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Five for Friday: Bob Dylan Gospel-Era Songs

While an undisputed living legend, Bob Dylan has his detractors. There are those who complain about his voice, which has a tendency, especially these days, to slip into something rather intelligible. Then there are those who remain miffed he heavily reworks the songs in his catalog, making best-known cuts sometimes unrecognizable. And many have long argued that Dylan's trio of albums beginning in 1979 – Slow Train Coming, Saved, and Shot of Love – rank as his worst. They represent his so-called Christian-period, when topics relating to God, faith, and the bible populated the lyrics. But a newly released set, Trouble No More: The Bootleg Series Vol. 13/ 1979-1981, makes the case the era remains Dylan's most overlooked. Available in numerous formats, Trouble No More culls live material and outtakes, and argues a gospel-influenced Dylan is nothing to complain about. Here are five of our favorite songs from Dylan's most contested period.

"Every Grain of Sand"
Dylan is in a reflective mood on this lovingly languid ballad, a song whose portrayal of loneliness remains downright heartbreaking. The tune appears to take the point of view of a narrator ostracized from friends and family. There are hints, for instance, of a past of misdeeds, and the lyrics include an allusion to Cain, the Old Testament's agent of evil. Yet the indiscretions are never spelled out. Instead, Dylan carefully and cheerlessly paints a picture of a character "hanging in the balance of the reality of man." It's the tale of a wanderer, and one questioning his faith, set against a brightly tuned albeit downtrodden guitar and weary harmonica. "Every Grain of Sand" isn't so much a story about believing in a higher power, but wondering if there was ever a deity to believe in from the start.

"Solid Rock"
Here, the would-be-future Poet Laureate appears to have a bit of fun, basking in the revelry of a smashing gospel-rock band. This fiery number, with a rolling piano and choppy guitar, is built for hollering, and holler Dylan does. "And I won't let go, can't let go," Dylan sings at his most aggressive. Faith in its most selfish state seems to be the topic, with Dylan clinging to the solid foundation the belief provides – even going so far as to declare God's sacrifices were all "for me." Yet Dylan isn't surrendering to a higher power so much as looking at why so many are so devout. After all, the world remains full of disappointments, of people waiting for a "false peace to come." Everything just sounds better on this rock with Dylan. The smoldering back-up singers help.

"Making a Liar Out of Me"
Exclusive to Trouble No More, and a reject believed to have been recorded during the sessions for Saved, Dylan's castoff would be another artist's treasure. The six-minute-plus tune teems with sharp lyrics ("It's not the Tower of Babel that you're building") and a simmering, bluesy keyboard that lights a fuse under patient, strutting guitar work. Special delight stems from hearing how Dylan treats the song's signature phrase, lowering his voice to a scowl and drawing out the word "liar" for almost three seconds. The lyrics also offer a bit of a puzzle. "I tell people you are just going through changes," Dylan sings in the opening frame, and soon reveals he's being regularly let down. Is this disappointment in a friend, or frustration in a God that isn't answering the "cries of orphans and their mothers"?

"The Groom's Still Waiting at the Altar"
Guilt. Even the least cynical Christians would likely confess to some measure of guilt resulting from their beliefs. Few of us, after all, are perfect, and on this cut from Shot of Love, Dylan tries to find the middle ground between his sexual habits and demands of his faith. He never reaches it, as the blues stomp sees him running from a woman as much as he is the church. He gave up on his lady friend, he notes, about the time "she began to want me." Dylan's wicked humor shines. "She could be respectably married or running a whorehouse in Buenos Aires," he sings. On Trouble No More, there's a killer live version – and a total rarity. For Dylan has rarely played the song in concert (just five times, according to his official website). The busy, forceful guitar work comes courtesy of Santana.

"Man Gave Names to All the Animals"
No doubt many Dylan purists would scoff at the inclusion of this song, but Dylan himself appears quite fond of it, as the tune regularly appeared in his live sets for much of the 90s. A little silly, the song's appeal lies in its oddness. The funky reggae-light arrangement, coupled with nursery rhyme-like lyrics, gives it the feel of a children's song. But that's no slight, as Dylan has a ball with this Book of Genesis-inspired number in which man decides we need something to call our animal pals. Each verse unfolds like a miniature game, with Dylan revealing the animal name at the end. "Real dirty face and a curly tail," Dylan describes, adding, "he wasn't too small and he wasn't too big." Then the punchline: "Ah, think I'll call it a pig." A poll on Rolling Stone once ranked "Man Gave Names to All the Animals" as Dylan's fourth-worst song, but that's a little harsh. Who doesn't like animals?

November 3, 2017

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