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Music Review: Bob Dylan – Under The Red Sky

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I have now listened to Under A Red Sky four times in the last two days and frankly I don’t get it. I also have the feeling that this may have been Dylan’s intent. On the surface it appears to be a children’s album of nonsensical nursery rhymes or possibly The Brothers Grimm on crack.

Dylan had been busy working on the Traveling Wilburys second album with George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty and Roy Orbison. Looking back it seems that Dylan enjoyed his time with The Wilburys as he appeared relaxed and happy. It may have been that for once all the focus and expectations were not solely on him. It was basically a fun time for all involved. I think that some of that whimsy carried over to Under A Red Sky. The problem was that only Dylan was in on the joke.

Don and David Was were hired to produce the album. This was not a good choice as they were much to pop oriented and slick for Dylan’s sound. I’m not sure that they really understood him or his music. Then there was the who’s who of musicians making contributions to this project: George Harrison, Slash, David Crosby, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Elton John, and a host of others.

I find that the music itself is fine and fairly melodic. It is the incomprehensibility of the lyrics that is the problem. Dylan’s gravelly voice does not help matters either.

The first two tracks set the tone for what will follow. “Wiggle Wiggle” is just plain odd. I played this track over and over and it just got stranger. “Under The Red Sky” would feature a beautiful guitar solo by George Harrison that would be overshadowed by the seemingly meaningless childlike lyrics. Even David Crosby can’t save such songs as “Born In Time” and “2 X 2.”

And so, gentle readers, I leave it up to you. It seems that Dylan went from the poetry of Oh Mercy to the nursery rhymes of Under The Red Sky. Maybe I’ll just play this album for my six year old granddaughter. Her interpretation will probably be as good as mine.

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About David Bowling

  • Todd

    I think Under the Red Sky can only be understood to make any sense as spiritual songs, not from Dylan’s Gospel “phase”, but from the deep understanding of spiritual language that Dylan has always had.

    See my Amazon review. As you can see by the percentage of helpful votes (about 60/40) some people agree, some don’t.

  • Dude Skoodle

    Dylan was babysitting his grandchild during the sessions. Since Blonde on Blonde he wrote songs in the studio; perhaps that has something to do with it. Wiggle wiggle is another example of a deliberate throw away opening typical of Mr Dylan’s albums. As a preliminary he often puts himself beneath his audience. “The sage excels in taking the lower position” as Lao Tzu said a few thousand years ago.
    Kids’nursery rhymes are archetypal. There is often a deeper meaning to folk tales not so apparent on the surface. Kids born when he made that album are now 17 or so and probably attending his concerts.

    Again there are 3 or 4 very strong tracks: Handy Andy, Unbelievable, the title track (Red sky and Born in Time).

    As the years go by this CD grows on you. Born in Time is a beautiful poignant song, sepia like and cinematic. Watcha whinin’ about Joe Sixpack? Dog-gone it you are very critical darn it. It is a very solid album- except for Wiggle wiggle of course. Its like Bob is saying p… off if you don’t wanna be nice to someone who has given you so much in the last 30 years. Talkin’ TV is about the poll tax riots in London.
    Baked in a pie, all the kings toy soldiers marching up the hill in 2×2 which is structurally a blues song (most of Dylan is blues so watcha whinin’ about this time?)So is Cat’s in the Well.

    Its a damn good record (sorry about wiggle wiggle) and thematically it is consistent, thought-provoking and with polished musicianship.

    Your following comment is bizarre coming from an obvious Dylan fan:
    “It is the incomprehensibility of the lyrics that is the problem. Dylan’s gravelly voice does not help matters either.”
    Huh??? Whats so unusual about that? We are talking about the mighty Bob Dylan aren’t we?
    His vernacular rural bluesy voice and surreal imagery are his trademarks, so why on earth is it a “problem” as you put it?

  • mike

    like any dylan song toquote a phrase” it’s for myself and my friends my stories are sung” maybe it was written for his grandchildren maybe for his own children over the years maybe from his youth from songs that were sung to him and his brother, maybe all of the above. i forget where i heard him say it but he didthe songs have no special message except that they mean exactly what theywere written to mean no more no less. i have seen him dozens of times and have never heard a song sung the same way twice in a row either he changes a verse or changes the beat but he changes something. so a song according to the way he even says the words can mean or be taken to mean something differant every night. so does that mean he wants us to believe what the meaning of a changes according to the way he puts in these little changes from night to night ? no the man has been singing some songs for 46 years at approx. 150 concerts a year that’s 7,000 times the man has to change them or he’d go nuts

  • Dave Of Tas

    Not only a grandchild, but as was revealed a couple of years ago, Bob was actually newly a father around this time.

