Issue #21: Slow Train Coming by Bob Dylan
June 21, 2016
Released On August 20, 1979
Released By Columbia Records
When Slow Train Coming came out, it was so surrounded by confusing signs and signals it was almost impossible to sort out what was going on. Bob Dylan — born again? One of the most iconoclastic American figures — a fundamentalist? WTF doesn’t even begin to describe the reaction swirling around the record. When you consider all that, it makes it even more amazing that Dylan managed to conjure one of his more durable radio hits from the album: “Gotta Serve Somebody.”
At the time, that was the only song I actually heard from the album and you know what? I loved it. First of all you’ve got that sweet, fat Muscle Shoals backbeat supporting Rhodes piano, organ, and some stinging guitar. Sold. Then you have the lyrics, which use a pretty light touch to make a heavy point, delivered by Bob in a sly but impassioned drawl. While I wasn’t entirely sure how seriously to take it, I couldn’t get enough — but I never bought the record. The rap was that “Gotta Serve Somebody” was the only good song.
Fast forward a few years when my sister gave me Infidels for my birthday. Widely seen as a return both to form and from the Christian desert, this mostly brilliant album was still laced with Old Testament imagery. And that’s when it hit me: at least part of the reason Dylan had gone to the bible was to revitalize his songwriting. Sacrifice, betrayal, good vs. evil — it’s pretty juicy stuff.
So I filled in the numbers on my BMG Club reply card and began my relationship with Slow Train Coming, the album. First off, there’s no bait and switch going on: the whole album sounds great, a testament to the discipline of producers Jerry Wexler and Barry Beckett and the absolute skill of the Muscle Shoals players, crucially augmented by the guitar of Mark Knopfler, just about a year past his “Sultans Of Swing” breakthrough with Dire Straits.
Throughout the album, Dylan explores the message of the gospel from a variety of perspectives. There’s the uplift of “Precious Angel” and “I Believe In You,” the coiled invective of “When You Gonna Wake Up” and the apocalyptic dread of the title track. A little balm for the soul, yes, but let’s burn it first with some fire and brimstone. Regardless of how deeply Bob was feeling it, there’s no doubt that he was engaging in the faith on his own terms.
I will admit that the old-time religion on Slow Train Coming was at first off-putting to this lifelong atheist. But then I recognized my hypocrisy as a lover of reggae who is not a Rastafarian, as well as a fan of Mahalia Jackson who is not a Baptist. In other words, loosen up! Speaking of getting loose, Dylan’s sense of humor (so often under-recognized) is definitely a factor here, from the “You can call me Bobby, you can call me Zimmy” couplet on the opening track, to the absurdism of “Man Gave Names To All The Animals,” inexplicably set to immaculate white reggae.
Speaking of that penultimate song, some may dismiss it as pure silliness, a children’s song, and I can see that point of view. But I would also ask if you have a better explanation for why a cow is called a cow. And if the hairs on the back of your neck are completely immune to the cleverly truncated ending, you may want to have your sense of wonder checked by a professional. In the end, that duality of going by the Good Book and adding an idiosyncratic twist may be where the genius of this album resides.
The last time I saw Dylan was in November 2008 at the historic United Palace Theater. When he kicked off the night with “Gotta Serve Somebody,” I felt somehow validated and thought we were probably in for a special treat. I was right — it was a fantastic show and widely seen as a highlight of the Never Ending Tour, which has been going on since 1988. So climb aboard and give your ticket to Zimmy. You don’t want the Slow Train to leave the station without you.
Jeremy Shatan (@anearful)
Prescient & Appreciative Musical Omnivore
No discussion can be made about this without talking about religion… but maybe that’s a good thing?
