Dylan in 1981: the last gospel songs and the search for a new direction

By Tony Attwood

This article is one of a series that reviews Bob Dylan’s writing in regards to the songs he wrote, and the order he wrote them in, rather than what Bob chose to put on each album.   The index to the series can be found here.


1981 is a singularly difficult year to analyse with many songs being mentioned, seemingly recorded, and then quite a few being lost.  Obviously to be able to review the songs I need to be able to find a copy and so I may subsequently be able to expand this list, but for the moment I’ve reviewed all the ones I can find.

In 1980 Bob had simultaneously explored where else his interest in religious songs could take him and had also returned to non-religious themes.  In 1981 he wrote what appears to be his last gospel songs Jesus is the one and Thief on the Cross while continuing to explore the non-religious themes, and at the end (perhaps) a link between the non-religious world and the religion he had been following these last few years.

Dylan opened the year by writing Shot of Love a song that (he proclaimed) told everyone where he was at the moment, but which (which one comes down to analysing it line by line) is extraordinarily confusing, and doesn’t necessarily tell us much at all.

You changed my life continued Bob’s religious motif in his more conventional manner, leaving aside the revolutions propagated in the previous year with that amazing quartet of songs written one straight after the other: Every grain of sandCaribbean WindGroom’s still waiting at the alter and Yonder comes sin.

What we have here is, I believe, Dylan in a mood where he is wanting to explore, to be different, and so he is trying things out – and these “things” are songs that with many other composers might have been put away and never heard again.  Bob however is in the mood to see just where each might lead.

And so we hear every experiment, every idea, whether it works or not.   The great lengths he goes to, to create rhymes in Angelina and the curious mix up with Heart of Mine (a true song of doubts) in which he put completely the wrong version of the song on the album, are two examples.

Indeed it was only on Biograph that we found out what “Heart of Mine” really could do, as he tried to explain to himself (if not to us) his move away from Christianity as his key guiding force, to issues surrounding love.

So throughout this year we have Bob edging himself away from Christian themes – as he had done a little the year before, but not being quite sure where he is going to go if the dominant theme are dropped.  Indeed it is when Dylan’s songwriting progress is seen in this light that the extraordinary changes made to “Caribbean Wind” last year can be seen.  Bob really didn’t know where he was going.

By the time we get to Dead Man Dead Man we have a song which fades out with the repeated line, “Ooh I can’t stand it I can’t stand it” and although I think that statement is an over exaggeration of where Bob is, I think I can nevertheless understand where Bob had got to.

Certainly there are strong signs that by this moment Bob was unsure where to go next – I described Don’t ever take yourself away in the review as “Romance in Durango” with the good bits taken out.  And that surely is a sign of artistic uncertainty.

But the year did indeed have some very good songs such as Watered down love and  Lenny Bruce   The latter, a song which Heylin describes as trite and simplistic is one that Dylan clearly had an affection for, and it is one that highlights the contradictions that were entering Bob’s world.  Lenny Bruce, the man who loved to make fun of organised religion, the man who when alive found it hard to get work because of the nature of his approach to comedy, and who was revered after his death.  And (perhaps) Jesus, who denounced the state organised religion had got to by the time of His life and was crucified for what he said, and was then revered after death.

Certainly “Lenny Bruce” is the highlight of the year for me, although the lowlight of the year for some critics.  Bob wasn’t finished with the writing however, for he had two more songs to deliver -as it turns out the last two religious works: Jesus is the one and Thief on the Cross.   Neither are now remembered very much, the power of Dylan’s writing had now and moved we were heading into completely new and different territories.

What is on the site

1: Over 360 reviews of Dylan songs.  There is an index to these in alphabetical order on the home page and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages.

2: The Chronology.  We’ve taken all the songs we can find recordings of and put them in the order they were written (as far as possible) not in the order they appeared on albums.  The chronology is more or less complete and is now linked to all the reviews on the site.  We have also recently started to produce overviews of Dylan’s work year by year.     The index to the chronologies is here.

3: Bob Dylan’s themes.  We publish a wide range of articles about Bob Dylan and his compositions.  There is an index here.

4:   The Discussion Group    We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

5:  Bob Dylan’s creativity.   We’re fascinated in taking the study of Dylan’s creative approach further.  The index is in Dylan’s Creativity.

6: You might also like: A classification of Bob Dylan’s songs and partial Index to Dylan’s Best Opening Lines

And please do note   The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews.

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