Slow Train Coming

Bob Dylan

Columbia, 1979

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


In 1979, Bob Dylan surprised nearly his entire fanbase by becoming “born-again,” discovering Jesus and recording music reflecting his new-found faith. He further alienated his long-time fans by refusing to play his older selections, preferring to focus only on his new religious-based music. Slow Train Coming, released later that year, was the first of three discs primarily focused on God-based music, and was met with critical acclaim.

However, the sudden focus on Jesus in his music really shouldn’t have been a tremendous surprise to people, as Dylan (who was born Jewish) often referred to Jesus in his music, one example immediately springing to mind being “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” off Bringing It All Back Home. What also might surprise people, especially those who are biased against Christian music, is that nearly half the music on this one could neatly fit on any of Dylan’s earlier albums and still be relevant.

Slow Train Coming is best known for the single “Gotta Serve Somebody,” a track which definitely has a religious overtone but, to Dylan’s credit, didn’t hit the listener over the head with the message. But this, surprisingly, isn’t the best track on this disc. Neither is “I Believe In You,” one of the tracks that could comfortably fit on another album and no one would have raised an eyebrow. Even Dylan’s slightly off-kilter vocal delivery doesn’t really distract from this one.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

No, the real hit on this one is “When He Returns,” one of the overtly religious tracks, and the most minimal in terms of instrumentation, with just Dylan and piano. Now, I freely admit I do not like religious music, especially what could be called contemporary Christian music, and I originally cringed a bit when I heard the gospel-like piano opening to this one. But Dylan’s best vocal delivery on the album and solid songwriting seals this one for me – it’s less of a sermon than it is a different kind of protest song for Dylan.

I can’t, however, say that the more religious bend to Dylan’s music is successful at all times. The two weakest tracks on the disc, “Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking” and “When You Gonna Wake Up,” are the two tracks that feel the most like sermons. CCM music, to me, isn’t bad, it’s when it becomes preachy that I tend to shut down, and these two tracks had me reaching for my internal “off” switch.

With the help of producer Mark Knopfler from Dire Straits, Slow Train Coming often sounds to me like a precursor to what bands like the Grateful Dead would eventually sound like -- not surprising since the Dead had often covered Dylan’s material. Going into a slightly reggae-like feel is the saving grace to “Man Gave Names To All The Animals,” making it quite an enjoyable track rather than a novelty inclusion.

In fact, Slow Train Coming is successful in that Knopfler forced Dylan to be more structured in terms of his performances, much like how The Band helped Dylan on Planet Waves. Likewise, Dylan shows time and time again that he could be religious without preaching on tracks like “Precious Angel” and “Slow Train” -- and could even be overtly religious on “When He Returns” while being musically entertaining.

Dylan’s conversion to Christianity was controversial, something still questioned by Dylan scholars to this day, and the three discs comprising this period of Dylan’s history are sometimes looked upon with disdain. But even with its flaws, Slow Train Coming proves that Dylan hadn’t changed much, even if his message had.

Rating: B-

User Rating: B+



© 2008 Christopher Thelen and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Columbia, and is used for informational purposes only.