The lyrics and the music: Everything is broken.


I don’t know what it means either: an index to the current series appearing on this website.

“Everything is broken” is a most unusual song.  It consists of 28 lines of lyrics of which 12 begin with the word “Broken” – which is not really what one might expect from the man often considered to be a great genius of songwriting.

What carries the music through against this repetition howeer is the multiple textures of the music which are introduced one by one at the very start.  We start with the guitar with a repeated riff, then the bongos are added, with the vibrato guitar coming in – and we haven’t even got ten seconds into the song yet.  Then there is a second guitar riff on top and with this whole array of intertwined musical accompaniment Bob starts singing on ten seconds with the opening salvo of repeated “Broken” lines.

What holds all this together is the fact that this is a standard 12 bar blues format, with the three prime chords.   That means we have a feel of where this is going and so can enjoy the ride in terms of lyrics and accompaniment.

After three verses we get an instrumental break led by the harmonica – but this retains the repeated element – it is just one note played in a counter rhythm to the band.

So what holds our interest when the whole essence of the song is, both musically and vocally, so repetitive?   One point to note is that it is a short song in Dylan terms, just three and a quarter minutes on the album.   Another is that the 12-bar blues format of chords is one that everyone will feel at ease with.  Even if you have not musical background at all, the movement between the chords I, IV and V, sounds very familiar and established.

Which in turn puts all the emphasis back onto the lyrics – and here the repetition of the message with the word “Broken” appearing so often we get a very clear feeling.

Yes everything is broken, but we can still live it and enjoy it.   Nothing works, but that’s ok is the message which is conveyed as much by the energy of the music as by the lyrics.

And this really is quite an amazing achievement, because if one were to look at the lyrics alone without any knowledge of the music, one would never imagine this as a jolly bouncy song….

Broken bottles, broken platesBroken switches, broken gatesBroken dishes, broken partsStreets are filled with broken hearts

This is far from being the only way to see the world, but it is one way to perceive the civilisation in which we live.   And yet the music tells us that this is ok – in fact we should celebrate the fact that everything is broken.

Even at the conclusion, there is no release from the brokenness of this civilisation

Broken hands on broken ploughsBroken treaties, broken vowsBroken pipes, broken toolsPeople bending broken rulesHound dog howling, bull frog croakingEverything is broken

The message from the lyrics alone would be: this is an appalling disaster, a civilisation on its knees, or if you prefer, in its final days before it descends into anarchy.  But the music tells us that if that is how it is, go out and embrace it and have fun as society and civilisation collapse.   Collapse doesn’t have to be awful – we can embrace that too.

Bob played the song 284 times on the Tour, and if anything he upped the tempo, demanding that we all join in the celebration of brokenness with extra bounce.   The message throughout is simple: it’s the end of civilisation as we know it.  So let’s dance!

This recording from the Never Ending Tour series compiled by Mike Johnson comes from 1999 Inside the Museum.    The instrumental break that starts at 2’40” and runs through to the end really is worth focussing on, as it shows there is even more to be got from this simple 12 bar blues than we might ever have imagined.   It really is a celebration of brokenness – and one can’t say that of many songs.  I do hope you have a moment to listen.

The songs reviewed from the music plus lyrics viewpoint…

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