Bob Dylan Countdown #181: “When He Returns”

One thing that is often overlooked when considering Dylan’s Christian period is how small his margin for error was. With songs of that type, he had to be sure that he didn’t come off as too hectoring, thereby sacrificing the quality of the song in favor of the message of his sermon. By contrast, the message had to be strong, or else he would have been seen as wavering. What would be the point of going out on that limb if he didn’t make his point while he was out there?

There are critics to be found who feel that Dylan erred on both sides of that dividing line during that time period. But I think that he found a unique way around the problem on “When He Returns.” While there can be no doubting Dylan’s born-again qualifications based on the pointed lyrics, his singing, in conjunction with the musical accompaniment, presents a picture of tenderness and vulnerability that leavens things considerably.

The anguish in Dylan’s voice is palpable, which presents an effective counterpoint to the blunt-force lyrics. Since that is the case, lines like “The strongest wall will crumble and fall to a mighty God,” so unapologetic on the page, are tempered by the softer touch of the presentation. Bob also makes sure to include himself in the blame game, mixing in a few “I”‘s with the “you”‘s when he talks about those who on a wayward path in need of heavenly guidance.

Give credit to the lovely piano work of Barry Beckett, who sets the tone with his gentle chords. And, of course, give credit to Dylan’s marvelous vocal, one of the most nakedly emotional of his career. Listening to that voice, it’s easy to believe that he believed. With material as delicate as”When He Returns,” such commitment to those beliefs ultimately makes the difference in getting it across.

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