for so much more.
This is a story from the October 4, 1990 issue of Rolling Stone.