Bob Dylan’s wrongheaded Knocked Out Loaded was almost saved by epic ‘Brownsville Girl’

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There’s always something redeemable about a Bob Dylan album, no matter its other wrongheaded missteps. Proof comes in the form of “Brownsville Girl” from 1986’s otherwise entirely forgettable Knocked Out Loaded, released on July 14, 1986. This hallucinagenic cowboy odyssey might be the only thing to recommend from a confusingly constructed, justifiably forgotten album project.

No, “Brownsville Girl,” an epic 11-minute triumph of sharp-elbowed Americana storytelling, doesn’t exactly save Knocked Out Loaded. Still, it points directly to the third-act successes Dylan is having today, even amidst an otherwise weirdly disjointed offering which somehow sounds simultaneously hodge podge (there are tracks from several previous sessions scattered throughout) and yet so absolutely corporate (from its synthesized horns to its glossy backup squallers).

Yes, in two short decades, Bob Dylan had gone from poking the establishment in the eye to suiting up for the latest plasticine trends. Certainly, you can understand the cover image’s impulse to smash somebody over the head with something.

Worst of it all, to my ears, was the maudlin mish mash “They Killed Him.” Creepy, creeping, and (worse really) too obvious, it finds Dylan retracing the awful deaths of Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Jesus Christ to the brief accompaniment of (gulp) a children’s choir. The only saving grace is the hindsight realization that this would be one of the final signposts in what turned out to be a blessedly brief, though deeply uninteresting, period of religious rumination.

Still, it’s impossible to so easily dismiss “Brownsville Girl.” Bob Dylan first approached this subject matter on a demo called “New Danville Girl,” updating the Woody Guthrie classic, before working with Sam Shepard on the finished track. The presence of the playwright, perhaps, has led some to believe that “Brownsville” was a response-song to “Doin the Things That We Want To,” where Lou Reed references Shepard’s 1983 play Fool for Love.

Whatever its origins, “Brownsville Girl” is almost enough to justify the price of admission on Knocked Out Loaded, as Bob Dylan travels on a zig-zagging journey toward the Texas panhandle, collecting adventures and misadventures, friends and double crosses, strange dreams and stunning courtroom drama — all retold, as if in a reverie, while waiting in line for a Western.

You hear him reaching for (and grasping) something brand new in his storytelling, something that draws a straight line toward a mythmaking narrative like 2012’s “Tempest.”

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