Reviews > Music

Music: Vicarious faith

Music | Bob Dylan and Amy Grant don't evade their gospel past

Issue: "Debunking Darwinism," Nov. 22, 1997

People want to know where I'm at," Bob Dylan told an interviewer in 1983, "because they don't know where they're at."

"Am I a Christian?" Amy Grant rhetorically asked an interviewer this year. "Yes, yes, yes."

In such statements one hears the frustration of the singer-songwriter who finally realizes that for many fans the only good song is one that delivers vicarious spiritual certainty.

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Because of the public nature of their testimonies and the alluring quality of their music, both Bob Dylan and Amy Grant have long been favorites of those seeking vicarious faith. But because of the private nature of their pilgrimages, Mr. Dylan and Ms. Grant have also endured criticism from Christians who consider songs without explicit Christian references a personal affront.

One could, by studying recent interviews and lyric sheets, attempt to make definitive statements about the beliefs of Mr. Dylan and Ms. Grant. But doing so would miss the point of their music as surely as proving that Bach was still a Lutheran would miss the point of his Mass in B Minor.

A nearly palpable spirituality pervades Mr. Dylan's latest album, Time Out of Mind. "I know the mercy of God must be near," he sings at one point; "God is my shield, and he won't lead me astray," at another.

But listeners who prefer goodness, mercy, and dwelling in the house of the Lord forever should know that, on the whole, Time Out of Mind sounds as if it were composed, sung, and played in the valley of the shadow of death.

From production that swathes the singer's eerily decrepit voice in swirling guitars and spooky Farfisa organs to lyrics that articulate the gall of soured romance in apocalyptic terms, the album comes as close-and perhaps closer-than rock 'n' roll ever has to conveying the tenuousness of the border that separates this world from the next.

Amy Grant's new album broaches no such depths. Nevertheless, Behind the Eyes is the best album of her 19-year career.

The reason that's not a bigger compliment is that even at 36 Ms. Grant tends to write, or choose songs written, with the glibness of a teenage-church-camp counselor ("It takes a little time sometimes/to get the Titanic turned back around," "I'll be the shelter in your rain/help you find your smile again").

She has, however, learned one very important lesson: not to use too many words in her songs. In fact, the sparseness of these predominantly introspective lyrics is what allows them to be so effortlessly wafted about by the infectious pop melodies that are, along with Ms. Grant's immensely appealing singing, this album's saving grace.

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