Looking Back: “Rough And Rowdy Ways” by Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan is that rarity among artists: a living myth. Scores of scholars have cashed in on penning a thousand words pouring over each one he has sung or, very occasionally, said. His lyrics are credited with being a moving force in the ‘60s cultural revolution. He has proved immune to all fashions and trends, doing whatever strikes his fancy at the moment and letting his audience decide for itself whether it wishes to follow. Such was the case with Rough And Rowdy Ways, his 2020 album that in its release came both as an utter surprise and as a surprise in and of itself.

Musically, Rough And Rowdy Ways is anything but. There is an occasional bluesy snarl, but the vast majority is carefully assembled quiet layers, all instrumentation well blended and deliberately indistinct. In lesser hands such an approach could easily lead to tedium, but Dylan and company make it compelling.

Dylan’s voice has been reduced over the years to a lower register growl befitting a lion in winter. It isn’t pretty; Dylan’s nasally projection has never been pretty. Yet despite its limitations Dylan’s voice remains approachable without being inviting.

Lyrically, Rough And Rowdy Ways finds Dylan at his multilayered best, surface interpretations available but inevitably inviting deeper dives. Those wishing for references to his straightforward Slow Train Coming era faith proclamations will find an occasional tantalizing hint such as this brief nugget from “False Prophet:”

Oh you poor Devil — look up if you will
The City of God is there on the hill

Elsewhere Dylan slyly leaves the listener wondering. In “I Contain Multitudes,” is he referring to each individual’s multifaceted persona or a manipulator’s ability to chameleon their way into controlling others via channeling elements of their nature? All is not open to multiple interpretations; “I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You” is a straightforward love song begging to stand alongside “Make You Feel My Love” in the catalog of Dylan songs eagerly covered by others.

The album’s pinnacle is “Murder Most Foul,” an eighteen minute tone poem finding Dylan musing on John F. Kennedy’s assassination in a stream of consciousness vibe that weaves characters as disparate as Wolfman Jack and Stevie Nicks into the story while offering one final moment for Christians to ponder:

The day that they killed him, someone said to me, “Son,
The age of the anti-Christ has just only begun.”

Rough And Rowdy Ways isn’t background bubblegum music for pop poppers. It commands and demands careful listening. Short attention span sufferers will be left cold. But for the initiated thinker, the individual seeking challenge and meat from art, there have been few albums in recent times offering this much substance. The world has long known Bob Dylan is a visionary genius. With Rough And Rowdy Ways, he’s shown he doesn’t mind proving it once more.

Looking Back: “Only Visiting This Planet” by Larry Norman

It’s impossible to objectively review Only Visiting This Planet by Larry Norman. Without this 1972 release, contemporary Christian music as we know it would not exist.

It’s possible if not probable that CCM in some form would have emerged in the mid to late 1970s. But it would not have been the same. It would not, and could not, have addressed political, cultural, and relationship matters without Norman having led the way, letting people know that Christians are aware of what is going on in the world and have lives themselves.

Norman was a stubborn, solitary visionary, often if not always at odds with the music business both secular and Christian. The former gritted their teeth at his open proclamations of Christ, knowing that doing so would immediately strike him from any general public appeal. The Christians couldn’t handle Norman’s music, a mix of not-so gentle folk and roots rock minus the instrumental showmanship, his hair, his lyrics, or Norman himself. Only the few got it.

The cultural references on the album are necessarily dated, yet continue to ring true. Norman was no flag-waving conservative, nor was he a bleeding-heart liberal. He viewed both sides with a critical eye, letting his answer be Jesus almost regardless of the question.

Norman was the outsider’s outsider, the voice letting you know it was okay to admit hurt and pain and confusion without fear of a guilt trip. He didn’t so much expand the horizon of what a Christian in the arts could accomplish as create a new horizon. With Only Visiting This Planet Norman didn’t necessarily invent Christian rock, but he did make it something of value.

The album is available on the Larry Norman website.

