Album rewind: Bob Dylan - Slow Train Coming (1979)
Slow Train Coming
Christian rock: what an oxymoron. But God works in mysterious ways, and in the year of our Lord 1979, Jesus saved Bob Dylan. A cross thrown on stage helped him through a difficult gig. Then a vision in a Tucson hotel room, as good a place as any: "Jesus put his hand on me … The glory of the Lord knocked me down and picked me up."
Cynics might mention drugs, but Dylan was serious. So serious he vowed never to play "pre-saved" songs. So serious his next album would be all-evangelical. So serious he hired a proper producer.
Dylan's dislike of recording was famous, preferring few takes and disdaining fripperies such as proper mixing. This wouldn't do for Jesus, so Dylan signed Muscle Shoals' Jerry Wexler, who had produced pretty much every soul great.
Dire Straits' Mark Knopfler was brought in on lead to complement the Muscle Shoals horns and Dylan's gospel singers, and Wexler and Dylan found an accommodation. Yet the result, Slow Train Coming, was polarising. Rolling Stone magazine's Jann Wenner insisted, "in time … it might be considered his greatest". Others couldn't get past lyrics such as "Ya either got faith or ya got unbelief and there ain't no neutral ground". Now it stands in his top 10 or 15 - high praise given the discography - and is certainly one of the best sounding.
Before, Biblical references were allegorical or tropes, now they were literal. "It may be the devil, or it may be the Lord/But you're gonna have to serve somebody" is not a figure of speech.
Other artists could have built careers on Precious Angel or I Believe in You, beautiful love songs to God. Slow Train is an apocalyptic vision built on a darting Knopfler riff and a head-nodding beat, with some of Dylan's best lyrics (and daftest). The forgettable Do Right to Me Baby (Do Unto Others) and the childish Man Gave Names to All the Animals are the only weak songs.
Dylan spread the word with inspired performances, even if fans weren't always happy. He had split opinion when he went electric; now "Judas" was Jesus. "I told you, The Times They Are a-Changin' and they did," he preached. "I said the answer was Blowin' in the Wind and it was. I'm telling you now, Jesus is coming back and he is."
The album went platinum and Dylan made it a trinity with Saved (1980, more preachy, middling tunes) and Shot of Love (1981, underwhelming apart from one classic, Every Grain of Sand).
Then Jesus was quietly dropped. Given that for many Dylan himself is a deity, his views on faith will always be sought. But if the art is as good as Slow Train Coming, does the artist's belief matter? The last word from Bob ( Newsweek, 1997): "Here's the thing with me and the religious thing … I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music. I don't find it anywhere else."