Saturday, 21 December 2019

Bob Dylan - The Years Of Faith (1979-1983)



One of the most controversial phases of Bob Dylan's career - I have also included Infidels along with the three overtly Christian-themed albums.

The albums covered here are:-

Slow Train Coming (1979)
Saved (1980)
Trouble No More: The Bootleg Series Vol. 13
and Infidels (1983)

Scroll down to read the reviews chronologically.

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SLOW TRAIN COMING (1979)

1. Gotta Serve Somebody
2. Precious Angel
3. I Believe In You
4. Slow Train
5. Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking
6. Do Right To Me Baby (Do Unto Others)
7. When You Gonna Wake Up
8. Man Gave Names To All The Animals
9. When He Returns  

Sometime in 1978, Bob Dylan "saw the light" and became a born-again Christian. It is easy to deride the three explicitly devotional albums he released in the subsequent years. Some of the criticism is justified, some of it is completely unfair. This is the best of the albums. Its sound quality is superb, for a start. Mark Knopfler is on the album and it was produced by soul veteran Jerry Wexler. It has a rich, bassy warmth to it, and, while the lyrics are undoubtedly preachy and dogmatic, personally, I always find the album a pleasure to listen to and do not find any aspects of it remotely off-putting.
                                      
Gotta Serve Somebody has a great laid-back but melodically addictive feel to it and some wryly appealing lyrics. Whatever many may say, there is a great soul and a disarming ambience to the song.

The country-ish, gospel-influenced tones of Precious Angel render it one of the best tracks on the album - extended and soulful in delivery, while I Believe In You is sincere in its message and tender in its feel.

  

Slow Train is another gospelly blues-influenced track, with some punchy horns and killer guitar. Its lyrics are quasi-political as well as sermonising, which can grate somewhat, but the general groove of the track is a stimulating one which means that I, for one, overlook the message condemning "non-believers" and ranting about foreign trade and the cost of storing food. Dylan runs theirs of sounding parochial and prejudiced times, his opinions even seem that of a zealot. There is no room for questioning in this new world of his. It is what The Lord said in the good book, and that's it. The rear cover of the album showed Bible-black thunder clouds, gathering to warn us, although there was a bit of light between them. A good photo, to be fair.

Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking is a cowbell-driven, driving slow burning rocker, again didactic in its message. The only way of achieving redemption was, it seems by going through purgatory. "I got a God-fearing woman..." sings Dylan and "who is not for me is against me" (quoting Jesus). He sings these songs as someone freshly converted, warning us, telling us how it is and is going to be.

A beautiful, gentle bass intro brings us into the shuffling Do Right To Me Baby (Do Unto Others)  but the zeal and the fire burns as brightly on this as on  the previous track. These two, and the next song, When You Gonna Wake Up are three of the most determined, evangelical songs on the album. Indeed, Dylan's vocals are as strong and totally committed as they had been for many a year. The latter track has a captivating, evocative groove to it, however. Whatever the lyrics, I find these tracks difficult to resist. In amongst the preaching, however, there are some fine, wise, cynical points made in this song - "you got gangsters in power and law-breakers making the rules...". Hmmm. What's new, I wonder? As Dylan asks - when are we gonna wake up?


Whatever Dylan's motivations behind his Christian phase, there is no doubting his total commitment and powerful, potent attack on this material. Whatever he believes, he does appear to believe in something, and is forcefully expressing it. Good for him, in many ways.

Man Gave Names To All The Animals is widely-derided by all who hear it. Not me. I have always had a soft spot for it. So what. I like it and that's that. It is infuriatingly catchy - yes, I know Dylan also wrote Desolation Row.

When He Returns is an almost hymnal ending to this devout album, Dylan singing starkly against a solo piano backing as we all troop out of church....See you next week.



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SAVED (1980)

1. A Satisfied Mind
2. Saved
3. Covenant Woman
4. What Can I Do For You
5. Solid Rock
6. Pressing On
7. In The Garden
8. Saving Grace
9. Are You Ready               
  
The second of Bob Dylan's Christian albums, I have always found Saved, from 1980, far less appealing than its predecessor, the vivacious, dynamic Slow Train Coming. Firstly, despite its supposed remastering, the sound has aways been far more muffled than the previous album. It is somewhat muddy, the instruments far less defined. Dylan's fervour has lost its initial zeal, to be honest, he is saying the same things again - warning of damnation, of purgatory and cautioning us against sin, willing us to accept the Lord - or else. He played a 100 date tour delivering such on stage sermons, which wasn't his best move (although some of the live recordings from that period are surprisingly good - (see The Bootleg Series Vol 13). The songs played from this album actually sound much better in concert than they do here.
                             
