The debate over whether or not song lyrics are literature has probably been going on since the Canterbury Tales. Last year PEN New England initiated an award for lyrics as a literary form separate from poetry, with prizes going to Leonard Cohen and Chuck Berry. Whichever side you’re on, there’s no denying that bards throughout history have used melody and rhyme to proclaim (and remember) the countless verses of The Iliad, The Odyssey, and a thousand lesser texts.
In concert, 71-year-old Bob Dylan sounds more like a bard than a singer these days. He holds the attention of his audience with long recitative phrases that are sometimes barely comprehensible— unless you already know the words by heart. Most Dylan fans do. Dylan’s songs resonate the same way Yeats’ verse did during his time: political, radical and honest. Bob Dylan and his lyrics may someday be studied as the impetus of change for a generation of written expression.
He’s not done yet. On September 11th Dylan released his 35th studio album, Tempest. Unlike his work from the sixties and seventies, Dylan does not unleash his scathing wit on rivals, old lovers or enemies here. Tempest is a conversation with death.
Dylan compares death to a Sicilian court where the verdict is imminent doom, regardless of justice. He declares, “You won’t get out of here unscarred/ It’s a long road. It’s a long narrow way.” There is a 45 verse song about the ill-fated passengers of the Titanic, set to a bouncy, Popeye-the-sailor-man tune.
Dylan sometimes sounds as shocked as my twenty-something peers that he’s still alive. Surprise at his longevity goes as far as exasperation. “Even death has washed its hands of you,” he moans. Collectively, the songs on Tempest suggest that Dylan’s been waiting for Death, but Death keeps standing him up. Dylan mocks the fact that he’s still kicking: “If I can’t work up to you you’ll surely have to work down to me someday. In an even darker mood he promises the listener he will, “Ship you down to the house of death/ One day you’ll ask for me— There’ll be no one else that you’ll want to see.” In the next line, he is prepared to play a tune while the empire burns: “Bring down my fiddle, tune up my strings/ I’m gonna break it wide open like the early Roman kings.”
It’s no wonder he’s fed up. The man has been mixing up the medicine for a long time now. He refers to his long life in “Scarlet Town,” suggesting that not much has changed after generations of alleged social progress: “Uncle Tom is still working for Uncle Bill.” Perhaps he’s exasperated by fame and the muse that endlessly beckons, no matter how many times he’s tried to retire: “You try to get away, they drag you back.”
At its deepest, Tempest suggests the pain the gods suffered when they took mortal lovers. “You’ve got the same eyes as your mother does” shows that he’s watched generations pass. He’s like Peter Pan realizing the girl he took to be Wendy is Wendy’s daughter. “Your father left you/ your mother too.” How many lovers has he parted with? How many of his children have grown and left home? Their brief lives pass and he endures alone.
He notes that “I’ve had my fun/ I’ve had my flings,” but sometimes Dylan’s tone suggests guilt, as if his blessings were undeserved. More than once he mentions “too many lovers.” The last track on the album is addressed to John Lennon. Is this survivor’s guilt? Why is Dylan still here when so many of his comrades are not? “I pay in blood,” he sings, “but not my own.”
Don’t feel sorry for him. Dylan wouldn’t want you to. “I’m still alive after so many blows,” he sings. “The more I die, the more I live.” Tempest may tell you that Dylan is old but it will never let you believe he is harmless. The record is full of the same unapologetic sensuality and fire that he was hailed for in the sixties. His biting wit has grown into biting wisdom: “You’ve given me nothing but the sweetest lies/ Now hold your tongue and feed your eyes.”
With wisdom the spirit replaces the body: “Bow the heart if not the knee.” Speaking of his too many lovers, he says “Yesterday, I could’ve run them all in the sea/ Today, even one, may be too much for me.” However, he makes sure to declare, “I ain’t dead yet—My bell still rings/ I keep my fingers crossed like them early Roman kings.”
It may sound like Dylan is looking forward to his Sicilian court date, but he’s been using this sort of vocabulary for a long time. He recorded “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” on his first album – fifty years ago. He was 21. When he was 22 he wrote “Let Me Die in My Footsteps.” He released “It’s Not Dark Yet (but it’s getting there)” in 1997, the year he began what has turned out to be a prolific late renaissance. Maybe we have years left to listen to Dylan ponder mortality. After all, he has been cheating the Reaper since his 1966 motorcycle accident. Perhaps Death keeps Dylan among the living because Dylan’s the only one here who understands him.
© Sarah Flanagan, Music Vice
Share and discuss using the links below. Follow Music Vice on Twitter at @MusicVice. Long Live Indie.