I had several great chats with Paddy last weekend in Norwich and one of them was about lyrics in songs. We were chatting about Steve Miller and Paddy suggested that the lyrics in a lot of Steve Miller songs weren’t very good. Apart from “Hot Chili” and “Nothing Lasts”, I had never really considered the lyrics. We agreed that we enjoyed the music and generally ignored the lyrics.
I was reminded of the time when Andy and I went to see Kate Rusby at The Hawth in Crawley. Afterwards, Andy said that he enjoyed the concert but he couldn’t always make out what she was singing. I was surprised but impressed at this comment because I tend not to listen to most of the lyrics in her songs but just appreciate a general air of loveliness (or “sanitised folk” as some people might describe it). Often, when listening to Kate Rusby in the car, I will ask Roo what the song is about and she will tell me and surprise me with the story. Normally, there’s two people in love but some dominant male prevents the lovely female from seeing the poor male and they both end up dead. (See also “Matty Groves” by Fairport Convention and “Drowned Lovers” by lots of people, e.g. Kate Rusby and Anais Mitchell.). However, Bob Dylan is different to Kate Rusby or Steve Miller. Obviously. In particular, the lyrics to his songs are a fundamental part to understanding and enjoying his work. That’s not to say that the instrumentation is not important but, more than most artists, his lyrics are worthy of proper analysis.
When the song “Murder Most Foul” was released at the end of March this year, I wrote a blog about how the words were very difficult to understand and that Bob Dylan is good at writing impressionistically rather than literally. I remember once on holiday in Italy, listening to “Angelina” (not “Farewell Angelina”) on my walkman and becoming entranced by it. When I got home, I thought I would see if Michael Gray had written anything about it in his epic “Song And Dance Man” which is a 900 page book with very small typeface. He had written sixteen pages about this song and reading about the references to The Book Of Revelation helped me understand the picture that Bob Dylan was painting with his words. As always, further analysis proved very rewarding.
Yesterday, I was pleased to find that Ben Burrell had created another podcast in his brilliant series called “Bob Dylan Album By Album” and I spent a lovely hour, with Bruno on the lead because I don’t trust him not to run off, listening to Ben Burrell talking about “Rough And Rowdy Ways” which was very illuminating. Very little of the rest of this blog is original. In the spirit of Bob Dylan’s “Love And Theft”, I’m going to steal all the good ideas from Ben Burrell. I’m going to focus exclusively on the lyrics in an attempt to better understand his first album of original material since 2012’s “Tempest”. I can 100% recommend Ben Burrell’s podcast – he has now made thirty eight of them and each one is really interesting.
The first track on the album is “I Contain Multitudes”. This song explains that he is a much more complex man than any simple label can explain (“protest singer”, “Born again Christian” etc). The title of the song comes from a Walt Whitman poem. “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes”. This is one of the most honest confessional autobiographical songs in Bob Dylan’s career and it’s no coincidence that it is the opening song (statement) on the album. With a nod to the line in “My Back Pages” (which states that he used to sing “lies that life is black and white”), the song explains that it is wrong to take sides, there are many sides to an argument and there are many sides to his personality. Don’t try to form a simple view of Bob Dylan.
“False Prophet”, the second song on the album, appears to be equally honest and autobiographical. “I opened my heart to the world and the world came in” sounds confessional as does “I search the world over for the Holy Grail. I sing songs of love. I sing songs of betrayal.” In “Looking Into You”, Jackson Browne once sung “The great song traveller passed me here and he opened my eyes to the view and I was amongst those who called him a prophet and I asked him what was true“. Jackson Browne has since admitted that this refers to Bob Dylan who was often referred to as a prophet. In this song he renounces this view that people have/had of him. He sings “I ain’t no false prophet I just said what I said“. He isn’t a false prophet. He isn’t any prophet at all, he’s just a man. He’s said what he has said. (I know I said that I would focus on the lyrics in this blog but it’s interesting that Ben Burrell demonstrates that musically, this song is an exact copy of “If Loving Is Believing” by Billy ‘The Kid’ Emerson).
In Track 3, “My Own Version Of You”, Bob Dylan has been “visiting morgues and monasteries looking for the necessary body parts, limbs and livers and brains and hearts.” It appears that he is seeking to re assemble a human being who he has lost, trying to become happy (maybe before the end of his life). The song ends with “I wanna bring someone to life, turn back the years. Do it with laughter and do it with tears”. Once again, there are a myriad of cultural references ranging from Oscar Wilde to The Marx Brothers to Shakespeare as well as the obvious references to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Track 4 is “I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You”. This is a love song and Ben Burrell compares it to “Make You Feel My Love” insofar as it is not a breakup song, just a love song. The song is sung by an older person who has finally committed himself. Love conquers all. There is no pretence as befits an honest self-confessional autobiographical album.
