Slow Train Coming – apocalyptic glee and abandoned adoration

It was forty years ago today (or last Tuesday anyhow) that Bob Dylan unleashed on the world the stream of invective, religious chauvinism, misogyny and racism that is Slow Train Coming, the first of his born-again albums.  All these years later, Slow Train is still shocking and enthralling in equal measure; much against my better judgement, it’s one of my favourite Dylan albums.
Mark Knopfler’s guitar has rarely sounded better than it does casting shimmering chords and arpeggios around the punchy backbone of the Muscle Shoals Horns and Pick Withers’ drumming. Helena Springs and Dylan’s future wife Carolyn Dennis provide backing ballast to Dylan’s voice, which sounds unusually clear, lively, committed.
Most of the good stuff is on the first side. The loping Gotta Serve Somebody sets up the album’s basic Manichean thesis – the world is divided into the godly and the wicked, and you gotta choose your side. Three tracks later, the belligerently swaggering title track pours scorn on everything from food surpluses, to OPEC, to Alabama road safety regulation.
But it is the tracks that these two sandwich which draw me back to the album time and again.  Dylan starts Precious Angel thankful for his damascene conversion, but swiftly moves on to excoriating those who remain unredeemed. Then he switches to a chorus – “Shine your light, shine your light on me” –  that is sparkling and joyous, a sincere riposte to the woozy gospel posturing of Shine a Light on the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St a few years earlier.
One of the song’s joys is the way that, over six minutes, the pace picks up and Bob Dylan’s voice audibly warms and becomes more enthusiastic. By verse two, he directs his attention to his immediate circle:
“My so-called friends have fallen under a spell;
They look me squarely in the eye and they say, ‘Well all is well’.
Can they imagine the darkness that will fall from on high
When men will beg God to kill them, and they won’t be able to die?”
The pay-off stings like a slap in the face – talk about throwing shade – and the lines are sung with almost indecent glee. Dylan has not found a friend in Jesus but rather a harsh avenger.
The next track, I Believe In You, is very different in tone. Rather than triumphantly overseeing the apocalypse, Dylan is himself cast out, persecuted for his beliefs, for his love. The song mixes divine and secular imagery, sometimes seeming to address itself to a one-night stand, sometimes to an absent lover, sometimes to a forsaking deity. “Don’t!” – twice Dylan pleads not to be abandoned, his voice contorting into the yelp of wounded animal. Few Dylan songs sound so raw and direct, so adoring, with some of the eroticised longing that early medieval hymns direct at the bloodied body of Christ.
It’s the sound of someone utterly convinced of his righteousness, in love with his own new-found passion. It is as captivating as it is horrifying.

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