It is generally considered to be Dylan's last overtly religious, Christian album. Also, it was his first since becoming born-again to focus on secular themes, from straight-ahead love songs to an ode to the deceased comedian Lenny Bruce. Arrangements are rooted more in rock'n'roll, less in gospel than on Dylan's previous two albums.
At the time of its release, Shot of Love received mixed reviews; Paul Nelson of Rolling Stone in particular savaged the album, though he did single out the last track, "Every Grain Of Sand," as a stand-out. Shot of Love, while reaching UK #6, continued Dylan's US commercial decline, reaching #33 during a brief chart stay.
Then, sometime in mid-September, Dylan reassembled his standing band at Rundown Studios in Santa Monica, CA, where they recorded a number of his new songs, including "Every Grain Of Sand." (A rough recording of "Every Grain Of Sand" dating from this period was eventually released on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1–3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961–1991.)
Dylan then embarked on another tour during the fall of 1980 before returning to his songwriting in the winter. In March 1981, Dylan held more informal sessions at both Rundown and Studio 55, rehearsing some of his new compositions while auditioning a potential producer, Jimmy Iovine. These sessions focused on "Caribbean Wind," an ambitious work that was performed once during the fall tour. Already generating interest in the rock press, "Caribbean Wind" was seen as a potential centerpiece for his upcoming album, but it wasn't quite considered finished. Numerous attempts at recording "Caribbean Wind" during the Iovine sessions proved disappointing, with Dylan growing increasingly pessimistic about the song's prospects. Another new composition, "Angelina," was recorded with much greater success, and Dylan was satisfied enough to mark it for inclusion.
In the meantime, Dylan concluded that another producer was needed, but after relieving Iovine of his duties, Dylan struggled to find an appropriate producer, as well as an appropriate studio. Various sessions were booked across Los Angeles, including sessions at Cream Studios and United Western Studios. None of these places provided the sound Dylan had in mind but had difficulty creating. The sessions did provide an opportunity to rehearse new compositions, including "In The Summertime," as well as experiment with new ideas.
Dylan resigned himself to Rundown, where he and his band worked through his songs over a period of several weeks. Sometime in late April, veteran producer Bumps Blackwell stopped by to see Dylan. Blackwell was best-known for producing Little Richard's most celebrated recordings, and though the purpose of his visit remains unclear, Blackwell ultimately produced that day's session, supervising recordings of "Trouble," "Magic," and "Shot of Love" that were later selected for the album. The experience gave Dylan an enormous amount of satisfaction, as he would later reveal in subsequent interviews, but Blackwell did not return for further work, possibly because of health issues.
Chuck Plotkin, who had experience working with Bruce Springsteen, was eventually hired by Dylan on the suggestion of a friend, Debbie Gold. Five sessions were scheduled for Plotkin's Clover Studio, beginning on April 27 and ending on May 1st, and work proceeded on songs like "Property of Jesus," "Watered-Down Love," "Heart Of Mine," "Lenny Bruce," "Dead Man, Dead Man," "In The Summertime," and "Every Grain Of Sand," all of which received usable takes that were marked for the album. An extensively rewritten and rearranged version of "Caribbean Wind" was also recorded at Clover, but once again, Dylan was disappointed with the results; it was ultimately set aside for an indefinite amount of time.
On May 12, Dylan and Plotkin sequenced a preliminary version of Shot of Love, but after listening to it the following day, Dylan decided to remove "Angelina" and "Magic" from the final sequence. The remaining nine songs were retained, but Dylan decided to re-record several of those songs. Three re-recordings were eventually used for the final sequence: "Trouble," "Dead Man, Dead Man," and "Heart Of Mine," all of which were taped two to three days after the preliminary sequence was approved.
The mixing process proved rather tense as Plotkin and Dylan had conflicting ideas on how to mix the songs. Plotkin made numerous prototype mixes, delivering each one on cassette dub over to Dylan at Rundown Studios. Most, if not all of them, were rejected. "Chuck [wanted] to get a nice mix at the end of each song," recalls Jim Keltner, "and Bob wouldn't have any of the nice mixes. Most everything you on that Shot of Love album turns out to be the monitor mixes." Plotkin spent another month mixing and overdubbing over the nine songs selected for Shot of Love. Mixing was finally completed on June 7, with overdubbing continuing through June 16.
