Bob Dylan's Shot of love, his twenty-first studio album was released in 1981. It is considered to be Dylan's last of a trilogy of Christian albums and arguably the best of them (the first two were Slow Train Coming and Saved). I had not been a Dylan fan despite my best efforts but felt compelled to check these three out. The arrangements on this one are said to be rooted more in rock'n'roll, and less in gospel than Saved and may be that's why it wins out for me. At the time of its release, it received mixed reviews. Paul Nelson (Rolling Stone) criticised the album but singled out Every Grain of Sand as a stand-out, which it is from any point of view. Bono liked it but most others didn't.
I'm not sure how Dylan's recording sessions normally go but on this occasion several stabs were made at possible songs and several songs were dropped and many re-recorded before the final selection of nine was made.
The opening tracks are not thought to be so spiritual but the title track is very 1 Corinthians 13 (and not unlike Watered down love in sentiment) and the second is founded on Jeremiah 17:9, "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?" It is about the temptation to commit adultery. Property of Jesus is much more overt. It's only fault is that Christians should not react to unbelievers like that.
The fourth track is about subversive Jewish comedian Lenny Bruce. An influential entertainer whose use of provocative language led to a famous obscenity trial, Bruce died of a drug overdose in 1966. Despite the secular tone of the lyrics, the music is "anchored in the resolute cadences of piano gospel," (according to music critic Tim Riley). Often regarded as a bizarre tribute, the song portrays Bruce as some kind of martyr, even though its characterisations of Bruce have been described as peculiar and almost non-descript. When Dave Herman asked (1981) why, after so many years, Dylan chose to write about Lenny Bruce, he answered, "You know, I have no idea! I wrote that song in five minutes! I found it was a little strange after he died, that people made such a hero out of him. When he was alive he couldn't even get a break. And certainly now, comedy is rank, dirty and vulgar and very unfunny and stupid, wishy-washy and the whole thing. ... But he was doing this same sort of thing many years ago and maybe some people aren't realizing that there was Lenny Bruce, who did this before and that is what happened to him. So these people can do what they're doing now. I don't know." The first verse might, in fact, be seen to offer a subtle cut to Bruce's imitators for whom the use of profanity is a cheap "shock" gimmick, while for Bruce it was a strike for free speech: "He was an outlaw, that's for sure/More of an outlaw than you ever were." I also read a positive review that suggested he was simply saying what good he could about an unattractive character.
Reggae-tinged Dead Man, Dead Man is again more evangelical. It "is a textbook warning against the devil, if you listen as if you're reading; if you hear it, it's a poker game, and the singer's winning." (Greil Marcus) The theme is Romans 7:24 O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? and the "dead man" Dylan is addressing is himself, admitting his moral fallibility and mocking his own appearance "Satan's got you by the heel/There's a bird's nest in your hair."
The wistful "In the Summertime" is perhaps the most relaxed, upbeat song on the album. Paul Nelson - it has "a lovely feel to it, and Dylan's harmonica playing hangs in the air like the scent of mimosa." Trouble is the quintessential blues song about how tribulation is intrinsic to human existence.
Every Grain of Sand is one of Dylan's most celebrated. He puzzles over the dilemma of whether his disappointments, temptations, failings and triumphs were due to his actions alone or ordained by God's delivering hand ("I've gone from rags to riches in the sorrows of the night/In the violence of a summer's dream/In the chill of a winter light" and "I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea/Sometimes I turn and there's someone there, sometimes it's only me"). It's "perhaps his most sublime work to date" (Clinton Heylin) "the summation of a number of attempts to express what the promise of redemption meant to him personally. One of his most intensely personal songs, it also remains one of his most universal. Detailing 'the time of my confession/the hour of my deepest need,' the song marks the conclusion of his evangelical period as a songwriter, something its position at the conclusion of Shot of Love tacitly acknowledges." Paul Nelson - "The artist's Christianity is both palpable and comprehensible ... 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." Tim Riley - "a prayer that inhabits the same intuitive zone as "Blowin' in the Wind" - you'd swear it was a hymn passed down through the ages." Milo Miles - "This is the one Dylan song in ten years ... in which he examines a pop-culture paradox (that legendary stars in particular have to believe in ideals greater than themselves) more eloquently than any other performer has."
The Groom's Still Waiting at the Altar was later added to the album