Shot of Love (1981)
While I feel that Shot of Love is underrated, it is hard not to be frustrated with it as a final project. Dylan was writing enough material at this time he could have easily released a double album or triple album that was better than this, or he could have just released one really killer single album. At the time, Dylan was working on several epics, only one of which made it onto the album initially – “Every Grain of Sand.” Later pressings also included “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar,” the first song to signal a growing sense of Dylan’s dissatisfaction with Christianity. “Carribean Wind” is a song Dylan has sung four times – combining performances live and in the studio – and each time it had a significantly different set of lyrics than the time before. “Angelina” is a mystical journey through a relationship, a song about a Christian who is in love with a South American woman who is decidedly not Christian, and who may be dating the anti-Christ. Instead of including it, a song which exposed Dylan as a man vulnerable to secular temptation even though he was nobly trying not to succumb, Dylan chose to include such brain-dead drivel as “Property of Jesus” and “Watered Down Love,” which are musically ok, but lyrical train wrecks. Others songs, like “In the Summertime” and “Dead Man, Dead Man” were among his most interesting Christian songs to date, and then the album was rounded out with a few songs that returned to secular themes – “Heart of Mine,” which features a cameo by Ringo Starr, and “Lenny Bruce,” a tribute to the late comedian. The secular songs, interestingly enough, are musically the most lifeless tunes on the album.
Best song: Every Grain of Sand – Inspired by William Blake and Ecclesiastes, Dylan crafted this lyric assertion of self-doubt and belief in his own damnation. Dylan has ended this song two ways – in this version it ends “I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man,” while in the demo it ends “I am hanging I the balance of God’s perfect finished plan.” One supposes pre-destination while the other supposes free will. Between the two, the demo, released on Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3, is the more beautiful – less over-produced and featuring a guest vocal from Dylan’s dog who barks along in the background.
Worst song: Heart of Mine – This track featured Ringo Starr on drums and was released as the album’s first single. It isn’t horrible, just insubstantial. One of two secular songs on the album (the other being “Lenny Bruce”), “Heart of Mine” is probably the better of those songs musically, but not in terms of pathos. It is better in terms of pathos than some songs like “Property of Jesus,” but they have great hooks – in particular “Property of Jesus,” which sounds like it could have been a 1984-era hit for the E-Street Band.
Best outtake: Angelina – Most days, this is my favorite Dylan song, probably because it is so inscrutable and enigmatic. It also contains several of his best lines, i.e., “in the valley of the giants where the stars and stripes explode,” “a god with the body of a woman well-endowed and the head of a hyena,” and “I see pieces of men marching” as he walks past “the tree of smoke and the angel with four faces.” It also features caustic questions that are so characteristic of Dylan, such as “when you cease to exist, then who will you blame?” and “do I need your permission to turn the other cheek?” My semi-vague interpretation of the song appears above, based on the sense of intimacy between the speaker and Angelina, and a distrust of the tall man who must be “overthrown in Jerusalem or Argentina.”
Notable live version: Dead Man, Dead Man – Dylan released a version of this recorded in 1981 in New Orleans as the b-side to a 1989 cassette single. He sounds possessed, wild-eyed with both music and message. The song begs the question as to just who is the Dead Man, Jesus or an unrepentant sinner?
Rhymes: Medicaid/afraid (“Shot of Love”); on and on/synanon (“Lenny Bruce”); transgression/confession (“Watered Down Love”); January/married/Buenos Aires (“Groom’s Still Waiting At the Altar”); legislature/perverted nature (“Trouble”)
Images: “tattooed my babies with a poison pen” (“Shot of Love”); “packaging of the soul;” “stadiums of the damned” (2-3 from “Trouble”) “the pool of tears beneath my feet flood every newborn seed;” “flowers of indulgence” (4-5 from “Every Grain of Sand”)
Axioms: “he fought a war on a battlefield where every victory hurts” (“Lenny Bruce”); “God has mercy on them who are slandered and humiliated” (Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar”) “the ghetto that you built for me is the one you’ll end up in” “what are you trying to overpower me with – the doctrine or the gun?” (“Dead Man, Dead Man”) “I gaze into the doorway of temptation’s angry flame, and every time I pass that way I always hear my name” (“Every Grain of Sand”)