Bob Dylan’s ‘Knocked Out Loaded’ a tiring disappointment
By Douglas Young
The Red & Black — July 31, 1986
A review of “Knocked Out Loaded” by Bob Dylan on Columbia Records.
After outstanding back-to-back albums, Bob Dylan’s 1986 LP release, “Knocked Out Loaded,” is quite a disappointment. Dylan’s vocals ring of fatigue and cynicism while the musicianship is usually perfunctory — how I wish I could say most of these songs weren’t done justice. And with just eight tracks spanning a bare 35 minutes of material, I’m reminded of the Woody Allen joke from “Annie Hall” wherein two women complain about a restaurant’s bad food — “and such small portions.”
As a die-hard Dylan fan I want to blame his numerous collaborators on the record, for three of the songs here are covers, and of the five original cuts presented, Mr. Tambourine Man only penned two alone. But, alas, even the Dylan compositions offered are generally sub-par.
“Knocked Out Loaded” is permeated with bitterness, pessimism and self-righteous arrogance — themes Dylan wore thin long ago. The lyrical content primarily involves broken relationships with Dylan as the betrayed, sarcastic lover. These songs are virtually devoid of the crisp, Dylanesque social commentary prevalent throughout his repertoire.
Also absent is the religious imagery preeminent during his 1979-1981 “Slow Train Coming/Save/Shot of Love” period. “Knocked Out Loaded” continues the more secular trend begun on 1983’s “Infidels” and furthered on last year’s “Empire Burlesque.”
Musically the new LP encompasses a comparatively narrow spectrum in light of Dylan’s recent work, for the range here is largely limited to slickly-produced MOR recordings replete with too much overdubbing. There is one lonely soft ballad and but a single out-and-out good rocker despite the caliber of artists Dylan employed: (Ex-?) Rolling Stone guitarist Ron Wood, guitarist T. Bone Burnett, session veteran keyboardist Al Kooper (“Blonde on Blonde”) and various Heartbreakers from Tom Petty.
Side one opens with Herman Parker Jr.’s “You Wanna Ramble” and Kris Kristofferson’s “They Killed Him.” The former is dragged down by musical and lyrical redundancy while the latter, a homage to Christ, Gandhi, and King, is well-intentioned filler, forgettable but for the bizarre insertion of a children’s choir whose sweet, high-pitched and angelic singing is wholly incongruent beside the nasal whining of Bob Dylan.
Dylan’s “Driftin’ Too Far From Shore,” a bitter tune of messed-up romance, is patently dull and Ron Wood’s normally solid guitar work is muffled in the mix as “Late Night with David Letterman” stickman Anton Fig’s drumming obscures the other performers.
Side one closes with the album’s lone rocker worthy of Bob Dylan, “Maybe Someday.” Heartbreakers Howie Epstein on bass and Mike Campbell on guitar aggressively bring forth the best in Dylan as his guitar work and singing here are his finest on the LP. He exudes urgency and frustration, caustically delivering a sample of his most biting lyrics: “Maybe someday, you’ll be satisfied/When you’ve lost everything, you’ll have nothing left to hide/When you’re through running over things, like you’re walking across a track/Baby, you’ll thank me like a dog for taking you back.”
Side two begins with “Brownsville Girl,” co-written by Dylan and playwright Sam Shepard. At a staggering 11 minutes, this convoluted story of sorts bares a small conceptual resemblance to the classic “Tangled Up In Blue” off 1974’s “Blood On The Tracks” LP, but without ant of the latter song’s melodic, lyric and vocal strengths. Here Dylan sings a kind of folk/blues rap that grows ever more tiresome upon subsequent listenings. The singer’s self-righteousness surfaces repeatedly: “I don’t have any regrets/They can talk about me plenty when I’m gone.”
Consonant with his oft-stated phrasings that he hasn’t changed while everyone else has, he sadly laments the past. “A long time ago, long before the stars (himself included?) were torn down.” I can’t help but ponder all the profound alterations Bob Dylan has wrought in his recording career as well as on our entire pop/cultural landscape. The young troubadour who welcomed change in “The Times They Are A-Changin'” has come afar indeed.
Despite extensive tour and studio time together this year, Tom Petty’s guitar is heard on but a solitary track, “Got My Mind Made Up,” penned with Dylan. Even so, the presence of the full Heartbreakers line-up cannot redeem this tedious yawn of a rocker as there’s simply no punch to the playing and the songwriting is equally tepid. Dylan immerses himself in more stubborn arrogance with snarling lyrics like “Don’t ever try to change me, I’ve been in this thing too long/There’s nothing you can say or do to make me think I’m wrong.”
Oddly enough, it’s Dylan’s surprising collaboration with Burt Bacharach’s wife, Carole Bayer Sager, which results in the LP’s prettiest song, “Under Your Spell,” an endearing piece of pop honeyed with gorgeous harmonies and boasting Dylan’s most convincingly sincere, genuinely heartfelt vocal. Over some wonderfully calypso-sounding guitars provided by he and the Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart, Dylan finally, unashamedly bares his vulnerability: “It’s been nice seeing you/You read me like a book/If you ever want to reach me/You now where to look, baby/I’ll be at the same hotel.”
I suspect a portion of “Under Your Spell” is tongue-in-cheek allegorical commentary on the performer’s extensive musical history and endless comebacks: “But I will be back, I will survive/You’ll never get rid of me as long as you’re alive, baby/Can’t you tell?”
The concluding stanza encapsulates and intertwines Bob Dylan’s endless search and ultimate fear: “Well the desert is hot/The mountain is cursed/Pray that I don’t die of thirst, baby/Two feet from the well.”
In spite of its shortcomings, “Knocked Out Loaded” remains qualitatively superior to most contemporary releases while a decidedly minor addition to the Dylan portfolio. Lyrically the songwriter maintains many of his strengths including that perennial edge (albeit more verbose than previously), but thematically Dylan is stuck in a rut reeking of angry martyrdom. His humor and humility (so prevalent heretofore) have been sacrificed to bitterness and rigidity while his melodies and singing too often sound tired, hollow or occasionally shrill. The gems are still to be found among the disappointments, but the task sometimes no longer feels worth the trouble.