The album opens with a short vocal track, A Satisfied Mind, before kicking into the rocky, powerful Saved, full of loud female gospel-style backing vocals and a solid drum, guitar and piano backing. It rocks averagely well, and I always enjoy it when I hear it.

  

Covenant Woman is a slower-paced, lengthy rock ballad that doesn't really get anywhere, comparatively. What Can I Do For You? is a yearning number in the same sow temp, lifted in the middle by a gorgeous harmonica solo. There is a powerful guitar, drum and bass guitar ending to the song as well.

Solid Rock has always sounded far too muffled to me, and again it sounds much better played live. It is has an insistent, rocking beat, though, although the vocals are far too down in the mix, as is the bass. You cannot convince me this has been remastered, I'm afraid.

On Pressing On, a tired-sounding Dylan tells us how he is indeed pressing on, as if to say "I'm gonna carry on doing this, whatever, it's too late to stop now..." to coin a phrase. Again, it is a track dominated by the vocal backing, it almost drowns out Dylan, in  a way that it didn't on Slow Train Coming. As with all the material on the album, I and it somewhat half-baked, as if with a bit more attention, it could have been much better. The same applies to the potentially potent In The Garden.

Saving Grace raises the bar a bit, it is probably my favourite on the album. Slow, dignified and moving. Lovely organ backing on it, and guitar too. Dylan's voice on this one is as convincing as it was on Slow Train Coming. Nice one. The pure gospel of Are You Ready very much sounds like an outtake from the previous album. It grinds and plods and again the backing vocalists dominate but it also features a searing guitar solo, mid-point.

The problem for Dylan was, that as an artist who had always trod his own path, oblivious to trends and fashions, he had previously always taken multitudes with him on his journey. Here, though, with this album selling really poorly, he was like a saviour in the wilderness.



NB - despite being supposedly "remastered" for the Complete Works Box Set, the sound still sounds slightly under par to me, a bit bassier but that's it. For me the only truly decent Dylan remasters are those released as "HDCD" remasters. They all have wonderful clarity and warmth of sound.

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SHOT OF LOVE (1981)

1. Shot Of Love
2. Heart Of Mine
3. Property Of Jesus
4. Lenny Bruce
5. Watered-Down Love
6. The Groom's Still Waiting At The Altar
7. Dead Man, Dead Man
8. In The Summertime
9. Trouble
10. Every Grain Of Sand           

After two devoutly Christian-themed albums, Dylan slightly tempered down the devotional message with this third in the supposed trilogy. It is accepted by many to be the best of the three. It is certainly superior to Saved, but personally I prefer Slow Train Coming. A problem I have always had with the album is in regard to the sound. It has supposedly been remastered, but it certainly doesn't sound like it to me, certainly not in comparison with Slow Train Coming. There is a harshness to the sound that I have always found off-putting. I can never truly "get into" the album because of this. The next album, Infidels, sounded so much better.
                   
Never mind, on with the music. Shot Of Love opens the album on a devotional note, with some excellent gospelly backing and Dylan's convincing, passionate vocal delivered over an insistent, pounding mid-paced beat.

Heart Of Mine is a secular ballad, for the first time since 1978, and a good one is too - tuneful and tender. Some cynics have said that these non-religious songs were included on here to bring sales back up. I'm not sure about, personally I just feel Dylan's religious fervour was slightly waning. Subsequent albums would seem to back this up.

  

Property Of Jesus was clearly a return to the Christian theme. It is sonically muffled and the beat is grinding and uninspired, sounding very much like track from Saved, to be honest. It has some excellent guitar at the end, though. The stark, slightly hissy, piano-led Lenny Bruce is a mournful paean from Dylan to the "alternative" New York comedian. It was hailed by many as a "return to form". It has to be said it is a very moving, atmospheric song. Dylan gets all nostalgic for those old Greenwich Village days, and, for the first time, his voice shows real sings of the ageing croaky tone that would be with him for the rest of his recording career. It is a much "older" voice now, certainly even from that on Slow Train Coming. Funnily enough, Dylan's relating of the tale of Bruce was remarkably similar to that which he had been telling about Jesus Christ for the last few years.

