CK Retro Review: Shot Of Love by Bob DylanPosted: June 26, 2013
Some aficionados see Bob Dylan’s 1981 album Shot Of Love as the culmination of a religious trilogy that began with Slow Train Coming. Others see it as the beginning of his return to secular music. It’s probably a little of both, and it’s definitely a little unfocused in terms of its LA studio sound. Yet it also has one of Dylan’s finest songs ever and several others that show his less-heavenly muses exhibiting their pull over him once again. Here is a song-by-song review.
10. “Watered-Down Love”- One thing that you never want a Dylan recording to be is benign. This easy-listening exercise with cliché-ridden lyrics qualifies. Watered-down indeed.
9. “Heart Of Mine”- Ringo Starr is credited with playing the tom tom (apparently he didn’t bring the rest of his drum set) while Ronnie Wood is on guitar for this track. The recording actually ends up being a bit disheveled despite all the big names on tap, but the reason the song doesn’t ignite is that Dylan’s admonitions to his heart (a songwriting tactic used to better effect in the Jerry Vale chestnut “Pretend You Don’t See Her”) are downright bland.
8. “Trouble”- The lyrics aren’t too impressive by Dylan’s standards, just a laundry list of loosely-defined ills that mankind has little choice but to endure. It’s a good thing that the band works up an engaging stomp and Bob sings it with the kind of vigor that can push even mediocre blues lyrics up a notch or two.
7. “Dead Man, Dead Man”- As a contrast to “Trouble,” this one has fascinatingly dark lyrics, but I’m not sure if Dylan ever fully commits to the reggae groove eked out by the band. For the most part, there was a welcome feistiness that returned to Bob’s religious treatises on Shot Of Love, and “Dead Man, Dead Man” is emblematic of that. Here he suggests that the nonbelievers are already pushing up daisies; they just haven’t been told about it yet, and Dylan bears the bad tidings with a bit of barely-concealed triumph in his voice.
6. “Shot Of Love”- Again, the music, while forceful enough, isn’t all that memorable here, which is too bad, because Dylan is again careening down some intriguing lyrical alleyways in the title track. He alternately seems desperate and paranoid, ready to confront his persecutors yet trying to stay righteous all the way. Even his car is giving him trouble. The tension in the song comes from the fact that, for one of the first times since he started his religious odyssey, he doesn’t sound sure that the heavenly aid he’s requesting is definitely coming.
5. “In The Summertime”- Even though Dylan seems to still have his heart in the heavens on this track, it’s got the same kind of feel as wistful love songs from further on down the road like “Shooting Star” or “Born In Time.” The implication here is that the narrator’s time in the sunlight was brief, but the memories and the gifts he received are enough to sustain him in his long winter he’s living now. The strolling music is just right on this one, with Bob’s harmonica gliding beautifully over everything.
4. “Lenny Bruce”- There are very few people who have lived on this planet who could share a taxi with Bob and make a compelling case that they’re the most interesting person in the vehicle. Lenny Bruce would be on that short list. Dylan’s tribute might seem like faint praise at times, but his lines about Bruce not killing babies or robbing churches are Bob’s way of saying that what the comedian’s detractors had against him was ultimately trivial stuff. The skewed logic somehow begins to make sense at the end, especially when it’s married to Dylan’s deeply-felt piano work.
3. “Property Of Jesus”- Dylan has his dander up in this one, and the song is all the better for it. Although the song is ostensibly about a third-person believer that Bob defends by showing the weightlessness of his enemies’ slings and arrows, you could just as easily hear this song as what the songwriter has to say about the critics who would sneer at his religious conversion. And so “Property Of Jesus” can fall into line with songs like “Positively 4th Street” and “When The Ship Comes In” in this regard. I would even say that the music has a little of that 60’s thin, wild mercury about it, at least until the howling refrains break that spell with their pure force.
2. “The Groom’s Still Waiting At The Altar”- This one nearly became a casualty of Bob’s odd song selection for the album, a problem that would plague his next album, Infidels, even more. Luckily enough, this searing blues was added to the cassette version and was then included in the running order of all subsequent Shot Of Love releases. It’s an early example of a song framework to which Dylan would keep returning from the 80’s on: Richly-described, merciless landscapes inhabited by a resolute but wary narrator in pursuit of an elusive woman. We should all thank Claudette, whether she’s “respectably married or running a whorehouse in Buenos Aires” for adding the hellfire of desire to Bob’s serenely chaste outlook.
1.”Every Grain Of Sand”- Whatever peaks and valleys Dylan’s songwriting traversed in the Born Again period, it all culminated in this astoundingly lovely and unflinchingly honest ode to the difficulty of keeping faith when human frailty keeps pulling us stubbornly earthward. I actually prefer the barking-dog version on the Bootleg Series, if only because the higher octave Bob tackles brings out the anguish and deep feeling of his lyrics a little better. But this version has the harmonica solo at the end, so there’s that to consider as well. Let’s just say that this song soars no matter what, as Dylan’s poetic gifts are used to optimum effect. The final verse is one of the most powerful in his canon, as the narrator, who admits to weakness and temptation throughout, tries to maintain his sporadic hold on a divine light. He ultimately finds God in small gestures and subtle nuance, which, ironically enough, are the very things that his critics always claimed his religious-themed music lacked.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For a more in-depth look at Bob Dylan, check out the link below to my upcoming book Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs.)