Saturday, October 15, 2016

Song of the day

"Masters of War", by Bob Dylan.

I might call myself an amateur Dylanologist (heaviest of emphasis on the "amateur", please) but the Bob Dylan who yesterday won the Nobel Prize for literature isn't the Bob Dylan that I listen to. Largely, his lyrics, for me, sit rather flat on the page. As, I should probably add, do pretty much all song lyrics. (This is only my opinion, mind.) I grew up reading Rolling Stone album reviews in an era when half of most reviews involved analysing and/or copying out song lyrics in a search for their "meaning". I never understood this. I have always absorbed songs as singular entities, with the lyrics not being planted into the musical bed but forming an integral part of it. I have listened to hundreds of Dylan songs, some of them maybe hundreds of times. My favourite song of his, for no reason to do with lyrics, is "Masters of War". I have listened to it over and over across the years. I have listened to other people doing it. (Not including Ed Sheeran.) But I couldn't even attempt to quote you one lyric from it. If it had been sung in another language (part of the magic of Dylan being that it kind of is) it would mean just as much to me, and I would still "know" what it was "about".

Literature? I can see what the committee were getting at (I think). His songs (am I contradicting myself?) are all about words. Or the sound of words. He draws on, and frequently -- as far as I can tell -- subverts literary traditions. He mixes this up with references to popular culture, history, the personal, the political. He acknowledges musical tradition. He allegedly borrows liberally from obscure sources. It all goes into a pot and gets tossed around. Stuff comes out of that pot. He sings it. It sounds perfect every time, whatever it is and whatever it means. It often, I'd wager, means nothing more to its author than an instinctive "this sounds pretty good". (Is it heresy to throw in Mark E. Smith as possibly Dylan's only close competitor in this regard? What about giving him a Nobel? The prize money would probably come in handy.) For what little it's worth, I would hazard a guess that the title track from "Tempest", his last studio album of original material (until the next one), might be what got Dylan across the line. It really does have everything in it.

I may have mentioned this previously, but for me the perfect Dylan moment, and it is, maybe, particularly relevant here, is when, in "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright", he sings the line "if'n you don't know by now". Everything about Bob Dylan is wrapped up in that "if'n". The "n" doesn't need to be there for the line to scan. But the line wouldn't be half the line without it. The song wouldn't be half the song. And maybe Dylan wouldn't be half the Nobel Prize winner. ("Bob Dylan: he goes the extra syllable for you.")

But weren't we here for "Masters of War"? I have nothing profound to say about it. It is profound enough. (Okay, one thing: the song structure. Dylan, like -- say -- Nick Cave, knows a good song structure when he sees one. (See, for example, "The Mercy Seat". Or, more recently, "Jubilee Street".) "Masters of War" dares you to look away. You can't.)

This clip was captured in the desert, about a week ago. Dylan doesn't like his stuff to be on the internet, so don't expect it to be here for very long.

[Editor's note: it strikes me now, reading this back, that you might reasonably form the impression that what I have written is really just an excuse for boosting "Masters of War" (which needs no boosting, let alone from me). I thought at the outset that I was going somewhere, but it turns out I was headed somewhere else. Or nowhere at all. Words are tricky things. Dylan knows that. Might I suggest that you go and read Alex Ross instead. He nails it.]