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Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Bob Dylan: Shot Of Love

BOB DYLAN: SHOT OF LOVE (1981)

1) Shot Of Love; 2) Heart Of Mine; 3) Property Of Jesus; 4) Lenny Bruce; 5) Watered-Down Love; 6) The Groom's Still Waiting At The Altar; 7) Dead Man, Dead Man; 8) In The Summertime; 9) Trouble; 10) Every Grain Of Sand.

Now this is more like it. Having gotten Saved out of his system, Bob must have felt redeemed enough to revert, partially at least, to his old fulminating self. Shot Of Love still has occasional gospel overtones, but for the most part, it does what the old man does best — bring down the haughty, send up the arrogant, snatch the ground from under the feet of the self-assured. Paradise may be beautiful, but it is not up to Bob Dylan to convey that kind of beauty; he is much better off pouring molten gold and lead down the poor sinners' throats.

Fed up with Dylan's in-yer-face Christianity, «progressive» musical press pretty much shredded the album — which, I think, had much more to do with it being yet another religious follow-up to Saved than to any sort of fair assessment. In fact, if you removed one or two of the most lyrically obvious numbers, the album wouldn't even present itself as a specifically «Christian» statement: religious, yes, moralizing, for sure, but none of that stopped the same progressive art critics from endorsing the folk revival scene twenty years back, which was as religious and moralizing as they come, by the very nature of its object. No, it just had to be the same gut level «oh no, not another piece of that what-can-I-do-for-you crap» reaction, I think.

Because, even though Shot Of Love is nowhere near a «great» album and lacks even the con­centrated, focused attack strength of Slow Train Coming, it is at least a properly «Dylanish» al­bum, written and recorded in a way that is consistent with the idea of Dylan as an artist rather than Dylan as a gospel preacher. Religious imagery is now interwoven in the songs rather than continuing to serve as a primary focus — modern day intellectuals will go on feeling uncomfor­table about all the references to "a perfect finished plan", of course, but that does not make ʽEvery Grain Of Sandʼ any less of an artistic rather than religious accomplishment.

A distinctive feature of Shot Of Love is its overall rugged-ragged feel: little-known producer Chuck Plotkin, who had formerly worked as recording engineer for Springsteen, replaces master sound man Jerry Wexler at the wheel, and does not much interfere with Bob's demand of spon­taneity and, sometimes, even a little musical chaos. On Slow Train Coming, the prophet of doom was sober, bitter, well-stocked up for battle; on Shot Of Love, the prophet sounds drunk, desperate, and rambling: what, a whole two albums into the prophet's Christian crusade, and the world only seems to have gotten even worse? No wonder somebody is so frustrated that he needs to cure his frustration with a "shot of love". Looking back at Bob's entire catalog, Shot Of Love stands out quite particularly — as a quintessential «panicky» album, with a stronger concentra­tion of nervous hysteria than just about anywhere else.

At the same time, the atmosphere of «religious panic» does not detract Bob from further expe­riments with form and substance: compared to the rest of the Christian trilogy, Shot Of Love is its most diverse representative. Genre-wise, there's some gospel, some pop, some blues-rock, some reggae, some folk balladry, and ʽTroubleʼ, with its jagged lead guitar and minimalist per­cussion, actually suggests that maybe Bob had been listening to some Tom Waits lately (Heart­attack And Vine had just come out, and if you replace Bob with Tom on ʽTroubleʼ, you get a song that fits on that particular record like a glove). Not everything works the way it should, but the important correction has been made — Bob has regained his interest in music, in addition to continuing, but already slightly diminishing, interest in Christ.

For most fans and critics, the main, if not only, highlight on the entire album was its last track, ʽEvery Grain Of Sandʼ, which certainly rides a train of high ambitions — longer, slower, statelier than the rest, a personal, anthemic poem with a haunting arrangement that almost seems to echo ʽSad-Eyed Ladyʼ in its stately cadences. The echo is but a faint one, though: the basic melody is but a variation on the 50s progression, the lyrics are marred by some clichéd application of Bibli­cal imagery where the man once used to be much more imaginative with it, and, worst of all, the major point — that of finding consolation in the Lord's «perfect plan» — does not come across with the sincerity of, say, a George Harrison (to whom I am quite often more than willing to for­give all the clichés since they are delivered with so much genuine devotion — and, fairly fre­quent­ly, melodic bliss). Nevertheless, this song alone, in its execution, is still more atmospheric, personal, and affecting than the entirety of Saved, if a bit too overwrought and undercooked (simultaneously, no less!) as a prayer-anthem.

