The album was met with tepid sales and critical shrugs, in part because it followed 1989’s celebrated Oh Mercy, which had been rightly heralded as a solid return to form. Under the Red Sky was nothing like its sonically and thematically rich predecessor.
Under the Red Sky is notable for its extensive use of big-name backing musicians. Dylan had played with his share of notables in the past but the lineup on this album looked sort of like a benefit concert.
Contributors included Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan, Bruce Hornsby, David Crosby, George Harrison, Slash and Elton John. But for all that star power, you’d never guess this wasn’t a typical Dylan backing band. Hornsby and John don’t launch into piano solos that betray their signature sounds… Slash doesn’t start shredding in the middle of ‘Wiggle Wiggle.’ They just play, and they must have had a hell of a time doing it.
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.