As a music journalist, it sometimes feels to me like Bob Dylan is inescapable. His role in the evolution of rock and folk music during the ’60s is undeniable, as is as his influence on the social climate of that era. But at this point in music history, his continued dominance in so many areas of the modern critical discourse is perhaps… unwarranted. At least to some extent. But having said all that, I ain’t mad at having to write about Slow Train Coming. Unlike a lot of other Dylan albums that may come up in conversations about his career, this one kinda is under the radar. I can only say “kinda,” because I’m sure I’m far from the only music writer on this newsletter who had never heard this LP before today, but had been hearing about it for decades. See, Slow Train Coming is Dylan’s conversion album, the literal “come to Jesus” album by a Jewish songwriter who’d previously seemed more agnostic than anything else. People have been talking about this musical moment ever since, and the album is quite notorious in that whole Rolling Stone world… but I’d never heard a single song on it until I was sent the album as an assignment for this newsletter. Albums like this always get me curious, and ever since I grew up hearing about how bad Their Satanic Majesties Request by The Rolling Stones was, only to discover upon listening to it when I was 27 or so that it ruled, I’ve tried to take universally-panned albums with as open a mind as possible. It turns out Slow Train Coming really benefits from this approach; Dylan’s passionate vocal delivery and driving compositions on this album will sweep you up with its urgency if you let it. “Gotta Serve Somebody,” “Slow Train,” and “When You Gonna Wake Up” all had striking elements that grabbed my attention and didn’t let go. The overt religiousness of the lyrics didn’t particularly bother me; a record is never gonna convince me to change my views on a subject of this magnitude, so as long as the lyrics don’t overtly condemn me to hell, I can roll with it. If anything about tarnishes it in my ears, it’s the polished production and extensive musical ensemble that is an essential element of the album’s sound. It’s almost like one of those glitzy big-band blues records by people like BB King and Buddy Guy that my dad’s always been so fond of — I’d rather hear a guy scraping an acoustic guitar and hollering in an empty room. These songs, rendered in that style, would probably have resulted in a deathless classic, Jesus-y lyrics or no. But considering that Slow Train Coming originated in an era when Steely Dan were ruling the roost and the Grateful Dead were dabbling in straight-up disco, it could have been a whole lot worse. This is still an eminently listenable record, one that probably doesn’t deserve all of the scorn it’s received from Rolling Stone writers over the years. I can sometimes be guilty of forgetting that Dylan made any more albums after Blood On The Tracks; this album is almost as good an argument against that particular form of amnesia as critically endorsed late-era favorites like and Time Out Of Mind. Assuming you’re not one of those kneejerk Dylan-haters (and honestly, if you are, you should work on that), make sure you don’t skip this one — no matter how Greil Marcus feels about it.
Drew Necci (@buzzorhowl)
Insightful Scholar Of The Underground
Slow Train Coming is certainly a product of conversion, but it’s also one of inversion. If you’re like me — accustomed to a cool and superior Bob Dylan — the submissiveness present throughout the album can be downright jarring. I’m used to the “You just kinda wasted my precious time” Dylan, casting heartbreak as an inconvenience. Yet here he is, throwing himself before a higher power, awaiting the second coming that so many OG hipsters would have blithely claimed had already taken place — when he hit Greenwich Village. I wonder how I would have reacted were I alive then. Would I have been shocked? Dylan was already famous for one left turn, and it’s not like he hadn’t been quoting the Bible all along. And that combination of insight, articulation, and attitude — how heavy must that burden have been before he laid it at the feet of a savior that came to him in a fevered vision? I can almost picture it as a physics example — something extremely top-heavy coming to rest in one swift flip. He didn’t totally leave the cool behind, though. I laughed out loud at “Don’t want to be amused.” From the lips of another Christian rocker, that line would probably seem absurd, but here, it’s as believable as “The times they are a-changin.'” Converted, inverted, but still Bob Dylan.
