One of the toughest tracks on the 1979 release Slow Train Coming, “Slow Train” is cast in the mold of Dylan’s great protest songs, but the moral outrage now emanates from a Christian perspective. In seven verses, Dylan notes his disgust at the earthly world, including the people around him:
are they lost or are they found
have they counted the cost it’ll take to bring down
all their earthly principles they’re gonna have to abandon?
The disgust extends to himself (“you could die down here, be just another accident statistic”), the OPEC cartel, mankind’s inflated ego, phony leaders, conmen, and his played-upon loved ones (“turning into puppets”). Dylan doesn’t spare the religious hypocrites either:
the enemy I see wears a cloak of decency
all non-believers and men stealers talkin’ in the name of religion.
Dylan’s scope ranges freely from the personal to political to moral. The song’s metaphorical refrain “there’s a slow, slow train comin’ up around the bend,” prophesies the approach of apocalypse and Christ’s return. What makes “Slow Train” effective is the pressure cooker musical backing (featuring Mark Knopfler on guitar and the Muscle Schoals Horns ), Dylan’s intense delivery, and its many catchy lines.
Apparently, Dylan’s conversion experience had reawakened an outraged moral sensibility:
People starving and thirsting, grain elevators are bursting
Oh, you know it costs more to store the food than it do to give it
They say lose your inhibitions, follow your own ambitions,
They talk about a life of brotherly love, show me someone who knows how to live it.
Because the lyrics are more elliptical in their Christian references, “Slow Train” is generally speaking more accessible to secular audiences than the more overtly evangelical tracks of his Christian period work like Saved. The poetic vision is more focused and acute too. A chug-along live version of “Slow Train” with the Grateful Dead appeared on the 1988 Dylan and the Dead.
– James Esch