Saturday, 3 October 2020

Bob Dylan - Serving Somebody (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.

Slow Train Coming (1979)


Gotta Serve Somebody/Precious Angel/I Believe In You/Slow Train/Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking/Do Right To Me Baby (Do Unto Others)/When You Gonna Wake Up/Man Gave Names To All The Animals/When He Returns  

"Towards the end of the show someone out in the crowd ... knew I wasn't feeling too well  - I think they could see that. And they threw a silver cross on the stage. Now usually I don't pick things up in front of the stage. Once in a while I do. Sometimes I don't. But I looked down at that cross. I said, 'I gotta pick that up.' So I picked up the cross and I put it in my pocket ... And I brought it backstage and I brought it with me to the next town, which was out in Arizona ... I was feeling even worse than I'd felt when I was in San Diego. I said, 'Well, I need something tonight.' I didn't know what it was. I was used to all kinds of things. I said, 'I need something tonight that I didn't have before.' And I looked in my pocket and I had this cross" - Bob Dylan

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.

** There are three outtakes that didn't make the cut and they are all excellent - the powerful Ain't No Man Righteous, Not OneTrouble In Mind and Ye Shall Be Changed. They are all enhanced by gospelly backing vocals and have the same chugging rock beat as the material on the eventual album. The tracks can all be found on the Trouble No More box set.




Saved (1980)


A Satisfied Mind/Saved/Covenant Woman/What Can I Do For You/Solid Rock/Pressing On/In The Garden/Saving Grace/Are You Ready  

"Behold, the days come, sayeth the Lord, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah" - Jeremiah 31:31             
  
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.

** Two songs that were not included on the album were the superb Making A Liar Out Of Me, which was very much in the Slow Train Coming album's style and the gospelly vocal number Stand By Faith. Certainly the first one should have been on the album.



** 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.


Shot Of Love (1981)


Shot Of Love/Heart Of Mine/Property Of Jesus/Lenny Bruce/Watered-Down Love/The Groom's Still Waiting At The Altar/Dead Man, Dead Man/In The Summertime/Trouble/Every Grain Of Sand  

"The purpose of music is to elevate and inspire the spirit" - Bob Dylan      

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 fingerpointing 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.

** Dating from this album's sessions are the gospel of Rise Again, the robust rock of Yonder Comes Sin and the very Slow Train Coming-style piety of You Changed My Life. None of these were chosen for the album, rightly or wrongly. 

There are also several excellent outtakes of songs that did appear on the album on the Trouble No More box set. They are all the match, or maybe the superior, to the ones eventually used. The tracks are Shot Of LoveDead Man, Dead ManWatered-Down Love and Every Grain Of Sand. Strangely, they all have better sound quality too.

Also notable songs from the time that showed Dylan going secular again were the wonderfully atmospheric Caribbean Wind (that admittedly contained the line "I told her about Jesus...") that contains references to Mexico and CuraƧao that hint that Dylan the great traveller is back. There are two versions - a lovely pedal steel one on the Trouble No More box and the better known one from Biograph. On balance, I think I prefer the former. 

Then there is the popular, much-bootlegged piano-backed ballad Angelina. This is what people think of as a "proper" Dylan song, full of intriguing lyrics and all that Dylan atmosphere - "...his eyes were two slits, make any snake proud...". You get the idea, lots of Western-esque images. It is an underrated classic. 

Need A Woman is also from 1981 and is a most appealing, almost funky slow groover powered along by solid drums and some killer organ riffs. It would have been a great addition to the album, in my opinion. It is another real unearthed gem. Imagine what an album this would have been with these three on it.



Trouble No More: The Bootleg Series Vol. 13


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. the London show is great too. I would give the former the edge for sound quality, however, sounding more like a “proper” live album in comparison with a very, very good bootleg.   


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.

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

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, Pressing On 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. Check out the horn-enhanced version of Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking too, or indeed the equally horn-improved Slow Train

Ain't No Man Righteous, Not One is an impressive, previously unreleased outtake as is the evocative, organ-driven, soulful Making A Liar Out Of Me. What a superb hidden diamond this one is. The same applies to the muscular, pounding rock of Yonder Comes Sin. The gospelly, acoustic tones of Rise Again hark back to parts of the Rolling Thunder tour (The Water Is Wide). Three more previously unreleased good ones are Ye Shall Be ChangedTrouble In Mind and You Changed My Life

I guess as many of these "bootleg series" box sets have proved, there are outtakes and there are Dylan outtakes. The great re-inventor often leaves an absolute gem of a version of a song on the cutting room floor, only to show up on these sets years later.


Infidels (1983)


Jokerman/Sweetheart Like You/Neighbourhood Bully/License To Kill/Man Of Peace/Union Sundown/I And I/Don't Fall Apart On Me Tonight  

"You see people working in different ways, and it's good for you. You have to learn to adapt to the way different people work. Yes, it was strange at times with Bob. One of the great parts about production is that it demonstrates to you that you have to be flexible. Each song has its own secret that's different from another song, and each has its own life. Sometimes it has to be teased out, whereas other times it might come fast. There are no laws about songwriting or producing. It depends on what you're doing, not just who you're doing. You have to be sensitive and flexible, and it's fun. I'd say I was more disciplined. But I think Bob is much more disciplined as a writer of lyrics, as a poet. He's an absolute genius. As a singer—absolute genius. But musically, I think it’s a lot more basic. The music just tends to be a vehicle for that poetry" - Mark Knopfler      

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.

** The two notoriously omitted songs from the album's sessions are the tribute to the blues legend Blind Willie McTell and Foot Of Pride. The latter has a slow-burning bluesy beat similar to many of the tracks on Slow Train Coming and also has a parable-like message about meeting those on the way down you abused on the way up. It is a good track that would have not been out of place on the album at all. The former is one that everyone says should have been on the album, and it certainly would have added a different ambience with its stark, acoustic narrative. I have to admit, however shameful it might sound, that I have never been that big a fan of it. It is a great song too, I also have to concede, and its presence on the album would have changed its reputation instantly.

A fine early version of Tight Connection To My Heart was recorded in 1983 under the slightly different title of Someone's Got A Hold Of My Heart. It is actually the superior version and would have definitely enhanced Infidels.

Also written in 1983 was the summery, vaguely reggae-tinged Tell Me and the moving, immaculately-backed Lord Protect My Child. Once more, both these songs would have enhanced the album considerably, particularly the latter. All these tracks would have made it on to a CD length album in the nineties and it would have been given "classic" status, no doubt.



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