When I first heard it, Shot of Love sounded like Bob Dylan‘s most interesting record in a long time. Interesting, not good. Though many of the songs seemed wretchedly written, the artist’s churning mixture of ultimate love (God’s) and ultimate hate (Dylan’s), positiveness and paranoia, missilery and martyrdom, struck me as perhaps deliberate — as if he were laying out all the contradictions in a line, creating a fractured but understandable self-portrait for us to put together. To know him is to love him, as they say, and it’s pretty difficult to do either these days. With “Every Grain of Sand,” Dylan actually opened the door a little, ushered the listener in with some uncharacteristically warm and inviting harmonica playing, and offered a remarkably unwarlike account of why he became a born-again Christian. There were even a couple of numbers in which he didn’t sandbag us with endless I’ve-got-Him-and-you-don’t references to Jesus.
Truth be known, my initial reaction was just another example of the old and familiar Bob Dylan syndrome: i.e., because the man’s past achievements have meant so much to so many of us, we tend to give his newest work the benefit of every doubt. No more. For me, it stops right here. Unfortunately, except for “Every Grain of Sand,” Shot of Love seldom gets any more interesting than that first listening. Quite the opposite, in fact. Most of the time, Dylan’s still beating the same annoying drum he did on Slow Train Coming and Saved (which, between them, produced one passable — and believable — cut, “Pressing On”), and if a recognizable portrait does emerge, it’s probably an unintended one, since it’s filled mainly with hatred, confusion and egoism.
Being reborn changed the world for him, Dylan claims, but his Christian compositions rarely praise God in any conventional religious manner (praise the Lord and pass the ammunition, maybe). Instead, they’re choked with anger, rife with self-pity and so swollen with self-absorption that the singer often seems to think that he and Jesus are interchangeable on that mythic cross. Ultimate victims. And, of course, it’s all our fault. By not appreciating the genius of Bob Dylan’s current material, we’re supposedly crucifying him, even though he’s awfully handy with the hammer and nails himself. Dullards that we are, we can’t understand God. We don’t understand Dylan. Our love is no damn good (“Watered-Down Love”). We’re barely alive (“Dead Man, Dead Man”). Therefore, each and every one of us can go to hell.
Well, fuck that. Sinning against God and sinning against Dylan are two different things. I’m ready to believe in the mystery of a higher power and willing to hope that God exists (if He does, He’s got an ungodly sense of humor), yet Slow Train Coming, Saved and Shot of Love are a whole lot more sinister and secular to me than, say, Another Side of Bob Dylan, Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, John Wesley Harding, The Basement Tapes, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, Blood on the Tracks and Desire, albums that hit hard but with a purpose. While the earlier LPs may have lacked the Biblical benefits of Dylan’s certified salvation, they certainly served up ampler portions of real Christian charity — not to mention the milk of human kindness — than do the K rations of the last three. (Even the rants were better in the old days. Dylan could cut your throat with “Positively 4th Street” and “Ballad of a Thin Man,” but at least he didn’t wield the knife under the guise of God’s martyred messenger. There was a context that made some sort of sense, an idea that big battles — both personal and political — were being fought.)
Throughout most of Shot of Love, Bob Dylan sounds more like an irate child who’s just been spanked than a grown man who’s found the answer of answers. In “Property of Jesus,” “Watered-Down Love,” “Dead Man, Dead Man,” “Trouble” and the title track, the singer’s so mad that he can barely manage his splutters of spite. Heavy-handed hard rockers all, these tunes are instantly forgettable (unless you’re a masochist). Inspirational verse: “He’s the property of Jesus/Resent him to the bone/You’ve got something better/You’ve got a heart of stone.” If that’s not enough, try “Trouble,” yet another state-of-the-nation tirade in the terrible tradition of “Slow Train.” “Nightclubs of the brokenhearted / Stadiums of the damned,” Dylan intones, and you wonder if these places could possibly be any worse than being trapped in a room with this record. (Some people think Dylan is demonstrating a born-again sense of humor here. I wish I could agree with them.)
“Heart of Mine” and “In the Summertime” deal with the problems and pleasures of man-woman love, I guess, though who can tell with Dylan anymore? In the former, the artist counsels against letting the woman know that you love her and need her (great advice that: I suppose it’s called resisting temptation), while in the latter, he goes on and on about a precious “gift you gave” but can’t seem to grasp the details. “I got the heart and you got the blood /We cut through iron and we cut through mud,” he remembers, yet the little things escape him: “I was in your presence for an hour or so/Or was it a day, I truly don’t know.” Those stadiums of the damned can really take it out of you.
On Shot of Love, the soft rockers stay in your head and the hard ones stick in your craw. It’s not that the band — guitarists Danny Kortchmar and Fred Tackett, keyboardist Benmont Tench, bassist Tim Drummond and drummer Jim Keltner are the chief contributors — can’t play rock & roll, but that the rock & roll isn’t worth playing. The fast numbers disappear down the drain with the lyrics, and Bob Dylan’s singing can’t save them. Searching for that mid-Sixties vocal soar at the end of the lines in “Watered-Down Love,” Dylan strains and shakes and comes up short. Everybody does fine with the ballads, though.
“In the Summertime,” despite its hazy lyrics, has a lovely feel to it, and Dylan’s harmonica playing hangs in the air like the scent of mimosa. “Lenny Bruce” may be a stupid song (Bruce as Christ figure is a very large cliché), yet somehow the simple-mindedness of such lines as “Lenny Bruce was bad/He was the big brother you never had” seldom savages the spare — and, on this album, rare — mood of compassion and innocence. It’s sad that Dylan was so careless with the lyrics. Intending to praise Bruce, the singer unwittingly insults him: “He was an outlaw … /I rode with him in a taxi once/Only for a mile and a half/Seemed like it took a couple of months.”
One shouldn’t make too much of “Lenny Bruce” and “In the Summertime,” however, because in the long run, neither tune is truly successful. They’re merely more pleasant than most. Indeed, if it wasn’t for “Every Grain of Sand,” which stands a chance of becoming a Dylan classic, I doubt if I’d ever resurrect Shot of Love again. But “Every Grain of Sand” is something special: the “Chimes of Freedom” and “Mr. Tambourine Man” of Bob Dylan’s Christian period. A pearl among swine, it has surety and strength all down the line. Also vulnerability. Like Charlie Chaplin’s twirling cane and funny swagger, Dylan’s beautifully idiosyncratic harmonica playing has metamorphosed into an archetype that pierces the heart and moistens the eye. And, for once, the lyrics don’t let you down. The artist’s Christianity is both palpable and comprehensible:
In the time of my confession
In the hour of my deepest need
When the pool of tears beneath my feet
Flood every newborn seed
There’s a dying voice within me
Reaching out somewhere….
For a moment or two, he touches you, and the gates of heaven dissolve into a universality that has nothing to do with most of the LP.
I gaze into the doorway
Of temptation’s angry flame
And every time I pass that way
I always bear my name …
I hear the aging footsteps
Like the motion of the sea
Sometimes I turn there’s someone there
Other times it’s only me
I am hanging in the balance
Of the reality of man
Like every sparrow falling
Like every grain of sand.
As excellent as it is, “Every Grain of Sand” isn’t enough to hide the hate that powers the majority of songs on Shot of Love. It doesn’t make you forget the creepy conservatism, the chaos and the cancerous urge to lash out and get even for some unknown sin. You do wonder, though. If Bob Dylan is so full of God’s love, why is he so pissed off at the rest of the world?
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This story is from the October 15th, 1981 issue of Rolling Stone.