The opening title track of Shot of Love either fits somewhere in between, making a few spiritual references while railing against substance abuse as a way of fulfilling or escaping life, or is squarely among his evangelistic songs. Some argue that the "love" the narrator declares he needs a shot of is "agape" and that the theme of this song is, like "Watered Down Love", centered around 1 Corinthians 13. The 13th chapter of Corinthians is about how all of gifts of God are useless without the love of God for other people. Each verse (except the first which is the song's intro) is a restating of some New Testament verse about Love. Verse 2 ("I seen the kingdoms of the world and it's makin' me feel afraid.") restates 1 John 4:18, "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear." Verse 3 ("So don't show me no picture show/Don't give me no book to read/It don't satisfy the hurt inside or the habit that it feeds.") is from 1 Corinthians 13:2 "If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge...but have not love, it profits me nothing." Verse 4 and 5 are drawn from Matthew 5:43-44 "I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you." Verse 4 is especially seen as allegorical: Why would I want to take your life?/You've only murdered my father (New York Time famously declaring "God is Dead") /raped his wife (the Church) /Tattooed my babies with a poison pen (perhaps the hostility Dylan's songs had met among the media and in concerts) /Mocked my God/Humiliated my friends." Verse 5 ("My conscience is beginning to bother me today.") is said to riff off of 1 Peter 4:8 "Love will cover a multitude of sins".
"The purpose of music is to elevate and inspire the spirit," Dylan said in a 1983 interview with NME. "To those who care where Bob Dylan is at, they should listen to "Shot of Love". It's my most perfect song. It defines where I am spiritually, musically, romantically and whatever else. It shows where my sympathies lie. It's all there in that one song." Produced by Bumps Blackwell, it's the only Blackwell production featured on Shot of Love.
The second track on Shot of Love fits is, again, somewhere between in secular and religious territory. A slight but jaunty, Tex-Mex number, "Heart of Mine" is a love song, Dylan's first in several years, but it is founded on Jeremiah 17:9 ""The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?". Instead of singing to a person of interest, the narrator addresses his own 'heart,' trying to tame his own impulses and emotions in fear of getting hurt.
An earlier performance was already selected for use when Dylan decided to re-record "Heart of Mine" with Ronnie Wood and Ringo Starr. In an interview taken in 1984, Dylan admitted that "["Heart of Mine"] was done a bunch of different ways...but I chose for some reason a particularly funky version of that - and it's really scattered. It's not as good as some of the other versions, but I chose it because Ringo and Ronnie Wood played on it, and we did it in like ten minutes." The original version of "Heart of Mine" remains available only on bootlegs.
Continuing the evangelism of Slow Train Coming and Saved, the satirical "Property of Jesus" is another one of Dylan's sharp put-down songs, this time aimed at non-believers who sneer at the Christian faithful.
The fourth track, "Lenny Bruce", is written about the subversive, Jewish comedian of the same name. 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 NPR's Tim Riley. Often regarded as a bizarre tribute, the song portrays Bruce as some kind of martyr, even though its characterizations of Bruce have been described as peculiar and almost non-descript. When Dave Herman asked why, after so many years, Dylan chose to write a song about Lenny Bruce (July 2, 1981 interview), 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" gimic, 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."
When Shot of Love was reissued for compact disc, "The Groom's Still Waiting At The Altar" was added into the album sequence. Recorded during the Shot of Love sessions, it was originally issued as a B-side to the 45rpm release of "Heart of Mine." Throughout the song, Dylan sings of a theological schism that ultimately separates the narrator and a woman, whom he addresses as 'Claudette.' Widely praised and heavily played on progressive radio, Riley called it "a generous return to slow-burning defiance that restores not only the lust to Dylan's heart, but the power to his voice." Together with "Caribbean Wind" (an outtake discussed below), "The Groom's Still Waiting At The Altar" marked a dramatic change in lyrical direction, one Dylan would continue to follow in his next album, Infidels.
"Watered-Down Love" is Dylan's version of 1 Corinthian's 13, describing "love that's pure", and lamenting that pure love is not what many people want.
The reggae-tinged "Dead Man, Dead Man" is another evangelical song. As Greil Marcus writes in Salon.com, 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." But, actually, the song's theme is Romans 7:24 "O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body4 of this death?", and "dead man" that 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."
A song based in wistful retrospection, "In The Summertime" is perhaps the most relaxed, upbeat song on the entire album. Even Paul Nelson of Rolling Stone conceded that "'In the Summertime'...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.
In recent years, some critics have grown to appreciate Shot of Love while others continue to disparage it. If there is any critical consensus, it's to be found on the closing track. Marked by an ethereal quality that isn't found elsewhere on Shot of Love, "Every Grain Of Sand" is one Dylan's most celebrated recordings. In this song, Dylan 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," writes 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 called it "the 'Chimes of Freedom' and 'Mr. Tambourine Man' of Bob Dylan's Christian period...it has surety and strength all down the line. Also vulnerability...Dylan's beautifully idiosyncratic harmonica playing has metamorphosed into an archetype that pierces the heart and moistens the eye. And, for once, the lyrics don't let you down. 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 described "Every Grain of Sand" as "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." Rock critic Milo Miles wrote, "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." When Bruce Springsteen inducted Dylan into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame on January 20th, 1988, he would also cite "Every Grain Of Sand" as an example of his best work.
