Bob Dylan Countdown #166: “Slow Train”

Since it was essentially the title track to the album that signaled the beginning of Dylan’s religious period, “Slow Train” often gets classified in a knee-jerk kind of way as a born-again song. Yet the track works just fine for secular audiences as well, because the concerns it conveys have as much to do with our well-being here on Earth as they do for our eternal souls in heaven

I prefer to look at “Slow Train” as one in a long-line of songs that see the world in general as a screwed-up place. In that way, it’s not all that different from “It’s All Good,” “Everything Is Broken,” and “High Water (For Charlie Patton,”) among others. The difference is that those other songs tend to lay the problems on the line and let the listener do whatever they want with them. This one demands that attention be paid.

In particular, Dylan takes the U.S.A. to task, and it’s particularly sad to acknowledge that the lines about foreign oil are still relevant over 30 years after they were written. Ultimately, everyone seems to either be on the make or the take in this song, all “masters of the bluff and masters of the proposition.” Bob also blasts the empty words and platitudes that are unaccompanied by any sort of action:  “They talk about a life of brotherly love show me someone who knows how to live it.”

All of this is backed by a menacing groove and some anguished guitar solos by the invaluable Mark Knopfler. One of the things that keeps coming to the fore as I listen to these songs again is the excellent overall sound of Slow Train Coming. Whether you love or hate the subject matter, the musical setting is undeniably fine.

“Slow Train” ends with Dylan railing about his “loved ones turning into puppets.” What this song makes clear is that, while disdain should definitely be leveled at the puppet-masters, some should be spared as well for those who blissfully ignore the whole tawdry scene. According to Bob, when the train finally does arrive, just about everybody is going to have something for which they have to answer.

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One Comment on “Bob Dylan Countdown #166: “Slow Train””

  1. A fool such as I says:

    I notice that you somtimes feel you need to defend Bob’s “born again” period. I don’t think you have to. I’m an atheist, but I can’t help but love many of the songs on this album, including the menacing title track.

    I’ve recently seen/listened to a number of songs from this album performed by the Melbourne Gospel Mass choir on YouTube. They’re fantastic and re-enforce the quality of the song writing.


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