Ranking the 5 Best Songs From Bob Dylan’s Born-Again Period

Bob Dylan’s career can be broken up into several mini-eras, each one generally signified by a unique style of music or a focus on a certain kind of subject matter. No period is as distinct or as polarizing as a brief spell in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s when Dylan focused on music espousing his Christian beliefs. Let’s examine the five best songs from Bob Dylan’s born-again period.

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The general consensus about what transpired is that Dylan, while wallowing in a bit of a swale in both his personal and professional life, had some sort of revelation that made him go all-in with Christianity. This meant that his music would reflect that. Many fans were dumbfounded at the time, and to this day there are Dylan diehards who don’t know quite what to make of it.

It might have been difficult at the time to appreciate the music that he was making, regardless of the topic. Upon hindsight, the three albums that coincided with that period (Slow Train Coming in 1979, Saved in 1980, and Shot of Love in 1981) find Dylan focused and passionate, qualities evident in his career peaks. Even if you don’t agree with his decision to proselytize in song, you have to admire the effectiveness with which he did it, especially on these five incredible tracks.

5. “Precious Angel” (from Slow Train Coming, 1979)

One of the interesting facets of this time period in Dylan’s career is that it generally contained some of his best-made music, especially on the first of these albums. Whereas there have been times that he seemed indifferent about his studio recordings, the music on Slow Train Coming is consistently potent. The band consisted of many Muscle Shoals veterans, while Mark Knopfler provided guitar licks alternately stinging and soulful. That approach comes together beautifully on “Precious Angel,” as Dylan’s testifying gains strength from the instrumentalists and backing vocalists. It’s a song where the words are almost secondary to the overall effect, which is exceedingly rare for a Dylan track. 

4. “Property of Jesus” (from Shot of Love, 1981)

By the time Shot of Love rolled around, Dylan was starting to include secular material amidst the more overtly Christian messages. Somehow, the album holds together, if only because his writing was as idiosyncratically intriguing as perhaps any other time in his career. Nobody else was coming at material from such unique angles. In the case of “Property of Jesus,” he makes his point about faith by imagining all the slings and arrows that a true believer will have to endure from doubters. As has always been the case throughout his career, Dylan makes for an excellent prosecutor. On this track, he makes it difficult for any contradicting arguments to stand up because of the eloquent fury with which he makes his case.

[RELATED: 5 Albums That Capture the Essence of Bob Dylan]

3. “Pressing On” (from Saved, 1980)

Saved is the weakest of the three albums of the Born Again period by a good stretch. As it was released less than a year after Slow Train Coming, perhaps Dylan just couldn’t conjure up enough inspired material. But “Pressing On” is a stunner. The song is unabashed gospel, with Dylan beginning quietly at the piano before bringing in the entire band and backing singers to power the thing home. There are only two brief verses, as most of the song is just the chorus repeated again and again. But that chorus, with Dylan singing heroically about the connections between faith and resilience, is such a winner that it’s really all you need.

2. “Slow Train” from (from Slow Train Coming, 1979)

The Muscle Shoals vibe is strong with this one. Pick Withers’ drum fills give the song an engaging stop-and-start beat, Barry Beckett’s keyboards lend some grit, and the horns are subtle but just right. And we haven’t even talked about Mark Knopfler’s guitar, which ignites all the warning flares that Dylan brings to the table in the lyrics. There are points where Dylan makes some strong statements that might rankle folks, but he certainly doesn’t waffle. He takes dead aim at his targets and, more often than not, leaves them strafed with his withering words.

1. ”Every Grain of Sand” (from Shot of Love, 1981)

Dylan saved the best for last, as “Every Grain of Sand,” the final song on the final album of his Born Again period, is an undeniable masterpiece. Perhaps it’s because its message doesn’t come down to one side or the other, like many of the others songs from the period do. Over languid music, Dylan finds himself admitting that he’s not devoid of weakness or sorrow, even when in the bosom of his faith. He even admits that he occasionally struggles to find his faith. But when he needs it the most, evidence of his guiding higher power is everywhere: In the fury of the moment, I can see the Master’s hand/In every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand. Dylan then uncorks one of his finest harmonica solos over those yearning chords to seal the deal.

Photo by PL Gould/IMAGES/Getty Images

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