Davy Jones (@youhearthat)
Idealistic Seeker Of Neoteric Sounds
I’ll go ahead and admit that I’m not a big Bob Dylan fan. Sure, there are songs that I like a lot, but I’m just a casual listener at best. I prefer people like Pete Seeger and Johnny Cash for badass Americana folk protest songs. That’s just me. That being said, Slow Train Coming is part of a different period of work, written and recorded shortly after Dylan became a born again Born Again Christian. Street-Legal is my favorite album from this era, and clearly has influenced people like Jack White. With each album, Dylan slowly pushes his faith to the foreground. The artwork for Street-Legal is hardly different from any other album, but Slow Train Coming features a figure swinging a pickaxe that could easily be described as a cross. Symbolic of Jesus carving the path for Dylan and his career (the train) moving forward? The next album Saved hides nothing in title or artwork. In fact the label changed the artwork to a live photo to help sales. This era sounds different too. Dylan starts to use gospel backup singers and bluesy keyboards. Lyrically, his words sting just as strong as any of his work I’m familiar with. For me, Slow Train Coming isn’t as good as Tusk or Damn The Torpedoes, but let’s not forget that in 1979 disco was cool and punk rock and Prince were new, radical ideas. I’m curious to hear what Dylan fans think.
PJ Sykes (@pjsykes)
Gutsy Punk Renaissance Man
Like it or not, Slow Train Coming had an intense passion not seen in Dylan’s work for years at the time.
Everyone has their own preconceived notions when listening to an artist of Bob Dylan’s stature. My favorite Bob Dylan is raspy voiced man with a guitar. I was familiar only with his biggest songs and had never been exposed to Slow Train Coming and I was pleasantly surprised that the Bob Dylan I was hearing was full of energy and optimism, and a lot of chorus in the background. My first thought upon listening was that the music was like a joyous church revival. After some research and learning that this was Dylan’s first record since becoming a born-again Christian, and it’s clear that the style of this record was intentional in the words and was the words and symbolism. Listening to Slow Train Coming was like rediscovering Bob Dylan all over again.
Andrew Cothern (@rvaplaylist)
Beloved & Influential Richmond Chronicler
Bob Dylan has always been a polarising musician for me. I revere his 1960s records, as most do, and find a real personal connection with them. I’m sure you all know the feeling; when an artist or record resonates with you so profoundly in that specific period of your life. However, later Dylan I could never really connect too as well. I often ponder if his later work will speak to me more as the years roll by. Late ’70s, born-again Bob Dylan is a well I’ve not visited too many times. Slow Train Coming I’ve listened too maybe once before this week. Is it one of Dylan’s best albums? For me, no. Is it one of his most fascinating? Certainly. This isn’t to say that this is a bad record, far from it. Dylan sounds as good as ever and the production is excellent. Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler on lead guitar strangely works, and you’re a better person than me if you can get through “Precious Angel” without hearing “Sultans Of Swing.” Slow Train Coming won’t be to everyone’s tastes. Musically, it’s a great body of work, but the Christian themes might be a sticking point to most. Even now, I’m polarised because there’s some really great tracks on it, “Slow Train” being a particular highlight. But it just doesn’t have that knockout blow like some of Dylan’s earlier work. But it’s certainly a fascinating record from one of our greatest artists, and one you should experience.
James Peart (@choccyr)
Fascinated Binger Of Musical Zeitgeist
I’ve never really been a Bob Dylan listener. He has such a massive discography that to sift through it now seems so daunting that I’ve never even tried. So I was happy to finally have a concrete reason to listen to an album in full with Off Your Radar. Unfortunately, I’m left feeling a fair bit conflicted with Slow Train Coming. The born-again Christian rock backstory was, truthfully, a bit of a hurdle for me to get over. For a former semi-devout Catholic, Christian-themed music in general often leaves something to be desired. There’s no doubt, the gospel tinged rock sound Dylan went for here really works, with its rousing combination of guitars, piano, and backing vocals, but the songs occasionally fall short of their potential. The best ones here are “Precious Angel” and the slow burn of title track “Slow Train,” their arrangements so full and grand that they become everything I think I could want from gospel rock. It’s really when the lyrics start to sound like “Christianity 101” that I feel let down. “Man Gave Names To All The Animals” is the worst offender, the music and lyrics so basic and plodding it falls very flat. But as with most artists whose output is as prolific as Dylan, we take the good with the bad, and there is plenty of good in Slow Train Coming.
David Munro (@david_c_munro)
Idiosyncratic Avant-Garde Wanderer
Dylan himself hardly made the transition easy for his fans, often refusing to play anything of his that wasn’t directly inspired by the Lord. Sorry Johanna.
