I’m going to take a shot at writing about a selection of Dylan tracks released since 2000 that I find to be of particular value or import, in no particular order. Here goes.
This is one of the few Dylan songs released in the new millennium that seems to have become firmly enshrined as a classic, even among casual fans. A couple of other artists even had a crack at it before he got to it himself – Sheryl Crow and the Dixie Chicks – suggesting that he suspected from an early stage that the song had legs and the potential for mass appeal.
Musically, it remains one of the few compositions of these last couple of decades that could be called “rock and roll,” bearing neither the stamp of Tin Pan Alley nor Chess Records – his twin muses of the last little while. There is more roll than rock in the song, though, as the pulsing, slippery bass-line carries the tune along and the melancholy melody ascends, ascends, ascends before dropping down like a crashing wave. My favorite version is the acoustic take on “Tell Tale Signs,” Disc 1, because it emphasizes the sad wistfulness inherent in the music, and Dylan sings it in that beautiful whisper that he saves for special occasions (see “Soon After Midnight” on “Tempest” for a lovely recent example).
The cover renditions are … fine. A song this spectacular is hard to mess up. Take a guitar that’s more or less in tune and a voice that hits most of the notes, and it’s going to be tolerable. But these artists, whatever their merits, lacked the necessary gravitas to lend to the piece, which captures better than any other late vintage Dylan song that particular tone that rings like a bell through these latter years: fatalistic and grim, but funny; bitter yet shot through with sweetness; despairing yet stoic; and completely, utterly – and, one suspects, permanently – disillusioned with the world of men.
It’s difficult to convey the full mastery of this song, the completeness with which he lays bare a total vision of life, without simply quoting the whole thing. Perhaps the key verse, mixing as it does the darks and brights with painterly precision, is this:
Well, my ship’s been split to splinters, and it’s sinking fast.
I’m drowning in the poison – got no future, got no past.
But my heart is not weary. It’s light and it’s free.
I’ve got nothing but affection for all those who’ve sailed with me.
The narrator is doomed – subject, like all of us, to the ravages of time, the desolations of loss, all the wounds of love and the aches of unanswerable questions. And yet, in his despair, in his acknowledgement that his past is gone and his future unreachable – as he drowns in poison – he declares that his heart is “light and free,” and he thinks back fondly to all the companions who have shared his journey.
There is something here of Roman Stoicism, of Marcus Aurelius who said: “Adapt yourself to the things among which your lot has been cast and love sincerely the fellow creatures with whom destiny has ordained that you shall live.” Life is as it is: it wounds, it splits to splinters, and, ultimately, it destroys us. But through this we retain the power to choose whether to let our hearts become bitter and blackened, or to keep them “light and free.” Aurelius again: “ … it is in thy power whenever thou shalt choose to retire into thyself. For nowhere either with more quiet or more freedom from trouble does a man retire than into his own soul.”
This Stoic feeling is common in recent Dylan, who is certainly familiar with the sources. Life is cruel, hard, and treacherous, the Old Man reminds us, but by keeping our heart set on eternal things, we can get through it. “Mississippi” expresses this beautifully, but set within the Stoicism, like a bright gem on a cold ring, is something else: an undying and unashamed belief in the redemptive possibilities of romantic love.
As in these lines:
All my powers of expression, and thoughts so sublime,
Could never do you justice in reason or rhyme.
Or this verse:
Everybody moving – if they ain’t already there.
Everybody got to move … somewhere.
Stick with me, baby. Stick with me anyhow.
Things should start to get interesting right about now.
Stoic or Romantic or maybe just partaking of the philosophy that synthesizes and transcends them both – namely, the Blues – “Mississippi” delivers the goods in abundance, and then some. Dylan declares to his love that her days are numbered, that his are too, that he has heard all there is to hear and feels like an invisible stranger walking under fallen leaves; that he has stayed in Mississippi one day too long and this choice has led him to the edge of ruin; more than this, that the “sky’s full of fire” and now “pain’s pouring down” – but won’t she take his hand? The end of days might be the last adventure left for two lovers who have seen everything else.