The real kicker on the record, however, is the title track. Produced by Robert "Bumps" Blackwell instead of Plotkin, it has a distinctly different aura from the rest — a shadowy, echoey, ghostly song, where Dylan rails against nasty garage guitar barrages and gospel back vocals with the la­dies in «fury» rather than «angel» mode. Fleeting visions of ʽGimmie Shelterʼ come to mind, and even though ʽShot Of Loveʼ does not come close to the former's grandeur, there is no denying the atmospheric and thematic connection — here, too, we have a deeply troubled protagonist looking for salvation among a sea of troubles. There are some really vicious lyrics here, bordering on Morrison-esque darkness ("Why would I want to take your life? / You've only murdered my father, raped his wife / Tattooed my babies with a poison pen / Mocked my God, humiliated my friends"), which emphasizes the repetitive counter-plea of "I need a shot of love" even stronger — and the shot itself is never really delivered until ʽEvery Grain Of Sandʼ wraps the proceedings up nine tracks later.

In between, we have some lesser, but still acceptable, tracks, such as the funny, slightly funky ʽHeart Of Mineʼ (a rather ruffled version, selected by Bob only because it had both Ringo Starr and Ron Wood guesting on it, but I kinda like it); the weird, out-of-nowhere eulogy for Lenny Bruce, done in a minimalist arrangement but with the same sentimental affection as was earlier displayed for Joey Gallo; a bit of catchy apocalyptic reggae in ʽDead Man, Dead Manʼ; and ʽThe Groom Is Still Waiting At The Altarʼ, formerly a non-album B-side but eventually included by Bob as a regular constituent in the CD age — screechy 12-bar blues-rock that he hadn't done since God knows when... the only thing lacking is a mighty Robbie Robertson solo, but the song still works, maybe because the very fact of rhyming the song title with "the rock of Gibraltar" is one of those Dylan-only hooks that can make his silliest and/or most generic tracks memorable.

It is quite ironic, really, that Shot Of Love could be dismissed for its ongoing Christian preachi­ness when it was already clear that Dylan was done with, or would very soon be done with, for­mulaic Christianity. Much more important than being the last in his «born again trilogy», Shot Of Love would also turn out to be his last properly produced album in a long, long time, and the last album to consistently feature Dylan in a non-comatose state, where «mumbling» and «whining» would not be the only two switches on the vocal control board. It is an uneven album, it is not locked on greatness, but it lives, breathes, rambles, stutters, falls down, picks itself up again, and throws itself at ya. «Garage gospel» is more like it — from the cloudy chaos of the title track to the drunk Waitsian strut of ʽTroubleʼ, there is really nothing else like this in the entire Dylan ca­talog, so, despite occasional flaws, an unquestionable thumbs up here.

Check "Shot Of Love" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Shot Of Love" (MP3) on Amazon

3 comments:

  1. Funny you don't mention my fave on here : "Property Of Jesus" is angry and hard-hitting in a "Like A Rolling Stone" kind of way.

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  2. Love the opening riff of "Property" as well. Thanks for the continued revisiting of Dylan albums, George. One note though: You make multiple mention to the penultimate "perfect finished plan" line of "Every Grain of Sand", but that line was only inserted later into live versions (and covers by people like Emmylou Harris).

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  3. (The "perfect finished plan" line is actually the earlier line, as heard on the rehearsal version of the song on Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3. It was several months later that the album version was recorded.)
    Excellent review by George. I'm not sure how much Dylan's belief in/fervor for Christianity was diminishing in 1981... it's hard to tell. I think maybe he just internalized it more rather than feeling the need to throw it in people's faces. As late as 1987, he was on stage giving a speech to thousands about how "everyone has a hero", and then introducing a Christian song by saying "this song is about my hero." Strange guy, that Bob.

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