Review Summary: The first of Dylan's Christian albums, Slow Train Coming is uneven but interesting.
Bob Dylan sounded like he was in desperate need of some fresh inspiration on 1978’s Street-Legal
. The painfully drawn-out divorce from Sara Downds was now finalized, and his lyrics were alternately bitter and hurt, or convoluted and impersonal. Half of the songs sounded like worse versions of earlier tracks, and the large band arrangement consisting of a horn section, gospel backup vocals, and prominent keyboard/organ work was suffocated under Don Devito’s flat production. Street-Legal
wasn’t an outright disaster, and Dylan would go on to release much worse albums, but it was an undeniable comedown after Blood on the Tracks
brought him renewed acclaim. He sounded distracted, lost.
On the ensuing tour, a fan threw a silver cross necklace on stage and Dylan felt compelled to store it in his pocket; things snowballed from there. He was soon subbing in Christian lyrics to his old songs and going on apocalyptic rants during his concerts. In a change that hardly anybody saw coming, Bob Dylan had found capital-g-God. The man who had been quick to distance himself from “spokesman of a generation” attributions vigorously embraced his newfound faith. He didn’t seem to care that it was a patently uncool move. The Holy Spirit was flowing through him, and it inevitably found its way onto his records, starting with 1979’s Slow Train Coming
“Gotta Serve Somebody” was released as the album’s first single and was therefore the first taste of his newly religious music; it ended up being his first hit in several years. “Gotta Serve Somebody” has a sweet groove so that’s not too surprising, but as an introduction to Dylan’s Christianity, it’s unfortunately limp. It’s lyrically repetitive and clunky—a juvenile and unpoetic slice of Dylan’s faith, touching on class issues in a cursory, unsatisfactory way. It never really deepens in meaning or gleans any more insight as it goes, just circling around until it lies back down. The moody instrumentation ably carries it to its conclusion, but the lyrics were somewhat childish and simple by his standards. Paired with the prominent Christian viewpoint, it’s easy to see why skeptical fans would’ve been turned off.
Even if “Gotta Serve Somebody” wouldn’t have been my choice for first single, it makes for a pretty great album opener: the punchy drums, lithe organ, and thumping bass burst out the speakers, announcing a sonic reinvigoration as well as a spiritual one. Slow Train Coming
boasts pristine production courtesy of Jerry Wexler, who provides a spacious mix that beautifully compliments the "big band" sound Dylan was still exploring. Mark Knopfler of the Dire Straits handles guitar duty and proves himself a capable and versatile collaborator, adding searing blues solos (“Slow Train”), dreamy slide work (“Precious Angel”), and nimble acoustic fingerpicking (“Do Right To Me”). The gospel singers are back, but are applied much more tastefully than the shrieky, “drunk aunt at karaoke” backup vocals that plagued Street-Legal
. With an emphasis on low-end and groove, Slow Train Coming
—most of the reason why “Gotta Serve Somebody” was a hit on pop radio, I believe.
The gospel-biting soft rock of “Precious Angel” follows. An upbeat, effervescent track featuring an impassioned vocal performance and stellar slide guitar work, it’s an early highlight that softens the religious angle, lyrically at least; it's an impressionistic mix of romantic and holy love, with Bob occasionally throwing in some striking, Old Testament style lines (“Can they imagine the darkness that will fall from on high/When men will beg God to kill them and they won't be able to die?”). When the song slows down and feels like its starting to fall apart in its final chorus, Dylan cries out like he’s on his knees, thrusting his arms to the Lord above; a wonderful coda highlighting the backup vocals and Knopfler’s guitar leads draws things to a close. The sort-of power ballad “I Believe In You” is next, and even though it’s a slightly cheesy song, there’s an affecting tinge of sadness in the dejection and loneliness behind the relatively simple declaration of faith. Once again, Bob completely sells it with another excellent, heartfelt performance. His joy and gratitude come through on these two songs, and the music sounds lively and passionate. The angles of love, grace, and acceptance offer a more accessible take on his new religious leanings than the preachier tracks.
Still, I think the Christian angle is best when he uses his new position beside the Almighty to judge the *** out of everyone. The dark, funky “Slow Train” is the album’s central fire-and-brimstone sermon—"man’s ego inflated, his laws are outdated/They don’t apply no more, you can’t rely no more to be standing around waiting”, he spits. As he takes international oil companies, sheiks, false-healers, friends and lovers to task, he sounds almost giddy about the holy judgment they’ll face. He’s not interested in coming off as likeable, a trait that’s been an endearing one for his whole career and is an underrated aspect of his religious days; it all works beautifully, presenting a best-case scenario of “Dylan goes Christian”. “When You Gonna Wake Up” takes a similar condemnatory approach with a similarly grimy swagger; there are sly references to Karl Marx and Henry Kissinger, and rebukes of “adulterers in churches and pornography in the schools”. It’s a dire warning that manages to become fun thanks to Dylan’s hammy “apocalyptic preacher” performance and a weird, jaunty refrain.
The album has its fair share of middling tracks. The twelve-bar blues snoozer “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking” ends the album’s strong first half on an underwhelming and bland note; even with a blaring horn section, cowbell, and some raunchy guitar solos (White Man Overbite was definitely happening here), it falls flat. “Do Right to Me Baby” has a buoyant bluegrass/funk instrumental that’s hugely undercut by its repetitive lyrics: once the conceit is established, it loses steam very quickly. Then, the album bottoms out with penultimate track “Man Gave Names to All the Animals”. The surprisingly on-the-nose lyrics double down on the Sunday School feeling (ending on a real “oh… okay?” kind of note), and the song’s reggae(!) pastiche styling quickly wears out its welcome. It’s also maddeningly catchy and has been in my head off-and-on since I first listened to this album. I’m a casual defender of Slow Train Coming
, but I must admit these songs are just sort of bad.
The album ends on a searing high note: “When He Returns” has become one of my favourite Dylan songs, and in my opinion single-handedly validates his whole Christian phase. It strips things down to a solo piano and Dylan’s voice, and the startling intimacy casts a harsh relief on some of the overly bombastic moments on the album (“When You Gonna Wake Up”, “Change My Way of Thinking”). Dylan delivers a phenomenal vocal performance that sounds genuinely overwhelmed with love and gratitude—when he declares “For all those who have eyes and all those who have ears/It is only He who can reduce me to tears”, the conviction in his straining voice is chilling.
He sounds sincere, but who can say for sure? As soon as the mid 80s, Dylan would distance himself from his Born-Again Christianity, and religious comments he has made since have been typically opaque. He references God in interviews, but that often feels performative. You can’t really believe anything he has to say about himself—even his memoir Chronicles Vol. 1
has been figured out as being largely made up, with Dylan inventing memories, authors, and whole histories. We have reason to doubt his sincerity here—he loves inventing characters, after all. Regardless, Dylan got some
sort of much-needed inspiration through adopting Christianity, and it resulted in some good, interesting music. Slow Train Coming
is generally seen as the high point from this period, and aside from some clunky lyrics, occasionally annoying musical tendencies, and “Man Gave Names to All the Animals”, it remains a compelling and controversial document from a fascinating career.