Have you ever heard of Dylan’s 1986 album, Knocked Out Loaded? Before this week, neither had I, and now I know why. This patchy mishmash of songs is the most forgettable Dylan album to date. Some songs, like “You Wanna Ramble” and “Got My Mind Made Up” feature bluesy rock guitars that could fit an Allman Brothers or Stevie Ray Vaughn album. “Driftin’ Too Far from Shore” and “Maybe Someday” contain a lesser brand of that polished, traipsing Knopfler sheen. A real head-shaker, “They Killed Him,” takes a Kris Kristofferson original and turns the toe-tapping lament over the assassinations of Ghandi, MLK Jr., and Jesus into a church choir performance. Dylan’s version reveals that the Highwayman barroom tune wasn’t built for a gospel arrangement; the chorus of children that takes the third refrain suggests Dylan wasn’t thinking, wasn’t even trying.
The backup singers do double, even triple duty throughout this album. I get the sense Dylan’s floating in and out of the studio wearing flip-flops and Hawaiian shirts, carefree and careless. There’s even a tune, “Precious Memories,” that seems halfway to reggae, slow and settled on the downbeat. None of it feels inspired; Dylan doesn’t seem to be striving for anything. Is he mailing it in? Content to rest on his laurels? Has the changing music industry, with its visual demands and insistence on producing material to death, beat him down (as this article suggests)?
The one bright spot here is “Brownsville Girl,” an 11-minute musical epic in which Dylan talk-sings a mosaic of southwest desert road trips and Gregory Peck films. Quartets of ABCB pour forth, doling out lyrical gems like, “If there’s an original thought out there, I could use it right now”(which may refer also to the album at hand), and “I can’t believe we’ve lived so long and are still so far apart.” The backup singers take the refrain: “Brownsville girl, with your brownsville curls / … show me all around the world / … you’re my honey love.” This Bright spot shows that Dylan, even at his lowest of lows, still holds a bullet in the barrel, an ace up the sleeve.
Do I get Knocked Out Loaded? I’m not sure it’s possible to get this one. Do I need the previous albums to get it? If Dylan had made more of a genuine attempt at music-making, I would’ve been happy to have given it a shot. Do I like it? It’s not going on my playlists, not taking up any space on my devices.