Knocked Out Loaded is one of those albums that will be almost totally forgotten by history and ignored by the general public, but most serious Dylan fans should be able to find something about it to enjoy or at least appreciate. If nothing else at all, it is a piece of the larger puzzle of Bob's artistic journey, and personally I feel you can't really understand Bob's work in the '80s without studying KOL and its maligned twin, Down In The Groove. Is it a masterpiece, Southwestern or otherwise? Well, no, but it's a link in the chain between the much better Infidels and the infinitely better Oh Mercy, and as such it's worth a half-hour of your time now and then (that's the time it will take to listen to it, minus "They Killed Him," of course).
I'll admit I have a soft spot for the album that might color my views -- KOL was only the second Dylan album I bought as a new release (having been introduced to Bob at age 17 by "Positively 4th Street" (on the radio), Biograph (mind-blowing), and Empire Burlesque (head-scratching). The week after KOL came out, my family was on vacation and got stranded at a service station with a broken down car; this gave me the chance to listen to Bob's latest several times uninterrupted. I'm unable to hear any of KOL's songs without thinking of that day at least briefly -- the memories are fond only because of that album.
On the other hand, I also have a very powerful memory that biases me AGAINST Knocked Out Loaded. The same summer that the album came out (had to be June or July), Rolling Stone had a special "Summer Music" issue, and they ran a long, glowing article about how incredible the KOL sessions were. Multiple quotes from the musicians and witnesses about how Bob was on fire, Bob was "back" and it was like the '60s all over again. After KOL was released, these same people were left to shake their heads wistfully and mutter about how Bob was a mystery, this wasn't how they remembered it, etc. So I think it's basically a wash in terms of my own objectivity -- I'm fond of several of the tracks (perhaps unreasonably so), but I can't forget that it was also another blown opportunity, one that I'm still waiting for The Bootleg Series to address.
Anyway, the music. "You Wanna Ramble" isn't a great performance of this song, but it serves as a statement of purpose, and we know quickly that this won't be "Empire Burlesque Pt. 2." (I learned later, of course, that a few tracks dated back to the EB sessions, but that's besides the point.) "Precious Memories" is pleasant enough, and "They Killed Him" is oddly fascinating (not in a good way), and "Driftin' Too Far From Shore" reeks of EB and the 1980s, but those are the low points for me. I've always loved "Maybe Someday" -- yes, it's quite "'80s" but it has a lot of energy and a pretty passionate vocal from Bob. "Got My Mind Made Up" is a great song, although at the time I was a little sad for Bob that he seemed to need Tom Petty to write a great song. No such reservations anymore; it's just a great song.
But my favorite songs on KOL, mirroring many here, are "Brownsville Girl" and "Under Your Spell." The former is a classic, albeit a deeply flawed one. If Sony gave me the power to remix ONE track from Bob's entire catalog, it would be "Brownsville Girl" -- I'd tone down the reverb, bring Bob's voice up a bit, and eliminate some of the excess caterwauling of the over-exuberant backup singers. I prefer the sound of "New Danville Girl" (outtake from the EB sessions), but I prefer the lyrics as they ended up on "Brownsville Girl," so I guess I'm stuck with it. I read somewhere that it was remixed for the Dylan greatest-hits comp, but I don't hear much (if any) difference. It's impossible to figure out what Sam Shepard contributed to the song; it all sounds like pure Dylan to me.
The latter is just one of those songs you love with your entire heart, and it just doesn't matter what anyone else thinks or how the empirical evidence of its "greatness" doesn't warrant your love. "Under Your Spell" is the final song on Knocked Out Loaded, and it leaves you with a sweet, warm feeling about an album that, honestly, should probably leave you disappointed or even a little angry. But there's something about this song that I can't shake, to paraphrase, and I remain under its spell 26 years later. The lines that stick with me are: "I'd like to help you / but I'm in a bit of a jam / I'll call you tomorrow / if there's phones where I am" and "But I'll see you later, I will survive / You'll never get rid of me as long as you're alive" -- Bob always had a way of making devotion seem a little menacing. And of course, because he's Bob, he throws a bit of apocalypse towards the end -- "Maybe next time I'll let the dead bury the dead" and then leaves you with the hope that he won't "die of thirst two feet from the well." Wow.
Back in 1986, despite everything I wrote above, I knew that KOL was a weak album, following another weak album (Empire Burlesque), and I spent the following year desperately waiting for what turned out to be ANOTHER weak album (Down In The Groove). I wondered if I could be a fan of a guy who didn't seem to care anymore, or if I should just go back and focus on the glory years, enjoying music I could only appreciate second-hand, never knowing what it was like to be there when it was new and electric. My patience would be rewarded in 1989, when Oh Mercy blew my mind and renewed my faith in Bob Dylan as a continuing artist. Since then, my appreciation for the "dark times" of the '80s has grown, kind of like how when you marry the right gal, you stop resenting all the earlier girlfriends and start appreciating the experience instead. Knocked Out Loaded will never be a "good" album in conventional terms, but it is an important one, if only because it left him deep in a ditch that he'd have to work hard to climb out of.