It took me a long time to realise, but God is good.
Whenever you mention any one album from Bob Dylan’s Christian rock trilogy, you’ll most likely be greeted with incredulation. That’s certainly how I was introduced to them, almost two years ago.
For the casual fans at the time, these albums were strange to the point of ridicule and sold quite poorly. For critics at the time, these albums were a step too far towards the strange – sacrificing too much of the nuanced, layered lyrical and musical composition present on Dylan’s previous albums; all for a preachy, God-positive message. Nowadays, when coming across these albums as a new fan for the first time, they are a strange blip in Dylan’s otherwise logical discography that often defies explanation.
Nevertheless, there are a fair number of Dylan experts and critics – they sometimes like to call themselves ‘Dylanologists’ – who have revisited the three albums of Slow Train Coming (1979), Saved (1980) and Shot of Love (1981) to find some surprising merit. Not surprisingly, I find myself in agreement with these critics.
In my opinion, these albums are quintessential Dylan in almost every way. Even more so than the iconic Highway 61 Revisited (1965) or the acclaimed Blonde on Blonde (1966), the three albums full of Dylan crooning about God capture what makes him so enigmatic and entertaining as a musician and an artist. Furthermore, when considering what happened to Dylan after the trilogy, you could even argue that these albums were the last to capture this – before condemning the once-legendary artist to a career of chasing trends and previous glory.
Bob Dylan has never been anyone but Bob Dylan. Even an early obsession with Woody Guthrie couldn’t put him into a mould; Bob Dylan, or perhaps Robert Zimmerman, never wrote or created for anyone but himself.
You can see this most clearly when examining arguably the most iconic phase of Dylan’s career; the transition from folk to rock. Dylan had been set up as the poster boy of folk rock by such figures as Pete Seeger, as well as the voice of the pro-civil rights, anti-Vietnam War generation. But Dylan had no interest in being anyone’s icon, or the voice of any generation. Hence why he felt almost no hesitation in ‘abandoning’ folk-rock after Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964), even if he might become a Judas because of it.
Dylan always created music regardless of what anyone expected of him, and always created music that was true to himself. Why should that be any different when it comes to his very strange trilogy of Christian rock albums?
The story of how Dylan managed to get roped into Christian evangelicalism is different depending on who you ask. For me, the one I like to believe is the one where someone threw a cross on stage during a concert in San Diego, which somehow caused Dylan to have a religious experience. The most likely story, though, is simply that Dylan came into contact with the Association of Vineyard preachers at a time when he was in need of some sort of guidance, which just happened to be God.
Regardless, it seems clear to me that Dylan’s decision to so suddenly orientate his music towards Christian rock came from his own earnest desires, and certainly didn’t come in response to fan wishes. Much like with Highway 61 Revisited, when it released in 1979 Slow Train Coming was new, fresh, and majorly divisive. I’d say that, even more so than his iconic voice or poetry, is the real essence of Bob Dylan as an artist.
Slow Train Coming ushered in a period of three years of Born-again Bob. Saved was more of the same when it released a year later, and suffers from a lack of highlights as a result. But Shot of Love was very much a different beast – the more rock-orientated instrumentals make every track into an epic ballad absolutely worth listening to. ‘Dead Man, Dead Man’ is perhaps my favourite.
Yet, this period of experimentation and self-expression for Dylan wasn’t to last forever. Whether that was because of a growing yearning to do something different with his music or a fall out with God is unknown, but what we do know is that Dylan would attempt to replicate the same type of religious shock value that came with Slow Train Coming on Infidels (1983).
For as much ridicule that Slow Train Coming lauded at the time, Infidels yielded double. Dylan had wildly swung from evangelical Christianity to Zionist Orthodox Judaism in a strange parody of his own Jewish roots. While I think that’s there’s quite a lot of fun to be had with the hard rock instrumentals of Infidels, it’s very hard for me to do anything but grimace at the Zionist undertones of such tracks as ‘Neighborhood Bully,’ which forgives Israeli imperialism in the name of ‘self defence.’
Regardless of your political persuasion, most people weren’t convinced by the album because of how quick Dylan’s switch from evangelicalism to Zionism came. For all intents and purposes, it seemed as though Dylan was just trying to generate the same kind of shock that his initial conversion to Christianity garnered him – and, I suppose, the same kind of shock that his ‘betrayal’ of folk-rock generated.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t just apply to Infidels. The rest of Dylan’s career post-Shot of Love seems to be marked by this desire, this desire to somehow replicate past successes and splashes. 1985’s Empire Burlesque, for example, saw Dylan orientate towards the synth sound of the era, which was all quickly forgotten in 1986, when Dylan went with classic rock on Knocked Out Loaded.
Wild style shifts in instrumentation persisted as Dylan’s sales and reputation declined, which only worsened the problem. Bob Dylan was no longer a trailblazer, the artist that didn’t give a damn and was always true to himself. He was just another pretender.
That wasn’t the end, though. Bob Dylan is still writing, recording and performing music to this very day. 2017 saw the release of the ‘standards’ album Triplicate, which was a step forward in the right direction once more. No one wanted a cover album from Bob Dylan, but he did it anyway. I respect that, at least a little bit.
But Bob Dylan was never really the same after Slow Train Coming. I say after that album instead of Shot of Love because that album functioned as an evolution of the idea first presented in 1977 by Slow Train Coming, but not as the trailblazer.
Now, Bob Dylan is a relic of the past – only sometimes evoked whenever someone ends up putting on ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ or ‘Like a Rolling Stone.’ Even then, his most enduring direct presence in the modern cultural landscape is the fact that Jimi Hendrix covered his song ‘All Along the Watchtower’ in 1968 on Electric Ladyland – wildly considered nowadays to be one of the greatest songs ever recorded. (The Dylan version is better, though…)
It’s perhaps inevitable that artists fade away, in time. The demands of consumers and fans change with the era – in the year of our Lord 2019, rock isn’t even the musical zeitgeist anymore.
Even so, if anyone could’ve gone out with style, then it probably would’ve been Bob Dylan. His whole career was built on doing what he wanted to, irrespective of anyone else – which often lead to electrifying results. Heck, that’s why I’m sat here, almost fifty years later, talking about him. It’s just a shame that Slow Train Coming was our last taste of that.