Bob Dylan: The lyrics and the meaning. I believe in You / When He returns

By Tony Attwood

As noted before, in this series I attempt to show that analyses of Dylan’s songs that focus solely on the lyrics can, to a certain degree, miss an understanding of the elegance, beauty, power and indeed at times sheer genius of the composition as a work of music, rather than just as a set of lyrics.  It is, I am arguing, the combination of this music with these lyrics that makes the songs as memorable and important as they are.

In this example, I am looking at two of the songs from the religious period.    Bob performed, “I believe in You” 204 times on stage, and given his views at the time it is obviously fundamental for the music of the song to reflect the message of the song to be reflected in the music.  That most certainly is also the case with “When He returns” although this only got an outing 47 times.

What is remarkable is that each of the songs manages to get both the power of the message of Bob’s belief at the time in both the music and the lyrics – which of course amplifies that message enormously.   But achieving this is not as simple as it might sound, for the power cannot say “You MUST believe,” because that is not the complete message of Christianity.   As I perceive it, the religion offers us a reason to believe, but to believe or not is our choice.  In short the lyrics and the music of these songs of the religion need to offer us the benefits of belief but not the compunction to believe.

In my view, in these two songs presented here, Bob uses both the lyrics and the music to generate that feeling brilliantly.   There is enormous power in the music but it is not the power of the Bible-thumping preaching shouting “You must believe” but rather of “There is a really good reason to believe,” and that is what makes both songs so successful, and indeed so enjoyable, even to a confirmed atheist such as myself.

With “I believe in You” we can hear that distinction between “must believe” and “reason to believe” very clearly in the opening lines of the music.  If we just compare what happens with the music of the first two lines (gentle, no push, very clear) and the third line (the rise of the melody and the strain of the voice representing the struggle to stay true to the faith) we can appreciate the two elements of the song.

They ask me how I feelAnd if my love is realAnd how I know I'll make it through

That indeed is the contradiction expressed in both lyrics and music, and it is that duality – that similarity of approach in both lyrics and music – that makes this song work so well.

That same dichotomy appears in the music and lyrics of “When He Returns”

There is also the interesting way in which the piano moves over to playing in the upper register with “Truth is an arrow” and then in subsequent lines moves to the lower register.  The voice is delivering the truth (as perceived in the song) as an absolute strength, but also as a source of gentleness and kindness, and this change can happen over just a few words, as for example with “as it passes through”.

What is thus being expressed is the contradiction between the gentleness in life that is portrayed as part of the essence of the religion with the burning in hell notion for non-believers as portrayed in Revelations.  In short, the religion portrayed is one of two alternatives, and the music seeks to explore that, without doing anything as crude as simply contrasting soft and loud.

The contrasts achieved within the song are continued throughout the performance as with the treatment of “unknown hour” in the line “He unleashed his power at an unknown hour that no one knew” – the contrast is felt musically between the power available and the humility demanded.

Now of course we know these songs so well that it can all seem rather obvious, and yet from the point of view of a composer it is anything but, and a change of energy within a song is in fact very hard to pull off if it is to be at all convincing.  Indeed very, very few songs manage it at all.

There is a similar but more subtle approach in “I believe in You” and can be found if we listen to the musical interlude before the lyrics return with “I believe in you when winter turn to summer” and the build-up to “Oh even that couldn’t make me go back”.   Indeed throughout the whole song rises and falls in tension in a way that beyond these religious songs, is not that common with Bob’s writing, and indeed not heard in that many hymns either.

Yes Bob can take us up to a bursting finale on occasion, but for Bob a movement between power and subtlety is rare.   Take for example “Desolation Row” which could be excused having outbursts of anger or despair; that song just keeps going with its plaintive description of how the social and physical world has crumbled.  Likewise “Visions of Johanna” stays at its same level of hopelessness throughout both in the music and the lyrics.  But here the music does rise to proclaim the power of the Almighty and falls back to recognise man’s place within such a world.

My view thus is that with these songs Dylan is using a technique he doesn’t often use, and yet managing to use it with enormous effect, while making the whole thing seem unforced and natural.   In short, the songs sound this way because they ought to sound this way, but they take a musical genius to get the effect to work.  It seems obvious to say, but when the song contains changes of viewpoint within the lyrics, that is enormously difficult to achieve musically at the same time.





One comment

  1. Likely coincidence, but the “Slow Train” picture on the cover mirrors a Walt Kelly newspaper cartoon, apparently from ‘Pogo’, that features George Wallace driving a train down tracks with Nixon and Humphrey up ahead with their ears down on the rails.

    Elsewhere, Kelly represents racist Wallace, riding backwards on a horse, depicted as a “Rooster”.

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