Down in the Groove, whose release was delayed for months by Columbia and whose heavily stickered, cheesy-looking cover suggests a lot of last-minute decisions and half-hearted attempts at promotion, seems doomed to failure before it's even been given a chance in the marketplace.
In fact, against all odds, it's a pretty darn good Dylan album. It's perverse and willful, to be sure, and reaches a low point with a dolorous version of the old folk song "Shenandoah," but Dylan sings extremely well on every one of its 10 selections. And at least one new composition, a funky rocker called "Had a Dream About You, Baby," can stand comparison with Dylan's Blonde on Blonde period.
But I know, I know, you're wondering: Just what are those "ideas worthy of The Dylan Legacy"? Do you think perhaps they're contained on the opening couplet of "Ugliest Girl in the World"? "The woman I love, she's got a
hook in her nose/Her eyebrows meet, she wears second-hand clothes." Or maybe it's the profundity of "Death Is Not the End": "When the cities are on fire with the burning flesh of men/Just remember, death is not the end."
Since the real Dylan legacy is strewn with images of misogyny and selfishness as often as those of beauty and genius - it's one reason Dylan remains, after all these years of examination and exegesis, a great but utterly confounding pop artist - the appalling sentiments to be found on Down in the Groove are only initially startling. In fact, "Ugliest Girl in the World," co-written with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, is in keeping with the raucous mean jokes to be found in The Basement Tapes, while the
invocations of Old Testament violence in "Death Is Not the End" obviously harks back to Dylan's late-'70s, born-again-Christian musicmaking.
When Bruce Springsteen offered his moving, funny tribute to Dylan at that most recent hall-of-fame induction ceremony, he mentioned that Dylan's early work has made it almost impossible to appreciate the good songs buried on his recent albums. This was an excellent point. Both Infidels and Knocked Out Loaded had shamefully neglected high points, songs such as "Don't Fall Apart on Me Tonight," "Sweetheart Like You" and "Got My Mind Made Up" that, had they come from some other, younger singer-songwriter, would have been hailed as career-making compositions.
With the exception of "Had a Dream About You, Baby" and the very pretty ''When Did You Leave Heaven?" Down in the Groove doesn't contain any striking Dylan originals, but it is Dylan's most consistently entertaining album of the '80s. His version of the Wilbert Harrison oldie "Let's Stick Together" is rough, headlong rock-and-roll; his interpretation of the Stanley Brothers' country-music classic "Rank Strangers to Me" is quietly powerful.
Down in the Groove also contains an odd but appealing mixture of musicians. ''Death Is Not the End," for example, contains contributions by Dire Straits guitarist Mark Knopfler, the reggae rhythm section of Robbie Shakespeare and Sly Dunbar, and hot hip-hop act Full Force. Robert Hunter, in addition to helping out on "Ugliest Girl in the World," also co-wrote ''Silvio," a pleasantly muddled story-song featuring back-up vocals by Dead fellows Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir and Brent Mydland. Eric Clapton offers a stinging guitar solo in the middle of "Had a Dream About You, Baby." And Dylan's only accompanist on "Rank Strangers to Me" is Larry Klein, who provides the same ghostly bass lines that have enhanced the latest few albums by Klein's wife, Joni Mitchell.
All in all, an eccentric but fascinating album, but one bound to remain little more than a footnote to Dylan's career. That's because, hall-of-fame inductee or not, in a sense his time in the pop spotlight has simply passed. Look at the current Top 10 and try to imagine fans of George Michael, Debbie Gibson or British singer Rick Astley getting behind a Bob Dylan album.
In fact, the only best-selling artist around these days whose eccentricities are almost fully the equal of Dylan's is Prince. Now there's a team-up waiting to happen; talk about potential for getting down in the groove.