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19 May 2021

Bob Dylan at 80: There is dark, sly laughter behind his most puzzling lyrics

You would need to be an awful nitwit to let yourself be irritated by Dylan’s attempts to sound deep.

By Colm Tóibín

I am interested in the songs in which Dylan trusts the melody to pull the words along with it, to make the lyrics seem true and right, even if on the page they seem bizarre and obscure. Songs like “Farewell Angelina”, “Changing of the Guards” and “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”. Dylan likes direct rhymes, and that too gives these songs an aura of completion. Within this system, he is free to riff and improvise, bewitch the listener with his tone, find a way to throw in elements of a dream, or a private set of images. Some of the lines sound like something that came raw into his head. Because his head is a place filled with rich echo and intricate mischief, the images sound urgent most of the time, almost true.

Sometimes, he picks words because of their sound. Perhaps the only advantage of the word “chimes” is that it rhymes with “rhymes” and with “times”. Thus, his sad-eyed lady has a voice “like chimes” and his “Changing of the Guards” has “the wailing of chimes”. He also loves an ingenious rhyme, such as matching “lowlands” with “no man comes”, knowing that his style of singing will fill in whatever is missing in the echoing sound.

Some of his images are filled with mystery, sharp and sweet. In “Changing of the Guards”, after many moments of pure obscurity, we get, “And cruel death surrenders with its pale ghost retreating.” In “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”, there is a lovely wilful listing of qualities that sound right but make no sense. And then: “And your saintlike face and your ghostlike soul.” Dylan enjoys sounding like an ardent lover and a high priest rolled into one.

In “Angelina”, “The jacks and the queens, they forsake the courtyard/Fifty-two gypsies now file past the guard/In the space where the deuce and the ace once ran wild.” And the attributes of “Sad Eyed Lady” include a “deck of cards missing the jack and the ace”.

Dylan likes these ominous images that suggest a breaking of order out of which strange energy comes. In these three songs, the energy emerges also from surreal sources, as though Dylan is dreaming or high and registering how skewed and weird and oddly exciting everything seems. But lyrics such as “My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums”, or “She was torn between Jupiter and Apollo/A messenger arrived with a black nightingale”, or “King Kong, little elves and the rooftops they dance” are all beyond me. But I like the obscurity, the irrationality, all carried towards meaning by the melody. You would need to be an awful nitwit to let yourself be irritated by Dylan’s attempts to sound deep.

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These are not poems, although they steal as much as they need from poetry. Rather, they are ironic words for songs, and they take as much licence as they require. They manage to sound throwaway and deadly earnest at the same time.

Dylan sings them like he means them. This gives Joan Baez a clue how to sing “Angelina” and “Sad-Eyed Lady” as if they were sweet and sensible songs, and suggests to Patti Smith that “Changing of the Guards” should be sung as though her life depended on it. The rest of us have no idea, really, what to do, except listen to the undercurrent of dark, sly laughter coming to the surface to match the high-toned gravity. We ponder the possibility that Dylan might mean what he sings, after all.

This article appears in our “Who is Bob Dylan?” series

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This article appears in the 19 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, In defence of meritocracy