In 1990, a year after Oh Mercy, Bob Dylan ushered in a new decade with an odd collection of simple songs seemingly patterned after nursery rhymes. Under the Red Sky was met with shrugs from critics and fans alike… it certainly wasn’t what people expected after his powerful return to form just a year earlier.
I shared in that reaction, not quite sure what to make of the album. At the time, my knowledge of Dylan’s catalog was limited to his undisputed classics from the 60s and 70s, plus Oh Mercy, so the concept of a Dylan album that was more of a lark was new to me. As a result I gave it a few listens and filed it away.
But time and increased familiarity with Dylan’s career have changed my reaction to Under the Red Sky. I dusted it off and listened to it for the first time in easily more than a decade in preparation for this blog entry and I was shocked to find myself loving it. There’s no doubt that when I get around to ranking all of Dylan’s studio albums (after I’ve featured the whole lot of them on the blog), Under the Red Sky will make the biggest leap up that list.
Dylan dedicated this album to his then 4-year-old daughter and a look at some of the song titles suggests he was writing it with her age group in mind: ‘Wiggle Wiggle,’ ‘2×2,’ ‘Handy Dandy,’ ‘Cat in the Well.’ Most of the songs are constructed around simple blues figures and repetition of the title phrases. This is Bob Dylan doing Dr. Seuss.
But it works. He’s cutting loose and having fun and there is absolutely no harm in that. On the contrary, I wish more artists would do it more often.
In addition to the frivolously fun stuff, Under the Red Sky does include a couple of keepers. The two songs I’m featuring this weekend were originally intended for Oh Mercy but were re-recorded for this album (which explains why they have a different tone than the rest).
The popular opinion is that the Oh Mercy versions are superior but I’m not convinced… I think Dylan and producer Don Was did a fine job with them as released. First up is ‘God Knows.’
God knows it’s true
God knows there ain’t anybody
Ever gonna take the place of you
God knows it’s a struggle
God knows it’s a crime
God knows there’s gonna be no more water
But fire next time
God don’t call it treason
God don’t call it wrong
It was supposed to last a season
But it’s been so strong for so long
God knows it’s fragile
God knows everything
God knows it could snap apart right now
Just like putting scissors to a string
God knows it’s terrifying
God sees it all unfold
There’s a million reasons for you to be crying
You been so bold and so cold
God knows that when you see it
God knows you’ve got to weep
God knows the secrets of your heart
He’ll tell them to you when you’re asleep
God knows there’s a river
God knows how to make it flow
God knows you ain’t gonna be taking
Nothing with you when you go
God knows there’s a purpose
God knows there’s a chance
God knows you can rise above the darkest hour
Of any circumstance
God knows there’s a heaven
God knows it’s out of sight
God knows we can get all the way from here to there
Even if we’ve got to walk a million miles by candlelight