Dylan’s “Everything is Broken.” How a short track transmuted into post-modernist chill.

By Tony Attwood

This review updated July 2018 with the addition of live videos and further thoughts on the song itself.  I’ve also added links at the end to various articles from Untold Dylan which explore the theme of the song further.


One of the things you notice with “Oh Mercy” is how short the tracks are for a Dylan album.    Long gone are the days of the 10 minute track, and Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands seems a distant memory.

Political World is 3 minutes 47 seconds long.  Ring Them Bells goes for three minutes.  Everything is Broken is 3 minutes 15.  We are into a minimal world, when compared with other Dylan albums.  Only the magical “What was it you wanted?” goes above the five minute mark, and then only just.

The theme of Everything is Broken (originally called Broken Days but then renamed) continues the feeling of Political World.  This world don’t work no more.  But then, Political World made that very clear.  This is seemingly the appendix to the Book of “It don’t work”.

The list of what is broken (that opens the song) is overwhelming , or at least would be if it were not sung to such a lively song.  Whereas on all the personal tracks (ie those which appear to be about an individual, or a unique situation) Dylan sounds like he desperately cares, here he is facing the listener head on saying “this is the world you live in, and this is all you have got – and its your fault for not doing anything about it.”

Ok Bob doesn’t say that last bit, but that is the impression I get.  We are bouncing along in a post-modernist wreck of the world, walking over the ruins of a society that we once had while those who are left scrabble around in the remains looking for anything to help salvage their lives.  Law and order has all gone and we’re jiving as the world ends.

That feeling which is combined with one of, “well what did you expect?” is amplified by the fact that “Everything is Broken” is a twelve bar blues in construction: pure I, IV, V chords with no exception.  Even the middle eight is reduced to ultimate simplicity as the whole song rocks along.  Only the short intro with the nifty guitar solo and unexpected bongos gives a thought that here there might be something else, but then we are there as the list of breakages continues.

But despite this view, Dylan bounces along telling us there “ain’t no use jiving ain’t no use joking everything is broken.”

And this feeling of a need to bounce finally reached its culmination with the live performances (which by the time of this update of the review in July 2018 had reached 275 – making it the 57th most performed of all songs – although it may be 56th or 58th, but it is something around there.  It’s difficult to count them on the screen.)

So apart from everything, what is it that is broken?  Well, everything on a social scale.  This is the world gone wrong at the level of social interaction, written with a lively beat.   Everything is broken because everything is broken, because… well, get used to it and jive along, except there ain’t no use in jiving because everything is broken.  It’s a sort of hippy plaintive cry of “Everything is broken man” to an upbeat arrangement.

Even with the two different versions that we have: the original version which turned up on Bootleg 8 and the re-working of the song that was released on Oh Mercy we still seem to have the same breach between the brokenness of the world as described and the bouncy song.

But the live versions have gone on a totally different route…

Everything within the house and within city, and within the society is smashed.  Bottles, plates, switches, gates, dishes, idols, heads, beds, words.  And it gets worse and worse for it seems like every time you stop and turn around something else just hits the ground…

And in the live versions it is so total there is no escape.  The instrumental verse which originally has quite a lively jolly harmonica solo, now becomes more aggressive, and lest we think there is a way out we always go straight back to broken hearts, broken ploughs, broken treaties, broken vows.    There really is nothing left.

Society has gone, and all we have now is the world of the individual, and even here we are running into trouble for as individuals we break the vows we make.  In fact we’re pretty useless at running things.  We need something else.  What could it be?  Oh hang on… but it seems Bob didn’t want to go back to religion here, he just wanted to tell us, it is all finished.

But we are still left wondering why the music on the album is so lively when the music of Long Black Coat, Teardrops and Ring Them Bells, is always  so sad, lamenting and in keeping with the lyrics?

The answer must be that we are carrying on in this broken social world pretending that all is ok.  Just as we accept the political world (at one hell of a lick), so we accept the broken world – and of course we do because the political world and the broken world are all the same.  Where Ring Them Bells speaks of individuals acting as individuals, and Long Black Coat speaks of one individual, Political World and Everything is Broken, speak of society.

For further contrast compare What Good am I?, and Most of the Time, (that ultimate song of the broken individual) with “Everything is Broken” which talks about the society at large.

Herein lies the clue to this extraordinary album – it is throughout an album about the broken and crushed individual living in the collapsed dysfunctional society.

Of course I have no idea if Dylan conceived of these songs as a unity, or if something inside his head showed him that he had constructed a set of songs that fitted together.  But the use in so many songs of the three major chords plus the blues chords of the flattened third and flattened seventh spells a unity of thought.

Social songs lively, personal songs much quieter.  The people as individuals perceive their own misery and wish for mercy.  Society as a whole goes on pretending (via its political leaders) that it works.

That in fact is the ultimate trick of the politician; to pretend that they know and can do something, when in fact the whole notion of society is false.  It is all a sham.  Nothing works, but lets make the music jolly and maybe no one will notice, and think the misery is just their own.

And I’d like to finish with one cover version seems to portray the viciousness of the lyrics in a way that takes us back to the days when rock n roll really did think everything was broken, and that by and large we weren’t going to do anything about it

There is also a Tom Petty / Neil Young version from a concert, but I find that so painful I can’t bring myself to put it on.  You can search for it on Google if you want, but you might want to have a bottle of whisky to hand.

On a more cerebral note you might also be interested in the references to the song in these articles, which approach the matter from different angles.

1989: Bob Dylan stalked by the darkness

Bob Dylan and Charles Baudelaire (Part III)

Bob Dylan and Edward Cummings: The Romantic Revival

Long Ago Far Away: When Bob Dylan shouted out against man’s inhumanity

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6 Responses to Dylan’s “Everything is Broken.” How a short track transmuted into post-modernist chill.

  1. Larry Fyffe says:

    Contrary to some among us who believe Dylan is inconsistent in his personal views, his art as a totality demonstrates that this be not so.
    His lyrics show him tangled up in the web of human thought including the Scriptures of the Hebrews and Christians featuring Moses and Jesus, the secular Romantic idealism of Hegal and Whitman, the shadows and shades of Swedenborg and Blake, the psychic Surrealism of Freud and Rimbard, and the Existentialism of
    Nietzsche and TS Eliot. Every thing is broken, the centre cannot hold, fragmented like broken glass, the Universe continues to explode outward from its singular core.
    On Earth, the male God made man in His own image; women He did not. Christians broke away from the Hebrews. Only a memory is left over of a time when all was One; the “broken idols, broken heads”, trying in vain to come together again.

    “How does it feel to be on your own/
    Like a rolling stone?”

  2. Hello Tony, thank you for posting this interesting essay. Join us inside Bob Dylan’s Music Box http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/185/Everything-is-Broken and listen to every version of every song composed or performed by Bob Dylan.

  3. Larry fyffe says:

    The broken stuff comes from the movie ‘The Lusty Men”.

  4. Larry fyffe says:

    A modern day western setting -the rodeo – starring Robert Mitchum:

    “Broken bottles, broken bones”, broken every thing”.

  5. Larry fyffe says:

    * no quotation mark after bones

  6. Larry fyffe says:

    ** everything

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