by Jay Gabler
September 20, 2017
Bob Dylan was raised Jewish in Duluth and Hibbing, Minnesota — but in his 30s, he found a new religion. From the late 1970s through the early 1980s, Dylan was a practicing born-again Christian, and that became a central fact animating his songwriting for three albums that have since become known among fans as "the Christian trilogy." They met with a mixed critical reception, but his music of that era has long seemed ripe for reappraisal.
Listeners will be able to dive into that era more deeply than ever starting Nov. 3, when Dylan releases the 13th volume of his "Bootleg Series." This release, titled Trouble No More, will include eight CDs and one DVD spotlighting Dylan's career from 1979 to 1981, with 100 previously unreleased tracks including 14 never-released songs. The DVD will contain "a new feature-length cinematic presentation combining unreleased footage from Dylan’s 1980 tours with new material written by Luc Sante and performed by Academy Award nominee Michael Shannon," according to a press release.
The box set ($79.99) also includes "a hardcover book featuring an introduction by Dylan scholar Ben Rollins with liner notes by Amanda Petrusich, Rob Bowman and Penn Jillette." For fans who don't need quite so much devout Dylan, the first two discs will also be released as a standalone package with a four-LP version for vinyl lovers. A 1981 live version of "When You Gonna Wake Up?" is out now.
When our staff reviewed every Dylan studio album, Mark Wheat wrote of Slow Train Coming (1979), "As a fan of his music it would be a mistake to never listen to this album: it has some very fine songs that stand the test of time, 'Slow Train' for one, which seems to predict a lot of the world confusion that is only now materializing. And it certainly doesn’t have a preachy tone. In fact, 'I Believe In You' and others could be read as simple love songs to someone who had made the great man think and question himself — a good exercise for all of us."
The next album in the trilogy, 1980's Saved, is more difficult — it all too often sounds like a dour screed. Shot of Love (1981) is much stronger, and was hailed by fans as what it in fact proved to be: a harbinger of Dylan pulling back from explicit preaching and returning to more conventional (well, for him) thematic territory. The last track on that album, "Every Grain of Sand," is a quiet meditation that's now widely regarded as one of Dylan's all-time great songs.
There's a good reason these albums aren't getting the release-every-take treatment Dylan gave his inarguably iconic mid-1960s releases, but the material due for inclusion in The Bootleg Series Vol. 13 will doubtless help to place this controversial era in the broader context of his career.
Meanwhile, Dylan will be in St. Paul for an Oct. 25 performance with Mavis Staples at the Xcel Energy Center. Will they dig into Dylan's gospel catalog? Sometimes miracles do happen.