Bob Dylan’s “Trouble No More: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 13 / 1979-1981” Reviewed
There are only two ways to join a faith, birth or conversion and conversion is the more powerful. The truth is Pascal’s gamble isn’t strong enough, discussing it with my born again big sister Feriel, she describes it in mythic and mystical terms. Her daughter was very ill and Feriel spent the night praying though she wasn’t Christian at the time, still she prayed and promised to follow Christ if her daughter was spared. By the morning light, her daughter was alive and the well of the spirit engulfed her. Whatever doubts my sister might feel, belief in God and Jesus isn’t among them.
Bob Dylan had a similar conversion, he was living with a woman who became a Christian and left him, this lead Dylan to explore Christianity and become born again himself. The result was three albums of faith related songs from 1979 – 1981, met with dismay by we slackers. In retrospect, they were pretty good:
Slow Train Coming – B+
Saved – B
Shot Of Love – A-
Jahn Wenner gave 1979’s Slow Train Coming an exceedingly rare rave (most critics hated it) in Rolling Stone, and while he fails to really make the case, he comes a lot closer than anyone else has. I disagree with the premise that the 1970s were a lost Dylan decade, cmon Blood On The Tracks was released in 1975. The real question is Desire and Street-Legal, leading up to Slow Train Coming, and I love them both, show me a litany song as good as “No Time to Think” and I’ll show you… “No Time To Think”. So the jump in either direction to and from Slow Train Coming doesn’t exist. It isn’t a huge leap towards, it isn’t a significant improvement on either album except:
The songs are a little better.
The playing (hi Dire Straits) is superior.
The singing is his best till you reach the Sinatra songs 25 years later. Even the production, Jerry Wexler no less, is excellent. It is a fine album. The title track, “Gotta Serve Somebody,” “Precious Angel,” a few others , are all solid third tier Dylan.
Just listening to Saved for the first time is years, it is aurally a bit iffy, the cover of “A Satisfied Mind” that opens the album doesn’t quite fly, but it has lots of moments including a personal best “Solid Rock,” hurt by the production even though it was co-Produced by Wexler at Muscle Shoals.
Shot Of Love is the best of the bunch, but the playing isn’t great, the singing isn’t as great, and the production is very LA sessions. The songs, however, are outstanding. Not just “Every Grain Of Sand,” or the late arriving “Groom Still Waiting At The Altar,” but all of the songs are great. “Property Of Jesus,” the misplaced other messiah “Lenny Bruce,” “In The Summertime,” all of it. The end of his born again period would occur with the very next album, Infidels.
And that’s where things stood for over 35 years, until the release of Trouble No More: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 13 / 1979-1981, which doesn’t much change the songs, not even the new ones, but places the emphasis on the live performances and that is where the revelations occur. Of the eight albums, two are sound checks and demos, six are live takes in concert –which includes some never released songs and rarities. While the concert recordings are not in chronological order, the first album jumps from 1979 to 1981 and settles into 1980, they still build through the albums, and by the seventh album Shot Of Love songs start appearing and Dylan is performing songs from the catalog, “Like A Rolling Stone,” a very Gospel “Blowin’ In The Wind,” and the eight hours plus ends with “Knocking On Heaven’s Door”. The catalog stuff kinda sucks but the Christian trilogy is better sung and better performed than the recorded versions, he performs them as Gospel meets a different kind of Solid Rock, the Gospel choir is overpowering, and Dylan starts with passion and anger and moves into reverence, sometimes within a song. Dylan’s martyred pleasure in performing for the heretics the very last thing they want to hear is palpable, it is the subtext of the God Of Wrath: it brings him back to the confounding going electric of 65, and also the American standard of 2015’s Fallen Angel: that only by placing himself outside the musical stream we want him in can Dylan hear himself being heard again.
The Born again trilogy is Dylan’s battle not for or against Christian orthodoxy but the mainstreaming of the 1960s into the apostate mid-1970s. Dylan forces you listen with all your emotions right up against the songs: Dylan could’ve sung just about anything and not been properly heard but for these three years his personal vindication was in forcing his audience to listen to his spiritual and Gospel songs. Listening again after all these years, the three years stand as the closest we may ever get to Dylan’s essence.