Because Bob Dylan had the power of insight and poetry early in his career, he became an article of faith himself. He gave so much identity and energy to so many people that eventually it could only blow up. And it did. Which was bitter, disappointing and confusing to a lot of people, including myself and, I think, also Dylan.
Within a very short period of time, forces came together that reversed Dylan's musical strength and social weight. They were events of all sorts — personal, professional, accidental: the inevitable pauses and doubts that come with age and the kind of success Dylan had. There were the times themselves — long, depressing years in which we all became hopeless.
It takes only one listening to realize that Slow Train Coming (Columbia Records) is the best album Bob Dylan has made since The Basement Tapes (recorded with the Band in 1967 but not released until 1975). The more I hear the new album — at least fifty times since early July — the more I feel that it's one of the finest records Dylan has ever made. In time, it is possible that it might even be considered his greatest.
This claim will not go down easily, especially with all the "born again" clamor. So much emotion has become invested in Dylan's public image that the greater numbers of his critics and devotees torture themselves before they will put aside their previous definitions of him. In fairness, his followers have seen his work steadily weaken for almost a decade and have legitimate reasons to be extremely rigid.
In the Seventies, Dylan's situation turned almost paralytic, both for himself and his audience. Five or six superb songs weren't enough to overcome this long, stagnant interval of doubt and reconsideration. As the "spokesman" of a generation, Dylan created so many images and expectations that he narrowed his room for maneuverability and finally became unsure of his own instincts. Whatever his dilemmas, they were tied up in the social and political themes of the last ten years. In the hard times of confusion, just as in the easier times of conviction, Dylan continued to reflect society.
A broadly drawn historical perspective is the most valid way to consider Slow Train Coming, especially if it is important to understand the old-time religion and evangelism woven into these songs. Before anyone had even heard this album, the news that Dylan was doing a little Bible reading stirred up great winds of cynicism and distrust: a kind of controversy recalling the intensity of past debates about Dylan.
Bob Dylan has, at long last, come back into our lives and times, and it is with the most commercial LP he's ever released. Slow Train Coming has been made with a care and attention to detail that Dylan never gave any of his earlier records. The decision to take such time and care comes from a deep artistic and personal re-evaluation. He wanted — and after so many weak efforts and near failures, perhaps felt he had no choice — a commercial success. He was also smart enough to see that this thrust might even be the only road left for his return to brilliance.
The musicians on this album are the best Dylan has worked with since Highway 61 Revisited (1965), Blonde on Blonde (1966) and The Basement Tapes (1967).
For the third time in his long career, Dylan has turned to a full-time producer. (In the early Sixties, he used Tom Wilson; in the late Sixties, Bob Johnston.) His choice for Slow Train Coming was an act of instinctual genius: Jerry Wexler, the éminence grise and veteran wise man inseparably connected with the classics of Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Dusty Springfield, among many others. Like Dylan, Wexler has his finest LP since those fabulous Sixties, one that ranks with his greatest achievements. (Wexler shares his production credit with Barry Beckett, the extraordinary pianist of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section.)
Bob Dylan once again has something urgent to sing. He's back in the land of opportunity, fate and inexplicable twists. Slow Train Coming, built on an accumulation of reluctant and arduous changes, is the record that's been a long time coming, with an awesome, sudden stroke of transcendent and cohesive vision. This is what makes it so overwhelming.
Dylan's new songs are statements of strength and simplicity, and the lyrics again equal his early classics. The words are rich with the ambiguity of great art. Dylan has not self-consciously reached for the colorful imagery and language of Highway 61 Revisited, symbols that, as we look back, seem dated. Slow Train Coming's lyrics are timeless, simple, yet rich in potential levels of meaning.
Dylan's apocalyptic visions and Biblical symbolism are wholly consistent with the "protest" or "message" songs that are the historical foundation of his work. We also recognize the characters and the humor from earlier tunes: thieves, the rich and the poor. Instead of dwarfs, we have bankers. And, as always, landlords.
"Gotta Serve Somebody," the opening cut, uses a religious allegory in each chorus, but it's no different than the choice between good and evil that Dylan has always sung about.
There is no letup in the power of the rhythm and arrangements from the opening track through the last, because there's no letup in the message. Over and over again, Dylan tells us that we have a choice of doing good or doing bad.
Precious Angel" is the most beautiful melody on the record, and it matches the beauty of the lyric. It is a country-rock arrangement (a la Nashville Skyline), and a Dylan trademark. There are numerous Biblical references, but in no way do they overwhelm — or ever become differentiated from — the undisguised passion of a lover's question. The song has intensely sensuous words:
You're the queen of my flesh, girl
You're my woman, you're my delight
You're the lamp of my soul, girl
You torch up the night.
The refrain — "Shine your light, shine your light on me/I just can't make it by myself/I'm a little too blind to see" — tears your heart out.
I am struck by two other lines: "Men will beg God to kill them/And they won't be able to die" — a terrifying idea; and the verse that starts, "Sister, let me tell you/About a vision that I saw/You were carrying water for your husband/You were suffering under the law," which is a clear essay on the rights of women.
"I Believe in You" is a story that shifts from the personal (love) to the philosophic (the stranger) to the religious (the disciple), and may even be a story about Jesus. In part, "I Believe in You" is about someone who adopts unpopular beliefs (implicitly religious) and faces an outcast's fate, yet the lines "I believe in you/Even on the morning after" are a rather obvious clue to quite another, yet parallel interpretation.
All of these tales — the outcast's, the believer's, the lover's — are intended as one, because Dylan is finally saying only one thing: "I believe in you." The power of this song is the discovery of faith and belief, and the release and pleasure of accepting them.
