Down in the Groove (Columbia 40957)
Cry foul all you want, I still say Down in the Groove is a great album. No, I'm serious and please put away all those torches and pitchforks. Let me explain!
I suppose I should begin by acknowledging the obvious: it is certainly not Blonde on Blonde. It's not New Morning. It's not even Street Legal. It's hodegpodge in every way, as randomly assembled an album as any artist of Dylan's stature has ever released as an "album." I describe it thusly: "The producer just put up a sign on the studio door saying 'Who wants to play with Bob Dylan?' and just recorded the first 10 or 15 who showed up."
Except, as with almost all of Dylan's albums, there's no "producer." Dylan albums by and large are the music equivalent of your mom sitting you down and brushing your tangled hair straight. And have you seen Bob Dylan's hair. I think I've made my point.
What I like about Down in the Groove is that it's the real Dylan, not the "mysterious enigmatic genius" Dylan that everyone wants to believe in. See, the real Dylan is just a guy who plays music, and has a wicked sense of humor. To me, Traveling Wilburys Dylan is the best Dylan of all, with Basement Tapes Dylan a close second.
Down in the Groove is as close to a full Dylan album as has been made that captures his wild weirdness in one place. The songs are alternately "rockers" and "ballads," utterly haphazard in virtually every way and that's what's great. No one thought this was going to be a masterpiece.
The songs are some of his best: "Death is Not the End," were it on Oh Mercy, would easily be a critic's fave. "When Did You Leave Heaven," if it had been produced properly (this version sounds like a demo) would be simply amazing. "Ugliest Girl in the World" is plain hilarious, like "New Blue Moon" by the Wilburys.
"Rank Strangers to Me," buried at the end of Side B, is a true classic. "Let's Stick Together" may be a baffling choice to kick off a Dylan album, but it completely rocks. "Sally Sue Brown" and "Had a Dream About You, Baby" and "Ninety Miles an Hour Down a Dead End Street" why does everyone hate this album again? This is great stuff.
Sure, my opinion may be colored because I probably listened to it about a thousand times when I was in high school but to this day I guarantee you I have given it more play than Bringing it All Back Home, Highway 61, Freewheelin', and Blood on the Tracks combined. I contend that whichever Dylan is "your" Dylan is the best Dylan.
I'd love to hear the back story to the album. Why is there a drummer credited on "When Did You Leave Heaven" when it's clearly a drum machine, and at that, a drum machine that does not sync up with the song? And why is this song track 2? Did Bob really need Mark Knopfler, Sly & Robbie, and FULL FORCE to make the super-minimalist "Death is Not the End?" And: FULL FORCE is on a Bob Dylan album WHY?
And has a weirder band ever been assembled than Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Ron Wood, Mitchell Froom, and Kip Winger??? And why is "Silvio," easily one of the slightest songs on here, considered the only good one, and remains the only one he ever plays live? And is this album actually just a soundcheck???
So many unanswered questions. This really has much more replay value than it ought to. Don't believe people who dismiss this one out of hand as "pure crap 80s Dylan." I genuinely love Down in the Groove, and I'll say it loud and proud.
I mean, if I were at a Dylan show and he opened with "Let's Stick Together" and closed with "Rank Strangers to Me," I'd just about crap my pants. Fortunately I can just listen to this at home and crap my pants privately.
Review by Sanjiv Dario