CK Retro Review: Shot Of Love by Bob Dylan

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.

TWO STARS

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.

THREE STARS

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.

FOUR STARS

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.

FIVE STARS

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 countdownkid@hotmail.com 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.)

http://www.amazon.com/books/dp/0810888238

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11 Comments on “CK Retro Review: Shot Of Love by Bob Dylan”

  1. Bob says:

    I love that last verse’s fallen sparrow allusion to Matthew – and, possibly, ‘Hamlet’ – tho’ find the ‘balance of the reality of man’ awkward and unconvincing, preferring the live version’s ‘perfect master plan’. Agree with so much else you say about the album – including Dylan’s weird choices back then re what to include/exclude, esp, as you say, with Infidels…

    • bill says:

      actually the versions I’ve heard have “perfect FINSISHED plan” referencing Jesus words on the cross “It is finished”. That line is better I think and he seems to do it that way now.

      • hans altena says:

        Sorry, but the verse on the official Shot of Love has ‘hanging in the balance of man’, God be thanked… It is so much more human, full of the eternal doubt implied by our state of being, which so many try to evade by hanging on to so called fundamental truths, instead of being open to the mystery of the universe. That Dylan himself has altered it now for good into that line referring to a text in the Bible belongs to the way he works these days, by juxtaposing existing lines of old literature, songs and pieces of the Bible. but in this case it doesn’t improve the song, it obliterates almost the subtle awe for the unseen and not to be grasped holiness of life of which Every Grain of Sand tries to testify.

      • countdownkid says:

        I have to say I prefer “perfect finished plan” simply because it hews to the meter much better. It makes it smoother when sung, and that stuff means a great deal to the end product, I think.

      • hans altena says:

        ps in my comment I of course meant: hanging in the balance of the reality of man, and to elaborate: I simply cannot envision anything that indicates we’re living in a perfect finished plan, God help me, wahat about the suffering? It was not planned that jesus would die for us, it just happened because thing got wrong! That is of course if you believe he died for us, to me it is more that he died because of the wrong that exists between us…

  2. Tiny says:

    I have to say, I think you’re being overly dismissive here. Shot of Love is one of my very favorite Dylan albums, along with Infidels, and I think the right tracklistings were chosen. (What do we care now, since we can make our own playlists of all that’s come out?)

    I don’t really care for Lenny Bruce but the rest of the album is pretty raw and cracking… Dylan said at the time he thought it might be his best recorded album, and there is a live directness to it reminiscent of his 60s stuff. The harder material — Shot of Love, Watered Down Love, Dead Man, Property of Jesus, Groom’s Still Waiting — has a fierce abandon that nonetheless has a lightness and humor to it. Perhaps Watered Down Love is the least of the tracks but it has a joyful bounciness to it that he hadn’t touched in years.

    Yes, you have to take a certain perverse pleasure in how shrill Bob can be, but anyone who’s learned to love Street Legal should be able to get into this LP eventually. Highly underrated.

  3. Baggy says:

    I think CK has been restrained in his comments on Bob ‘s perverse selection of tracks. As with Saved, I find the majority of riches on this album deferred to the second side. I have no affection for Property of Jesus, but think In The Summertime is a four star song…so even before Groom is added, that leaves an average first side and a very fine second side .

    As a purist in these matters, i was surprised to see Groom included in your rankings CK; it is not there on my original vinyl and playlists were a long way in the future in 1981. That first side was little underwhelming back then and the top end, in terms of what we expect from a Bob Dylan album, a little thin. Dead Man you have called just right – it sounded great at Earls’ Court , but not quite nailed in the recording.

    Groom though is immense, I’d take it over even Every Grain of Sand, so we’ve just doubled the number of 5 star tracks on the album. Add in Caribbean Wind and Angelina, for me 2 more five star tracks, and Lets Keep It Between Us and Yonder Comes Sin – 2 more four star tracks, and you do have something loaded up with masterpieces which would be close to a career best.

    I’m hoping that somewhere in the next version of Chronicles Bob will shed some light on why he started leaving fantastic tracks off his albums at this stage. Imagine an album where Every Grain of Sand was only the fourth best song, wow that would be a great album (and yes, thanks to playlists and the Bootleg Series i may just go and put it on now).

  4. DAD says:

    I thiink you’re right on about EGoS. That song almost converted ME to christianity…

    It is puzzling why anyone would leave a song as strong as GSWatA is off an album. Maybe Bob figures he should just leave something in reserve in case things go bad you can always pull it out later and save your own rear end. Every time he does (Groom, Blind Willie McTell, Red River Shore) there is no end of praise for this guy who seemingly throws things away that are later found and praised to the heavens. Whatever his reasons, I never question a guy who just keeps on getting things right.

    Being a huge Lenny Bruce fan, I’ve always been fond of the tribute. I’ve always envied Bob those few minutes in a taxi alone with a genius (though he’s probably had quite a few moments with any number of geniuses). If he caught Lenny when he was really “on”, and it sound like he did, then I am not surprised that it seems the ride “took a couple of months”.

  5. Shelley says:

    Personally, I would up the rating on Lenny Bruce, always nice to hear Dylan playing piano in a sparse setting, Sign on the Window style. The version with Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers from the Hard to Handle video might even be better.

    Groom definitely should’ve been on there from the get-go, as well as Angelina and Need a Woman. I think Trouble would’ve made a fun B-side rather than an album track. Caribbean Wind is fabulous too, but it might’ve seemed out of place on SOL as it sounds much more polished and rehearsed.

    I laughed at the little comment about Ringo. Those were his alcoholic years weren’t they? It’s quite possible he did forget the rest of his drumkit!

    • Jacek says:

      I think the story goes that Chuck Plotkin, producer, used Ringo’s kit for the recording, without permission, leaving the Beatle consigned to the tom. Also rather tragic, but Plotkin does a damn fine job actually…

  6. hans altena says:

    The shoddiness of this record, it gets me exasperated with frustration, and yet, I agree with Dylan that he has achieved a fine sound here (wish Saved was produced this way). The sheer brilliance of much that was left off shows how he was starting to lose is his way as an artist not as a poet and musician. Was he trying to please the public for the first time in his life, clearly without any notion what it really wanted? Or did he have severe doubts about his masterpieces here, that showed some resemblance with songs from Street Legal that were put down by the critics? In fact I fear that had he made an album consisting of the kick in the face Shot of Love, the bit trivial but rocking Property of Jesus, the endearing though lyrically paper thin Lenny Bruce, the nice wordly gospel Need a Woman, the maybe for its own sake too enigmatic but gorgeous Angelina,(yes I understand his second thougts about this one, even if it is clearly one of his most beautiful performances as a singer and piano player), the driving Carribean Wind (why not include a life version, he was thinking about Zappa as a producer and Zappa was clever in that field), the stunnig Groom still waiting at the Altar, the flaming Dead Man (I think the reggea is very cleverly adapted here in an original way), the poetic Summertime and the undisputed Grain of Sand, yes had he made this dream record, it would have been burned to the ground nonetheless by the critics, who would have tuned in on its flaws, not its struggling genius. Leaving out what he did, he ensured that the people would embrace them as rare finds… ripe for bootlegging… and revered as such… How tragic those eighties were…


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