CK Retro Review: Slow Train Coming by Bob Dylan

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.

TWO STARS

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.

THREE STARS

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.

FOUR STARS

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 countdownkid@hotmail.com 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.)

http://www.amazon.com/books/dp/0810888238

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20 Comments on “CK Retro Review: Slow Train Coming by Bob Dylan”

  1. Bob says:

    Shame about some lazy writing, though- eg ”an unknown hour that no-one knew’…As bad as McCartney’s ‘world in which we live in’!

  2. Shabtai says:

    Hi CK

    Both, “Slow Train” and “Gotta Serve Somebody” are among the best overall songs in Dylan catalog.
    I am enjoying listening to them today, as if they did not age at all. Everything ā€“ Dylan’s vocal, the sound ( Knopfler) , the lyrics and especially the dazzling tunes are among the best there is.

    • countdownkid says:

      They are indeed great songs. He’s had so many great ones that I have a hard time classifying them amongst the best, although I will say that I certainly enjoyed them a great deal again when preparing for this post.

  3. hans altena says:

    Truth be told, it wasn’t so much the admittedly still quite childish and therefor fundamentalistic approach to christianity which put me off when this record came out. I was already used to people who after their conversion just were a bit over zealous, Experience told me that most would recover from that and either deepen their believes and broaden their views, or just lose them in the blunting all day life. Having renounced the hell and brimstone preaching of the church my parents went to, after a period of healthy nihilism to clean the slate I started reading people like Buber, the trilogy of Joseph by Thomas Mann and enjoying country music and gospel influenced old blues and digging the magic of the universe. I even thought Dylan was already long into that, judging by his lyrics that often referred to the bible and visonary prophets of all time, and moreover got their inspiration from the old folksongs full of the presence of the Lord, whatever that meant, so yes, I was dissapointed by the bleak and uninventful, fingerpointing and one dimensional texts he blurted out on Slow Train Coming, but the real shock lay in the way he sung, so forced, a pain to the ear, where before that I regarded him as one of the best singers ever, because of his awesome breath technique, his haunting sound and surprising way of phrasing, it all went down the drain here, and I believe he hurted his larynx in a irreparable way, though later on he learned how to deal with that and use it to become the incredible blues singer he is now, even if he is so hampered by the voice he shattered during these dark years at the beginning of the terrible decade of the eighties which would see the beginning of the end of the world it seemed, so it wasn’t strange that he reflected that suffocating atmosphere. Moreover, although he recorded in the Muscle Shoals with a great band, it all sounded synthetic (Saved though with a muffled sound, was filled with more feeling), which is partly due to the deadly perfectionism of Mark Knopfler, who only now that he delves in the roots music has found his true stance as a good guitarist. All in all, only the indeed soulful yet in its peotry laughable Slow Train coming and the majestic and moving When He Returns have some redemption in them, I can listen to them and feel the spirit of his art, Gotta Serve Somebody also has its merits as a rocking song, the rest belongs to the worst he ever laid his hand on, give me Self Portait a thousand times over this failure.

    • Shabtai says:

      Just two comments:

      1. Regarding his singing quality ā€“ He got the grammy for best vocal for “Gotta Serve Somebody ”
      2. Two real classics in one album is more than many artists hope to achieve in a lifetime .

      • hans altena says:

        Though Grammy’s often are dealt out in such a strange manner that you can only think, it’s meant for past achievements, not for the song or album in the actual case, maybe here some thought the intensity of Gotta Serve Somebody, which I already acknowledged, was deserving of a price. And yes, the album contains two lesser classics, which is more than you can say of Self Portrait (one in Copper Kettle), so maybe I am just too put off by the overall sound and lyrical one mindedness to eschew the artistic merits of this one: it misses the briliant chaos and wordplay that make a Dylan record for me so fantastic.

    • countdownkid says:

      Interesting stuff as always, Hans. I can see where you’re coming from about the slickness of the sound, although I don’t always agree with it. Like you said, “Slow Train” and “When He Returns” feature great instrumental backing, and I would argue that the same can be said for “Precious Angel,” “Gotta Serve Somebody,” and “When You Gonna Wake Up.” It’s definitely slick in spots, but it’s also expertly crafted and hits the right emotional buttons.

      I’m guessing that you also liked Saved a little better because it’s a little more forgiving lyrically, concentrating on the positive parts of religious devotion and laying off the us-against-them stuff for the most part. I would argue that the difference in Saved musically is simply that Bob and the band played those songs like pure gospel, while Slow Train Coming is more Memphis soul.

