“The Lyrics and the Music”: Isis

“The Lyrics and the Music” is a series by Tony Attwood which tries to find out what happens when one reviews a Dylan song not primarily as a set of lyrics, but as a piece of music which includes lyrics.   An updated list of previous articles in the series is given at the end.

Going back to the original Isis after hearing some of the wild live versions (see for example the end of this piece) reminds me how plodding the original version is – but also how none of us really noticed too much because the lyrics are so extraordinary, and indeed how the music fits with the story told in the lyrics.

But musically we have on the originally released version, a bass which is a four note phrase repeated over and over with the first and last note the same – not to mention the odd mistake by the bass player who forgets when he has to stop.

The pianist also has an endless piece of repetition.  Thankfully, no one has ever asked me to play the piano in a version of Isis – I think I’d go mad if I had to.  It is just the three chords to the straight rhythm of 12 3 1 2 3.

Indeed the only real variation to be had is by the vocalist with all those varied lyrics, which really are great fun, and the violinist who occasionally has a bit of improvisation.    And when I say “great fun” maybe I ought to say just plain weird.  The singer meets this guy who says I’ll show you something, so the singer goes off only to find  a body inside a pyramid, but there is nothing else there so (it appears) the singer kills his partner and leaves him in the pyramid and returns to his girlfriend with whom he says he will stay.

In this regard, the notion of the constant beat is perfectly reasonable.  After all what we have here is a tedious, boring and ultimately pointless journey (except that the singer has learned his lesson) so the remorseless 123 123 beat symbolises that.  As does the fact that there are just three chords over and over again.

And yet somehow we don’t notice all this because of the lyrics and because of Scarlet Rivera who does a brilliant job of distracting us on the violin.

But there is more to it than this.  There is something utterly hypnotic here which draws us into the tedious journey that the singer undertakes.  We too have to go on, in a way that we might not feel so inclined to do otherwise.

Indeed this is the point of Isis, at least in its original recorded form.  It is the tedium of the repeated piano and bass against the crazy lyrics and those intermediate moments of relief from the violin.  In the end there is a balance which allows Dylan to express what the journey was like, alongside the hope and expectation of what might be found.

Further, had the song ended with the lack of anything worth finding in the tomb then we’d feel flat at the end, but by taking the singer back to his lover, it allows the violin to express joy and relief that it is all over.

It is thus the perfect example of how the most difficult of subject matter – such as a tedious journey undertaken in an expectation that is unfulfilled – can still be used to create an exciting and highly memorable song.

And there is one final musical point to note: the shout, of “Yes” in the final line.

For the live versions Dylan has changed the approach, because of course the audience now knows the song so well, and expects something else.   But that original recording is a masterpiece of expressing the tediousness of the journey through repeated music, without making us all bored out of our minds.


The lyrics and the music: the series…


  1. The story line of Isis is loosely based on Egyptain mythology ~

    Isis, daughter of the earth god and sky goddess, be the sister and wife of Egyptain king Osiris.
    Jealous brother Seth throws Osiris into the Nile, locked in a heavy box, but motherly and magical Isis rescues him; Seth then cuts Osiris up into pieces. Again to the rescue, Isis bandages Osiris back together, mummy-like, constructing a penis for her now nondead husband ; before he enters the world below, Osiris and Isis produce a son who eventually restores the proper ruling order .

  2. Listeners of “Isis” – scarcely aware of Egyptain mythology as the author of the article above appears to be – might find the song”tedious” as supposed.

    However, the rather Gothic story is based on a moderinzed version of the relationship of siblings Isis, Seth, and Osiris. According to Egyptian mythology, the daughter of the sky goddess and the earth god, Isis is the wife of Osiris. Mona-like Isis is motherly and magical. Jealous Seth tries to drown his brother by locking him in a coffin and throwing it into the Nile. Osiris again rescued by Isis is then cut to pieces by Seth. Isis bandages her husband back together like a mummy; she creates a penis for him, and a child results before Osiris departs down to the world of the undead. The socio-political system thusly restored to its “natural’ order.

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