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A highly collaborative effort, it was Dylan's second consecutive album to receive almost unanimous negative reviews. Released during a period when his recording career was experiencing a slump, sales were disappointing, reaching only #61 in the US and #32 in the UK.
"Even by Dylan standards, this album has had a strange, difficult birth," wrote Rolling Stone critic David Fricke. "Its release was delayed for more than half a year, and the track listing was altered at least three times. If the musician credits are any indication, the songs that made the final cut come from half a dozen different recording sessions spread out over six years." Like its predecessor, Knocked Out Loaded, Dylan once again used more collaborators than normal.Rick Griffin’s original design for the cover of Down in the Groove.
In a review published in his Consumer Guide column, Robert Christgau wrote, "Where Self Portrait was at least weird, splitting the difference between horrible and hilarious, [Dylan is now] forever professional—not a single remake honors or desecrates the original. All he can do to a song is Dylanize it, and thus his Danny Kortchmarband and his Steve Jones-Paul Simonon band are indistinguishable, immersed in that patented and by now meaningless one-take sound." Christgau would later call Down in the Groove "horrendous product".
Recently coming off of the album Knocked Out Loaded, Dylan took the opportunity to further work on his collaborative efforts. The album features several guest appearances for the first time. Most prominent was the appearance of The Grateful Dead, who provided the album with one of the notable high spots on the album with the single “Silvio”. The track would later be included on Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits Volume 3 and The Essential Bob Dylan.
As stated in the Encyclopedia of Popular Music, the album shares no single recording session. This created a tone that the Encyclopedia described as, “raucous to pensive to sombre in a heartbeat”.
In the book Bob Dylan: The Recording Sessions, 1960-1994, author Clinton Heylin offers an explanation for the style and layout of the albums tracks. He states, “As it is, Dylan’s intent all along may have been to show the rich vein of music he listened to when growing up in Hibbing.” The author goes on further to describe how the album was a sensible step for Dylan, suggesting his issues with creative writing had hampered his ability to produce new material.
A unique aspect of the album was the ‘garage rock’-type tour that followed. Dylan’s previous tour had placed a heavy emphasis on guest appearances to allow for a more variety themed show. The intimate nature of the smaller band allowed the artists to interpret songs differently each time they played. Often the performances held little resemblance to prior shows.
In his review for Rolling Stone magazine, Fricke noted that "a highly anticipated—if somewhat unlikely—collaboration with Full Force, the top Brooklyn hip-hop posse, turned out to be an old Infidels outtake, 'Death Is Not the End,' newly garnished with some tasty but rather superfluous Full Force vocal harmonies." "Death Is Not The End" was covered by Nick Cave in 1996.
In 2007, Rolling Stone labeled Down in the Groove as Bob Dylan's worst album.
The Grateful Dead collaboration titled "Silvio" did experience some success as a single, and Dylan would regularly feature it in his shows. "Silvio" would also be included on 1994's Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits Volume 3 and The Essential Bob Dylan.
Artist Rick Griffin, primarily known for the Grateful Dead's most iconic logos and poster art, was selected by Dylan to design the cover of the record jacket. Griffin designed a spectacular line art piece of Bob Dylan playing guitar while riding a horse backwards with an array of imagery in a style unlike his famous psychedelicwork. Considered to be one of his last masterpieces, the intricate drawing ended up not being used for the album and Columbia Records featured a rather mundane photograph of Dylan on the release.
Soon after Down in the Groove's release, Dylan embarked on a summer tour of North America, presumably in support of Down in the Groove. The first show was on June 7, 1988, at Concord Pavilion in Concord, California, and it was a dramatic shift from previous tours. In recent years, Dylan had relied on larger ensembles, often staffed with high-profile artists likeMick Taylor, Ian McLagan, the Grateful Dead, and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. This time, Dylan organized his concerts around a small, 'garage rock'-type combo, consisting of guitarist G.E. Smith (of Saturday Night Live fame), bassist Kenny Aaronson, and drummer Christopher Parker. (There was a notable exception in the early June shows; those concerts featured a second, lead guitarist in Neil Young, whose own career was also in a downturn at the time.)
Song selection also became more adventurous, with setlists from different nights offering little resemblance to one another. The concerts would also alternate between full-band, electric sets and smaller, acoustic sets (with Smith providing Dylan's only accompaniment); it was during the acoustic sets that Dylan incorporated an endless variety of traditional cover songs, a marked departure from previous shows that depended heavily on his own compositions.
The concerts initially received modest attention, but they would soon receive a generous amount of praise. The tour schedule was also surprising for a man of Dylan's age, as Dylan was spending most of his time on the road. Just as one leg of the tour would end, Dylan would schedule another leg soon after, and this would continue for many years to come. As a result, Dylan's shows are now often referred to as the "Never Ending Tour". Though the supporting personnel would undergo a number of changes for years to come, the basic format begun in the summer of 1988 would continue to this day.
- Side one
- "Let's Stick Together" (Wilbert Harrison) – 3:09
- "When Did You Leave Heaven?" (Walter Bullock, Richard Whiting) – 2:15
- "Sally Sue Brown" (Arthur June Alexander, Earl Montgomery, Tom Stafford) – 2:29
- "Death Is Not the End" (Bob Dylan) – 5:10
- "Had a Dream About You, Baby" (Bob Dylan) – 2:53
- Side two
- "Ugliest Girl in the World" (Bob Dylan, Robert Hunter) – 3:32
- "Silvio" (Bob Dylan, Robert Hunter) – 3:05
- "Ninety Miles an Hour (Down a Dead End Street)" (Hal Blair, Don Robertson) – 2:56
- "Shenandoah" (trad. arr. Bob Dylan) – 3:38
- "Rank Strangers to Me" (Albert E. Brumley) – 2:57
- Additional musicians
- Michael Baird – drums
- Peggie Blu – background vocals
- Alexandra Brown – background vocals
- Eric Clapton – guitar
- Alan Clark – keyboards
- Carolyn Dennis – background vocals
- Sly Dunbar – drums
- Nathan East – bass guitar
- Mitchell Froom – keyboards
- Full Force – background vocals
- Jerry Garcia – vocals
- Willie Green, Jr. – background vocals
- Beau Hill – keyboards
- Randy "The Emperor" Jackson – bass guitar
- Steve Jones – guitar
- Steve Jordan – drums
- Danny Kortchmar – guitar
- Bobby King – background vocals
- Clydie King – background vocals
- Pamela Quinlan - background vocals
- Larry Klein – bass guitar
- Mark Knopfler – guitar; production on "Death Is Not the End"
- Brent Mydland – vocals
- Madelyn Quebec – keyboards, background vocals
- Robbie Shakespeare – bass guitar
- Stephen Shelton – drums, keyboards, engineering, mixing
- Paul Simonon – bass guitar
- Henry Spinetti – drums
- Bob Weir – vocals
- Kip Winger – bass guitar
- Ronnie Wood – bass guitar
- Technical personnel
- Coke Johnson – engineering
- Mike Kloster – assistant engineering
- Jeff Musel – assistant engineering
- Jim Preziosi – assistant engineering
- Brian Saucy – assistant engineering