Most of the time; the meaning of the music and the lyrics

By Tony Attwood

Dylan’s audience is predominantly male, and one suspects, a fair number of these men who listen to Dylan will have been crossed in love, having lost a woman who has either just walked away or gone off with another.  Or they might have fallen out over an argument.  It is after all one of the three standard formats of rock and roll (love, lost love, dance).

Most of the time is of course a lost love song.   But also I makes me think back to earlier masterpieces of atmosphere – such as the all time classic beginning, “Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re trying to be so quiet.”

Although Most of the Time is much clearer than Visions of Johanna (in that the fog in Most of the Time is of the singer’s making, while in Visions the fog covers the whole world), in both songs the issue of self-delusion is at the forefront.    As Visions says,

“We sit here stranded, though we’re all doin’ our best to deny it”

What Dylan does in Most of the Time is so magical and so powerful and indeed one might say so all encompassing that he catches the sort of breathlessness that comes when the emotions are totally ruling the body where one can’t see the truth, the reality, the real world

So while there is more mist surrounding Visions, and more self-delusion on Time, the essence is the same.

The feeling in both is out-of-body, uncertain, unreal.  In Most of the Time this is in contradiction to the lyrics which assert throughout that the singer knows exactly what is going on and can handle it.  The music suggests totally he can’t and we know the music is right and the lyrics are wrong.  He’s fooling himself from the opening chord.  (In musical terms it is the sub-dominant – which fools us – even if we know no music – into thinking we are somewhere else, before the singing starts).

This is why the version on Oh Mercy is so wonderfully powerful, while the knock about version on Tell Tale Signs gets us nowhere.  The Oh Mercy version allows the music to tell us that the singer is saying (as so many men have said so many times), “Yes of course I am all right about it all, she’s gone but it was over anyway” and you know just by looking in his eyes, he’s having you on just as he is having himself on.

There is also the build up to the line, “If I was ever with her” which then results is an echoing pause in which the singer has declared his all-rightness so powerfully he now has to turn and wipe a tear from his eye.  He calms down a bit then, but it builds up again – just listen to the fade out and what the guitars are doing.  He’s lost in the mists as much as Louise, Joanna and Little Boy Lost.

In fact, in every imaginable way, this is Little Boy Lost’s song.  He takes himself so seriously.   Just look at these lines from the start of the third verse of Visions…

Now, little boy lost, he takes himself so seriously
He brags of his misery, he likes to live dangerously
And when bringing her name up
He speaks of a farewell kiss to me
He’s sure got a lotta gall to be so useless and all
Muttering small talk at the wall while I’m in the hall

In Most of the Time, the meaning of the lyrics is amplified by the rocking between C major and F major chords – like the singer is rocking back and forth on his heels, arms wrapped around his body, telling you what he and you know is quite untrue.

We also have a wonderful penultimate line to each verse which utterly contradicts the follow up title line.  Just listen to the song and notice the end of verse one…

I don’t even notice she’s gone
Most of the time

And verse two

And I don’t even think about her
Most of the time

If any of this were true he wouldn’t be saying it.  And just in case you have any doubt about that, in verse three we have…

Don’t even remember what her lips felt like on mine
Most of the time

Until the middle 8 – after the third verse.  Up to that point we have chords backing up the song which cause us no surprise – C, F, G, Am.  It is exactly what you might find in a song from Freewheelin or Another Side.  These are the chords upon which all classic folk music is built.

But then the singer is getting carried away

Most of the time
She ain’t even in my mind
I wouldn’t know her if I saw her
She’s that far behind
Most of the time
I can’t even be sure
If she was ever with me
Or if I was with her

Even if you have no musical background I’m guessing that you can hear something different happens after this with Most of the time I can’t even be sure.  The unexpected E major chord is what throws the music out of kilter, and that pause at the end of the line after “or if I was ever with her” adds to the unreality.   He knows utterly that he was with her, but his denial is so overwhelming he doesn’t know it at all.  He’s muttering small talk at the wall.

And so we build up to the climax of denial by taking the assertions to ludicrous proportions.

I don’t cheat on myself, I don’t run and hide
Hide from the feelings that are buried inside
I don’t compromise and I don’t pretend
I don’t even care if I ever see her again
Most of the time

When listening to this on Oh Mercy, it is even more powerful given the fact that the next song starts, “What good am I?”

There is a review of this song on Wikipedia which says “the narrator in “Most of the Time” sings of an estranged lover whom the narrator can’t quite shake from his memories.”

Not for the first time do I disagree with Wiki’s choice of comment.  “Can’t quite” is utterly wrong.  Both the music and the lyric show that the singer is totally and completely enraptured by the woman.  He is so deeply in denial we know that he is fooling himself from that open ethereal chord to the fade out.

An index to all the Dylan songs reviewed thus far


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3 Responses to Most of the time; the meaning of the music and the lyrics

  1. Steven Ross says:

    You did not analyze “Shooting Star”. I like it. He took the tune from Van Morrison. He took the reference to a radio playing from Van Morrison. He took the reference to slipping away from Paul Simon. Maybe he took the jangly guitar from Jeff Buckley (maybe not, if Jeff’s version of Leonard Cohen’s “Halelujah” was later in time). But it is a Bob song all the way. But I have these problems with the song:

    First lyric says the lady is better than he is, since she is the one going to other worlds.

    Second lyric continues that the lady is better than he is, since he came up short of the mark.

    Then there is the Jesus lyrics. I am not a Christian but I like them except that the reference to a fire truck from hell is ridiculous. He should change that one.

    I the last lyric he is better than she is, since it was up to him to say what the lady needed to hear him say. Alpha Bob. I don’t get this refersal.

  2. GuillemTM says:

    What always fascinated me the most was the reverse efect of all those untrue things he’s saying, pretending all is OK, but always ended with that “Most of the time”. This “Most of the time” at the end of the verses is as if he was saying “But only most of the time, not always, and that moment when I don’t forget it is when it hurts”.

  3. doug says:

    Was going to say something similar to GuillemTM. What good is most of the time, when it’s the other that is so powerful and affecting?

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