From the outside looking in, it would seem that Bob Dylan’s favourite pastime is staying two steps ahead of the rock and roll crowd. As soon as he was labelled the ‘voice of a generation,’ he turned his back on political songs, as soon as Joan Baez championed him the messiah of acoustic folk, he plugged into an amp, and, just as everyone thought he had finally hung up his boots, he released his most successful record for decades with last year’s Rough and Rowdy Ways.
So, it’s perhaps no surprise that when it comes to the freewheelin’ troubadour selecting his own favourite Dylan record, he proves to be equally contrarian.
If you were to ask most fans to pick their favourite Bob Dylan album, they would most likely choose one from his 1960s heyday or perhaps Blood On the Tracks from ’75, maybe even New Morning or Oh Mercy, but the vast majority would steer well clear of his born-again Christian phase from 1979-81. However, the final LP in this biblical trilogy somehow proves to be Bob’s own favourite — Shot of Love.
“For me, I think it’s the most explosive album I’ve ever done,” he announced in a radio interview upon the release of the record. Far from a flippant piece of promotion, this is not an opinion that Dylan has wavered from over the years. In 1983, two years after its release, he was asked if he enjoyed listening back to his old stuff, to which he perhaps naturally replied, “No, no. It’s unbearable to hear some of them, for me. I hear them, and I want to shut them off. […] It’s not like I sit around and listen to Bob Dylan stuff. I like Freewheelin’, and I like my first album. Shot of Love is my favourite, actually.”
Once again, in 1985, he stood by his assertion, telling Cameron Crowe, “People didn’t listen to [Shot of Love] in a realistic way. […] The critics wouldn’t allow the people to make up their own minds. All they talked about was Jesus this and Jesus that, like it was some kind of Methodist record. I don’t know what was happening, maybe Boy George or something, but Shot of Love didn’t fit into the current formula,” Dylan laments with evident disdain.
Later adding, “Anyway, people were always looking for some excuse to write me off and this was as good as any. I can’t say if being ‘non-commercial’ is a put-down or a compliment.”
He has made similar remarks in several other interviews, touting the simple fact that the record didn’t fit neatly into the typical notion of his back catalogue behind its critical and commercial failure. “People couldn’t see the logical extension,” he explains. The truth, however, is a little murkier than that.
The album itself, produced by Chuck Plotkin and Bumps Blackwell, sees Bob take on more polished tones than fans are typically used to, which Dylan describes as producing a paradoxically “old but new” sound. Most of the songs are backed by an ensemble of enlightening female voices, with the keyboard forming the most prominent instrument throughout.
The final track, ‘Every Grain of Sand’, proves to be the standout, but nevertheless, it would seem that the record remains out of place in most people’s eyes. It has its stirring moments, and there are more than enough flashes of brilliance to hint at the master behind it, but with the best will in the world, it still doesn’t manage to tie Highway 61 Revisited’ bootlaces.
It is, however, one of Bono’s favourite records so Bob is not alone in his adulation. You can check out the stand-out track, ‘Every Grain of Sand’ below.