Knocked Out Loaded

Bob Dylan

Columbia, 1986

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


There’s no nice way to say it: in the ’80s, Bob Dylan’s career was stuck in neutral. Into his third decade as an entertainer, he didn’t fit into any neat niche anymore, and as his consumer appeal fell, so did his apparent interest in what he was writing and recording. While diehard Dylan fans would undoubtedly disagree with this statement, his albums contained the rare jewel surrounded by so much dreck.

Knocked Out Loaded, Dylan’s 1986 effort, doesn’t change that pattern that much at all. Checking in with a whopping eight songs at just over 35 minutes, it contains a few tracks that suggest Dylan was beginning to turn his fate around, but more often he falls into his speak-sing pattern that often sounds like he’s making stuff up as he was in the studio.

Dylan gets one thing right on this disc by collaborating with such artists as Tom Petty and Carole Bayer Sager; those songs, “Got My Mind Made Up” and “Under Your Spell” respectively, prove to not only feature the strongest of Dylan’s vocals, but are both well written and well executed by the revolving members of his backing band. These are the moments where even the staunchest critic of Dylan’s would sit up and say, “Whoa… this could be the start of a comeback!”my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Pity that these tracks close the disc (though by putting them at the end, they hold out the hope that Dylan was just getting started… but that’s another review for another day). Even a song like “They Killed Him,” written by Kris Kristofferson, holds out the promise that Dylan had refocused his efforts on choosing solid material and putting in the best performances he could muster.

And then, “Driftin’ Too Far From Shore” happened… and the vocal style that Dylan has been much maligned for all these years comes back into the picture. It’s not just the vocal delivery that fails this one, it’s just not as well written of a track as the more solid material on the album.

The low point has to be the 11-minute opus “Brownsville Girl,” co-written by playwright Sam Shepard, in which Dylan rambles on and on about Gregory Peck for some ungodly reason and stretches what could have been a four-minute semi-failure into an epic disaster. Often, it seems like Dylan is just spouting off spur-of-the-moment lyrics, as if there was no rhyme or reason to the whole song—in fact, the key problem with this particular track is its complete lack of focus.

I hesitate to say that expanding this album past its eight songs would have benefited it, simply because Dylan was such a musical enigma at this stage in his career that additional songs may have helped the disc overall, but they also could have completely torpedoed the progress that was made. While the contents of The Bootleg Series, Vol. 16: Springtime In New York (1980-1985) might shed a little light on if this hypothesis is correct, we may as well wait until the ubiquitous box set addressing Dylan circa 1986 is issued (if one ever is).

It has been written (and I’m paraphrasing here) that, at this point in his career, Dylan didn’t give a damn about whether or not his albums would go gold. He was in it for his own enjoyment and was putting out product that might or might not have pleased the fan base he still had. While Knocked Out Loaded is a slight step in the right direction over his previous releases in the ’80s, it’s still far from his glory days.

Rating: C

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