Well, I was hoping to get to Shot Of Love on Friday, but alas other demands caught up with me. I’ve now had a chance to listen to the album. My chief criticism of Saved was that, after Slow Train Coming, it seemed a bit sloppy. I was worried that perhaps Dylan had acquired Christian zeal but not Protestant Work Ethic. I was wrong. Shot Of Love is quite a slick production.
The major difference is that he’s moved on from the ‘gospel’ vibe. Gone is the Muscle Shoals sound of producer Jerry Wexler who is replaced with studio maven, Chuck Potkin. There was quite a tension between artist and producer apparently, Dylan wanting a dirtier sound. So what we have here is a compromise – a gritty sound, beautifully recorded.
The core of the band remains the same – bass by Tim Drummond and drums by Jim Keltner, but with a lot of ‘celebrity guests’. Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn of Booker T and the MGs – who I compared Drummond’s playing to in the Part 1- makes an appearance here. So does ex-Beatle Ringo Starr and Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood. Ace LA session guitarist Danny Korchmar helps out, while Fred Tackett handles the main guitar duties again. In other words, the musical pedigree of this album is beyond doubt.
If there is a weak link on a Dylan album, it is usually Dylan himself. I’m happy to report that he is in fine voice. The songs are strong too. Better, I think than on the previous album, though not quite as ‘classic’ as some of those on Slow Train Coming. Though that’s debatable. There’s some good shit on here.
Wait a mo…
Sorry, I had to get up and dance. I’m dancing around my office to a song called “Property of Jesus”. Ssssh! This is very strange. But man, does this song have a groove!
This is followed by what must be a bona-fide classic – Lenny Bruce. I can’t believe that I’ve had this song sitting on my shelf for years but deprived myself of it because of a silly prejudice. Imagine if I’d never heard Harrison’s What is Life because I’d turned my nose up at My Sweet Lord. “Lenny Bruce is dead but his ghost lives on and on…” says Dylan:
They said that he was sick ’cause he didn’t play by the rules
He just showed the wise men of his day to be nothing more than fools.
They stamped him and they labelled him like they do with pants and shirts,
He fought a war on a battlefield where every victory hurts.
Lenny Bruce was bad, he was the brother that you never had.
Funny thing is, he seems to be treating the foul-mouthed stand-up comic Bruce as a Jesus figure. Am I wrong?
But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Let’s rewind.
The album starts with a song – as per the previous two albums – in which Dylan sets up his stall. Shot Of Love:
I need a shot of love, I need a shot of love.
Don’t need a shot of heroin to kill my disease,
Don’t need a shot of turpentine, only bring me to my knees,
Don’t need a shot of codeine to help me to repent,
Don’t need a shot of whiskey, help me be president.
I need a shot of love, I need a shot of love.
I suppose there is a reason why being filled with the holy spirit is as intoxicating an experience as chugging down the liquid variety. Another of my favourite musicians has gone over to the dark side. Guitar prodigy Jonny Lang is now a reborn Christian with a gospel album out. His reasoning was pretty much along these lines: fame didn’t fill the empty hole. Neither did drugs or booze. Inexplicably, Jesus did. It may be nuts, but I suppose if nothing else, Jesus is better for your liver than Jack – both Daniels and Captain…
But it is with track two – Heart Of Mine – that you know this is going to be a superior Dylan album. The lyrics look merely ‘okay’ on paper…
Heart of mine be still,
You can play with fire but you’ll get the bill.
Don’t let her know
Don’t let her know that you love her.
Don’t be a fool, don’t be blind
Heart of mine.
… but you have to listen to the melody and the phrasing to appreciate just how special this song is. It also has a bass/piano groove infectious enough that you’ll be bouncing around in your chair. Soon your shoulders will join in and… well, by time track three, Property Of Jesus, starts up you’d have to have that heart of stone not to be bopping about the room like a Deadhead in 69. Chilled, you understand, not raving.
Watered-Down Love reminds me a bit of Bill Wither’s Lean On Me. It’s a solid album track from a time when every track on an album counted. And then there’s The Groom’s Still Waiting At The Alter. If anyone can tell me what the hell it’s about, I’ll be intrigued to know. Though it has a fantastic rhyming couplet of the sort only those in Dylan’s league can come up with.
Put your hand on my head, baby, do I have a temperature?
I see people who are supposed to know better standin’ around like furniture.
Dead Man, Dead Man treats us to the kind of reggae he first explored with the Live At Budokan band (immediately preceding these ‘Holy Trinity’ albums.)
In The Summertime could be about his muse, or a woman. But I suspect it’s about Jesus.
Strangers, they meddled in our affairs,
Poverty and shame was theirs.
But all that sufferin’ was not to be compared
With the glory that is to be.
And I’m still carrying the gift you gave,
It’s a part of me now, it’s been cherished and saved,
It’ll be with me unto the grave
And then unto eternity.
In the summertime, ah in the summertime,
In the summertime when you were with me.
I think that’s what ultimately makes this album the most accessible of the three. It’s more, well, metaphorical than the other two. Slow Train Coming succeeded because the religious zeal drew on the apocalyptic imagery of Revelations. Saved was a bit preachy. Shot Of Love brings the poetry back.
And after another song, so to the album closer.
I have gone from rags to riches in the sorrow of the night
In the violence of a summer’s dream, in the chill of a wintry light,
In the bitter dance of loneliness fading into space,
In the broken mirror of innocence on each forgotten face.
I hear the ancient 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.
That’s the poetry. Epic. Biblical. Beauty, in his madness.
From Harry’s Place Arts, October 2009