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Bob Dylan: Advent songwriter?

When I started on my journey toward becoming an Anglican from the free-church tradition, I came for the liturgical seasons. In our late-modern moment of over-revved consumerism, I found comfort in the discovery of a calendar that would not try to sneak Christmas in there before Halloween was finished, and in which lingering on the significance of Easter for 50 whole days would not permit my eagerness for novelty to pass thoughtlessly by the central feast of the Christian faith without marking its all-encompassing importance. The calendar of the Church is a tool wielded best when orienting the heart to attend to the movements of God’s mercy.

Ironically, the calendar and our seasonal liturgical celebrations therein are least effective at the time when we most desperately need a little calendrical assistance: Advent. The hymns are beautiful, but after several years of choosing Advent hymns and crafting longing-filled Advent Lessons and Carols, I know that even the liturgical faithful want a little Jesus in that manger a few weeks early.

Now, dear reader, I can virtually hear your objections: “Our choir only rocks Advent hymns!” “Our little parish doesn’t even look at a pine cone or a Christmas tree until December 23!” “Our organist and choirmaster wrote six new verses of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” each more filled with longing than the last!” And for this I applaud you.

I love the Advent propers. Maybe it’s my flair for the apocalyptic, or my slightly brooding, justice-oriented interest in the not yet of the kingdom of God. Yet, even in this relatively pious priest’s home, I find the pop-culture onslaught of Christmas to be a foe that Advent wreaths, purple and rose vestments, and the increasingly apocalyptic Daily Office and Eucharist readings struggle to hold at bay.

So for a few years now, I’ve enlisted some help in the most effective non-liturgical tool I know how to wield: Pop music playlists. Sufjan Stevens’s Christmas albums are chock full of Advent bangers such as “Lift Up Your Heads, You Mighty Gates” (Silver and Gold), “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” (Songs for Christmas 3), and, in keeping with Sufjan’s penchant for inserting more morbid fare in joyful packaging, “Ah, Holy Jesus” (Silver and Gold). U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” has a decidedly Advent expectation and waiting cooked into the pie. And much of David Eugene Edwards’s band Wovenhand’s early oeuvre could suit the discerning pop fan in search of some off-kilter Advent tunes (try “Not One Stone,” from the Black of the Ink EP for a primer).

But this Advent, I’ve enjoyed a special Christmas gift I’ve been happy to open early for Advent. Bob Dylan’s Trouble No More: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 13, 1979-1981, released in November, covers the recording and touring from his gospel period. While many Dylan purists find this music and its lyrics derivative and preachy, and some in Covenant’s readership may differ with Dylan’s seemingly dispensational millennialist eschatology, there’s no doubting his fervor, or the strength of his lyrical skills.

The highest point of the substantial collection comes in its versions of my all-time favorite secular Advent song, “When He Returns.” Dylan’s sparkling piano playing, the plaintive, sensitive longing in his voice, and the tent-revival come to Jesus invitation in the lyrics never fails to issue forth a tear and a desire to convert my heart yet one step further when he pleads, “How long can you falsify and deny what is real? / How long can you hate yourself for the weakness you conceal?” But the central theme of the track is not the dynamics of personal conversion, but the cosmic scale of the divine last word, in a time when apocalyptic imagination veered immediately to the Cold War struggle of good vs. evil: “The iron hand it ain’t no match for the iron rod. / The strongest wall will tumble and fall to a mighty God.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

The deluxe set includes copious liner notes for your post-Nativity reading enjoyment. There are live tracks, studio outtakes, and several tracks that never made it on the original records. But perhaps the greatest contribution this collection makes is the re-presentation to a new generation of a period in Dylan’s career that is often bracketed out as a kooky outlier in an otherwise sophisticated career. These tracks laid the groundwork for the next 25 years of Dylan’s work. I would even argue that Dylan’s gospel period never really ended. Rather, the Nobel Laureate learned to appropriate the themes in less-direct means, synthesizing his sense of being spiritually found with the hunger for spiritual searching that characterized his work in the 1970s. Without these albums, there may have been no Time Out of Mind, no Infidels, and perhaps even no Nobel Prize.

If you don’t have the $120 to shell out for the deluxe edition, try his original Gospel trilogy, Slow Train Coming, Saved, and Shot of Love. Let lyrics like these from “Precious Angel” on Slow Train Coming echo with the words of John the Baptist in your final days of Advent waiting: “You either got faith or you got unbelief and there ain’t no neutral ground.” Preach.


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