“License To Kill” (1983)

If you want a precise, succinct, fair, and accurate assessment Oh Mercy check out Michael Gray’s entry on it in his The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia.  He calls it “[a]ttentively written, vocally distinctive, musically warm, and produced with uncompromising professionalism.”  Credit Daniel Lanois for that last bit of praise.  But the album is not without flaws, and Gray’s omission of “License To Kill” as one of the “standout tracks” may be because it houses some of the flaws.

I’ve never found the sound of it appealing; I don’t think Dylan’s voice works with it.  I’ve liked covers of it more (see Richie Haven’s below), but there aren’t many, and maybe that’s because it is a challenge to sing.

Part of the challenge in this 9 verse song is the 13-15 length lines found in the opening of four of the verses. There’s a lot to cram into those lines vocally, not too mention lyrically.

The rhyming is interesting.  Most of the verses only rhyme in the last two lines, as does the refrain,

But there’s a woman on my block
Sitting there in a cold chill
She say who gonna take away his license to kill?

as if the song’s rhymes are wedded to the refrain’s, tied to the women on his block, who ponders and poses questions throughout the song about man’s actions.

But there’s a major departure from this pattern, accompanied by a shift in the pronoun focus from he (the man) and the woman, and that’s to “you”, second person, in the seventh verse:

Ya may be a noisemaker, spirit maker
Heartbreaker, backbreaker
Leave no stone unturned
May be an actor in a plot
That might be all that you got
’Til your error you clearly learn

And the rhyme scheme shifts from abcc to aabccb.  This shift makes this the most compelling verse of the lot.  And Dylan is too playful with pronouns to easily pinpoint who the “you” is.  Is it us, the listener, Dylan, the woman, man?  Ah, the gift of interpretation.  Up to you to decide, me and you. Thanks for that, Bob.

I’ve decided Haven’s best version I’ve heard:

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