Bob Dylan 1997/8: that oh so very, very clear theme

The full index for this series appears here.

The most recent articles covering this decade 1990s

By Tony Attwood

For Bob, the decade of the 1990s was a time of total change.  It started off with gusto in 1990, trying to show that the world had indeed gone wrong by utilising themes from children’s songs to reveal the forthcoming catastrophe, before delivering some bits and pieces for the Wilburys to play with.

And then he took a gap year.  Well actually five gaps years, in which he wrote a few lyrics (although some argue even these four sets of words were actually written in the 80s, and indeed maybe they were.  I only put them in the gap years because others say they came from that time, and without them the era looks so bleak and empty).

So the nineties became a period in which Bob stopped writing completely, and ramped up the Never Ending Tour.

Those four sets of lyrics that are noted in some commentaries as dating from 1995 and they… well, express a man confused, lost, and wishing he wasn’t.  The recording we have of Well well well is superb and worth a listen, otherwise… you decide.

But my take on this is that all these songs were originally written (or at least Dylan’s input into the songs was completed) in 1984 while Dylan was writing songs for Empire Burlesque.  I’ve listed them again here simply because some commentaries could lead you to 1995.    For details of 1984 please see here.

Then suddenly the master songwriter was back, and how, with 1996 not just including ten songs, but having in the midst of those songs Mississippi and Not Dark Yet.   I mean how totally utterly brilliant do you want a songwriter to be?

The themes were lost love, emptiness, moving on, being disconnected from the world, drifting, dying, love as a hopeless myth, and the darkness.  Oh yes, there is a lot of darkness.

They were all going into the album, but the album was not yet complete, and so with perfect logic, in 1997 Bob finished the album with

Of course there may have been more, the songs he wrote but rejected for the album, but if so, we haven’t been given a chance to listen.

And as I have suggested before, the fact that the first song on the album was the last song written suggests that the concept of loss and sinking deeper emerged as he wrote the pieces; it wasn’t there at the start.   I’d guess that he started writing them, realised the journey the songs described and then filled in the gaps.

The traditional pop rock album starts with an upbeat song, and then has a ballad in track two.  Of course Bob never goes by the book, and in starting this album with “Love Sick” he delivers the most amazing opening to an album I have ever heard – and one that I can’t imagine any other composer getting away with.  Just consider this afresh, opening an album with

I’m walking through streets that are dead
Walking, walking with you in my head
My feet are so tired, my brain is so wired
And the clouds are weeping.

Indeed the songs composed over these two years are contrasts ranging from

I don’t know what I’m gonna do
I was all right ’til I fell in love with you


When the rain is blowing in your face
And the whole world is on your case
I could offer you a warm embrace
To make you feel my love

And this whole, amazing, incredible, journey of sheer genius started with

I’m walking through streets that are dead
Walking, walking with you in my head
My feet are so tired, my brain is so wired
And the clouds are weeping.

The total contradiction is overwhelming and so extraordinarily powerful, these songs almost seem to defy description.

I am not in the group that thinks “Feel my love” is a mistake for this album or in any way an inferior song.  If I had written it, and never written anything else, I’d spend every day walking around saying to people “I wrote that”.   Of course, I’d probably get carried off to a hospital at the same time, but even so…

Dylan is offering us both sides of love – the total and utter despair and the overwhelming yearning to express love.

This is the world in which one is conscious of love and lost love, but also, utterly improbably, a world in which one can distance oneself from those emotions.  Indeed I would say it is not surprising that having written this staggering collection of songs Bob stopped.  In 1998 he wrote nothing.  Although that might have been a ploy to get us to forget him, for in 1999 he wrote the song that got him the Oscar: Things have Changed – the song that “doesn’t pussyfoot around or turn a blind eye to human nature”.

The opening…

A worried man with a worried mind
No one in front of me and nothing behind

makes it clear – I am isolated, I have no idea where I am going.  The past has not yet happened.  We know nothing, except we know the world really has gone wrong.

And what of love and lost love, those concepts which dominated Dylan’s writing for song long?   Well, we might care to remember that by 1977 Dylan had written 56 songs of love and desire, and 43 songs of lost love.

And now?

Feel like falling in love with the first woman I meet
Putting her in a wheelbarrow and wheeling her down the street

Now there is no lost love, because there is no love, not in the real sense.  And as for that period where he tried to get his message across by using themes from nursery rhymes and children’s stories, well, well…

Mr. Jinx and Miss Lucy, they jumped in the lake
I’m not that eager to make a mistake

Farewell old songs, indeed.  As I said (I thought rather cleverly but everyone wrote in telling me I’d written the last paragraph twice)

And the music continues, using its three chord routine with simple accompaniment. The singer doesn’t get excited. There is a continuum. It is just that the continuum doesn’t make a blind bit of sense.

And the music continues, using its three chord routine with simple accompaniment. The singer doesn’t get excited. There is a continuum. It is just that the continuum doesn’t make a blind bit of sense.

A work of stunning genius.  A work so utterly worth waiting for.

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