"Slow Train" is unequivocally in the tradition of the "state of the union" songs that Bob Dylan has put on every record he's ever done. But for the first time since Highway 61 Revisited, the song that is his boldest statement on the American condition is the title tune, which signals the theme of the album.
The title track is nothing less than Dylan's most mature and profound song about America. His patriotism is absolutely clear: it is a statement filled with his belief in the American Dream, as well as being infused with outrage, and with anger. I think it's his best state-of-the-union song ever, because it's tempered and deepened by a wiser understanding, which is where religion really does fit into this album.
I find it devastating.
The image of a "slow train coming up around the bend" is thoroughly American. The "train" is not just a suggestion, but it's an affirmation of America's greatness. Dylan begins this song "wondering what's happening to my companions," and verse after verse explains who his companions are and what is happening to them. There's his "backwoods girl from Alabama," undoubtedly a very personal companion. Then, there's the nation itself — a people frustrated — because they lately see themselves as powerless to affect their own national destiny. "Look around you/It's just bound to make you embarrassed." Among other things, he says, "The enemy I see/Wears a cloak of decency" and "They talk about a life of brotherly love/But show me someone who knows how to live it." The solos by Mark Knopfler, Dire Straits' lead writer and guitarist, like the lyrics, are angry. They suggest vengeance and a desire to strike out.
In essence, "Slow Train" is a new kind of "Blowin' in the Wind" or "Desolation Row." But the times are now more complicated and not as easily open to broad strokes and simplistic insights. Only prophets and those most personally involved are willing to risk definitions. This has always been Bob Dylan's special link to his audience. On "Slow Train," Dylan is stating that the way you see yourself is inseparable and must be no different from the way you see others. Thus, the most powerful lyric of them all:
My baby went to Illinois
With some bad-talking boy she could destroy
A real suicide case
But there was nothing I could do to stop it
I don't care about economy
I don't care about astronomy
But it sure does bother me
To see my loved ones turning into puppets.
Set in a tough, relentless rhythm, "Gonna Change My Way of Thinking" is a fire-and-brimstone sermon stripped of subtlety, though not of poetry. Lines like these are priceless:
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.
This piece of music comes as close as anything ever has to matching the Rolling Stones. The horn arrangements and rhythm guitar bring to mind "Bitch" and "Brown Sugar." For years, Dylan has implied that he could outdo Mick Jagger, and if he ever wanted to prove the point, "Gonna Change My Way of Thinking" is it. It's certainly as good as it gets.
Mark Knopfler tears into phrases and attacks with a fearsome skill. (His licks on this song are derived mainly from Albert King.) He is easily the best new guitarist in years. I'm a sucker for great guitar work. My hat is off — and eaten.
Anyone who insists on seeing Slow Train Coming as some frightening or worthless religious conversion should probably start with "Gonna Change My Way of Thinking" as their evidence. The song is more than a direct descendant of "With God on Our Side" and countless others in which Dylan's warnings haven't much differed from the one used here: apocalypse soon if you don't watch out. Now, the idea is developed with a stridency that makes for maximum discomfort — and maximum rock & roll.
"When You Gonna Wake Up" is another assessment of America. The tune is a swinging, lowdown groove, which showcases the musicians, including Dylan, whose singing is tough, full-voiced and urgent, sounding like a zealot. Dylan's chorus, "Strengthen the things that remain," is the sentiment of a deeply concerned citizen. The lyrics are more acidic than practically anything found in rock music. I agree completely with what Dylan says about Henry Kissinger, who was one of the great evils of our times.
But neither the album itself, nor any firsthand reports from the usual suspects, say that Dylan has been "born again." At the urging of various personal friends, he went to Bible-study classes led by a fundamentalist preacher. And boy, without a doubt, this record is chapter and verse.
The album's religious content is pervasive; but more than anything, Slow Train Coming comes directly from Dylan's own traditions: songs of protest and patriotism; love songs — stories of romance, adoration and friendship.
Dylan's longstanding philosophy is that personal and public conduct, standards and ethical behavior, cannot be allowed to be separated from each other. These are parables, more numerous and closely woven than ever before, assembled with the judgmental and righteous morality that has transfixed us on every great album and song Dylan has made.
Slow Train Coming is pure, true Dylan, probably the purest and truest Dylan ever. The religious symbolism is a logical progression of Dylan's Manichaean vision of life and his pain-filled struggle with good and evil.
I am not so full of certainty about these times, our social standards or the conduct of my companions that I can dismiss the validity of Dylan's religiously phrased ideas. Maybe there is a personal and communal text that offers explanations, laws and practical notions that make sense where there has not been sense, and that can also give us guidelines with which to do good.
I don't go to church or to a synagogue. I don't kneel beside my bed at night. I don't think I will. I have yet to face the terror I read about in all the great literature. But, since politics, economics and war have failed to make us feel any better — as individuals or as a nation — and we look back at long years of disrepair, then maybe the time for religion has come again, and rather too suddenly — "like a thief in the night."
"When He Returns," the most religious song on this album, is Dylan's richest and most beautiful effort as a singer. Because he has been so brilliant in the other areas of his craft, Dylan has never been fully recognized as a singer. When he has a song and idea in which he believes, as he does here, the power, richness and the beauty of his voice are far greater than the words he uses. He sings with a sound that needs no words because he has the sound of the soul itself.
Musically, this is probably Dylan's finest record, a rare coming together of inspiration, desire and talent that completely fuse strength, vision and art.
Bob Dylan is the greatest singer of our times. No one is better. No one, in objective fact, is even very close. His versatility and vocal skills are unmatched. His resonance and feeling are beyond those of any of his contemporaries. More than his ability with words, and more than his insight, his voice is God's greatest gift to him.
So when I listen to "When He Returns," the words finally don't matter at all. They are as good as they ever were, maybe even better.
I am hearing a voice.