After the massacre in Orlando, the city where I spent the first 25 years of my life, where my mother still lives just two miles from the Pulse nightclub, I’ve had a difficult time jumping back into the Dylan hypothesis. I tried writing about Under the Red Sky during my week in Kansas City scoring AP exams. I tried in the hotel room, tried by the pool, but I couldn’t focus on the music. All I could do is listen to that first track, “Wiggle Wiggle,” and ask myself the same question I’d asked about the shooting, and about the bulk of those thousand essays I scored: Why? Just, Why?
“Wiggle wiggle wiggle like a gypsy queen,” this album begins. Dylan repeats the word “wiggle” ten times per verse; eight times per bridge. Why? I’ve listened to this album a half dozen times in false starts over the last few weeks (which must be some kind of record for this album), and it took several times hearing it before I realized “wiggle” is a euphemism. But still, I can’t get on board with this corny lead-off track.
The title track comes next, and that juvenile diction develops into nursery rhyme. “There was a little boy and there was a little girl,” Dylan begins, then bakes them in a pie and recruits the man in the moon to observe how “the river ran dry.” There’s nothing insightful or necessarily inventive about these references. These aren’t the grotesque psychoscapes of “Highway 61 Revisited,” but the musings of a man who has lost touch.
As the album unravels through tracks like the upbeat condemnation of contemporary society, “Unbelievable,” and the catchy, soulful “Handy Dandy,” the music emerges as the album’s best feature. The percussion is richly patterned. The keyboards and guitars and occasional accordion link together to form a rich acoustic nest. But Dylan’s suspect songwriting suggests he’s not ready yet to come home to the goodness yet.
Do I get this album? There’s some Christian tracks, a couple kiddie tracks, and some solid musicianship. Do I need the previous albums? There’s an upward trajectory here over the previous 15 years, though it’s been a while since Dylan blew me away. Do I like it? I like being back in the game. Onward!