Watered-Down Love featured some funky-style guitar and a lively tune and vocal from Dylan. It was another "regular" song, and another good one. It suffers from poor production, but it certainly was a bit of a relief to hear Dylan singing this sort of stuff again. He sounded lively and as if he were enjoying himself. He had started interjecting more and more non-religious material into his live shows too. Check out Trouble No More. Another good thing was to hear him delivering a storming, searing slice of blues rock again, and he did this with the vibrant, rocking The Groom's Still Waiting At The Altar, which features some great bluesy slide guitar. "She could be respectably married, or running a whorehouse in Buenos Aires..." was a thankful return to those great classic Dylan couplets of the past.


Dead Man, Dead Man was a religious, gospelly number with reggae tinges, parping saxophones, swirling organ breaks and an infectious, catchy beat. Yes, it is a devotional song, but, like the title track, was a damn good one. Again, Dylan sounds as if he is enjoying himself as opposed to fingerprinting and didactically preaching. I really like this one.

In The Summertime is just gorgeous. A harmonica gives us our Dylan back as his voice comes in - mournful, sad, yearning, meaningful. Listening to this, it is as if the last three or fours year had never happened. I don't like the "return to form" cliche, but this really was one. "You were closer to me than my next of kin" - Dylan's voice just sounds so good at that point. One then knows why one sticks with him, through thick and thin.

Trouble is a warning of damnation, but again is an appealing one - big, powerful, bluesy and potent.   It has an exhilarating, thumping beat and more convincing backing vocals. It has a power to the sound and the delivery which is good to hear.

Like Van Morrison, there is always a moment on each Dylan album when you think "wow". On this one it is with the beautiful Every Grain Of Sand. Yes, it is devotional and hymnal, but is dignified, stately, soulful and deeply moving. Dylan's voice is resonant and the backing melodic and uplifting. As his harmonica comes in half way through, your soul rises. Dylan still has the power to do that.

NB - despite being supposedly "remastered" for the Complete Works Box Set, the sound still sounds slightly under par to me, a bit bassier but that's it. For me the only truly decent Dylan remasters are those released as "HDCD" remasters. They all have wonderful clarity and warmth of sound.



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TROUBLE NO MORE: THE BOOTLEG SERIES VOL. 13

  

Recorded live from 1979-1982

Whatever Dylan's motivation/inspirations were during the "Christian years" of 1979-1982 he absolutely played it as if he meant it, which is something he does not always do. He was on fire here. A fervent fire. It shows in his vocal delivery, his interaction with his top notch band and just the general "feel" on the performances. It is really good to hear Dylan so enthusiastic, and to hear performances from this often ignored period in his long career.

The live shows are great. A bit of variation in sound quality between them as is to be expected given the years they were recorded in, but overall I was pleasantly surprised by the excellent, warm, full sound quality. The Toronto gig has a lovely bassy sound. I am not always a big fan of "outtakes" but those contained here are very impressive. Indeed, for the both the live cuts and the outtakes, I am finding I prefer listening to them to the studio originals. This is particularly true of the material from Saved and Shot Of Love. Songs like Covenant WomanIn The Garden and Solid Rock really come to life in a way just not heard on the somewhat dull originals. What Can I Do For You? features some stonking backing vocals and a killer harmonica solo from Dylan. It is twice the track it is on the original album.


When he kicks off with Slow Train and Gotta Serve Somebody on the earlier dates there is a vibrancy about the renditions rare in Dylan live cuts since Hard Rain. Whereas the complete Toronto show that you get is totally taken up with "born again" material, by the 1981 Wembley show, Bob had deigned to put Like A Rolling StoneMr. Tambourine ManForever YoungJust Like A Woman and several other old favourites into the set and included only eight songs from the Christian trio.

Just very enjoyable. Great to hear other material rather than Watchtower or Thin Man again (although the latter is played in 1981 at Wembley).

