The album was largely greeted as a strange and disappointing follow-up to 1989's critically acclaimed Oh Mercy. Most of the criticism was directed at the slick sound of pop producer Don Was, as well as a handful of tracks that seem rooted in children's nursery rhymes. It is a rarity in Dylan's catalog for its inclusion of celebrity cameos byJimmie Vaughan, Slash, Elton John, George Harrison, David Crosby, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Bruce Hornsby.
The album is dedicated to "Gabby Goo Goo", later explained to be a nickname for Dylan's four-year-old daughter. This has led to the popular assumption that the album's more childlike songs were for her entertainment, something that has never been confirmed nor denied by Dylan.
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Dylan has echoed most critics' complaints, telling Rolling Stone in a 2006 interview that the album's shortcomings resulted from hurried and unfocused recording sessions, due in part to his activity with the Traveling Wilburys at the time. He also claimed that there were too many people working on the album, and that he was very disillusioned with the recording industry during this period of his career.
Dylan critic Patrick Humphries, author of The Complete Guide to the Music of Bob Dylan, was particularly harsh in his assessment of Under the Red Sky, stating the album "was everything Oh Mercy wasn't—sloppily written songs, lazily performed and unimaginatively produced. The first bridge of "2 X 2" ("How much poison did they inhale?") was reminiscent of the menace which pervaded Oh Mercy, but otherwise, where before there had been certainty and sureness, here was confusion and indecision."
Humphries saved his harshest attack for the album's opening song, "Wiggle Wiggle":
|“||Then there's "Wiggle Wiggle": worse than anything Dylan has ever recorded? Maybe not that bad, but certainly up there, jostling for position in that particular part of hell, where the jukebox plays nothing but "Joey" (from Desire) and "Had a Dream About You, Baby" (from Down in the Groove). "Wiggle Wiggle" was the one the critics jumped on, particularly the line "Wiggle wiggle wiggle like a bowl of soup", which was taken as proof positive that Dylan had lost it, definitely, permanently, irrevocably. It was hard to disagree—it is hard to reconcile such a line with the man who wrote "Desolation Row" (fromHighway 61 Revisited). Of course, you can't get Hamlet or "Like a Rolling Stone" every time out of the traps, but "Wiggle Wiggle"?||”|
The album did have some critical support, particularly from Robert Christgau of The Village Voice, who wrote "To my astonishment, I think Under the Red Sky is Dylan's best album in 15 years, a record that may even signal a ridiculously belated if not totally meaningless return to form...It's fabulistic, biblical...the tempos are postpunk like it oughta be, with [Kenny] Aronoff's sprints and shuffles grooving ahead like '60s folk-rock never did." And Paul Nelson, writing for Musician, called the album "a deliberately throwaway masterpiece." When the Voice held its Pazz & Jop Critics Poll for 1990, Under the Red Sky placed at #39.
In the end, album sales were disappointing, peaking at #38 on the US charts and #13 in the UK. According to the book Down The Highway: The Life Of Bob Dylan, the disappointing record sales of this album made him depressed. On top of that, Dylan's second wife had just signed for divorce in August 1990.
In 2005, Q magazine included the lead-off track "Wiggle Wiggle" in a list of "Ten Terrible Records by Great Artists". Time Magazine placed "Wiggle Wiggle" on the list of The 10 Worst Bob Dylan Songs, noting that it "...sounds like the theme song to one of those tripped-out television shows beloved by toddlers and drug users." The song was covered on the 2014 tribute album Bob Dylan in the 80s: Volume One by Slash andAaron Freeman.
Two songs, "Born in Time" and "God Knows", are reworkings of material originally recorded at the previous year's Oh Mercy sessions.
According to producer Don Was, there were two outtakes from the album: "Shirley Temple Doesn't Live Here Anymore" (which Dylan co-wrote with Was and David Weiss) and "Heartland" (which Dylan later sang withWillie Nelson on Nelson's 1993 album Across the Borderline). "Shirley Temple Doesn't Live Here Anymore" was later recorded by Don Was's group Was (Not Was) for their 2008 album Boo! as "Mr. Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore".
Dylan recorded and released the nursery rhyme song, "This Old Man", on the Disney charity album, For Our Children, in 1991, a year after this album was released.
Dylan's follow-up effort Good As I Been to You would be released two years later.
All songs written by Bob Dylan.
- "Wiggle Wiggle" – 2:09
- "Under the Red Sky" – 4:09
- "Unbelievable" – 4:06
- "Born in Time" – 3:39
- "T.V. Talkin' Song" – 3:02
- "10,000 Men" – 4:21
- "2 × 2" – 3:36
- "God Knows" – 3:02
- "Handy Dandy" – 4:03
- "Cat's in the Well" – 3:21
- Additional musicians
- Kenny Aronoff – drums
- Sweet Pea Atkinson – backing vocals
- Rayse Biggs – trumpet
- Sir Harry Bowens – backing vocals
- David Crosby – backing vocals
- Paulinho Da Costa – percussion
- Robben Ford – guitar
- George Harrison – slide guitar
- Bruce Hornsby – piano
- Randy "The Emperor" Jackson – bass guitar
- Elton John – piano
- Al Kooper – organ, keyboards
- David Lindley – bouzouki, guitar, slide guitar
- David McMurray – saxophone
- Donald Ray Mitchell – backing vocals
- Jamie Muhoberac – organ
- Slash – guitar
- Jimmie Vaughan – guitar
- Stevie Ray Vaughan – guitar
- Waddy Wachtel – guitar
- David Was – backing vocals, production
- Don Was – bass guitar, production
- Technical personnel