Bob Dylan converted to Christianity in 1979. Like many who have been born again, Dylan spoke and sang solely of his faith for a brief period -- roughly half a year, beginning in November of 1979 and ending in May of 1980. Facing a fan base who were generally furious at his newfound religion, Dylan started to thread some oldies into his set lists but he didn't leave gospel behind until he released Infidels in 1983.
Once he returned to secular music, he didn't abandon all the songs that he wrote during this period -- and it's also unclear what became of his faith, as he stopped speaking of it in concrete terms in public -- yet these three years remained one of Dylan's least understood phases, possibly because the studio albums he released between 1979 and 1981 were cocooned in studio gloss. Trouble No More, the 13th installment of The Bootleg Series, attempts to right the record by collecting a wealth of live material from this period, supplementing these cuts with unreleased studio tracks, including a few songs that have never seen the light of day.
Whether it's appreciated in its lavish eight-CD/single-DVD box set or its judiciously edited double-disc companion, Trouble No More performs the same function: it illuminates the passion driving this music. Unlike Another Self Portrait, this Bootleg Series installment offers a different perspective of a maligned phase, but it doesn't provide a jolting revelation, not even with several unveiled Dylan originals in tow. A few of these songs would've enhanced either Saved or Shot of Love -- in particular, "Ain't Gonna Go to Hell for Anybody" feels robust as it dodges confession -- but the execution matters more than the content. Dylan did write a handful of classics during this time but the tunes tend to be overshadowed by the ragged, soulful performances, where the songs -- both major and minor -- get reshaped on-stage and in the studio. The band impresses -- this music, which sounded so slick on the released records, has grit, swing and soul -- but they're only following their leader, who is chasing a muse that may still remain elusive to his audience.
Dylan may not articulate his conversion in words -- these are among his stiffest lyrics, allowing no room for ambiguity yet still bearing some playfulness -- but Trouble No More, more than Saved or even the fine Slow Train Coming, is buoyed by the music. Whether he's singing a slight song, easing into testimony, or leaning into a blues, Dylan seems engaged, even on the verge of rapture, an excitement that carries through the full live shows from 1980 and 1981 on the Deluxe Edition, where he reworks his old tunes -- "Maggie's Farm" is driven by a wild, twisting riff -- in hopes that they open the door to his new thing. Few appreciated his trip at the time, but years later it feels compelling, possibly because it's allowed to be messy and soulful within the parameters of The Bootleg Series.