In music as in life, the religious experience can be expressed in two very different ways. The joy of belief can come bursting out in involuntary ecstasy. Or the self-righteous philosphy of the "one way" to heaven can come harranguing in intolerant evangelicism.
When singers or musicians share their religious happiness with no motive other than simple generosity, the music can positively glow. Classic examples of this include Pharoah Sanders' 1969 "The Creator Has a Master Plan," Aretha Franklin's 1972 "Amazing Grace," Al Green's 1977 "The Belle Album" and Van Morrison's brand new "Into the Music."
But when singers become convinced they have the key to the only gate to paradise, their music becomes bloated with self-importance. Their lyrics divide the world into the saved who are with them and the damned who are against them. Such an attitude has marred George Harrison's 1973 "Living in the Material World" and Bob Marley's 1977 "Exodus."
But never has the self-righteous attitude been so grating as it is on Bob Dylan's new record, "Slow Train Coming" (Columbia FC 36120). Dylan betrays all the open-mindedness of the glaze-eyed Jesus freaks who pass out their pamphlets in public bus stations.
The tone is set from the very first song. In a harping, taunting voice, Dylan pontificates: "It may be the devil/Or it may be the Lord/But you're gonna have to serve somebody." That's a pretty narrow range of choices.
It gets worse, On "Precious Angel," Dylan sneers: "Either you got faith or you got unbelief/There ain't no neutral ground." On "When He Returns," the singer further shrinks the needle's eye: "Truth is an arrow/And the gate is narrow." Dylan mocks those with other "spiritual advisers and gurus" and chides a woman who talks about Buddha and Mohammed instead of Jesus.
The reactionary lyrics create a civil war in each song. Dylan's condescending, nassal delivery of the lyrics grinds against the splendid Southern music like mismatched gears.
The backing instrumentals for this record must have been magnificent. They were co-produced by Jerry Wexler who once produced Aretha Franklin's and Ray Charles' best records. Wexler helped those two artists consummate the marriage between black gospel hymns and pop music. For the backing on "Slow Train," Wexler achieves that same blend of yearning keyboards (played by the other co-producer, Barry Beckett) and blues rhythms.
Overlaid on that blend is lyrical blues guitar by Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits. Wexler and Beckett produced Dire Straits' second album, and they use Knopfler's powerful, economical phrasing on Dylan's record as they once used Duane Allman's slide guitar on records by Franklin and Wilson Pickett.
But it is impossible to tear these songs apart so the musicians can be heard separate from Dylan's vocals. The joyous satisfaction of Beckett's swelling gospel organ and the slippery sensuality of Knopfler's guitar strain against Dylan's pushy righteousness.
"Gonna Change My Way of Thinking," for example, opens with a fuzzy sensual Muddy Waters guitar theme. But before long, Dylan is railing against sexuality and in effect against his own musicians. Dylan's best vocal performances in the past have been his most understated. But on the new album's title cut, he sabotages Knopfler's sparse phrasing with puffed-up wrath.
Christianity is a term that covers a long spectrum of beliefs, ranging from the social activism of the Berrigans to the military-industrial-church complex of Billy Graham. Dylan, who once used biblical imagery to weave anthems for the civil rights and peace movements, now finds himself on the right wing of the spectrum.
Dylan's disintegration as an artist has been heartbreaking to watch. He is, after all, America's greatest folk-songwriter of all time. But the 1976 "Desire" was his last strong record.
Dylan hasn't lost his talent -- only his sense of how to use it. There is one gem on "Slow Train Coming" that stands out among the tracts. "Do Right to Me Baby (Do Unto Others)" is set wonderfully by Knopfler's acoustic guitar and Beckett's muted organ. For once, Dylan sings with them. In an unusually understated and tolerant vocal, he contradicts the rest of the record with: "Don't want to judge nobody/Don't want to be judged."
Instead of hiding from his disillusionment behind a screen of religious rhetoric, he would be better off exploring the problem. He might find his situation no different from that of thousands of other divorced people. Maybe then he could recover from his debacle as he has from past mistakes.
Now that he's born again, maybe he believes inprophecy. If so he should ponder the questions he posed in his lyrics for the 1966 "Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again": "Now the preacher looked so baffled./When I asked him why he dressed/With 20 pounds of headlines/Staped to his chest./But he cursed me when I proved it to him./Then I whispered, 'Not even you can hide./You see, you're just like me,/I hope you're satisfied."