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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Bob Dylan: Slow Train Coming

BOB DYLAN: SLOW TRAIN COMING (1979)

1) Gotta Serve Somebody; 2) Precious Angel; 3) I Believe In You; 4) Slow Train; 5) Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking; 6) Do Right To Me Baby (Do Unto Others); 7) When You Gonna Wake Up; 8) Man Gave Names To All The Animals; 9) When He Returns.

Truly and verily the match between Bob Dylan and Mark Knopfler must have been made in Hea­ven, even though Mark did find it somewhat embarrassing when he discovered that he had been recruited to play on a bona fide Christian rock album. So was Jerry Wexler, for that matter, who produced the album, all the while having to fight back Dylan's incessant proselytizing. According to Bob's own confession, he had seen the light after Jesus himself visited the old sinner in his sleep — and judging by objective evidence at least, Bob's conversion must have been quite sin­cere, since it involved schooling, training, and missionary activity. The fact that he dropped all of his secular material from the concert setlists is, in comparison, not such good evidence, since this could be ascribed primarily to the man's general fondness for controversy and prankishness; but on the whole, his entire life during those three strange years seems to have indeed been domina­ted by J. C. and his teachings.

As a rule, the term «Christian rock» does not stimulate too many positive emotions among people with «good taste», so to speak — which is really due not so much to the fact that a practising Christian may not have good taste (he certainly may) as to the fact that the term has largely been privatized by scores of dull, talentless artists who seem to think that any music is all right as long as it explicitly glorifies Jesus, the Church, and the Christian life. From which, of course, it does not logically follow that any music that glorifies Jesus is automatically bad — nor is the very fact of singing praise for the Christian lifestyle by itself worth condemnation, because, well, on the whole this is just another way of singing about the battle between good and evil, right?

Which means that I cannot side with John Lennon's famous fury when he heard ʽGotta Serve Somebodyʼ and it pissed him off so much that he could not resist the temptation of writing an unofficial response (the furious and melodically awful ʽServe Yourselfʼ; fortunately, he had the good commercial sense not to polish it for inclusion on Double Fantasy). If you take the song on its own value, out of the general Jesus context, its only message is a simple one — whatever you do, and no matter how complicated life seems to be, there will always be a black-and-white per­spective to it as well, and your very existence in this world will force you to choose one side over the other. Put it that way, and it's not too different from the naïve philosophies of John and Yoko themselves, the way they were practised and propagated in the era of «Bagism».

Indeed, of all the three albums of Bob's «Christian» period, Slow Train Coming is the least dri­ven by ritual and formula — only about half of the songs deal directly with Jesus and the «born again» thing — and, more importantly, much of it is about the music, not about the words. With Wexler in the producer's seat, the album has a strong Muscle Shoals atmosphere about it, repla­cing the «big band» sound of Street Legal with a tougher, more stripped and economic, but still dense 1970s R&B atmosphere, which Knopfler then personalizes with his shrill-and-somber Glasgow blues guitar tone. The atmosphere, however, is anything but celebratory: Dylan does not glorify or praise so much as condemn, and that's some mighty fine condemning, I must say.

Christian rock or not, ʽSlow Trainʼ is one of Bob's greatest songs of the 1970s, if not ever — an inspiring combination of critical lyrics, sincerely angered vocal delivery, viciously lashing licks from Knopfler, and perfectly placed backing vocals: each of the "...there's a slow... slow train coming... up around the bend" choruses really does create the illusion of an approaching train (okay, so it passes you by and fades away in the distance with each chorus, so that after a while it gets a little repetitive, but the arrangement compensates for that by gradually adding extra layers of brass and keyboards). Bob's way with words is quite impressive as well — the fire-and-brim­stone thing never gets old if you populate it with new imagery, such as backwards girls from Ala­bama, «masters of the bluff and masters of the proposition» (the last time we heard of «masters» was on ʽMasters Of Warʼ, and this might be the first time since then that the old preacher from Hibbing comes out with so much direct thrashing). Plus, as of 2013, the thrashing seems to be ever and ever more relevant than it was in 1979 ("they talk about a life of brotherly love, show me someone who knows how to live it") — although my favorite quote still comes from ʽWhen You Gonna Wake Upʼ ("they tell you ʽtime is moneyʼ as if your life was worth its weight in gold"). This sort of preaching is quite all right with me, you know.

