Song of the Day #720: ‘God Knows’ – Bob Dylan

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 you ain’t pretty
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

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6 thoughts on “Song of the Day #720: ‘God Knows’ – Bob Dylan

  1. Dana says:

    The song has a nice sound and nice production reflective of modern era Dylan recordings, but I can’t say that it strikes me as particularly great or memorable.

    I appreciate Dylan wanting to write songs for his young daughter, but since I am not that young daughter, I’m not sure I have a great desire to hear them more than once.

  2. Clay says:

    What if you ARE his young daughter and just don’t know it??

  3. Bob Dylan doing Dr. Seuss. Love that line, I now need to go listen to Under the Red Sky. You’ve given me another perspective. “God Knows’ what I’ll think of it.

  4. Andy says:

    I had the same experience with Under the Red Sky. Didn’t listen to it much for a couple of decades. Then I recently got the CD super-cheap off of Amazon, and was surprised at how much I enjoy it. “Born In Time,” “Handy Dandy,” and “T.V. Talkin’ Song” are particularly great.

  5. Arsenio says:

    I have *never* understood what people–Dylan included–don’t like about this album. I remember hearing Ken Tucker pan it on NPR, but his commentary was interspersed with excerpts from the album, and every excerpt sounded good, especially the one the piece went out on (“Unbelievable,” surely one of Dylan’s greatest rockers). Then Robert Christgau devoted an full-length article to it in the Village Voice, praising it as a masterpiece. (He would eventually list it No. 2 on his 1990 “Pazz & Jop” ballot–if only to lower his estimation of it a little in his book of ’90s reviews.) And I too think the Was Bros. got a good sound out of their rotating cast of characters.

  6. rob! says:

    Yeah, I never got the enmity that met this record upon its release. Sure, it was about as different from Oh Mercy as possible, but when has Dylan EVER given his audience more of the same (unless he wanted to, as in the early 90s cover records)?

    Some of the songs are clearly throwaways, but man I never tire of the title track, “God Knows”, and “Handy Dandy.” Although I will admit, like many a Dylan album, there are alternate takes of many of these songs that are “better” than the ones that made it on—if Bob had used the alts of “Born in Time” and “TV Talkin’ Song” I think the album might have been received more favorably.

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