Looking Back: “Art Of The State” by AD Proves No Good Artistic Deed Goes Unpunished

Strange as it may seem in this era of autotune and virtual instruments, there was a time in popular music when adventuresome artists were rewarded, at least occasionally, with something other than puzzled looks. No genre encapsulates this bygone age more than progressive rock, which for a time in the 1970s rode high on the charts with bands such as Yes, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Jethro Tull, and Kansas enjoying commercial if not critical success by seeking to interweave classical and avant-garde themes with rock‘n’roll’s rhythmic power.

Fast forward to 1985. Kerry Livgren, de facto leader of Kansas during its mid to late 1970s heyday and author of its two best known songs “Carry On Wayward Son” along with “Dust In The Wind”, was at something of an artistic/career crossroads. The band for which he was known was firmly in his rear view mirror yet alive once more; the following year saw it release Power which featured the top twenty hit “All I Wanted.” Meanwhile, his own band AD, whose lineup was replete with talent to burn, found itself sort-of on the Sparrow label, thus automatically relegated to the Christian rock ghetto, a place even the most fiercely devoted fans from secular days seldom knew existed. And, given how Livgren’s muse was utterly beyond the comprehension of most CCM fans worshipping at the altar of soft pop, he and his band barely registered in the music machine’s playground. Nevertheless, Livgren and company persevered as long as possible, along the way giving us 1985’s Art Of The State.

Art Of The State reminds me of an interview I watched several years ago with Les Claypool, bassist without peer best known for his band Primus. He was talking about the time when he auditioned, believe it or not, for the then-vacant bassist position with Metallica. He didn’t get the job. The interview then cut over to Metallica leader James Hetfield who didn’t even attempt to contain his roaring laughter as he noted about the entire matter, “He was too good for us!” In similar fashion, AD’s sophisticated melodies, arrangements, and lyrics were so far beyond the scope of 99.44% of mid-‘80s CCM it is little wonder why it made no marketplace impact.

The album lacks the standout, forever a mandatory staple hit à la the aforementioned “Carry On Wayward Son” or “Dust In The Wind.” It is filled with meaty inventiveness, be it the positive lilt of “Lead Us To Reason,” which should have been a hit but wasn’t, the apocalyptic grandeur of “The Fury,” and multiple stops in-between. While the overall sound was familiar to Kansas aficionados, Livgren and company declined to recycle his previous band, adding more group vocal punch and rhythm to the hooks. The instrumental excursions during songs were kept brief, sharp, and sweet. Art Of The State is still unmistakably and undeniably prog, but it’s prog purposefully trimmed down.

Livgren is still with us, working on new music. For those looking to find out what they missed while they were loading up on the latest Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith fan fodder, check out Art Of The State. It was, and is, state of the art.

The album is available on Kerry Livgren’s website.

Looking Back: “Dig Here, Said the Angel” by Daniel Amos A Music Masterpiece

(This review originally ran in July of 2013 on examiner.com.)

There’s good. There’s great. There’s brilliant. And then there’s instant timeless classic. “Dig Here, Said the Angel” by Daniel Amos is the latter, and then some.

The band’s first release since 2001’s “Mr. Buechner’s Dream,” “Dig Here, Said the Angel” finds Terry Scott Taylor and compatriots exploring a musical mix fusing various flavors of late ’60s psychedelia with the shimmering combination of power pop and Bakersfield country/latter-day Laurel Canyon Mafia country/rock fusion exemplified in earlier Daniel Amos releases such as “MotorCycle.” The emphasis is on the psychedelic, sometimes basking in musical sunshine such as ‘Jesus Wept’ and other times menacing such as on the title track. Throughout, Taylor and the band’s melodic sense reigns supreme, with nary a tuneless or throwaway track to be found.

