CK Retro Review: Slow Train Coming by Bob DylanPosted: June 21, 2013
When it came out in 1979, it was practically impossible for anyone to separate the musical quality of Bob Dylan’s Slow Train Coming from the content of the album. It is the LP that heralded Dylan’s so-called “Born Again” period, in which his music often preached to the choir and scolded everyone else. Yet it’s easy to forget Slow Train Coming features one of Bob’s top backing bands ever, giving a soulful spin on his with-us-or-against-us proselytizing. Here is a song-by-song review.
9. “Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking”- And, lo, the Lord spoke unto Bob and said, “Bring forth plentiful cowbell.” Or something to that effect. The groove is more “Mississippi Queen” than Virgin Mary, but it hasn’t held up that well over time, and Bob’s lyrics are a little too humorless here.
8. “Man Gave Names To All The Animals”- If I’m not mistaken, someone wrote a children’s book based on this song, and that’s the right spirit in which to enjoy it. Think of it as his “Yellow Submarine.” Plus, it’s Bob’s first foray into reggae, and not a bad one at that.
7. “When You Gonna Wake Up”- There is a dichotomy at play between the lyrics, which sometimes come off like they were written by a member of the PMRC, and the music, which gets gritty in the verses and flirts with disco in the chorus. That interesting contrast is all over Slow Train Coming, and part of what makes it a great deal better than its less musically-vibrant follow-up, Saved.
6. “Do Right To Me Baby (Do Unto Others)”- Using the same kind of word games that propelled “Gotta Serve Somebody,” this retelling of the Golden Rule benefits from that subtle playfulness and Dylan’s funky delivery. The music helps a lot here as well, with special kudos to Barry Beckett’s burbling keyboards.
5. “I Believe In You”- The lyrics to this song, which borrows it’s opening phrasing from “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” almost seem to anticipate the skepticism which would greet Dylan’s transformation once it was made public. His vocals get exposed in points, but that’s part of the charm. Mark Knopfler, whose work as unofficial bandleader on the album must be commended, provides some lovely fills as well.
4. “When He Returns”- Anyone who might have doubted Dylan’s commitment to his faith need only listen to his impassioned vocal performance on this lovely closing track. Again, Beckett is fantastic here, and the melody allows Bob’s vulnerability to show through. The God awaited here is a bit more benevolent and less vengeful than at other parts of the album, and the narrator’s doubts about his own worthiness and strength also make this one softer somehow, and better for it.
3. “Precious Angel”- Dylan had use of the marvelous Muscle Shoals horns on the record, and they were utilized to perfection here. They soar in the refrains, buoying the narrator heavenward as he beckons divine light. The lyrics are part love song, part devotional, part harrowing prophecy for any non-believers, but all parts are powerfully written by Bob.
2. “Slow Train”- The hardest thing to reconcile about this period of Dylan’s career was his seeming reluctance to allow any opposing views into the picture. That kind of single-minded philosophy is all over this menacing track, yet the lyrics are so persuasive and limber that it’s hard to resist it. Dylan aims here more at societal ills than at the religiously wayward, although his point is that the two walk hand in hand. Regardless of all that, the track is stellar, with a groove that Stevie Wonder would envy and tear-stained licks from Knopfler that burn with emotion.
1. “Gotta Serve Somebody”- This is another song that has an insinuating rhythm that carries it a long way. It’s probably the reason the song was an unlikely chart smash, although Dylan’s slyly humorously lyrics are pretty memorable as well. As the first single from this new Bob that perplexed many fans, the song often gets maligned for being something it really isn’t. Nowhere in the song does Bob come forth and say how people should act or what they should believe. The refrain simply posits that, one way or the other, our actions reveal our character.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For more on Bob Dylan, check out the link below to my upcoming book Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs.)