Bob Dylan Countdown #174: “Precious Angel”

First, let’s talk about the recording, shall we? It has to be some kind of miracle (this was the Born-Again period after all) that this record, released in 1979 when all kinds of musical fads and genres and trends were crossing paths, doesn’t sound at all dated today. Give credit to the production of Jerry Wexler and Barry Beckett, who helped assemble a sound on this song that seems to be arching ever-skyward, befitting the subject matter. As each element is added on, like the horns and the female backing vocals, Pick Withers’ steady beat keeps everything in its proper place. Mark Knopfler’s guitar licks, meanwhile, are the embodiment of a soul searching for guidance.

Not that that’s out of the way, on to the gist of the song. It understandably rankled people that Dylan appeared to see things so black and white around this time, but even when I disagree with him, as I do in parts of this song, I understand why he took this approach.

This may not be an apt comparison, but I liken it to when John Lennon sang, “I don’t believe in Beatles.” To truly go forward, he felt he had to cut ties with the past. And I think of Dylan’s Christian period in that same light. He knew he was going to irritate a lot of folks, but a half-hearted foray into these beliefs would have been much harder for listeners to respect. By going at it in this manner, well, you could think he was wrong, but you couldn’t doubt his conviction.

Anyway, it’s also impossible to listen to a song like “Precious Angel” and not hear that conviction. Whether you believe in it or not, you have to appreciate the eloquence and power with which Bob promotes his message. Saying there’s no “neutral ground” and damning everybody on the other side of the ledger may not be a rational way of thinking. But faith isn’t supposed to be rational; otherwise everybody would have it.

When I hear “Precious Angel,” my focus is on the gratitude in Bob’s voice in the first few lines and the vulnerability of it in the chorus when he asks this angel to “shine your light on me.” Theological arguments aside, it moves me, a (full disclosure) Catholic who, while accepting of all faiths, personally believes in God and Jesus even while often frustrated with the actions of the Catholic Church and anyone else who uses Catholicism, or any religion for that matter, to promote intolerance for those who don’t share their beliefs. 

Whatever my beliefs or anybody else’s, being moved by music is ultimately the standard which we should desire every time we listen. “Precious Angel”, flawed in places and aggravating in others, ultimately meets that standard.

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