That Time Bob Dylan Took Another Detour With ‘Under the Red Sky’
For better or worse, Bob Dylan has rarely been accused of being predictable. After rebounding with the critical and commercial triumph of Oh Mercy in 1989, he returned less than a year later with his follow-up effort, Under the Red Sky — a confounding curveball that left many people confused and disappointed.
As he'd been periodically wont to do over the course of his career, Dylan elected to change sounds between records, moving on from Oh Mercy producer Daniel Lanois' earthy tones and hooking up with Don Was and David Was, the two leaders of quirky revisionist soul band Was (Not Was). For Don, then flush with success from producing Bonnie Raitt's Nick of Time album, the opportunity was a dream come true — albeit one he concedes might have worked out differently later on.
"I’m sure that there were times when we offered suggestions that were based more on preconceptions about the legend than what was right for the moment, but that doesn’t mean that Bob actually listened to those suggestions," he told Uncut. "With a little more experience, I probably could have been a better producer for Bob. But who knows?"
Aside from a slicker sound overall, the Was duo enlisted a series of high-profile guest stars for the sessions — understandable given Dylan's esteemed status in the rock community and his recent participation in the all-star Traveling Wilburys collective, but still somewhat out of character for a Dylan LP. Whatever they might have added to the record's buzz factor, cameos from Elton John, George Harrison, David Crosby, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Bruce Hornsby weren't necessarily crucial for the songs.
The oddest — and, ultimately, least essential — guest spot was the largely discarded guitar tracked by Slash for the album's widely derided opening cut, "Wiggle Wiggle." Ushered into a darkened studio where he came across Harrison sitting next to Elizabeth Taylor, he found himself instructed, "I want you to play on this exactly like...Django Reinhardt!"
"I put a guitar solo on it that I thought was one of my better one-offs, but I had also put an acoustic rhythm track on there as well for the guitar solo section. A few days later, I asked Don, 'So, do you have a rough mix of the song that I did for Dylan?' and he goes 'Yeah, I’m going to send it to you,'" Slash told Ultimate Classic Rock. "He sends it to me and the song goes along and here comes the solo section, with acoustic strumming — no guitar solo and I’m like, 'What happened to the solo?' and he goes 'Well, Bob thought it sounded a little bit too much like Guns N’ Roses.'"
All of which might sound in line with the sort of inscrutable weirdness Dylan had long since become known for, but as he told Rolling Stone years later, he was feeling uniquely overwhelmed and creatively exhausted during the Under the Red Sky sessions — partly because he was working on the Wilburys' Vol. 3 album at the same time.
"I worked with George [Harrison] and Jeff [Lynne] during the day – everything had to be done in one day, the track and the song had to be written in one day, and then I'd go down and see Don Was, and I felt like I was walking into a wall," he explained. "He'd have a different band for me to play with every day, a lot of all-stars, for no particular purpose. Back then I wasn't bringing anything at all into the studio, I was completely disillusioned. I'd let someone else take control of it all and just come up with lyrics to the melody of the song. He'd say, 'What do you want to cut?' – well, I wouldn't have anything to cut, but I'd be so beat down from being up with the Wilburys that I'd just come up with some track, and everybody would fall in behind that track, oh, my God."
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The result, while far from a commercial disaster, served as a reminder that even after earning his first gold record in nearly a decade with Oh Mercy, Dylan marched stubbornly to the beat of his own drum — and that even when he turned out an album larded with famous names, the results weren't necessarily going to be radio-friendly. Released Sept. 11, 1990, Under the Red Sky peaked at No. 38 on the charts, and signaled the start of a nearly decade-long excursion into Dylan's folk roots: His next two releases, 1992's Good as I Been to You and 1993's World Gone Wrong, were acoustic collections of traditional numbers. He wouldn't put out another album of original material until 1997, when he reunited with Lanois for his next "comeback," Time Out of Mind.
Still, even if Red Sky's sound and songs have been scorned over the years, it's always had its fans — among them "Dean of American Rock Critics" Robert Christgau, who gave the album an A-, and Don Was, who slight sense of missed opportunity doesn't detract from his continued enjoyment of the finished product.
"Maybe every album, like every blade of grass, is already numbered by the master’s hand. Know what I’m saying? Under the Red Sky was probably gonna turn out the way it did whether it was produced by the Was Brothers or a couple of astronauts," he laughed to Uncut. "Under the Red Sky didn’t get the greatest reviews, but it’s one of the very few records I’ve been involved with that I also listen to for personal enjoyment. That’s all I can go by."