Track 5 is “Black Rider”. The title could be a reference to Stephen Crane’s “Black Riders And Other Lines” which explores the existence of sin and the existence of God. The black rider here could be the “Shadow” of Jungian psychology, the unknown dark side of one’s personality. He is internalising all his problems, fighting against his worst temptations. Alternatively, the black rider could be the dark side of American life in 2020.
“Goodbye Jimmy Reed”, track 6, is not about Jimmy Reed but it may be that he is looking to him for inspiration, hoping that he can provide some purity. Bob Dylan feels that he, himself, has always been true to himself, singing “You won’t amount to much, the people all said. ‘Cause I didn’t play guitar behind my head. Never pandered, never acted proud, never took off my shoes, throw ’em in the crowd.” Later, somewhat unbelievably he claims that “I can’t sing a song that I don’t understand”. It’s as if he is thanking Jimmy Reed for showing him the way, but now we are living in much harder times. “God be with you, brother dear. If you don’t mind me asking what brings you here? Oh, nothing much, I’m just looking for the man. Need to see where he’s lying in this lost land. Goodbye Jimmy Reed, and everything within ya. Can’t you hear me calling from down in Virginia?”
The weakest song on the album, is Track 7, “Mother Of Muses”. It appears to indicate that Bob Dylan is approaching peace and is coming home. “Take me to the river, release your charms. Let me lay down a while in your sweet, loving arms.”
Track 8 is “Crossing The Rubicon”. Once again, we hear a story about a leader who met a violent end. When Julius Caesar crossed the river Rubicon in 49BC, he precipitated the Roman civil war. It appears that Bob Dylan is at a point of no return, hoping that some life changing event is going to change the world (his world?) forever. He is going to settle some scores before that event. Is that event his own death? Or the death of the world? “What are these dark days I see? In this world so badly bent I cannot redeem the time. The time so idly spent. How much longer can it last? How long can it go on? I embrace my love, put down my hair and I crossed the Rubicon”. He is looking for peace and resolution before the end. He begins the last verse with “Mona, baby, are you still in my mind” which brings to mind one of his greatest songs from the Sixties “Mama, You Been On My Mind”. The song ends in a more optimistic way as he seems ready to face the future.
The last song on the first CD, Track 9, is “Key West (Philosopher Pilate)”. Once again, we hear about a doomed leader as the opening lines refer to William McKinley, the 25th President of the USA who was assassinated in 1901. The last track on “Time Out Of Mind” is “Highlands” in which he finds solace imagining a place of refuge in his mind. This song seems to offer the same sort of escape and peace for Bob Dylan. “Key West is the gateway key to innocence and purity . Key West is the enchanted land.“
Track 10, which is on a separate CD, is Bob Dylan’s longest recorded song (17 minutes), called “Murder Most Foul”. The song covers the assassination of John F Kennedy, the decline of America and some of his favourite songs, musical artists, films and actors. The song refers to conspiracy theories, “you’ve unpaid debts, we’ve come to collect”, which is possibly to do with rumoured associations between Kennedy and the mafia. Another line is “There’s three bums coming all dressed in rags” which refers to a photo of three homeless men being escorted from The Dealey Plaza who were scruffily dressed but otherwise looked well-to-do and were escorted away from the scene of the assassination by Police officers after the shooting and subsequently disappeared. Bob Dylan also sings about the grassy knoll where there may or may not have been another shooter. He moves on to sing about Woodstock and Altamont and the comparison between these two festivals (love and peace giving way to murder) represents the decline of America; “the soul of a nation has been torn away.” As Bob Dylan sings “Cross the Trinity River, let’s keep hope alive. Turn the radio on, don’t touch the dials,” the song takes on a different form as Kennedy is dying, listening to the radio making requests to hear songs, artists and plays. Over fifty such requests are listed. The last two requests are for “The Blood Stained Banner” and “Murder Most Foul”. The former of these was originally published in 1880 and is a call to fight for what we believe in. By ending this remarkable song with reference to a call to action Bob Dylan tells us that we need to keep believing, striving and fighting if we are to achieve justice. There are many many more subtle cultural references in the song.
There are some astonishing songs on this album. “I Contain Multitudes”, “Black Rider”, “Key West” and “Murder Most Foul” will surely, in time, come to be regarded as some of the best songs he has ever written. Even the weakest song, “Mother Of Muses” is fascinating and is merely “good”, not “great”.
The album, as a whole, appears deeply autobiographical and describes how Bob Dylan is unhappy with the state of the external world, while finding peace within himself. Digging deep into the lyrics of this album has enhanced my pleasure and provided a gateway into hours of future listening, pouring over every word and wondering what it all means. As always with Bob Dylan, the truth is out there.