Spirituality has been a cornerstone of Bob Dylan’s music.
Matters of God and faith have infused his material regularly, from early songs such as “With God On Our Side,” in which he questioned humankind’s ability to justify most any behavior according to one’s interpretation of religious beliefs, right through “Duquesne Whistle” on 2012’s “Tempest,” when he confessed, “I can hear a sweet voice gently calling/ Must be the Mother of our Lord.”
Yet most fans and critics alike were flummoxed back in 1979 when he released “Slow Train Coming,” the first of a trio of albums that were immersed in Christian imagery and scriptural references.
That period, which continued with “Saved” in 1980 and “Shot of Love” in 1981, is one of the most polarizing of his career, ranking with the 1965 “going electric” shift that instantly made him a pariah to folk music purists.
But for Dylan, the only thing that’s ever mattered is following his muse. For that three-year stretch it plunged him deep and wide into the Bible, especially the New Testament. It’s an era his record label is exploring in-depth in “Bob Dylan: Trouble No More—The Bootleg Series Vol. 13/1979-1981,” coming Nov. 3.
The Times is premiering a track from the forthcoming Columbia Records/Legacy Recordings set, and it’s one of the finest songs to come out of that period. The song, “Every Grain of Sand,” originally appeared on “Shot of Love.”
This version is from a rehearsal on Sept. 26, 1980, where he was accompanied by guitarist Fred Tackett, keyboardist Willie Smith, bassist Tim Drummond and drummer Jim Keltner.
It’s a strikingly different take than the “Shot of Love” rendition, which swayed with a waltz pulse that sounded designed for a Sunday morning congregation. In rehearsal for a subsequent concert tour, Dylan shifted the song’s meter to one based on four beats, rather than three, per measure, and letting Smith’s electric piano lead the way.
Fans, sometimes understandably, groused about the doctrinaire tone in some of the earliest songs from the so-called Christian period, such as “When You Gonna Wake Up,” in which he sang “Do 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?”
But for “Every Grain of Sand,” he framed his intensified spiritual drive with some of his most artfully poetic lyrics: “Oh, the flowers of indulgence and the weeds of yesteryear / Like criminals, they have choked the breath of conscience and good cheer / The sun beat down upon the steps of time to light the way / To ease the pain of idleness and the memory of decay.”
In the album’s liner notes, writer-turned-filmmaker Cameron Crowe says Dylan told him, “That was an inspired song that came to me. It wasn’t really too difficult. I felt like I was just putting words down that were coming from somewhere else, and I just stuck it out.”
The deluxe version of the latest installment in the ongoing “Bootleg Series” also includes the only live performance of the song Dylan delivered during the 1979-81 tours, a little more than a year after this rehearsal version at a show in Lakeland, Fla. They’re among the 102 tracks — all previously unreleased live and studio recordings, among them 14 songs never released before-- spread over eight discs that make up Vol. 13.
A ninth disc is a DVD containing “Trouble No More: A Musical Film” from director Jennifer LeBeau, consisting of footage from his 1980 tours and other previously unreleased material. For Dylan completists, his official web site is offering up an exclusive two-CD bonus release with an additional complete live performance recorded in San Diego on Nov. 28, 1979.
Calendar will have more on this set closer to the release date.
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