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.


  1. "Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows" Matthew 10:29-31 (King James)

  2. I find it so hard to listen to SOL (and Infidels) without thinking 'what might have been'. Leaving off Caribbean Wind and Angelina (and, initially Groom...) was such a killer. Really could have been up there as one of his best ever!

  3. If I had to winnow down my Dylan collection, this would remain as a keeper, along with other underrated albums like Planet Waves and World Gone Wrong. I'm not trying to amaze people -- just saying these choices truly reflect my preferences.