Tuesday, June 8, 2021

CD Odyssey Disc 1480: Bob Dylan

After a game of questionable officiating, my beloved Boston Bruins are on the verge of elimination from the Stanley Cup playoffs. However, that is a test for tomorrow night. Tonight, let’s stick with music.

Disc 1480 is…. Slow Train Coming

Artist: Bob Dylan

Year of Release: 1979

What’s up with the Cover? Workers lay down track in front of an oncoming train. The train better be very slow moving indeed, or it is about to derail.

In the foreground there is a guy swinging a pick. That pick looks suspiciously like a cross as well. Wait a minute? This isn’t one of those religious Bob Dylan records, is it? Oh yes, my friends. It most certainly is.

How I Came To Know It: I was just digging through Bob Dylan’s back catalogue and bought this one hoping I’d like it.

How It Stacks Up: I have 19 Bob Dylan albums. That may sound like a lot until you realize he has 39 studio albums alone. After a bit of jostling in the middle of the lineup (albums 7-10 are all great, but pretty equal) I decided to slot “Slow Train Coming” in at #9, just below “Infidels” and just above “Bringing It All Back Home”.

Ratings: 4 stars

I am not a Christian, but you don’t have to be a Christian to stand in the nave of St. Paul’s cathedral and be in awe of the amazing art religion can inspire. Such was my experience with “Slow Train Coming,” the first (and easily best) of Dylan’s three Christian records. I didn’t feel the light of precious angels shining down on me, but I got a pretty solid artistic rendition of what that might feel like.

While I tend to think of Bob Dylan as a folk singer first, he has been through many musical phases in his life, and “Slow Train Coming” is principally a rock record, with a healthy does of blues and RnB. Other than the record’s final track, Dylan eschews soaring hymnal structures, and instead drops some solid groove. Sure he uses an organ, but on these songs, it tends to dig in rather than fly.

Dylan is helped considerably with the aforementioned groove by guest musician Mark Knopfler. Knopfler’s guitar is almost always the star of any show it finds itself in, but Dylan employs him artfully to add a sway and saunter to these songs. Sometimes you barely notice Knopfler is there beyond a general feel of “cool” emanating out of the speakers. On other occasions, (“Precious Angel”, “Slow Train”) his guitar is omnipresent and powerful. It is in the mix just enough that you revel in it when it arrives, but never rely on it showing up.

Topically, the record is very much about Dylan finding God and then telling his audience all about how you should too. However, never has a door-to-door preacher sounded so cool while delivering his message. “Gotta Serve Somebody” starts things off with a rhythm guaranteed to loosen up your lower back in the funkiest way possible. On “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking” Dylan is all blues and brimstone as he lets you know that Jesus is on the way, and the time to repent is nigh.

While the lyrics on “Slow Train Coming” is not as replete with clever phrasing as many other classic Dylan records, he still has his moments. One of my favourites:

“I got a God-fearing woman
One I can easily afford
She can do the Georgia Crawl
She can walk in the Spirit of the Lord”

In case you are wondering, the Georgia Crawl is a dance referenced in an old blues song from the twenties.

It is not all good, however. The risible “Man Gave Names to all the Animals” is a bunch of silly rhymes stitched together around a pseudo-reggae beat. It is often mentioned by those who would cast aspersions on the album as a whole, although I’d argue it is very much the outlier, and arguably the only truly bad song.

For the most part, you get an honest (albeit zealous) exploration of a man finding his faith. Great artists are perpetual seekers, and they aren’t afraid to throw themselves into their quest for truth. To wonder if Dylan found truth on “Slow Train Coming” is to miss the point. Instead, I suggest you climb to the top of the cathedral of sound he builds and look out. The view is fantastic.

Best tracks: Gotta Serve Somebody, Precious Angel, Slow Train, Gonna Change My Way of Thinking, When You Gonna Wake Up

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