Review Summary: This is not classic Bob Dylan. It probably wasn't meant to be classic, either. However, there are moments of enjoyment to be found in "Knocked Out Loaded". There are moments.
After "Empire Burlesque", Bob Dylan was beginning to run low on original and creative song ideas. "Knocked Out Loaded" is certainly not Bob's best work (and he probably didn't intend the work assembled together on "Knocked Out Loaded" to be his best work). However, I would still argue that "Knocked Out Loaded" is not a worthless record.
There are some great recordings out of the eight songs on this album. "You Wanna Ramble" (a cover song) is a powerful opening song. Sure, the 80s production is clearly in the picture and the female background voices may not be to everybody's liking, but you cannot deny the energy in "You Wanna Ramble".
"Precious Memories" (another cover song) has always been a favorite of mine from this record. In fact, this is where I first heard the song. While Bob is probably meaning every word in this song which reflects on the past, there is still sincerity and not a grain of offensive-ness to be found in this moving cover. I'm cool with how this song turned out.
And last, but not least, the other great recording on "Knocked Out Loaded"... (I'm sure you know which song I'm referring to) is "Brownsville Girl" (written by Bob Dylan and Sam Shepherd). The song goes on for 11 minutes and this has to be one of Bob's greatest storytelling songs. It never gets boring. The female singers are in place, the 80s-sounding music doesn't do any harm, and Bob seems to be in it while recording the song. This is the only track from this record which you can find on various compilations (ex: Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits Vol. III 1994). Perhaps it's been the praise for this song and the availability of it on compilations which has led people from avoiding the rest of what's on "Knocked Out Loaded". Maybe.
As for the other songs, they are not the greatest, but I have heard worse. "Driftin' Too Far From Shore" (a Dylan original) could have been better, but the 80s production doesn't help this track. "Under Your Spell" (written by Bob Dylan and Carol Bayer Sager) closes the record and, while the song doesn't sound offensive, you can still hear Bob sounding like "he is in a bit of jam" (as he mentions in the song). I have no problem listening to the closing track, but it's not powerful Dylan. "Got My Mind Made Up" (written by Dylan and Tom Petty) is actually alright by me. The "ugly" guitar you hear after Bob sings "I've got my mind made up" has been alright with me, but I can see how it would be a turn off to some people.
As for the remaining songs ("They Killed Him" and "Maybe Someday"), these are probably the weakest of the lot in my opinion. "They Killed Him" definitely had potential and it's alright, but the 80s production and the children choir singing on one of the song verses does not help. As for "Maybe Someday", I have never liked the very beginning of the song as well as the tune in general. It is a Dylan original and I can see how Bob might have tried to make the song turn out well, but at this point (in '86), Bob Dylan had so much going on in his personal life and his career slipping downwards only added discouragement.
Overall, "Knocked Out Loaded" is not a superb album. I don't listen to it all the time, but it's not extremely terrible. If you can find it, I'd say pick it up anyhow. You might enjoy some of the decent recordings found on here and maybe you'll come to really like some of the songs I described as average. It's your choice with this record (which is also not the easiest to find in local stores).
That's my fifty cents on "Knocked Out Loaded".