Lyrically, the album pierces mind and soul with purposeful intelligence. Taylor has long been one of Christian rock’s premiere lyricists. This time through he has outdone himself, exploring grace’s enveloping nature, the nature of suffering and meditations on his own mortality among other topics. In ‘We’ll All Know Soon Enough’ he challenges non-believers not with Bible-blasting broadsides, but with a quiet reminder of mankind’s common fate. On the flip side, ‘Now That I’ve Died’ comes from the viewpoint of how entering heaven entails the ultimate self-improvement movement. The pure anthem ‘The Sun Shines on Everyone’ is a gentle yet forceful reminder that God’s love extends to everyone and He alone reserves judgment. These are but a few of the terrific songs from start to finish on this superb album.

It is no exaggeration to say that “Dig Here, Said the Angel” is Daniel Amos’ greatest work. It is also no exaggeration to say that in the annals of Christian rock, only “Only Visiting This Planet” by Larry Norman is a more masterful work. It is that good.

The album is available on the band’s website.

Looking Back: Is Bob Dylan’s “Saved” The Greatest Gospel Album Ever?

First, there was gospel and the blues; twin cousins each at best privately disavowing and usually publicly denouncing each other. Gospel was a group proclamation of salvation and eternal reward, a fervent celebration by its creators whose ofttimes sole hope in a land of freedom was freedom begrudgingly won not by the shedding of blood fighting external oppressors, but rather those within the nation. The blues were a primarily solo expression of earthly joys and woes, of relationships and lives gone wrong underneath blistering southern sun and big city alley lights. Both were new and fresh and steeped in rhythm, a rhythm simultaneously denounced and surreptitiously adopted by the less stuffy elements of the white church.

Long after their birth, while gospel remained almost solely an American musical idiom the blues followed American military personnel across the pond to England where it found a ready audience among British kids who were already enamored with skiffle, the 1920s-based mix of Appalachian folk and Delta blues that would later be known as Americana. While by the 1950s skiffle had all but disappeared in the United States, the first wave of British baby boomers who were eager to divest themselves of their parents big band and crooners musical mix — some things never change — locked on to skiffle, from there discovering the blues and adopting it as their own voice. Thus, in the 1960s you had a small army of skinny longhaired kids with funny accents from across the pond wowing American kids with their amped up (literally) interpretation of Robert Johnson and compatriots, music their red very white and blue youthful audience had never heard even though it came out of their own back yard. Add to this mix rock‘n’roll, its own roots firmly planted in the blues with some of the earthiness washed out in favor of an upbeat danceable sheen, and you have the 1960s music revolution that to this day echoes throughout popular culture.

Which leads to Bob Dylan, the mystic chronicler who started out as the folk musician’s folk musician, abruptly switching to rock‘n’roll, unceasingly following his own visions be they of Johanna or no regardless of commercial considerations, and in 1979 rocking the world with Slow Train Coming, an unbridled and unapologetic expression of newfound faith in Christ. If Slow Train Coming set off a explosion, Dylan’s 1980 followup Saved raised the furor to a full-blown firestorm.

Looking back, Saved shows how Dylan fully knew and understood both Scriptural fundamentals and gospel music itself. Replete with straight out of the black church backing vocals and swelling organ flourishes, the album is all substance and zero subtlety. Dylan wisely made no effort to mimic gospel singing, leaning on his nasally granular voice to deliver a message that would make any backwoods preacher proud. The songs bring power on all fronts, Dylan exploring every nook and cranny of gospel from the full-on drive of the album’s title track to rich melodic servitude in “What Can I Do For You”. The album’s highlight is “In The Garden,” Dylan illustrating several moments of Christ’s earthly ministry with the bullet point lyric “When He rose up from the dead / Did they believe?” A question remaining on the table to this day.

Calling Saved the greatest gospel album of all time is a personal opinion; certainly many recordings over the years deserve consideration for that lofty title. That said, Saved does stand out, albeit some twelve to fifteen years later, as an answer to the British invasion. The latter brought the blues to public attention. Saved did gospel the same favor.

The album is available on CD, download, and streaming from all the usual outlets.