Two things. One, I am not a devoted Bob Dylan fan. My knowledge is limited to the requisite amount for any person born in America. I know the big ones that everybody knows. Two, as you may know by now, I typically don’t research the albums that we review here to avoid any bias or context — I like to take the projects at face value and evaluate from there. But something happened while listening to Bob Dylan’s Slow Train Coming this past week. Even for someone with a limited knowledge of Dylan’s catalog, this album sounded so vastly different from all the other Dylan works I’d been exposed to. So different, that four songs in, I had to go online and find out what the secret sauce was, why there’s so much God-talk, and how did Bob Dylan found so much soul so quickly? Well, I had no idea that Dylan became a born-again Christian during this period — usually a huge red flag for anything artistic. So there’s the God-talk. But what about the soul (not the religious soul, the musical soul)? And why does this album sound so Bill Withers-y? Oh, there’s legendary producer Jerry Wexler providing the seasoning. And holy crap, there goes Mark Knopfler on guitar! Yes, that Mark Knopfler, the virtuoso guitarist of Dire Straits fame. No wonder there’s an unexpected musical dexterity here — dare I say an almost bluesy-funk? Dylan has always been known more for his pen than his axe. I thought maybe he was possessed on this record. Nope, just Knopfler. Often, a religious awakening yields disastrous results, but for Dylan it seems to have been just what The Father ordered.
Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford (@jclyde757)
Steadfast Hip-Hop Historian & Creator
Even though I’ve been listening to him since high school, I’ve never listened to any of Dylan’s “Christian period” albums and I approached this one with a little bit of hesitance, but, my God, it really rocks! This album has Dylan at his funkiest on songs like “Gotta Serve Somebody” and “Slow Train” and there’s even a song that felt almost punky on my favorite song from the album, “When You Gonna Wake Up” where the chorus moves at double speed and I love it every time it does. The Christian stuff is there for sure, and maybe it’s just that I grew up listening to bands like Jars of Clay, but it didn’t really bother me all that much. In fact, if you told me this was a covers album of one of those old Blues singers, I wouldn’t be surprised. He’s always had Biblical references in his music so that wasn’t weird and the one or two times when I was like, “Alright, Bob, that’s a little heavy-handed,” like on parts of “Precious Angel“, the music was so good that I just moved past it. This album has inspired me to check out the next album from this period, Saved, which features a gospel choir.
James Anderson (@unabashedjames)
Devoted Docent Of Musical Concepts
Music lovers are never prepared for a beloved figure becoming religious all of a sudden. It has nothing to do with personal belief, but history has shown us that most newfound beliefs rarely result in classic works. Fans have been burned too many times with bad records and been robbed of too many careers. It’s important to note that Bob Dylan probably felt the same way too. After all, he was a disciple of Little Richard growing up, proudly declaring in his yearbook that he wanted to join his band even after Little Richard had abandoned his career to embrace evangelism. Little Richard would return to secular music years later, but his music and his career were never the same as that amazing period in the ’50s where even the B-Sides were bona-fide classics. Because of situations like this, Dylan’s Slow Train Coming will always be a polarizing record, a fact you can’t ignore even if you love it… which I kind of do to be honest. Lyrically, the record does fall a little flat — though there are plenty of Dylan-esque moments that you can’t help but chuckle at — but musically, Dylan showed why everyone else always failed at embracing religion in their music late into their career. You can’t let the words overtake the music — the music has to be the driving force because the words aren’t going to be as universally relatable as a punctual protest song. Dylan knew this too as he utilized a musical powerhouse team to weave a bulletproof vest around the lyrics. With music this good, he could have been embracing the dark side and no one would have cared. Actually, that’s just what Leonard Cohen did on the song “Darkness,” something that’s both subtly and blatantly influenced by “Gotta Serve Somebody.” Hearing Cohen’s take makes you appreciate the bright wonderment of Dylan’s offering and shows off the charm and pleasure waiting within Slow Train Coming for anyone who can fight off their own partialities.
Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart
Crimes by The Blood Brothers
Chosen By Shannon Cleary