Never before has a Bob Dylan album been quite so difficult to classify. Sure, the general consensus among Dylanophiles conjures up a very grim assessment indeed. In fact, complete disownership is usually the treatment for 1988’s obscure, much-despised Down in the Groove. It is somewhat comparable to the fascistic railings against 1970’s Self Portrait album (a lazy befuddled mess, carelessly thrown together, or simply “what is this shit?”), poor old Down in the Groove has entertained any number of condemnations which have themselves been refracted and magnified over a relatively short period of time. At one point Rolling Stone even labelled Down in the Groove as Bob Dylan’s worst album ever. Even though it could be called spotty and confusing by the most charitable of music fans, I would look squarely towards such atrocities as its predecessor Knocked Out Loaded (1986) or the listless follow-up Dylan and the Dead (1989) for that undistinguished honour. Clearly the fifth-worst Dylan album (but also his fourth-best 80s album), it’s worth mentioning that uneven output was expected of Bob Dylan by 1988, and this low-key collection is certainly that. It is also one of the more interesting Dylan albums of the 80s, a decade many call the worst in rock history. None of this sounds overly appetising; but Down in the Groove is a tattered, unpretentious, guilty pleasure.
Culled from several different recording sessions, the album features a guest list as long as your arm: from Eric Clapton, Jerry Garcia and Steve Jones to Mark Knopfler, Ron Wood and Paul Simonon. While scattershot in approach, Dylan is paying respect to his laidback roots, opening the album with three covers varying in degrees of Dylanization (there is evidence that Down in the Groove was intended to be a double album of covers, similar to Self Portrait). Let’s Stick Together is an ideal introduction and actually grooves. A typical Dylan harmonica blasts and wheezes its way through over-driven tube amps; it’s delightful in its self-effacing charm, and immediately recognisable unlike the amiable stroll through When Did You Leave Heaven; a far cry from the marvellous Big Bill Broonzy’s version, or the awkward Sally Sue Brown which dawdles indiscriminately never finding a satisfactory rhythm. Both tracks are mercifully only 2½ minutes in length. Infidels (1983) outtake and mini-epic Death is Not the End follows and is the album’s most poignant track. On the surface a rather hopeful song sounding like an ode to lost illusions that aren’t lost forever, on closer inspection more a cynical warning, a suitable vehicle for Nick Cave who closed his career defining Murder Ballads (1996) with a fantastically dark retelling, underscoring the track’s malevolent irony.
The swirling one-take shuffle of Had a Dream About You Baby closes side one, then two tracks co-written with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter follow: the humorous Ugliest Girl in the World, a trad-blues politically incorrect rock out, and the agreeable Silvio the most memorable and engaging track in the collection. It’s catchy, energetic and fun, and even appears on the Essential Bob Dylan collection sitting nicely alongside such latter-day greats as Jokerman and Everything is Broken.
Elsewhere Ninety Miles an Hour (Down a Dead End Street) a cover written by Hal Blair and Don Robertson; songwriters closely associated with Elvis Presley, is obviously under-rehearsed and Bob does it no favours by slowing it down to a dirge. Next is Dylan’s lovely take on a traditional American folk song Shenandoah. It’s not difficult to conjure feelings of a lonely seaman longing for shore or a drunken sailor lost in a foggy haze of sad memories (and backing vocalists). It’s a nice little hidden gem of a song. So too album closer Rank Strangers (To Me), a pretty, delicate rendition of a song written by Albert Brumley and performed by the Stanley Brothers in the 50s. Dylan’s vocals, while not at their best on Down in the Groove, are strong and energetic in tone and performance.
Written off as a has-been by the end of the 80s, the Down in the Groove shows were actually the foundation of the Never Ending Tour that still continues to this day. Dylan would emerge from his career-slump and quickly recover with 1989’s fine Oh Mercy and on throughout the early-mid 90s with strong albums; Good As I Been to You and World Gone Wrong. Psychedelic (and Grateful Dead) poster artist Rick Griffin’s original artwork illustration was sadly rejected in favour of a watery silhouette photograph of Bob which was a shame.
1. Let’s Stick Together ∗∗∗∗
2. When Did You Leave Heaven? ∗∗∗
3. Sally Sue Brown ∗∗
4. Death Is Not the End ∗∗∗∗
5. Had a Dream About You, Baby ∗∗∗
6. Ugliest Girl in the World ∗∗∗
7. Silvio ∗∗∗∗
8. Ninety Miles an Hour (Down a Dead End Street) ∗∗∗
9. Shenandoah ∗∗∗∗
10. Rank Strangers (To Me) ∗∗∗