Below in the review of this song that I wrote in 2008. After that is an additional commentary added in March 2013.
Changing of the Guards: first track on Street Legal, failed to make it as a single (presumably because Dylan fans buy albums), and yet turns up on Greatest Hits 3 and The Essential. Someone who selects these things (Dylan himself?) thinks it is a great song.
There is a review on Wikipedia which suggests that the song ends on the dominant chord (that is the chord based on the fifth note of the scale the song is in.) This is completely wrong – it is performed in A flat, and ends on the chord of A flat. There is nothing odd about the chords used – A flat, F minor, D flat and E flat – exactly as you might expect.
And it is this repetitive normality of the music that takes so much away from the lyrics – the music doesn’t do anything to make you want to understand or even listen to the lyrics.
The meaning is fairly simple: if you think of the reality of the mediaeval period (the poverty, persecution, disease, and belief that both the dead and living share the earth as everyone waits for Revelation to come to pass), you get the pictures.
Interesting stuff, but overall there is the feeling that it was as if Dylan desperately wanted to write another epic song and did a cut and paste job with a load of lyrics that had something to do with the mediaeval period, and said to the audience, “make something of that.”
Which perhaps is how we get to something so very unfitting by the third line: “Where the good shepherd grieves”. In this song it just sounds so out of place. OK he was about to go all Christian, but this doesn’t seem to be Christian, except in that it was a celebration of everything that was wrong about Christianity and the power of the priest at this time.
Unless (and this is just a guess from me) it is all about a reading of the tarot cards. The clue to that comes at the very end, (“Between the King and the Queen of Swords”).
But for that sort of song, if the song is to be strophic in its form, it needs something more than the jolly bouncing melody, three backing singers and repeating and ultimately rather dull sax solo.
In the end the lyrics don’t matter, the melody doesn’t matter, nothing matters – and yet there are horrors going on in the song and I end up wondering why.
Of course Dylan knew what he was doing – the failure is mine. I haven’t got a clue.
I haven’t played this song in a long old time, and put it on by chance, enjoyed the overall sound but was then bemused by such of the lyrics as I could remember/understand.
But one couplet did catch my ear
But Eden is burning, either brace yourself for elimination
Or else your hearts must have the courage for the changing of the guards
For me “Eden is Burning” is full of such potential that I want to think it through, use it in one of my own songs (not to suggest that I am even on the same compositional planet as Dylan, but it just catches me that way) and then think, oh, what a dull way to use it.
“brace yourself for elimination” must be the Second Coming, which means the next line says you either are for Him or against Him, and I really, truly dislike that sentiment. If that is the God we have ruling over us, then I am still to be counted out. Blind faith is not something I am willing or able to offer, and I am so sorry that Dylan felt he could at this time. Of course, my judgement is meaningless, who am I to say what’s right or not? But then who is Dylan? He can write the most staggering songs, but does that give him, or any Christian, Muslim or Jew the right to tell me that you are either part of the fold or an outcast? No, for me the answer is totally “no”.