On his 1979 "Slow Train Coming" and last year's "Saved," Bob Dylan locked himself inside the refuge of the fundamentalist church. From that sanctuary, he righteously divided the whole world between the evil of nonbelievers and the wonders of the Lord.
With his new album, "Shot of Love" (Columbia, TC 37496), Dylan ventures back out into the real world and finds it more complex than his previous two albums admitted. He tries to reconcile his still-strong Christian faith with his old bohemian friends and his new romances. This produces many paradoxes and a handful of fine songs. Though far short of his peak work, "Shot of Love" is the best Dylan album since 1976.
Perhaps the sharpest paradox occurs midway through the first side when Dylan sings a tribute to an unnamed man (himself?) who's proud to be the "Property of Jesus." On the very next cut, Dylan sings an eloquent tribute to Lenny Bruce, the bawdy, rebellious comic who often mocked Jesus and religion in his routines.
As different as these two songs seem, they have a common theme. They both express admiration for a man who resists social pressure to stand up for a principle. Though the principles of the fundamentalist and the iconoclast may be quite different, at least they believe in something. And as Dylan quipped at his June Merriweather Post Pavilion show, "If you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything."
This may help explain Dylan's conversion. The songs on the 1978 "Street Legal" revealed a man in such turmoil that he desperately needed something, anything to anchor him. He found that anchor in Christianity and gospel music. In a similar crisis in 1967, he found similar refuge in family life and country music. Like the 1974 "Planet Waves," this year's "Shot of Love" marks a reengagement with riskier issues. One can only hope that this reemergence will lead to another "Blood on the Tracks."
Three of the nine songs on "Shot of Love" are strident rockers that rail against the world's sinfulness. The booming gospel-rock led by Danny Kortchmar's stinging guitar and Benmont Tench's organ swells recalls the Band in 1966. Dylan's lyrics and singing, though, lack the wit and subtlety to sustain the songs beyond a verse or so. By contrast, "Property of Jesus," with its restrained singing and ironic chorus, is an effective counterattack on anti-Christian prejudice.
Three tunes are love songs without religious references. "In the Summertime" drags, but the other two are real prizes. "Heart of Mine" features an informal, casual arrangement reminiscent of "The Basement Tapes." It also marks the return of Dylan's witty ironies as he helplessly begs his heart not to reveal itself to a woman. "Watered-Down Love" is quickened by Fred Tackett's southern-soul rhythm guitar. Over this lively dance beat, Dylan reaches back to "Like a Rolling Stone" to gleefully taunt: "You don't want a real love; you just want a watered-down love."
"Lenny Bruce" is a stunning song. With his four-woman gospel choir moaning in the background, Dylan delivers a sad eulogy with a tender understatement. "Maybe he had some problems," Dylan sings, "but he sure told the truth."
The album closes with "Every Grain of Sand," far and away the best gospel hymn Dylan has written since his conversion. Slow and heavily echoed, the song is a revealing, eloquent confession of the painful loneliness that led to his conversion. The song contains two long harmonica solos that are tremblingly lyrical. It is the most honest music Dylan has made in years.