On the whole, he may have broken up with his fanbase, but Slow Train Coming is a typical — and typically good — Dylan album all the way. Long, verbose songs, with repetitive, but hooky choruses: whatever one might say, the transition from slow shuffly tempo verse to sped-up boo­gie chorus on ʽWhen You Gonna Wake Upʼ gets me every time (a good word must be put in for Dire Straits drummer Pick Withers), and the brass groove of ʽGonna Change My Way Of Thin­kingʼ (which, come to think of it, borrows a part from ʽSunshine Of Your Loveʼ) is powerful and makes good use of its stop-and-start structure. Oh, and there is even some lightweight humor in the picture — ʽMan Gave Names To All The Animalsʼ is really one for the kiddos (you'd hardly expect a reasonable grown-up to feel happy about filling in that last line, which also gets you a-thinkin': what, suppose Adam did not notice the snake and give it its name, maybe things would have turned out quite different?..).

In any case, there may be no doubt about it: Slow Train Coming did rejuvenate Dylan and pull him out, if only temporarily, of the personal crisis so masochistically displayed on Street Legal. The solution may seem too crude, too simple, too undeserving of someone who used to take pride in out-of-the-ordinary sophistication, but it seems that, at the time, a crude, simple solution was exactly the kind of solution that the doctor ordered — and as long as it did not interfere with Dy­lan's strengths and values as a musician, there was no problem.

Well, come to think of it, there may have been signs of a problem: songs like ʽWhen He Returnsʼ really show Bob drifting towards formulaic spiritual mush, and on the whole, Slow Train succeeds much better when he is condemning violators of brotherly love than when he is trying to spread brotherly love as such. Want it or not, Dylan's most personal and beloved God is the God of Vengeance, not the God of Compassion, and this is why ʽGotta Serve Somebodyʼ and ʽSlow Trainʼ have a strong chance of being remembered when stuff like ʽPrecious Angelʼ and ʽI Believe In Youʼ is long forgotten. Fortunately, it is these songs that set the overall tone for the entire al­bum — along with Knopfler, still at the peak of his «inner punk flame» period — and guarantee it an assured thumbs up. Fun fact: Nick Cave himself has gone on record proclaiming Slow Train to be his favorite Dylan album (of all time, no less!), and even if it is hard to believe the sincerity of this statement, I can certainly understand his motivation. At the very least, this may have earned the album a bunch of extra listeners — pretty strong publicity.  

Check "Slow Train Coming" (CD) on Amazon

3 comments:

  1. Even the songs that seem to be about forgiveness and mercy have a running theme of Bob being condemned by the unbelievers.

    ReplyDelete
  2. One reviewer once aptly noted that on the evidence of this album, being 'born again' (California-creed style) must be an utterly miserable experience. Rarely has Dylan -- not exactly the poster-child for smiling joy -- seemed so spiteful, so unhappy, so humorless, so negative. In short, everything that made him the most enviable songwriter of the 1962-1976 period is pensioned off (minus a few decent melodies), and we're left with a whiny vocalist whinging about being saved while sounding like he's ready to put a gun to his own head. "Gotta Serve Somebody" is embarrassing in the extreme. Utter crap.

    ReplyDelete
  3. One reviewer once aptly noted that on the evidence of this album, being 'born again' (California-creed style) must be an utterly miserable experience. Rarely has Dylan -- not exactly the poster-child for smiling joy -- seemed so spiteful, so unhappy, so humorless, so negative. In short, everything that made him the most enviable songwriter of the 1962-1976 period is pensioned off (minus a few decent melodies), and we're left with a whiny vocalist whinging about being saved while sounding like he's ready to put a gun to his own head. "Gotta Serve Somebody" is embarrassing in the extreme. Utter crap.

    ReplyDelete