Album of the Week: Bob Dylan’s Knocked Out Loaded (1986)

“Ultimately a depressing affair…” –Rolling Stone

“About the only thing it did for Dylan’s career was enhance its decline.” –Warehouse Eyes

“They originally had a photographer shoot some photos of Dylan and Tom Petty. I heard Dylan took a look and threw them all in the trash.” –Charles Sappington, cover art

“Some really abysmal shit here… Avoid .” –RYM user garfieldacres

“A near-flawless work which remains very misunderstood. I have a website discussing this album if you’re interested…” –RYM user burritobroth

If you get really into Bob Dylan, and I mean really into Dylan, you’re eventually going to wade into the darker, more-forgotten corners of his discography. 2020 quarantine provided the ideal setting for a relative neophyte like myself to make this deep dive. With all the time in the world to sit on the couch last Spring, I watched No Direction Home, Rolling Thunder Revue and The Last Waltz, and on any given day was listening to John Wesley Harding, Blood on the Tracks outtakes, or 1997’s “Highlands”.

I’m not going to deny what’s already well-known: 80s Dylan is the worst Dylan. He had his confounding Christian phase, questionable reggae endeavors, and the much-derided Dylan & the Dead, a compilation of his tour with the Grateful Dead for which “Dylan willfully insisted on some songs from very inferior shows”. But when you really venerate Dylan, there are gems to be found even here.

This brings us to Knocked Out Loaded. Essentially a tossed-together collection of rejects from the previous year’s (already mediocre) Empire Burlesque released in time to support his tour with Tom Petty, I doubt this album won Dylan many new fans at the time of its release and its negative reception is no mystery. One problem often cited in reviews of this record is the production. Bob is quoted around this time as saying, “I’m not too experienced at having records sound good. I don’t know how to go about doing that.” You can hear the results especially on “Driftin’ Too Far from Shore”: the drums sound like crap; the synths and background singers do not gel with the rest of the mix at all.

That said, I do like about half the songs on here. And that’s most of the album, considering one of those is the 11-minute fan favorite “Brownsville Girl”, which Dylan noted as one of his most under-appreciated songs in a great 2017 interview. It’s a classic, rambling Dylan epic. One could probably criticize it as overlong, but the melody in the verses is just too damn good.

“Precious Memories” is a return to the reggae-Dylan (or as I like to call it, Robert “Nesta” Zimmerman) of Infidels, but I like it. It’s not hard to find a bridge between this one and the gospel-like classic “I Shall Be Released” (of which reggae legend Keith Hudson recorded a sick cover on one of his best albums). “Got My Mind Made Up” is a decent blues-rock track, and the closer “Under Your Spell” is a successful ballad.

It’s probably a good thing that Knocked Out Loaded only lasts a half hour, but I don’t think it’s as bad as many make it out to be. For my money it’s a step above Empire Burlesque, which Robert Christgau called “his best album since Blood on the Tracks” (had this guy heard Desire??). Ultimately, it’s a record that shows an equal share of the good, the bad, and the (unmistakably, indisputably) Dylan.

Listen to Knocked Out Loaded here.

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