Dylan: the music and the lyrics – Not Dark Yet

By Tony Attwood

If there is one single song written by Bob Dylan that deserves an analysis of the lyrics and music together it is “Not Dark Yet,” because here Dylan uses a musical device to add to the mystery and desperation in the song.  For instead of writing in the normal four beats in a bar approach, the music occasionally adds two extra beats.

I won’t go through all the details again as Jochen did a piece on this to which I added a couple of details, but I do want to add this song to this series on the music of Dylan.  For in this song perhaps more than any other the music gives us the sense of desperation and tiredness to perfection.

Now by “the music” I mean both the arrangement of the instruments and the music itself.  As an example of this, listen to the music during the instrumental break (the part of the song where there are no lyrics)  starting at 3.20.   No instrument takes over, but rather we just get the accompaniment continuing.

This is something Dylan often does, and it is incredibly rare elsewhere in popular music – in fact, I can’t think of anyone else who does this as regularly as Dylan.  And it works brilliantly in this song because this is absolutely not a moment for an instrumentalist to show off his/her skills.  That would break the entire atmosphere and the message.

My point is that the song is about the continuance of decline, and any intrusion by a soloist at this point would utterly damage the images being built.

And what is equally remarkable is that there is a second instrumental section starting at around 5.25.   Again there is no intrusive solo part – we just hear the accompaniment – which is absolutely right because this is a piece of music about the decline into darkness, and the wish of the singer for that darkness to happen.

For many a lesser artist (or any artist beholden to the demands of the producer) that second instrumental part would never have happened – and I suspect if Dylan had not had the total control over his music that he clearly had after the first few albums, it would mots certainly not have happened.  A lesser musician or producer would have thought in conventional terms of keeping the listener alert by allowing a soloist to show off his/her skills.

But that would have been utterly against the concept of the song: the exposition of decline, and the desperation that comes from an awareness of decline and there being nothing one can do about it.

Musically speaking. the high point of each verse, where the solo line reaches its highest note is the penultimate line – the line before the repeat of the title.  For here music and lyrics combine to make these final two lines the very crux of the matter.

But Dylan then goes a step further for he doesn’t just sing

There's not even room enough to be anywhere
It's not dark yet, but it's gettin' there

What he actually sings on the recording on the album is

There's not even room enough ...   to be anywhere
It's not dark yet, but it's gettin' there

And that tiny pause before “to be anywhere” which is hardly noticeable is a brilliant musical signification of the desolation that the vocal line is expressing.   In saying there is no room the line says “I can’t move, I’m stuck here”.   The slight pause stresses that.

In the second verse we get the same pause

I just don't see why ...    I should even care
It's not dark yet, but it's gettin' there

Again there is hardly time for us to think “what is it that he doesn’t see?” but that musical pause increases the emotional understanding that he is utterly lost.

And because of this, the use of the song title in the last line comes to the listener not as a mere repeat but as a further element of descent into desperation.

Expressing desperation in music is incredibly difficult.  Of course pop music is full of “lost love” songs – lost love is one of the three giant topics of pop music (the others being “love” and “dance”.  But not utter desperation.  There are some songs expressing this emotion, but they are rare, because they are so hard to pull off musically.

What we have in fact is a sense of total continuity and of utter collapse.  The only interruption to this is the sudden guitar chord at the end of each line.   Indeed if one listens to the recording without interruption or background sound one can pick out this sudden chord.  Occasionally it is not there but almost every time it is – a sudden jerk which reminds us subconsciously that this is not a gentle slide into nothingness – there are sudden bursts of pain along the way.

But decline it is – and that is the hardest thing in the world to write in a musical form without engaging in a trite run of minor chords and discords.   However, Dylan solves the problem through continuity with that very occasional shot of one guitar chord.   So when we hear the line “I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from” we are in sympathy with the singer and the music – that nagging sudden single chord, louder than anything else in the performance is always there.  There is something out there but we don’t know what it is.    Hence what that chord is supposed to be telling us we don’t know.

Finally, there is the last verse – an instrumental verse.  I haven’t gone back to check how often Dylan has done this on recordings, and I am sure there must be some occasions, but I am also sure it is very rare in contemporary songs.   Here it is brilliantly used – the singer has made his final declaration that it is not dark yet, and to make the point, even when there is nothing more to say, the music continues.  Even when he can do and think no more, life goes on.  The situation, the world, will continue in this same vein, even when he is long since gone and the darkness has finally descended.

Musically in terms of both the composition and the arrangement, this is a staggeringly brilliant masterpiece.   One of the greatest moments of contemporary songwriting.

Earlier in this series

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