Bob Dylan’s “Political World”: How to get hit by reality (& the 6 missing verses)

Review by Tony Attwood

This review updated July 2018, with some commentary on the missing verses, and three videos: the official release vid, the full song with the 6 missing verses from the outtakes of the album session, and a not so exciting live version.

The musical opening of the album recording on Old Mercy is a triumph on its own.  A remarkable opening to the album.   A gentle fade in as each instrument comes in of its own accord – rhythm guitar, lead guitar, bass, Dylan’s voice, drums.   By the time of the end of the first “verse” the power is extraordinarily strong.  It is, as Wiki says, “With God on our side” updated.

And yet it only ever got 28 outings live on stage.  It is a shame.  Here’s the official video

 

That opening may be thought of as an invention, a device, and yet it is hard to see how else such a song could start.  A song which is nothing but a series of two line “verses” (I put the phrase in inverted commas- can two lines really be  a verse?) and which just goes and goes.

And then there is the music.  One chord, and that’s all.  Every verse starting with the same line, “We live in a political world”.   For once, without the driving energy of the accompaniment it is hard to see how the song could work.

And for goodness sake – the verse is in essence just three notes – although to be fair later Dylan does through in a few variations.  But it is hard to imagine other songs built so successfully out of such a limited set of materials.

Here’s an outtake with all the verses (the released version cut six of them including the verse below).

We live in a political world 

World of wine, women and song

You could make it through without the first two

Boy without the third you wouldn't last long.

But the extraordinary thing is that for once it is not the lyrics that stay with the listener first, second or third time it is sung.  That is not to say the lyrics are not good, but rather that the energy and drive of the song is so great that it is enough.  The words come next.

We live in a political world
Love don’t have any place
We’re living in times where men commit crimes
And crime don’t have a face

That first verse gives us a sense that we are into an electric protest song – the loss of love, crime is everywhere in this anonymous world.   The music drives us on, no time to stop, no time to love.

We live in a political world
Icicles hanging down
Wedding bells ring and angels sing
Clouds cover up the ground

The symbols of the past are still there, but nothing is as it was.  The old values are lost even though they seem to be here still.  We still get married but live in the darkness of the clouds.  If you have something to say, forget it, because if it doesn’t fit, no one will let your expression develop and reach others.

We live in a political world
Wisdom is thrown into jail
It rots in a cell, is misguided as hell
Leaving no one to pick up a trail

By this stage the music is driving at such a pace that it is hard to keep up, everything is lost to the political world

We live in a political world
Where mercy walks the plank
Life is in mirrors, death disappears
Up the steps into the nearest bank

And how much foresight is there to blame the banks!

We live in a political world
Where courage is a thing of the past
Houses are haunted, children are unwanted
The next day could be your last

We live in a political world
The one we can see and can feel
But there’s no one to check, it’s all a stacked deck
We all know for sure that it’s real

It is particularly interesting that the two verses above run straight into each other before a musical break.   “We all know for sure that it’s real” is the ultimate horror.

Here’s the live version from 1990 – not the one I wanted to find, but it’s an example.

So the horror builds until the final moment in which it is clear that we know nothing – not even the name of whatever God it is that we choose to worship.  And then the fade out after a longer inter-verse type break.  That’s it, everything is broken.  Except that of course that is another song on a later track.

We live in a political world
Everything is hers or his
Climb into the frame and shout God’s name
But you’re never sure what it is

From a man who made his name in part from unusual chord changes and less than perfect productions of his songs on record, this is a complete reversal.  The music on the album is perfectly performed – as it has to be because it counts for so much.  The chord is still just one, there is nothing else, for we have nothing else.

Of course many would not agree.  The All Music review was much more of a put down:

“Political World” launches the album with a tirade against the modern world. Not one of Dylan’s most successful songs, it contains rather banal verses such as the opening “We live in a political world/Love don’t have any place/We live in a time where men commit crime/And crime don’t have a face,” which leaves one to argue, which age does this not apply to? It seems Dylan’s detest of the modern world has led him to irrationality and sweeping general statements. The fast tune to the song is rather infectious, but “Political World” has moments of insight, but on the whole it is a rather trite, cloyed song.”

Heylin for once managed to catch the moment much more accurately to my mind.  “Dylan soon singing it like someone who really did despair of the shape of things to come.”  Unfortunately I can’t find a recording of one of those later concerts, but the outtake from the album gives us an insight.

What else is on the site?

Untold Dylan contains a review of every Dylan musical composition of which we can find a copy (around 500) and over 300 other articles on Dylan, his work and the impact of his work.

You’ll find an index to our latest posts arranged by themes and subjects on the home page.  You can also see details of our main sections on this site at the top of this page under the picture.

The alphabetical index to the 552 song reviews can be found here.  If you know of anything we have missed please do write in.  The index of the songs in chronological order can be found here.

We also now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

And please do note   The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews.

 

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6 Responses to Bob Dylan’s “Political World”: How to get hit by reality (& the 6 missing verses)

  1. bill says:

    I’ve always thought of this as one of his weaker songs…boring melody half baked lyrics…I like alot of oh mercy just could never get my arms around this tune

  2. Earl says:

    Its a brilliant song. As stated above, the lyrics are strong and the music is fitting. In my opinion, he lyrics are more than half baked – me being a musician, I can tell you, coming up with those kind of lyrics is not easy. For example –
    “We live in a political world
    Where mercy walks the plank
    Life is in mirrors, death disappears
    Up the steps into the nearest bank”

  3. meran says:

    nice article. May I share this?

  4. TonyAttwood says:

    Yes of course, but please do include the source with the URL http://bob-dylan.org.uk/archives/64

    Many of these early reviews are being updated and this one is scheduled to be done soonish, but when that happens the URL stays the same and the article has a note at the top saying when it was updated.

  5. Hello Tony, Thank you for posting this interesting analysis of a song from Bob Dylan’s Music Box http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/495/Political-World Come and join us inside and listen to every version of every song composed, recorded or performed by Bob Dylan, plus all the great covers plus so much more. The definitive Bob Dylan website,

  6. Marcus says:

    Nice opener, rather than a great song. Series of Dreams would have been a superior way to open up what is a really good, underrated album, I think.

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