Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
- Luke 9:62
Don't look back - something might be gaining on you.
- Satchel Paige
Sometimes I wonder about music criticism. Not always, but sometimes. One thing I tend to wonder about is one of the most common criticisms levied upon a band - the idea of stagnation. After all, it is said, creativity is best used in moving ever forward, in blazing new trails, stretching out the powers of one's muse, and not in simply playing the same songs and repeating the same power chords and lyrical themes until Kingdom come. A band I like quite a bit, Oasis, has been repeatedly castigated for this, especially since their stock began to dip after 1997's monolithic disaster Be Here Now, Rumours with half the charm, twice the guitars, and none of the in-band fucking and songs about said in-band fucking. Oasis' albums since then, despite the occasional production tricks and the increasing percentage of songs not by Noel Gallagher, have borne the stamp of a group that is perfectly willing to stay with what they like doing, thank you very much, and have no particular desire to do any of that "branching out" stuff your, well, Beatles of the world did.
But is that entirely such a bad thing? After all, let's imagine, say, AC/DC attempting to do something new after 30-odd years of balls-out rocking. Say, an album of country standards, or some Interpol-like post-punk wrangling, or something like that Fiery Furnaces album with the grandmother doing vocals. Would that float your boat? How do you think something like that might turn out? I think you have a pretty good idea, and you're already hurrying to push that brutal image out of your brain before it infects your mind like a Trojan virus. I mean, it might be amusing in a train-wreck kind of way (not like an actual train-wreck; you get what I mean, I hope), but that's really about the limits of enjoyment you'd get.
The point I'm trying to make is that, for some musicians, carving out a niche for yourself and riding that niche for all its worth is not necessarily a bad thing. Look, there are literally hundreds of bands out there, and many of them are willing and able to push creative boundaries, find new ways to wrangle notes out of a guitar or a piano, come up with brand new chords and crazy tunings, and keep music progressing at the same steady rate it has progressed since some jackass wearing a jester's hat played a lute for a king somewhere. Some bands won't make that kind of change, or know that they can't, and that's okay. If the music is good, or good enough, I think they can get a free pass.
And then there's Bob Dylan, who's never been shy of remaking himself and the music he creates practically with every album. I think that guys like Dylan, and Bowie, and Elvis Costello are why critics always gnash their teeth and rend their garments when a Ryan Adams records something that represents, at very best, a lateral move. After all, they argue, the great musicians can change, so if you can't, you're just not on that level. And they do have a point, of course, but they also want to make it like that kind of forward-thinking ability is something that can be harnessed or plucked from the air, or even something that just comes from practice, maaaaaan. It's not. Only a select few have been able to leap from genre to genre with hardly a look back, and even then there are the occasional missteps (Young Americans springs to mind). The hardest thing in the world for a person to do is to do something different with your life. Many people don't have to, and even more people don't want to. And if you think I'm talking from personal experience, well, you probably know me. Bob Dylan's versatility and willingness to do things differently make him great, and also make him very, very different from everybody else.
So we get another traditional, and another song about Heaven and Jesus, this time more upbeat than some of the album's more dirge-like material. After a short musical intro that features Dylan practicing his breath control on the harmonica, Dylan launches into a Gospel-inspired tune that asks us to "keep (our) hand on that plow, hold on". The verse that inspired that chorus, quoted above, is Jesus' way of saying "keep your eye on the prize, kid - you look back, you're dead meat" - funny enough, "Gospel Plow" has been rewritten as "Keep Your Eyes On The Prize", a song Bruce Springsteen has covered. It's a pretty simple sentiment, and Dylan delivers it with the same confidence he's displayed for much of this album (vocal affectations included).
As you might imagine, the lyrics brought to mind the little mini-screed above, and it's really not that hard to think of Jesus telling us to just plow ahead (forgive the turn of phrase) and never think about the past. The verse before it, for context, has a potential follower of Jesus saying "I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home", prompting Jesus' response about the plow. And, as anybody that's ever received that kind of advice before can attest, it does seem rather harsh; after all, who among us doesn't have attachments and loved ones and accumulated habits that are hard to say goodbye to? Still, saying goodbye and moving on, much like those emotional attachments we have, is a universal trait that we all go through, and sometimes (to quote Angela from The Office) you just gotta grow a pair. Jesus' way of saying that, I will say, is somewhat more eloquent.