Friday, June 29, 2018

Political World -- Whether Screed or Lament, Dylan's Missive Remains Relevant

When Dylan's Oh Mercy was released in 1989 it was hailed as another comeback album from the "Comeback Kid", a guy whose whole career could be considered a series of highlight reels. As for me, I would have to agree that the studio albums produced between Infidels and Oh Mercy -- Empire Burlesque, Knocked Out Loaded and Down in the Groove -- were inconsistent and lackluster. And then came this gem.

Like many of Dylan's albums the opening number has a drive to it that energizes you from the start. A few examples will suffice. Bringing It All Back Home (Subterranean Homesick Blues), Street Legal (Changing of the Guard), Infidels (Jokerman), Modern Times (Thunder on the Mountain)....

What's interesting to me is how laid back most of this album is, though. "Everything Is Broken," another favorite two tracks later, is the only other fast-paced tune on the album. The songs are reflective, thought-provoking, melancholy at times and masterfully produced by Daniel Lanois, whom was recommended to Dylan by Bono. Dylan and Lanois later re-connected to produce the Grammy-winning Time Out Of Mind.

I like the way Tony Attwood begins his review of this song at Untold Dylan: The musical opening of the recording on Oh 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.

[When Attwood writes "a triumph" I can't help but hear the voice of Bob Cratchit when over Christmas dinner he declares, after tasting his wife's  blood pudding, "a triumph, my dear." It feels so British.]

The rhythm reminds me of the unrelenting energy of a runaway train. Once it's up to speed it just rolls along, verse after verse. There are no choruses. There's only the energy that's been generated which continuously regenerates.

The structure of the lyrics is interesting. Songs with a repeating line often have the key line at the end of each verse, as in Blowing in the Wind. "The answer my friend..." In this song each verse begins with the statement, "We live in a political world." The song strings together stanza after stanza unpacking the meanings and implications of this statement of fact. "Because we live in a political world this is how it is," Dylan seems to be saying, and this, and this, and this.... There's no place for love. Crimes are faceless. Wisdom sits in jail. Mercy walks the plank. Life is a house of mirrors. The deck is stacked against us... or as Leonard Cohen once sang:
“Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows that the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That’s how it goes
Everybody knows”

The power of so many of Dylan's songs is their timelessness. "Blowing in the Wind" served the civil rights and antiwar movements of the Sixties, but it has not lost a minute of its relevance today. And when in the classic "It's Alright, Ma" Dylan wrote, "Sometimes even the president of the United States must sometimes stand naked" is there a commander-in-chief that this has not applied to?

"Political World" pulls back the veil, shows us how much we've only been fooling ourselves to be glib about it all. Having recently watched Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, based on the John le Carré Cold War novel, featuring Gary Oldman as the Brit spy George Smiley, it's easy to hear echoes in this song, of a realm all shadow and darkness. Who are the good guys? Who are the bad guys? The murky political world is neither friendly or inviting. It wears masks and harbors secrets. It plays rough. Mercy walks the plank. It's ugly. I think here of the scene in L.A. Confidential where Bud White (Russell Crowe) finds the dead body in the basement, rats crawling about, the suffocating stench. It's not pretty.

This has been a recurring theme in Dylan's work. Not unlike "Masters of War" or the irresolution of "All Along the Watchtower." "There must be some way out of here..."

I think too of 'Shot of Love." "I've seen the kingdoms of this world, and it's making me feel afraid." That's the problem with seeing. When you've seen too much, how does one un-see? So we self-medicate.

One feature of this political world we live in has to do with the judgments made on every facet of our lives. It used to be that shopping at Wal-Mart was a choice people made to buy cheap goods. It eventually evolved into a political act, non-support for American-made (union-made) goods. Eating at the Golden Arches also became a statement as we become aware of "factory farms" and the manner in which beef is processed. Sometimes the politics of various factions collide so that union miners want jobs but Earth Firsters want to protect the environment. The net net is that people keep their mouths shut about what they believe because open discussion can result in lost friendships. This was the "Silent Majority" Nixon counted on for his election and re-election, along with his bag of dirty tricks, a toolkit that both our major political parties count on while simultaneously denying.

One difference between the "political world" of decades past and today is that with Wikileaks we really do see behind the Wizard of Oz's curtain... and with social media's pyrotechnics, more than your head is left spinning. Founding fathers are turning in their graves.

Here are the song lyrics, followed by a video of the same...

Political World

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

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

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

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

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

We live in a political world
In the cities of lonesome fear
Little by little you turn in the middle
But you’re never sure why you’re here

We live in a political world
Under the microscope
You can travel anywhere and hang yourself there
You always got more than enough rope

We live in a political world
Turning and a-thrashing about
As soon as you’re awake, you’re trained to take
What looks like the easy way out

We live in a political world
Where peace is not welcome at all
It’s turned away from the door to wander some more
Or put up against the wall

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

Copyright © 1989 by Special Rider Music

Related Links
Tony Attwood's Take 
A Songfacts Anecdote


Anonymous said...

I had allmost forgotten how good this song is, the returning phrase not being my favorite poetic device, though Dylan uses it quite a lot, and he is the poet for me, so... Thanks for getting me into it again! Greetings hans altena

Ed Newman said...

Thanks for the note. Yes, I often feel that way when I return to a song I hadn't listened to in a while.