Bob's Big Box

Bob's Big Box
As a music lover who just turned 40, I thought it was about time I explored the back catalogue of Bob Dylan, an artist I'd largely ignored previously. Right then...

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

22. Slow Train Coming (1979)

Whether the surreal, drug-fuelled turmoil of the electric trilogy, the domestic simplicity of the country phase, the almost unbearably painful soul-bearing of Blood on the Tracks, or any other period you'd care to mention, whatever Dylan is currently into, or going through, is somehow reflected in his work.  A recent magazine article* used an old quote by fellow Greenwich Village alumnus David Blue; "His songs were always true to the life they were written in".  Slow Train Coming is no different.

If you're a fan of Dylan you'll already know the official story of his conversion to Christianity; something along the lines of an audience member throwing a silver cross onto the stage in late 1978, Bob picking it up after the concert, and a couple of days later retrieving it from his pocket while in his hotel room and undergoing a divine visitation.

This was apparently an experience so real and intense ("Jesus did appear to me as King of Kings, and Lord of Lords") that it led him to become a born-again Christian, under the wing of actress and girlfriend Mary Alice Artes (credited on the sleeve of Street Legal as 'Queen Bee') and an LA organisation called the Vineyard Fellowship.

Where on Street Legal Dylan seemed to be searching for something, on Slow Train Coming he's found it, although the answers weren't so much blowing in the wind as residing in the pages of the Book of Revelation.  This transformation in Bob's faith is immediately apparent just by skimming through the song titles, Gotta Serve Somebody being a strong contender for the most pious. When Janet Maslin wrote in a review of At Budokan in Rolling Stone, "The fire and brimstone are behind Dylan" she couldn't have been more wrong.  Arriving on Barry Beckett's slinky electric piano riff, this album opener informs us in no uncertain terms that as far as Bob is now concerned you either serve the Lord or the devil.  He goes into list mode, detailing folks in high and low places (including himself, "...a rock 'n' roll addict prancing on the stage") who must choose whom they obey, prompting John Lennon to express his disgust with the parody 'Serve Yourself'.  Serve Somebody won Bob his first Grammy and the single sold well, providing him with his last chart hit, but it also made no. 2 in a 2013 Rolling Stone readers poll of the worst ever Dylan songs, just above 'Wiggle Wiggle' (of which I've yet to have the pleasure - coming in just ten albums' time!).

Listening to Precious Angel on my first play through STC, I was surprised to hear it kick off with a very Dire Straits-y guitar riff, and a quick Google revealed that Mark Knopfler appears throughout the album, specially requested by Dylan who admired 'Sultans of Swing'.  Also present is Straits bandmate Pick Withers, who provides a nice crisp drum sound on this song praising both earthly and heavenly love, the earthly passion probably being Artes, who was instrumental in bringing Christ into Bob's life.  The version of Christianity here is not of the happy-clappy variety; as well as proclaiming "Ya either got faith or ya got unbelief and there ain't no neutral ground", he sings about a darkness falling from above where " will beg God to kill them and they won't be able to die".  I imagine that for many of his fans this quite ugly, heavy-handed rhetoric was hard to stomach, but I dare say that in parts of his home country it also brought him a new fanbase. Lyrics aside, Precious Angel came to be one of my favourites on STC (maybe because it sounds a bit like If Not For You), although it's perhaps a tad over-long at more than six minutes.

Acoustic strumming introduces I Believe In You, which describes his 'coming out' as a born-again Christian and the doubt and rejection this provoked in those around him.  It's heartfelt but the words are cringey at times, particularly when he croaks out "...even through the tears and the laughter", a lyric that would be more at home on the Fame soundtrack.  It ends beautifully though, with a trademark Knopfler liquid solo.

Like Knopfler, producer Jerry Wexler had no inkling beforehand of the overtly religious emphasis of these new songs.  The employment of his polished style, mixed with the dexterity of the Muscle Shoals Horns and the restrained input of the backing vocalists may have been an attempt by Dylan to to reach a wider audience with his new important message.  The pill certainly needed some sugaring; on the title track, as well as addressing unbelievers and proclaiming the unstoppable Second Coming, he turns his attention to world hunger, false idols, foreign energy and the general shoddy state of America as he sees it.  This new kind of finger-pointing sounds rather xenophobic in places, but musically Slow Train is the best song by a mile.  As well as some righteous backing vocals and a few soulful MK licks, like all of the better songs on STC it features a decent guitar riff and a funk-lite groove.  The 'damned or saved' blues of Gonna Change My Way of Thinking has both of these, although the prominent horns sound perfunctory, lacking the swing you'd expect of Muscle Shoals pros.  A welcome bit of blues smut about the "Georgia crawl" isn't enough to counteract the sanctimonious tone.

Another listy song comes next with Do Right to Me Baby (Do Unto Others), a look at the universal ethic of reciprocity the Golden Rule, which sees Bob telling us how he doesn't "wanna judge nobody", hilariously enough.  A sparkling, sexy electric piano groove and some fine acoustic picking lift the repetitive lyrics and mediocre melody out of the doldrums.  An equally great groove is completely flattened by a boring drum sound on When You Gonna Wake Up, which like its predecessor lacks any backing vocals or strong melody.  As well as railing against greed and hypocrisy, more constructively Dylan calls for the listener to strengthen those basic values that can overcome evil.

At this point the album has begun to sound samey, i.e. hectoring fundamentalist preaching set to glossy gospel-funk, but this changes with the last two songs.  Man Gave Names to All the Animals is a Sunday school song in a playful reggae-gospel style that made no. 4 on the aforementioned list of worst ever Dylan songs.  Like Forever Young and bizarrely If Dogs Run Free it's been made into an illustrated childrens' book.  
The last verse of the song foreshadows the fall of man, and the listener is left to fill in the final line for himself.

Like Slow Train, closing spiritual When He Returns concerns Armageddon and the return of Christ.  Accompanied by just Beckett's piano, Dylan gives his most impassioned performance on the album, and his evident sincerity is genuinely moving.  It's a shame we had to wait until the end of the record before this tender, less zealous side of the new convert was revealed, but it makes for a splendid sign-off.

Almost immediately after his conversion Bob stopped playing all of his old songs for a long time, performing only those 'given to him by the Lord'.  Whether this was a display of courage or just his usual bull-headedness is hard to say, but he's claimed in later interviews that he didn't really want to write and sing these songs himself, but felt he must.  As well as playing just the religious songs, he took to sermonising on stage; the brand of conservative Christianity he preached was that of a vengeful God, lacking mercy and forgiveness.  It must have felt like a kick in the teeth to some fans, coming from the bloke who in 1965 urged them not to follow leaders.  The man who once stood for freedom of thought and expression was still following his own path but demonising the paths of others, and this proved to be a hard sell, alienating many.

Putting aside the lyrical content for a second (not that easy), the music on STC is mostly as purified as its maker; the sound is clean, tight and unexciting, with an airless quality that leaves me a bit queasy, much like the work of Steely Dan tends to.  It's more LA smooth than Muscle Shoals grit, and I'd expect to hear more joy from someone who's just found God, although Precious Angel has uplifting moments.  Musically it's bit too 'tasteful' for my palate, like a less spirited version of the Street Legal style.  If only he'd put as much feeling and conviction into the medium as he did the message, Slow Train Coming might have been a classic album.  It may indeed be true that the devil has all the best tunes.

*Mojo 60s Issue 3, June 2015

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