The Gospel According to Bob
Slow Train Coming Bob Dylan Columbia Records
LIKING THIS ALBUM depends on whether or not you like Jesus Christ.
Liking it also depends on how much you are willing to take from Bob Dylan. For years loyal fans have followed Dylan through mediocre efforts like Planet Waves and political gaffs like Hurricane "Indict Me Twice" Carter. But few love Dylan enough not to question his new and curious turn to Christianity. Curious because Dylan used to be Jewish. New because Dylan used to sing about politics. For that matter, Dylan used to write extraordinary bitter, angry and satisfying songs. Dylan was an admirable diehard asshole.
But most of all, Bob Dylan used to write powerful lyrics, that survive the disco generation and escape parody, (though sometimes just barely). But while Dylan's new album contains some very inspired music, even his most fundamentalist listeners are going to have a hard time with these words.
Dylan has always been full of surprises. About ten years ago many devoted (albeit retired) 60s folkies, groovy professors and pseudo-awakened college students opened up Nashville Skyline and discovered that Dylan had changed his voice. Now Dylan has changed his personality, and his new gospel permeates every cut except one.
Never before has Dylan been such a monomaniac. Carly Simon doesn't sing every song about James and the kids. Even George Harrison becomes tiresome after the 1000th Hare Krishna. But precedents don't faze Dylan. Jesus is coming again very soon--and we're going to hear about it. Dylan warns us that no matter who you are "You're going to have to serve somebody." And as this narrow-minded album proves, Dylan's going to serve somebody, but it sure isn't going to be his listeners. Even faithful church-goers and Ruth Carter Stapleton fans won't be thrilled by Dylan's new bent.
In the past Dylan has gone out on a limb to make a point, but he has never done so with so little finesse. Granted, Dylan has a point to make, but never has he made it so painfully. We learn (1) "God doesn't make promises he don't keep," (2) "You've either got faith or unbelief and there ain't no neutral ground," and (3) "Jesus said be ready, for you know not the hour which I come." Dylan even stoops to a Barry Manilowesque "Babe, ask me how I feel and if my love is real" construction.
In "Man Gave Names To All The Animals," Dylan combines a reggae-influenced tune of nursery rhyme simplicity with typical crypticness. He rhymes himself all the way through the song, so by the last verse you are easily guessing the next line--"Looked like there was nothing he couldn't pull...aaah, so he called him a bull." Then Dylan gets to the verse about a snake. You know its about a snake because the animal slithers through grass and rhymes with lake. But Dylan stops there--with an oblique reference to the Garden of Eden--and doesn't say the word "snake."
It seems Dylan can't get enough of his rhyming exercises; if you can't guess the next line, it usually doesn't make sense. In "Serve Somebody," Dylan philosophizes,
You can call me Terry,
Or you can call me Timmy,
You can call me Bobby, or you can call me Zimmy,
You can call me Odgy, or you can call me Ray,
You can call me anything
No matter what you say,
You're still going to have to serve somebody.
Why would anybody call Bob Dylan Ray?
If Dylan is saying something very different, then he is singing in much the same way. When he belts out "Shine Your Light," the album's most inspired tune, he could be singing "Hard Rain." But Dylan falls below the usual quality of his well-known calls of the wild. In the same song, his nasal vocals are so strained his voice sounds like a parody of itself. The closest Dylan gets to his familiar tone is on the title track--the most political of the album's songs. But just when it sounds like the old Dylan, with angry lyrics about political ironies and human scum, Dylan starts singing about "slow train." Then you realize the slow train that's going to railroad all the sinners on Dylan's endless shit-list, is Jesus himself. He's going to fix us all, just as soon as the second coming rounds the bend.
Dylan's real savior on this album is the music. With all the divinely inspired lyrics, one might expect other-worldly music as well. Instead, a very mortal Mark Knophler of Dire Straits plays impressively of Slow Train Coming, and many of the melodies, like the melancholy "I Believe in You" and forceful "Precious Angel" carry the lyrics. Most of the music on the album, in fact, is very well produced and performed. But no one is going to say that any potential classics are hiding in this album. From the very weak "When He Returns" to the strong "When You Going to Wake Up," it is clear that some part of Dylan has died, but hasn't gone to heaven.
DYLAN'S TURN to Christianity may be a gag or a ploy to sell records. There are no clues that Dylan is being sarcastic. On the other hand, Dylan may be following John Lennon who made fools of the record-buying public when he sold an album of noises uttered by Yoko Ono. If Dylan is out to humiliate us all, at least we can say, we bought if for the music, Bob, we really did.
If Dylan is serious however, God may have humbled him. The man who didn't look back, who regretted nothing, the singer who was above us all, has been brought down from on high. Now he is a "little too blind to see." He tells us that God can reduce him to tears, that he can't make it by himself. But the funny thing is that however meek Dylan feels now, he still believes he's holier than we. In a very dogmatic cut, he asks, "When you going to wake up?" But he's not yelling at anyone specifically; he's yelling at all of us because we're not awake. In many ways Dylan is still the master of abuse, but this time, it's a little too pointed for everyone to just sit back and take it. After all, Bob Dylan isn't God anymore.