THE ALBUM BOB DYLAN - Slow Train Coming (Columbia FC 36120)
You may call me Terry,
You may call me Timmy.
You may call me Bobby,
You may call me Zimmy . . . Gee, Zimmy, it's good to see ya back -- and soundin' so fine!
Bob Dylan seems to have spent a lot of his time over the past 15 years or so exorcising one ghost or another -- personal, cultural, political, religious or legendary -- and now he even appears to have come to terms with the single most mysterious character in his cast: Robert Zimmerman, the Jewish expatriate from the Midwest who was transformed in the crucible of the '60s into Dylan, seer and mystic.
For which, we note, he borrowed the name of a brilliant and sometimes unbearable poet who remained forever young by the simple precaution of debauching himself to death before he turned 40.
Now, just in time to fulfill this private prophecy, Dylan dies and is reborn. Now we have "Zimmy" (one hopes, for his sake, that it was not a childhood nickname), charged with creating the album to follow Dylan's "Live at Budokan" foray into disco-folk. And, joy of joys, he's an old friend, little soul brother to "Subterranean Homesick Blues" and punchier than ever.
Where have you been, Bobby boy? The edge of your scorn is sweet to recall:
He said, "Who's not for Me is against Me":
Guess you know where he's coming from . . .
And that trick of slapping down those polysyllabic silibants as if they were death warrants:
I had a woman down in Alabama; She was a backwoods girl But she sure was realistic. She said, 'Boy, without a doubt, Have to put your message straight: You could die down here and be just Another accident statistic.
Ah, it feels so good.
You gotta remember, this guy's been through a lot of changes the past couple of years. His wife split with the kids and the great onion-shaped dome he was building for himself like Xanadu at Malibu kept collapsing and dribbling contemptuous plaster all over his mosaic dreams. And now, according to the stories spreading out from record-industry circles, Dylan has seen the light of Christianity -- a conversion not so unlikely for one who has absorbed the strongest elements of every faith and idiom he passes through
But for all the cries and whispers that have attended the birth of
"Slow Train Coming," this album is, if anything, sharpened by his use of religious images. Only very rarely does he throw in a "message" ("Jesus . . . may crucify for you; Believe in Him, that's all you gotta do").
Mostly, as in the driving "When You Gonna Wake Up," it's the Wrath, not the Love, that barrels through.
Did you ever wonder
Just what God requires?
You think he's just an errand boy
To satisfy your wandering desires?
When you gonna wake up,
Ah, when you gonna wake up?
Strengthen the things that remain.
And if Dylan seems biblically ready to abandon the material gains, it's conveniently -- and convincingly -- metaphorical. The needle's eye is meant to keep out the camel of insensitivity and pride, not money earned.
You can't take it with you,
And you know it's too worthless to be sold.
They tell you time is money,
As if your life was worth its weight in gold.
When you gonna wake up?
In another swithch, Dyland, the once and future pacifist, has taken a surprisingly political stance against the country's economic dependence on foreign interests. And there is a distrubing glimmer of ethnocentrism from this idealistic figurehead:
All that foreign oil,
Controlling American soil --
Look around you,
It's bound to make you embarrassed.
Sheets walking around like kings,
Wearing fancy jewels and nose rings,
Deciding America's future
From Amsterdam and Paris. But you have to admit, it's a hell of a rhyme.
It's difficult to tell whether in this case the songs inspired the arrangements or the musicians inspired the songs. A few months ago, when the first Dire Straits album and "Sultans of Swing" burst onto the scene, Ron Wood elbowed Dylan in the figurative ribs and said Mark Knopfler "sounds just like you." Dylan replied, "He sounds like I did when I was young."
This may be a kind of second childhood, but "Slow Train Coming" sounds more like the real Dylan than the past several albums; and Knopfler's guitar work adds not only the melancholy swing of his Dire Straits style but new assurance and power. The production by Jerry Wexler and Barry Beckett with the Muscle Shoals horn sections sets off the songs to simple, even stark, perfection.
You may call me A.J.,
You may call me Ray,
You may call me anything
But no matter what you say
You're gonna have to serve somebody . . .
It may be the Devil,
And it may be the Lord BOB DYLAN -- Slow Train Coming (Columbia FC 36120).
But you're gonna have to serve somebody.