After the bleakness: Dylan’s writing 2011-16

By Tony Attwood

There is an index to all the articles in this series, which traces the themes within Dylan’s songs from his earliest writing, up to 2016 (thus far).  Details at the foot of this piece.

Considering the songs composed between 2011 and 2016 by Bob Dylan we have no idea what order they were written in.  And we have no access to outtakes – only the songs that have formally been released.

But we can of course continue the series in which each song is reduced to just a handful of words to try and give ourselves an indication of the themes that were occupying Dylan’s mind as he came to compose each album.

As I have noted a couple of times in recent articles in this series (and the index to all the articles is here) I wasn’t sure where this series would go, if anywhere, when I started, but for me (even if no one else) it has been an absolute revelation.   For by noting the content of the lyrics of each song in as simple a way as I can, I have been able to understand for the first time, the movement of Bob Dylan’s thinking across the years.

Put simply, songwriters, like novelists, can write about anything that takes their fancy.  But if we find a songwriter with a prolific output such as Bob Dylan (with over 600 song lyrics composed) and we see profound changes in the themes about which he writes, then it is a fair bet that to some degree at least, these changes reflect his own thinking, his interests, his moods, his feelings…

And what I have noted in continuing this series is that through these 21st century songs there is a clear darkening of the subject matter, as the old mixture of topics that I noted in the 20th century songs, is set aside.

For here we are hearing a continuing of the world gone wrong theme.

This is a list of the songs composed or co-composed in the period 2011/16

Pulling these together we get

  • Disaster: 2
  • Nothing is what it seems: 1
  • World gone wrong / revenge / death: 3
  • The past reviewed: 4
  • Lost love: 1

which is just about as negative as it can get.

Which is a fairly solid indication that this was not a sudden turn into the darkness for Dylan, but the continuation of a theme.

I will be pulling together all of the 21st century songs when I’ve completed this series with what I suspect will be the toughest task of all – reducing the Rough and Rowdy Ways songs to simple meanings.  But for now, just a look at the titles of the first two articles covering the song writing periods of the 21st century shows what we Bob has been giving us:

Unfortunately the title I came up with for the 2008/10 era doesn’t help us much, and I’ll have to change that, but the totals I found in that period show what’s going on:

  • Lost love: 2
  • Everything is wrong / life is bad: 6
  • The need of a woman: 1

And so as noted above what we have in the 2011-16 period, as noted in the individual songs covered above, we have disaster, nothing is what it seems, world gone wrong, the past reviewed, and lost love.

It is the same theme of negativity over and over again.  The one question left is, if this is what Bob was offering throughout this century, is it fair to say that this is what he delivered in the double album?  I’ll tell you, when I’ve worked it out.

Certainly I do hope that in moving on the Rough and Rowdy with this perspective in mind, it will help me understand that album better than I do at the moment.  And in writing this I don’t mean that I’ve not got any grip on the individual songs, I think perhaps I have.  But it is the overall world-view of Bob Dylan that fascinates me here, for I do feel that if we can understand that, we can see which, of the many interpretations on offer, best gives us an insight into what Bob was thinking about, as he wrote each song.

We shall see.

You may also find of interest, these series related to this article

Untold Dylan: who we are what we do

Untold Dylan is written by people who want to write for Untold Dylan.  It is simply a forum for those interested in the work of the most famous, influential and recognised popular musician and poet of our era, to read about, listen to and express their thoughts on, his lyrics and music.

We welcome articles, contributions and ideas from all our readers.  Sadly no one gets paid, but if you are published here, your work will be read by a fairly large number of people across the world, ranging from fans to academics.  If you have an idea, or a finished piece send it as a Word file to with a note saying that it is for publication on Untold Dylan.

We also have a very lively discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook with around 7000 active members. Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

You’ll find some notes about our latest posts arranged by themes and subjects on the home page of this site.  You can also see details of our main sections on this site at the top of this page under the picture.  Not every index is complete but I do my best.   Tony Attwood

One comment

  1. We know he wrote a load of religious songs he was tempted to release instead of Tempest, but he couldn’t make it happen. Maybe we’ll hear them in a future Bootleg Series…

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