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Slow Train Coming

I haven't had much of an inclination to write about my ongoing Dylan listening lately, but looking back, I think it's been for the best. Albums that didn't particularly inspire me have taken a place within the larger context of Dylan's life and spiritual development. The arcs of spirituality, musicality and lyricality (don't bother looking it up, it's not a word) rise and fall independently of each other, occasionally intersecting at high points with captivating results but never entirely in unison.

Slow Train Coming is the infamous conversion to Christianity album but vague warnings and an occasionally pedantic, self-righteous tone hurt the cause. Many of the songs are highly-focused, repetitive meditations that never seem to go anywhere ("Gotta Serve Somebody", "Do Right to Me Baby", etc.—is this a gospel thing?). My favorite example of this is "Man Gave Names to All the Animals", which sounds like it was improvised at a Sunday school:

He saw an animal leavin' a muddy trail,
Real dirty face and a curly tail.
He wasn't too small and he wasn't too big.
"Ah, think I'll call it a pig."
His vocals could be most kindly described as "emotional"; the acceptance of his deepening voice that was hinted at on Street Legal has been swallowed in favor of more nasal straining. Although this is perhaps the most discussed of his Christian albums, it was my least favorite. The inspiration was there but the method of delivery was frustrated and misguided. Perhaps the fan reaction would have been less severe if there were more personal, humble reflections like "When He Returns".

For anyone that found the piety of Slow Train a little odd, Saved is Dylan going off the deep end, which is exactly why I liked it. It is the most flagrantly spiritual of the albums, nothing but testifying and worshiping. The lyrical focus is narrow, limited to essentially prayers and other meditations, but it works because he is filled with the Holy Spirit (and the Spirit of Elvis, in the case of the title track) and you can't help but to be energized by it. This kind of open expression of personal inspiration has always been more effective for me than the preaching of Slow Train. You can be uninterested in what he's saying here but it's hard to fault someone laying themselves bare like this.

With Shot of Love the balance shifts again: musicality up, lyrics reminiscent of pre-Christian albums (backhanded compliment, I know), overt spirituality gently decreasing. The production occasionally sounds dated but there are enough contagious riffs (the rhythm guitar throughout "Heart of Mine", the baritone sax punctuating the last line of the chorus of "Property of Jesus") to keep most songs interesting. I felt the internal struggle here among his desire to communicate his faith, the lyrical expectations of his past and the shifting musical landscape. It's obvious that reconciling his convictions and career over these three albums has been a journey. It's ironic and encouraging then that the last song on his last "Christian" album—"Every Grain of Sand"—strikes the best balance between all the competing elements: lyrically beautiful and spiritually uplifting without being preachy, all in a bittersweet ballad (even if it is a bit synthy).

Has any artist ever had more albums hailed as a return to form than Dylan? That phrase has certainly been bandied about in descriptions of Infidels, reinforced by (I'm assuming) Columbia's decision to make it the only album remastered for release in the decade between Slow Train and Oh Mercy. This album is kind of a mixed bag: the weak half consists of blunt or thinly-veiled polemics—pro-Israel ("Neighborhood Bully"), pro-union/anti-globalization ("Union Sundown"), anti-space travel (puzzling, in a few places); despite also being pronounced as a return to secular music, the strong half is an examination of the forms of temptation ("Sweetheart Like You", which to my ears is about the temptation of Christ) and the personal walk of faith ("I and I"). Fulfilling the message of "Man of Peace", Satan appears in many guises here as well, which is less off-putting than you might expect. After three albums of bringing the good news of the Gospel, Infidels is an interesting reversal of perspective, perhaps brought on by all the skepticism and hostility that Dylan encountered in trying to live an outwardly Christian life in the spotlight. I do not envy him that task.

Breaking through the veneer of poor production and '80s sound on Empire Burlesque (or forcing my ears into submission, if you prefer) took longer than on any other album and I was least satisfied by the fruit inside. You heard me right, it is the coconut of the Dylan catalog. Every musical sin of the decade is on here (more specifically, every sin is committed on "When the Night Comes Falling from the Sky") and the songs are mostly plain enough that it's not worth the suffering. Then at the end of the album comes "Dark Eyes", so starkly beautiful in this context and worth the price of admission alone. When I heard it for the first time, my heart jumped into my throat and reminded me how arrogant and dismissive I had become. As if the simple guitar and harmonica melodies weren't effective enough, the lyric, vague at first, eventually reveals itself as one of his most moving religious meditations. He really made some beautiful Christian songs after he stopped trying.

Knocked Out Loaded begins and ends with "Brownsville Girl". I remember sitting in Mr. Zacherl's high school English class and hearing it for the first time, following along on a photocopied lyric sheet that he had passed out (what I wouldn't give for a few more afternoons in that class). I was a little musically lost at that time—unable to make the jump from the West Coast rap I had been listening to in the previous years to the emerging Diddy era, not yet into the requisite Led Zeppelin phase, still further from the alternative Smashing Pumpkins and Radiohead years. I remember the song wandering on and on, the narrative too vague and loosely connected for me to follow, and scoffing at my teacher's choice (I also remember laughing at the mere mention of Joni Mitchell, one of a legion of cringe-inducing memories from those years).

But now from the perch of my twenty-seventh year, I can see the err of my ways. The images are familiar territory for Dylan—lovers on the run out West, reminiscing over lost love, etc.—but what's so fascinating about the song is how evocative it is of how the mind and memory work. The description of the Gregory Peck movie evolves as time passes and the memory fades ("Gregory Peck and the way people moved"—how perfect of a description of a memory is that?). The way the story unfolds from the initial association with the movie and returns again reminds me of my mind's idle wandering as I drive home from work, ideas rolling around from all the input of the day and memories unraveling from them. I also liked what I read as a small commentary on the role that art/entertainment play in our lives, how our choices are sometimes motivated not by an interest in the artist but by a desire to return to the sanctuary of a cherished memory. You see a film because you like Gregory Peck but you "just keep seeing these things" because they take you back to that time when you were in love with that girl. Reliving that feeling is so precious that we'll gladly "stand in line."

April 30, 2007 | Comments (1)

And It's Eastertime Too

Heavenly

With a record time of twelve days after returning home from vacation and just two days shy of being an Easter surprise, all of the Austria pictures are selected, edited and published. This was made possible by post-vacation ambition and our divide and conquer strategy: standard vacation pictures posted to Flickr with minimal editing (part one, part two), the best of the kids pictures on the kids page (ongoing, beginning here), and the rest of my self-indulgence left for the Republic. Note the minimalist design, a byproduct of the speed-or-quality trade-off, and how it plays rather ambivalently with the Gothic world of Stift Melk. Or just enjoy the pictures:

Austria '07

A particularly distracted Easter Mass on Sunday reminded me of the irony of bringing children to church—you are least able to draw the spiritual strength you need from Mass at the time in your life when you most need it. We persevered and in the end, the crowds and apparent fashion shows around us did little to diminish the feast, both in the religious and gastronomic sense—Easter ham and a leg of lamb go a long way to restoring one's spirit. I hope all of you had an equally joyous Easter and I wish you more of the same for the rest of the season.

April 10, 2007