One song in particular was originally intended for Shot of Love, only to be dropped, then later re-instated. That song, "The Groom's Still Waiting At The Altar," was officially released as a B-side before it was added on to the CD issue of Shot of Love.
While "The Groom's Still Waiting at the Alter" had the good fortune of being added to the CD re-issue of the album, another outtake that was given b-side status did not fare so well. Dylan recorded a new version of the song "Let It Be Me" in May of 1981. He had previously recorded a version for the 1970 LP Self-Portrait. This new recording was released as a B-Side on the Heart of Mine single, and has not appeared on any mainstream Dylan release since. The single was released only in Europe and Australia, and has never appeared on a Dylan album.
In 1991, Columbia released several more outtakes on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1–3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961–1991. One of the more notable outtakes was "Angelina," an evocative ballad that many critics have written about over the years. According to Heylin, who praised the recording for its "seductive" vocal, it was "another classic composition about a witchy woman manipulating the singer as 'marching men [are] trying to take heaven by force.'" Originally intended for Shot of Love, it was sequenced as the final track before it was omitted altogether.
Another song, "Caribbean Wind," is perhaps the most famous outtake of the Shot of Love sessions. It was first performed live on stage in San Francisco, CA at the Fox Warfield Theater on November 12, 1980. A soundboard recording of this performance eventually found its way into private circulation, where it quickly gained a reputation as one of Dylan's most promising compositions.
"Caribbean Wind" carries many similarities to "The Groom's Still Waiting At The Altar." Heylin called both songs "soul partners. If "Caribbean Wind" and "The Groom's Still Waiting At The Altar" do not deal with the same relationship, they address markedly similar ones. Both are set within an omnipresent soundscape of imminent apocalypse. In "Caribbean Wind", the backdrop is messengers 'bringing evil reports, of rioting armies and time that is short.'" The first of several songs written when Dylan began sailing the Caribbean in late 1979, "Caribbean Wind" was started in St. Vincent, where Dylan "woke up from a strange dream in the hot sun...I was thinking about living with somebody for all the wrong reasons."
"Caribbean Wind" may not have received its first studio performance until March of 1981; by then Dylan had already rewritten several lines. (A copy of an early studio performance has also found its way into private circulation.) Unfortunately, Dylan was never able to get a satisfactory performance of "Caribbean Wind" within the confines of a studio. Over a period of several weeks, Dylan would rewrite (and re-record) "Caribbean Wind" numerous times, often to the detriment of the composition, as Dylan himself would admit in later interviews. "He struggled with it," recalls drummer Jim Keltner, "and I could never figure out why...It was just one of those songs - it had great potential. The song was fantastic to play, but every time you'd hear it back there was something missing." A later studio performance was issued on 1985's retrospective Biograph; the only performance of "Caribbean Wind" ever to be officially released, it was dismissed by many critics, including Paul Williams and Clinton Heylin, who were familiar with earlier recordings circulating among collectors. An earlier studio version, unreleased, is widely available over the Internet.
Here is a track listing of known outtakes, only some of which have seen official release. Many tracks are not circulating.
In addition, there are several unidentified songs known to exist. Dylan also recorded a large amount of unreleased instrumental tracks as well during the Shot of Love sessions..
Religion still held a strong place in Dylan's work, but as 1981 came to a close, his religious songs gave way to more secular material. During the summer of 1981, he covered Dave Mason's "We Just Disagree" and Dion's "Abraham, Martin & John" (which some fans took as a veiled ode to John Lennon, who was shot and killed the preceding winter) in concert; as Heylin notes, "Dylan was audibly coming to the end of this particular road."
1982 then began with personal tragedy when Dylan's close and longtime friend Howard Alk was found dead at Rundown Studios on New Year's Day. His death was ruled a suicide. As Heylin reports, "recent months had seen the deaths of guitarist Michael Bloomfield and fellow Christian musician Keith Green," all of whom worked with Dylan, but Alk's death marked the end of an era. Dylan would soon dissolve his standing band, and he would not tour again until 1984. Sometime after June of 1982, Dylan closed down Rundown Studios.
Shot of Love was the last album issued under a contract signed with CBS in 1978, but despite the decline in his commercial standing, Dylan was re-signed to another contract (a five-year, five-album deal) in July 1982.
Much of 1982 was relatively quiet in terms of musical activity. An album of duets was recorded with his lover Clydie King at Gold Star Studios, but it would remain unreleased; at the time, Dylan explained "it doesn't fall into any category that [CBS] knows how to deal with."
However, the stage was set for his next album. Unlike his work on Shot of Love, his next batch of songs would not be auditioned on stage. As Dylan completed his new songs in private, much time would be spent in Minneapolis catching up with his eldest, 16-year-old son, Jesse; this involved frequenting performances of New Wave and punk acts like The Clash, Elvis Costello, Squeeze, and X, artists whose contemporary sound would influence Dylan's work for years to come.