Sunday, March 13, 2016

Shot Of Love: I Hear the Ancient Footsteps

Released August 10, 1981
To begin with an obvious observation: Shot of Love is the most rocking of Dylan's trilogy of Christian themed albums.  He gathered some of the finest rock session musicians around including Tim Drummond on bass (who played on Slow Train and Saved), Danny Kortchmar on guitar, Jim Keltner on drums, and Benmont Tench on keyboards.  Ron Wood and Ringo Starr contributed to "Heart of Mine."

"Shot Of Love" gets things off to a lively start.  Dylan sings angrily "My conscience is beginning to bother me today" as he lists a litany of enemies trying to divert him off the righteous path. Beneath the bombastic performance lies a weariness and frustration.

"Heart of Mine" is one of my favorite songs on Shot of Love.  If was an A&R man, I might even hear a single.  Actually it was a hit in Norway. There's no mention of religion either, a low key song about fear and heartbreak.

"Property of Jesus" and "Watered-Down Love" are responses to those who mocked Dylan for his recent conversion.

Dylan's tribute song "Lenny Bruce" feels a little random and yet appropriate. A hymn to a secular hero.

Spiritual turmoil reigns on "The Groom is Still Waiting at the Alter" (not included on the original release) and "Dead Man, Dead Man."

The final three songs move towards something of a finality.

The leisurely "In the Summertime" recalls an innocent romance, but also may be about God:

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 into eternity

"Trouble" foreshadows ideas Dylan would explore on his later albums, namely, trying to preserve one's dignity in a broken world.  A wicked blues riff kicks off the song before it spills into rickety rock and roll.  Tension builds with the repetitive chorus "Trouble, Trouble, Trouble/Nothin' but trouble." The last verse ends on a nihilist Jeremiad: 

Nightclubs of the broken-hearted, stadiums of the damned
Legislature, perverted nature, doors that are rudely slammed
Look into infinity, all you see is trouble

I would compare "Trouble" to "Political World", the opening track on Oh Mercy, a song even heavier on cynicism and despair written at the end of the 1980s.

Even the harshest critics of Shot of Love acknowledged "Every Grain of Sand" as a masterpiece, Dylan's acerbic critic Robert Christgau even declared the song "canonical." Some compared the lyrical verse to William Blake. 

"Every Grain of Sand" encapsulates the past, present and future. The first verse recalls the bleak darkness before the dawn:

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 dyin' voice within me reaching out somewhere
Toiling in the danger and in the morals of despair

In the midst of despair he finds peace in the work of the "master's hand." The song goes on to mention a journey, the sense of falling off the path and struggling to get back on it. Temptation, painful memories, and anger will not go away, but he finds solace that "every hair is numbered like every grain of sand."

The last verse alludes to the future, almost as if Dylan is saying farewell to this phase of his life, but will continue on with renewed purpose:

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 the balance of the reality of man
Like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand

As a symbol a lone Sparrow can be interpreted loneliness and sorrow- and that good things often come in small portions.  In some cultures, prisoners get a sparrow tattoo when their sentence ends - a reminder to stay on the right path.

Shot of Love begins in a fit of righteous anger and ends on a reflective note of courageous maturity.  

In the ensuing years, at the suggestion of his son Jesse, Dylan got enamored with punk and New Wave.  In the 1980s he would make a few attempts to update his sound with mixed results.

With Slow Train Coming, Saved, and Shot of Love we get a progression from the zealousness of the newly converted, introspective reflections on faith, and finally a return to worldly concerns with a new perspective tempered by age.  All three offer a glimpse into Dylan's ever evolving world view.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Saved: Shattered Like An Empty Cup

Released June 23, 1980
In contrast to the fire and brimstone exuberance of Slow Train Coming, Saved offered quiet and meditative musings on faith.  "A Satisfied Mind" and "Saved" are straight up gospel one might hear in a revival tent.  The meditative "Covenant Woman" carries a quiet eloquence with a stripped down production. "What Can I do For You" expresses gratitude to God for finding peace.  "Solid Rock" blends gospel with rock and roll. The next two tracks are among Dylan's best during this period: "Pressing On" and "In the Garden."  Even the most most hard headed non-believer would be moved by the soaring gospel of "Pressing On." "In the Garden" is a passionate song on Christ and the Resurrection that builds to a soaring crescendo.   "Saving Grace" and "Are you Ready" bring Saved to a spirited conclusion.  Dylan's band and backup singers performed brilliantly in one of his most optimistic albums, achieving a sense of peace and tranquility.  Although Saved is often relegated to a minor work in his catalog, it stands as a poignant testament of Dylan during a fascinating time in his career.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Slow Train Coming: Dylan's Christianity

Sister, lemme tell you about a vision I saw
You were drawing water for your husband, you were suffering under the law
You were telling him about Buddha, you were telling him about Mohammad
in the same breath
You never mentioned one time the man who came and died a criminal's death

-A verse from "Precious Angel"

With Dylan's conversion to Christianity in 1979, a move which drew the derision of the rock community, he released a collection of songs with deep Christian themes entitled Slow Train Coming.  Dylan's righteous tone marked a striking contrast to his work in the 70s and a return to his swaggering pronouncements of the mid-60s.

The Grammy Award winning "Gotta Serve Somebody" offers a simple warning: ego and pride have nothing to do with salvation. Regardless of wealth or status, everyone must answer to their creator. The Day of Reckoning will arrive regardless of fame or the size of one's bank account. 

Dylan's old frenemy John Lennon wrote a scathing response to "Gotta Serve Somebody" entitled "Serve Yourself" with the refrain, "You gotta serve yourself/Ain't nobody gonna do for you." Their schism among the 60s icons barely registered by the 1980s, but its curious Lennon seemed so vexed with Dylan.  The lyrics decry any system designed to control thought, much in tone with Lennon's dismissal of Dylan and all ideologies on his song "God." Lennon suggests Dylan praise his mother instead of Jesus.

But even in Dylan's early protest music like "Masters of War" there's a theological component to his lyrics. Slow Train Coming Dylan adopts Christianity as an iconoclastic world view. On 'When You Gonna Wake Up" he sings of "counterfeit philosophies" steering everyone in the wrong direction - away from the teachings of Christ.

"I Believe in You" confronts the struggle to maintain faith in a broken world. Faith promises solace, a theme Dylan would return to again and again, especially on Time Out of Mind.

Slow Train Coming would be Dylan's final release of the 70s, and it really does feel like an end of 70s record.  In America the zeitgeist changed and the pendulum begin to swing back on the 60s.  The loss of John Lennon, the election of Ronald Reagan, and Madison Avenue's use of counterculture rhetoric spelled a brave new world.

I believe Dylan was sincere in his new found faith and he does sound revitalized and more confident on Slow Train Coming, in contrast to the wishy washy Street Legal.  Jerry Wexler's production and the amazing group musicians Dylan brought together created a work of real beauty.