Dylan rewrites Dylan. Finally grasping what Bob did with “We better talk this over”

By Tony Attwood

Way back in the dark ages (well, 2008 actually) I wrote a review of We Better Talk This Over in which I said ‘“We better talk this over” is hardly a great song, but it does have a way with words that is unusual even for Dylan.’

Then this week (early September 2021) Mike Johnson reminded me in his latest Never Ending Tour article that “Tony Attwood gives a good account of the song and describes the 2000 version as one which ‘totally transforms the song’, although he doesn’t say how.”

In fact I did have a go in a subsequent article (but certainly don’t expect Mike to have to go trawling through all my ramblings just to check) and suggested that “Dylan re-writes Dylan” could be a new series.  Exactly what I have just said on reading today’s article NET, 2000, part 3: Master Vocalist: Rock and Roil.

So anyway, I’ve highlighted the idea before of a Dylan re-writes Dylan series, and I am now re-publishing my article on “We better talk this over” for one simple reason.   In the earlier edition I missed the key factor in the song which is not just there in the original, but there all  the way through Dylan’s reworking on the songs.  It is the key to making the song what it is.

And I missed it.

The instrumentation of guitars at the start gives us an interest of something unusual happening, and the use of the chorus just to sing the first two beats of every other line – in fact the last word of each line of lyrics.

But what is particularly catching (and this is what I missed last time around)  is that Dylan alternates four beats in a bar and five beats in a bar.   Now that is incredibly unusual in rock music and you might think that to a trained musician this would stick out.  So would I, so I guess I am losing it.

In my defence it is subtle, but even so – an extra beat in the bar…

Here is is

   123            4          12345  
I think we better talk this over
123           4         12345  
Maybe when we both get sober
You’ll understand I’m only a man
Doin’ the best that I can

This situation can only get rougher
Why should we needlessly suffer?
Let’s call it a day, go our own different ways
Before we decay

Now I am sure everyone can hear the “Why” emphasis and the extension of “Before…..”   But it is that extra beat which is the heart of the edginess and uncertainty in the piece, and it is there from the start.  The extra emphases added for this final version make a huge difference, but only because that fifth beat is already in place.

Indeed what really makes the piece is adding those extra emphases on what are effectively random words.   Even if after my explanation of the fifth beat you can’t hear it (and really there is no reason why you should) but it now contrasts utterly with the additional emphasis on “Best”, “Why” and “Before”.

Thus what is so clever however is that this additional beat is so subtle, and then in this final version, it is then hidden even more by the unexpected emphasis.

To me, this is Dylan the musical arranger at his peak.  It is not just that he re-writes the arrangements of songs and plays them in new ways.  He goes back and studies the song again and finds ways to expand the meanings.

So Bob isn’t just saying to the guys, “Let’s try it in B flat” or whatever key he has suddenly chosen.  He is thinking about the way the music and the lyrics work together and then exploring different approaches.

I certainly can’t think of anyone else who does this, and for myself I am so finally relieved that I found what it is that so draws me to this song.  That fifth beat utterly symbolises how the singer and the lady who is sung about our completely out of step.   Without the fifth beat the song would still be great but with it, it becomes a work of genius.

It’s taken me one hell of a long time, but I’m glad I have got there in the end.  And maybe we can now try the “Dylan re-writes Dylan” series.

 

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3 Responses to Dylan rewrites Dylan. Finally grasping what Bob did with “We better talk this over”

  1. Larry fyffe says:

    The Sound School of Dylanolgy is always attempting to hold that spoken or written words are essentially ‘random’, splattered like a can of paint on a canvas, but that is not at all how human language works -it has an established, orderly structure.

    Re-writing the actual words in a song is one thing, changing the mood of the song by the way they be emoted quite another.

    The same words may even have contradictory meanings, ie, “bound”, but the
    meaning of words do not change quickly over time; however, the way they are emotionally interpreted at a particular time is uncertain.

    The smooth flow or bumpiness of the beat and rhythm of music certainly augments the sense of joy, sadness, irony, sarcasm, humour, chaos, etc, that the words are intended by the singer to express, but this can hardly be called a re-write of the song in and of itself.

    Music heard alone without known lyrics can give you a feeling, but not meaning; the words of a song read alone communicates both the meaning and feeling intended, but spoken words accompanied by music highlights both meaning and mood.

  2. Jim Nasium says:

    Interesting. I’ve had a love-hate relationship with “Street-Legal” for years. Like you, I also love that 2000 live version. If Dylan had performed more songs from that album during the Never-Ending Tour, we all might have a better understanding of why that album is defective. I often think it’s because it was recorded shortly after his 1977 voice-box accident. Also, the 1978 arrangements of his songs — both old and new — are bombastic and melodramatic. I bet, with your musical expertise, you could give even “No Time to Think” a good musical makeover. It has brilliant lyrics and deserves better.

  3. Richard Wells says:

    Either way, it’s a terrific song. I’m with Dylan’s understanding that the proof of his work is in the performance, not necessarily the recording. His work evolves over time and repetition. If you take “performance” and “art” at their separate meanings, with the fact that Dylan has spent so much time on stage as opposed to the studio, you get him as the consummate “performance artist.”

    I’ve been a big fan of Street Legal from the day it dropped. The breadth of Dylan’s art as he mixes the mystic with the vernacular from song to song, and within songs is close to miraculous.

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