By Tony Attwood
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 continues the feeling of Political World. This world don’t work no more.
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.”
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 “aint no use jiving aint no use joking everything is broken.”
So apart from everything, what is it that is broken? Well, everything on a social scale. This is the world gone wrong at a society level, 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.
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…
It is so total there is no escape. The instrumental verse has quite a lively jolly harmonica solo, but lest we think there is a way out we 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.
But why? And why is the music 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 prentending 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.