Volume 13 of “The Bootleg Series” of Bob Dylan albums is due to be released in November this year. Titled “Trouble No More,” it explores one of the singer’s most maligned and misunderstood periods, even more so than when he went “electric” in the mid 1960’s: the three years between 1979-1981 when Bob Dylan turned into a born-again Christian.
The newfound faith of the previously secular, countercultural icon did not sit well with many fans. Many saw Dylan’s albums in this period as preachy, pretentious and self-righteous, beginning with 1979’s “Slow Train Coming.”
Dylan would later release two more gospel albums, “Saved” (1980) whose original album cover was perhaps the only objectively overly-preachy image of the time, and “Shot of Love” (1981). With the benefit of hindsight, “Slow Train” can be viewed with new goggles. Many now see past the Christian lyrical themes to enjoy an album powered with the fervor of a talented singer and songwriter and a backing band willing to test the waters with him.
Even the tracks that would later occupy “best of” compilations aren’t that overtly religious. “Precious Angel” and “I Believe in You” seem to inject the spirituality of love for God, as love for another human being, turning them from potentially cringe-worthy to heartfelt ballads of yearning.
Dylan’s strong voice powers through the album, which carries the same weight as he had in his early protest albums of the 1960’s; even if he would later abandon this music, there’s little doubt that he believes what he’s singing.
The opening track “Gotta Serve Somebody” even snagged a Grammy award for Best Rock Vocal Performance. It’s the unlikely hit from an unlikely album, and Dylan sounds positively menacing in it, equating black and white morality that calls to mind fiery preachers from the 1930’s Bible Belt.
The centerpiece of the album is the title track “Slow Train,” a rage-filled sermon which could have even easily fit on his last “secular” album 1978’s “Street-Legal.” Colored with rich gospel backup singing, dramatic horn blasts and a chugging train rhythm, Dylan’s vocals are filled with righteous rage and brutal angst, complete with distinct life lessons only Dylan could dish out. “They say lose your inhibitions / Follow your own ambitions / They talk about a life of brotherly love show me someone who knows how to live it” could be a line from a song straight from Bruce Springsteen’s “Darkness on the Edge of Town” (1978).
The album does contain some clunkers. “Man Gave Names to All the Animals” is as least magnetic a Dylan song title as one can get, and the children’s song with a faux-reggae backing falls flat. “Do Right to Me Baby (Do Unto Others)” is too jaunty for its own good, with fairly pedestrian lyrics straight from the Bible with little insight.
However Slow Train has been fairly re-evaluated as the beginning of a strange, but not reward-free period of Dylan’s discography, including some of the most electrifying live performances of his entire career.
(“Pressing On” is taken from 1980’s “Saved” album.)