T for Tom

Day 27 – Knocked Out Loaded – 1986

Posted in A Dylan A Day by johnsontoms on July 18, 2016

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There’s a knee-jerk reaction to do something different every time Bob Dylan is faced with adversity. After wearing a metallic sport coat on the cover of 1985’s Empire Burlesque, there’s a noticeable return to the frontier with Knocked Out Loaded the following year. But where Dylan still shines through the false pretenses of Burlesque, there is somehow little to celebrate on its successor.

The entire album just feels contrived and forced, as if he had something to prove so madly that little exhaustion was spent on the music itself. There seems to be an erringly forced pretentiousness pervading throughout, as if he isn’t capable any longer of summoning the west but merely trying to for posterity’s sake. In fact, it’s always felt that way for my generation.

We do know Dylan personally, in fact, as the man of Modern Times, the celebrated 2005 album that cemented his status as American icon. Times is certainly a definitive Dylan record, and one I cherish. It showed for the first time that nearly any genre of music that had been done before, Dylan could do better. And while that moniker has become his modus operandi, it fails his legend in the true aspect that it matter most – even if Dylan could do everyone else’s music better, he exists to be his own man.

That feeling is, for the first time, lost in Knocked Out Loaded. Even if you didn’t like Self-Portrait, it was at least his middle finger response to the critics. Even if you can’t stand the gospel trilogy, it is an unmistakably unique adventure never before seen by the likes of anyone. Loaded just seems like his attempt at saying, “I’m Still Here,” which we all know was never true.

Surprisingly, there’s nearly twice as many musicians present on this album than on Burlesque, which at the time had the most of any Dylan record. A total of 53 artists including returns by The Heartbreakers, The E Street Band, Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones, including appearances by Tom Petty himself and T-Bone Burnett, among the chorus of others. It gives credence to the large, layered sounds of every song. It creates a contradiction then, when seeing the cover art depicting a wild west fight – a place and time when very little was needed to compose a song.

That isn’t to say that all the music is inherently bad. There are good moments. With Sam Shepard, he wrote “Brownsville Girl,” a bumbling 11-minute song about a girl from Brownsville that reminded him of a Gregory Peck film. It talks of Corpus Christi and all things Texas and Mexico, but has little in the way of melody. But for 11-minutes, it’s the closest thing to Dylan we’ve seen in some years, in terms of story.

Otherwise, Knocked Out Loaded is void of much soul. Sometimes when you’re lost, you can’t throw all the answers together and hope for one to come out clean.


Song: “Brownsville Girl”

It’s a really good story, and it’s feeling is upbeat. It’s the one time he seems genuinely energized by his own music on this album.

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