It’s late spring in Boston, which means the skies are overcast and gray. I’m hopping around the city–coffee dates, errands–while tuning in to Dylan’s 1988 studio effort, Down in the Groove. Although this album features such rock-star talent as Eric Clapton, the Grateful Dead, and Ron Wood, through the years it has garnered more derision and dismissal than virtually any other Dylan album. Dylan, appearing front-lit angelically on the otherwise black cover, wrote or arranged only half of the ten tracks, which, scattered as they are through blues and gospel and folk-rock fusion, fail to cohere in any semblance of unity. I’m at pains to find any overarching vision or expression. And yet, I’m not finding it as bad as they say.
The album kicks off with “Let’s Stick Together,” a standard blues-rock number embellished with Dylan’s dissonant harmonica. Two tracks later, “Sally Sue Brown” makes a serviceable companion piece. Sandwiched between them, though, “When Did You Leave Heaven?” hangs on a 4/4 beat strong on the two and three and nearly impossible to catch. Its obvious counterpart is “Death Is not the End,” a predictable hymn with about as many surprises as the Cavs’ run to the Finals. The rest of the songs flop together in a pile of blues and gospel progressions, backup singers, and Dylan’s enthusiastic, oblivious crooning, even through lyrical duds like “You know I love her / I’m in love with the ugliest girl in the world.”
That song, “Ugliest Girl in the World,” is co-written with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, as is “Silvio,” in which a delusional drifter seems to converse with a wiser narrator. “I can stroke your body and relieve your pain / Charm the whistle off an evening train,” Silvio sings before the narrator reminds him, “Silvio silver and gold / Won’t buy back the beat of a heart grown cold.” The alliteration here on the “s,” “b,” and “o” confers that jivey Dead feel. The lyrics, just energetic and enigmatic enough, combine with an upbeat arrangement that verges on zydeco in 4/8 and with a rollicking supporting cast–in this case the Dead themselves. It is this deadhead’s biased opinion that “Silvio” is the best track on the album.
Sure, from the broad view this album doesn’t gel. And there are some cringe-worthy moments at several points throughout. Dylan may not have been very invested in the recording process, and he could hardly be bothered to write new material for it. But considering the sequence of albums leading up to “Down in the Groove,” I’m hardly surprised at the uneven material. If anything, I’m jumping at the bright spots, like “Silvio,” and even the foreboding conveyed in the sanctimonious minor harmony of “Ninety Miles an Hour (Down a Dead-End Street).” My willing sympathy shows the hypothesis at work. I can claim to get this album, but only because of what came before. Do I like Down in the Groove? I can’t even tell anymore.