      • hans altena says:

        Well thanks for the compliment, but let me explain myself some more cause I haven’t been completely hitting it right. I like the Memphis sound a lot, but what irritates me most is that here it gets a synthetic approach so at odds with what Dylan stands for, even if it is indeed played with not a little of musicianship, but the songs got to that Memphis sound a whole better when played life. Concerning the lyrics, yes I am a bit put off by their hell and brimstone content, yet if that would have been carried by the usual poetic force and multi dimensionality (which flowers for instance on the equally dark but just more deeply forging and human Tempest) I would have savoured it as a warning gospel. Now they just fall a bit short. Saved in its childish confessional way doesn’t bother me half as much indeed. Still, now that I have returned to the album, inspired by all these comments, I must admit that it’s stronger than I felt back then, and even contains some pretty sharp verses. it just could have been so much better. I mean, it is clearly very inspired, but the newness of all his Christian experience prevented it from coming to completion, I guess. And in that light I start to value it more now, especially when you consider how it led to Tempest, as is stated so justly below by Tim Casey

  4. Baggy says:

    Interesting post Hans…i actually prefer the sound of Saved – it has been universally criticised it seems, but Pressing On and Solid Rock represent to me the kind of looser and freer Bob sound we are more used to (albeit with different subject matter).

    There is something overly professional about the Wexler sound here which doesn’t allow any air into the songs, with the exception for me of When He Returns.

  5. Jacek says:

    Slow Train Coming is another of my big favorites, right alongside Street-Legal. I haven’t heard Bob’s whole catalogue yet (only up to the first Wilburys; started with the debut a year and a half ago and have been moving in order since, through both studio releases and live boots) but they’re the two records I’ve found most pleasing thus far. I can’t seem to get enough of the omnipresent interplay of light and darkness, employed to greatest effect on the ominous-sounding and minor-key but laugh-out-loud funny children’s song that nevertheless ends with a chilling twist that’s (quite literally) dark as hell! But the dichotomy is everywhere and I find the record beautifully balanced.

    Gonna Change My Way of Thinking makes an odd impression on me. There’s no question that Pick Withers’ drumpart is pretty dinky, and whenever the song starts I think “oh yeah, this one’s my least favorite here” but then Wexler & Beckett lay their magic on that fine, subtle build, so about halfway through the song I’m thoroughly enjoying it and by the time it ends I’m thinking “this is fantastic!” And When You Gonna Wake Up has that marvelous horn/organ dialogue going.

    • countdownkid says:

      First of all, I’m envious of the fact that there is so much Dylan awaiting you. I also can see where you’re coming from about the interesting light and dark interplay. I was going to comment about the end of “Man Gave Man To All The Animals” in my write-up but simply forgot; glad you mentioned it.

  6. Leggy Mountbatten says:

    “I Believe In You” may be his finest vocal performance, ever. And it’s a much better song than “Slow Train”, even with the great Knopfler guitar parts. Also, it’s a shame that “Trouble in Mind” was left off the album, a really bluesy and brimstone and fire sermon with some great lines ( and I’m a Jewish guy, kind you…).

    • Jacek says:

      If there’s one thing I would say against Slow Train Coming, and it’s probably the only thing, it’d be that Trouble in Mind is missing.

  7. Tim Casey says:

    The song, “Slow Train” is the reference point for “Duquesne Whistle” on the ‘Tempest’ album. The train is no longer “up around the bend.” It is here, you can hear the whistle blowing and you can see the lights and its an introduction to a CD of which the theme is the judgment of God on our nation. “They waited at the landing / And they turned to understand/ But there is no understanding/ For the judgment of God’s hand.” That is from stanza 43 of the song, ‘Tempest.

  8. JimmyV says:

    Prefer Dylan’s 60’s period, but Slow Train.. , I believe, is one of the best in his entire catalog.

  9. street legal says:

    another 5 star record, trouble in mind is an amazing song, should have made the final cut.

  10. David Lewis says:

    Sadly, in my view the song Slow Train is marred by what amounts to casual racism … it put me off it at the time, and seemed to emerge from completely different Bob Dylan to the one we’d grown up with…

  11. Futzi Wailer says:

    Slow Train is one of the best sounding records Dylan has made. Kudos to Jerry Wexler and a ark Knopfler. I always found it funny people were offended by the message. It’s the same message, the same sneering finger pointing Bob we all love, except this time it’s directed right at us! Singing is great, the use of background vocalists is far superior to Street Legal. I remember being at work as a youth outreach worker, sitting in my car at night in a park when the first three songs were previewed on WNEW FM. I was literally in awe, just amazed at how great these songs sounded, especially Precious Angel. All of these songs are intimate, sexy and sensual. None translate as well live as they do on record.


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