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INFIDELS (1983)

1. Jokerman
2. Sweetheart Like You
3. Neighbourhood Bully
4. License To Kill
5. Man Of Peace
6. Union Sundown
7. I And I
8. Don't Fall Apart On Me Tonight        

Along with 1989's Oh Mercy, 1997's Time Out Of Mind and, of course, 1974's Blood On The Tracks, this was hailed as one of Bob Dylan's great "comeback" and "return to form" albums. Rightly so, in many ways, despite the hackneyed cliches (that  am also using!). After the comparative "wilderness years" of his spiritual quest between 1978 and 1982, Dylan widened his appeal somewhat, employing Mark Knopfler, widely respected reggae rhythm section Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare and ex-rolling Stones guitar genius Mick Taylor - this was certainly an improvement, all round, on the previous couple of slightly patchy albums. Yes, the Biblical imagery was still there in places, but the full-on, in your face proselytism of Slow Train ComingSaved and Shot Of Love was not nearly as dominant. There was also a warmth to the sound - excellent quality, sumptuous guitar and infectious rhythms, not surprising given the personnel. It was the best sounding Dylan album since Slow Train Coming.

Jokerman is one of my favourite Dylan songs of all time, without a doubt. It is jam-packed to overflowing with Biblical imagery and all sorts of other images too. Couplet after marvellous couplet abound. I could quote the whole bloody lot, it is so good. There is an addictive, understated rhythm and a gently lilting guitar sound and Dylan's voice is intuitive and seductive as he spews out the stream of consciousness lyrics. One of the most memorable lyrical passages is this :-

"...You're going to Sodom and Gomorrah but what do you care? Ain't nobody there would want to marry your sister... friend to the martyr, a friend to the woman of shame, you look into the fiery furnace, see the rich man without any name..."

Wonderful, peerless stuff, to be sure. Quite what it means, though, is, as always, unclear.

  

Sweetheart Like You sees Dylan at his tender, romantic and sensitive but world weary best. Dylan asks what his love is doing in a place like this. Warnings of the evils of Satan still prevail in the ambience of this album, but it is not as much of a preachy piece of work. It was nt so blatantly devotional.

License To Kill is in a similar vein. Beautiful, melodious and sanctifying, with another addictive rhythm and guitar, plus harmonica from the man. This is as good as anything Dylan had done for several years. Neighbourhood Bully has Dylan rocking and ranting, maybe about Israel over a solid blues rock beat, as also does the grinding, pumping rock of Man Of Peace. "Sometimes Satan comes as a man of peace" warns Dylan. Are we back into Saved mode? Yes, to a certain extent, but the quality of the backing and of Dylan's vibrant vocal delivery raises it above the slightly muffled material from that album. It rocks, big time. There is a fervour that is hard to resist on here that maybe wasn't there on the preceding few albums.

Union Sundown certainly continues the rocking feel - an upbeat, bluesy rock number that sees Dylan railing about buying goods coming from   overseas. Reading the lyrics, I am really not sure exactly what his gripe is, to be honest. Similar to Neighbourhood Bully, when Dylan gets political, his lyrics and general approaches are often contradictory and oblique, as most of his lyrics are that way, they don't fit well with "single issue" political themes. As a rocker, it sounds ok, though. Many critics have questioned its inclusion on the album at the expense of songs that were left off, like the blues of Blind Willie McTell  or the mysterious Foot Of Pride. It is an argument that it is virtually impossible to counter, save by saying that Dylan wrote the material, therefore ultimately it is his choice. It is also a valid criticism to make, however, that Dylan seems to have considerable difficulty rating his own work. Bruce Springsteen has the same problem, and Van MorrisonDavid Bowie too. They all do, probably, one's work is a personal thing.

Back to this album. I And I is excellent - driving, bluesy, slight reggae influences in the lyrics and vaguely in the drum backing, subtle, mysterious piano, excellent guitar and one hell of a vocal delivery from Dylan. For me, it is one of the best racks on the album, along with JokermanLicense To KillMan Of Peace and Sweetheart Like You. All up there with some of Dylan's finest eighties/nineties material.

Then, there is the lovely album closer, the simply beautiful and romantic Don't Fall Apart On Me Tonight, with its yearning, sad Dylan vocal, country-ish slide guitar. This is as soulful as Dylan has got, in any era.

There are a lot of similarities with Van Morrison's output from the same period - spiritual quests, soulful songs, impassioned delivery. Listening to this again has been a pleasure. I won't leave it so long next time.



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