    Under The Red Sky is one of my favourite Bob Dylan albums ever and I’m always disapointed that more people don’t ‘get it’. It seems ellusive to listeners, I’m not sure why, I think perhaps it speaks to a mood that, like Street Legal, people don’t find themselves in too often.

    People often say it came right after Oh Mercy, but according to Chronicles, all but two songs from Oh Mercy were written in early 1988, so there is a pretty substantial time difference.

    Songs like TV Talking Song and Unbelievable are perfectly good Dylan protest rock songs, nothing out of the ordinary, and some damn good players on these tracks.

    Born In Time and God Knows are two songs from Oh Mercy that are undeniable classics, I actually prefer the Under The Red Sky version to the melodrama of the Oh Mercy outtake version, and the only problem with the vastly superior version of God Knows is that it’s cut off before it really gets going by a premature fade out.

    The other songs on the album I guess that’s what loses people.

    At Toad’s Place in January 1990, Dylan played the extreme introversion of What Good Am I and followed it with the stupid fun of Wiggle Wiggle. A throwaway number at best, but coming as comedic release and a bit of an excuse for a jam sure puts it in a much more forgiving light than being the opening number on the album!

    Under The Red Sky is a beautiful fable about his home town Hibbing, even if you don’t understand the lyrics I can’t imagine anyone hearing this perfectly captured song and not enjoying it. And as far as the much hated production on this album, how many of these songs sound absolutely fantastic much like this one? And yet the sound of the album does leave a funny taste in the mouth I’ll admit.

    10’000 Men is a good piece of inane rock ‘n’ roll. Bob really didn’t produce too many good rock songs after 1975, so I say shut up and enjoy it it’s a fun song. Remember a lot of those hallowed mid 60’s songs had lyrics about as absurd as these ones.

    2 x 2. Now this is the one non Oh Mercy outtake song on the album that really sends shivers up my spine, and apparently nobody elses. A GREAT song, a classic, again in the nursery rhyme, children’s bible vernacular, but it comes off like one of those old folk tales that wasn’t meant just for children. The ascending bridge is where the song is “How many paths have they tried and failed? How many other brothers and sisters linger in jail? How many tomorrows have they given away? How many compared to yesterday?” Again great lyrics, a perfectly played track and another premature fadeout.

    How anyone doesn’t like Handy Dandy I don’t know, Bob’s best straight out fun rock ‘n’ roll song in decades, a great crescendo with phrasing that’s as good as anything he’s ever done.

    Cat’s In The Well is another really good uptempo rock song with a good riff and great lyrics. More nursery rhyme/fable type stuff, and this is the only arrangement that I don’t care that much for as it comes off as a bit too happy and joyous to the point of absurdity.

    Don Was recently told Uncut magazine that these songs were cut down from lots of far longer versions, and that there were 2 outtakes: Shirley Temple Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and Heartland.

    I think that if Wiggle Wiggle had been put after Born In Time and that the songs were extended more than this could have been a classic album. As it is it’s a minor classic at 35 minutes run time, and with Bob writing half a dozen more good time songs for the Wilbury’s record right around this time, he was not only on a creative high, but seemingly a personal one too, and it was all rock ‘n’ roll songs, not deep introspective gloomy stuff.

    Yet for some mysterious reason it all fell apart, critics ravaged the album and the Wilbury’s release, and he didn’t put out another real album for 7 years, citing a complete dissilusionment with both his writing and the process of recording.


    He had just had a baby girl. Enough said in respect to the lyrics. As far as the producing, you can thank the Was brothers for that. If you want Dylan produced music Love and Theft and Modern Times are unbeatable. Also Born in Time is amazing on his new bootleg series, its from Under the Red Sky but much better on the Bootleg Series.


    P.S. Why is a review of an album from 1989 coming out in 2008, especially when his new album came out like last week? That’s kinda weird.

  • TOA

    Its about Adam and Eve and Satan and God.
    Thats all you need to know.

  • Randess

    Cute girl! I read the album was dedicated to Dylan’s then little girl…so makes sense it is kid friendly!