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



  1. 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. 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. 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?

  4. One of Dylan’s most powerfull love songs.Every things in the text is bulit for the last line of the chorus….”most of the time” explosion of emotion and nostalgy.

  5. Dylan keeps writing love songs to Sara as far as I’m concerned, she’s his muse. She’s the one he betrayed, the one he married for keeps and then broke, which is what led to his quest for Christian redemption: the one who still comes to his concerts, the one his children keep him in ongoing communion with… She’s the one on his mind, most of the time

  6. I think ‘Most of the Time’ is said more ironically/sarcastically to himself, maybe almost wryly? – like he knows exactly what has transpired, is getting on with it, but still has a few moments of wondering what if…what could be
    Most of the time
    I’m clear focused all around

  7. I sometimes believe we overanalyze Dylan’s lyrics and music. We cannot possibly know what message/meaning Dylan might be wanting to convey to others, if any. Dylan writes of himself. I believe he would be the last person to tell us what his songs should mean to others.

  8. I wholeheartedly agree with your acertation that Bob Dylan would not be telling anybody what to think about his music or anything else for that matter.

  9. What strikes me about these lyrics (and I realise it has struck me ever since I first heard the song all those years ago) is the ambiguity of the title line. For example, in

    She’s that far behind
    Most of the time
    I can’t even be sure

    – does “most of the time” qualify the preceding lines or the succeeding ones? Perhaps it’s both – but it’s definitely intriguing.

  10. To me the lyrical brilliance of this song has always been how everything being said is literally true. It is indeed how the narrator feels about his ex lover / spouse / girlfriend “most of the time” and yet the way he feels about her the rest of the time is the whole point and lasting impression of the song. If he was truly over her, he wouldn’t feel the expressed ways “most of the time”, he would feel that way all of the time. Thus we have a song supposedly about “most of the time” that is really about him feeling the exact opposite way the rest of the time without him having to say so. It is simply understood. What he doesn’t feel and remember most of the time is what he does feel and remember all too painfully / sadly the rest of the time. So effective.

  11. My read is a lover being able to function on a daily basis after a hard break up. Probably Dylan’s recovery from his divorce with Sara. Sure he can’t forget her, but at least he’s functioning. Isn’t this something most people after breaking up from a long term relationship. You have to manage day to day, but you never truly forget and still hurt.

  12. The music is so strong and dark that it pulls the lyrics along. Without the music the poem is not nearly as strong.

    Fully agree with Jerry Praeger, above, Dylan is not emotionally over with his divorce from Sara.

  13. Sorry to disagree Tony, but I feel that the Oh Mercy version of ” Most of the time” is over produced, as are the great majority of Lanois’ productions. When I bought the record, I only played Most of the Time once, and did not really like it, it always reminded me of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound. Lanois swamps the songs, makes it difficult to hear Dylans words, and after all, that’s what we buy his records for, to hear his words. In Chronicles, Dylan seems to agree with this, saying that Lanois made some of the songs have the life crushed out of them. I always thought that a Backing Group was just that, otherwise we might just as well listen to instrumental versions of all Dylans songs.
    If Dylan had started his career with Lanois as his producer, how long would the “Happening” have lasted?
    Only my humble opinion of course.
    Best Wishes, John.

  14. Why record such different versions of this brilliant song? Because Bob cares about the song and wants us to understand its subtlety and its complexity. The slower version emphasises his melancholy mood, letting us know he’s OK and getting on with his life BUT he still has moments of intense feeling for someone who meant a lot and still means a lot to him. The faster version says to us look I really am doing well and living well BUT there are times when I really miss this person who was so special and so important to my wellbeing and my happiness at a particular time of my life. And life isn’t about winning and losing – it simply is what it is. Melancholia and positivity are continuously alternating states of being for an artist who possesses such wisdom and who sees through to the reality of human existence. Most of the Time is a song of age and experience, a song of gratitude and contentment.

  15. Completely agree. I heard this song a few times before I listened to the words; I was so blown away. I can’t think of a better song about the denial of heartache– which makes the heartache so much more palpable and overwhelming. Willie Nelson’s IT SHOULD BE EASIER NOW has a similar approach, which is also indicated in the title, but MOST OF THE TIME is more entrenched in denial– so powerful.

    Great article!

  16. My take on it from the get-go was simply that it’s a man lying to all of us and himself.

  17. I guess I am the outlier here. While this certainly can be heard as a ‘he’s not over her by a long shot’ sentiment I don’t quite get that.

    Many of us have had intense relationships that crash and burn for one reason or another. Yet the intense connection with another’s heart is never completely gone, not matter how bad the ending might have been.

    To me this song actually somewhat romanticizes the memory of that connection when the memory pops up in our consciousness. Which, after one gets over a loss… is not that often. Unless you get stuck in wallowing…life goes on and the memories don’t surface, most of the time.

    But when that memory does come around it has a power that deserves this level of brilliant recognition. I am always dumbstruck at how this song captures the power of that connection so perfectly.

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