This album, Dylan’s first unabashed foray into Christian rock, brings the funk, but it also brings the junk. The opening track, “Gotta Serve Somebody,” couches the message of humble service in a groove of hot organs and thick bass lines fit for Michael Jackson or Prince. “It may be the Devil / Or it may be the Lord / But you gotta serve somebody.” That same low-down groove returns on track 4, “Slow Train.” Hear Dylan preach:
People starving and thirsting, grain elevators are bursting
Oh, you know it costs more to store the food than it do to give it
They say loose your inhibitions, follow your own ambitions
They talk about a life of brotherly love, show me someone who knows how to live it
There’s slow, slow train coming up around the bend
He sings these lyrics in a syncopated style, relying on the the monosyllables to layer in rhythmic patterns over the guitars, clipped horns, and percussive keyboards. What’s the “slow train coming up around the bend”? A figure from the Book of Revelation, I assume, translated into the Americana mythos.
For the record, “Gotta Serve Somebody” and “Slow Train” are two very good songs. Scratch that; they’re great, fit for compilation albums and mixed CDs. They carry a funky groove, and Dylan’s vocals are mellow and measured in both. In the two ballads sandwiched between them, “Precious Angel” and “I Believe in You,” however, Dylan indulges that pinched singing style of his, boasting the vocal chords the good lord gave him.
I first played this album while making lunch with my mom in her kitchen—salmon and asparagus, beans and rice. Those funk numbers had us cooking while those ballads had us screwing up our noses as if something smelled besides the fish. For the rest of the album, the soulful arrangements provide grooveable backdrops to a message that deepen with the spirit like a marinade seeping into a fillet. On “When You Gonna Wake Up,” Dylan sings, “There’s a man on the cross and he was crucified for you / Believe in his powers that’s about all you got to do / When you gonna wake up? … / Strengthen the things that remain?” The album closes with “Man Gave Names to All the Animals”—a tune that, in a different arrangement, might fit well in a Sunday school classroom—and “When He Returns.” I have to say, I felt a little bad for subjecting Mom, a church pianist and contemporary Christian fan in her own right, to these tunes. For her, Dylan’s voice would keep her from queuing it up on her own iPod. For me, it’s the message.
Do I get this album? It’s a major divergence, but the passion’s there and, hey Bob, you do you. Do I need the previous albums to get it? This is another interesting synthesis of some of the musical styles Dylan has dabbled with in the past. Do I like it? I kinda love the funky soulful arrangements; they remind me of some of Little Feat’s best stuff and some tracks of the Grateful Dead’s Shakedown Street. But I just can’t feel Bob’s newfound Christiandom in my own soul.