Saturday, October 10, 2020

Dylan's Engaging Ambiguity: What Was It You Wanted?

For more than half a century, one of the most intriguing features of many Dylan songs has been his ambiguity. At times he describes scenes and situations with very precise words but you still don't know precisely what it is. Examples include "Ballad of a Thin Man," "Changing of the Guard" and "All Along the Watchtower." 

At the other end of the spectrum we have crystal clarity that allows no wiggle room whatsoever, in songs such as "Only a Pawn in Their Game" and "Masters of War." 

What Was It You Wanted, from his stellar 1989 album Oh Mercy, falls into the first category. It is so completely intriguing while simultaneously shrouded in a fog of ambiguity. I think it interesting that it has been performed 22 times in concert between 1990 and 1995.

The song has a slow even-tempo pace that adds to its effectiveness, creating a sense of the methodical, relentless passage of time. The score reminds me of Paul McCartney's Let 'Em In (1976) which has  a similar rhythmic, restrained pace. But Dylan's version conveys a darker mood. As you listen, much is hinted at but nothing answered. What's going on?

Here's the opening stanza.

What was it you wanted? Tell me again so I’ll know What’s happening in there What’s going on in your show What was it you wanted Could you say it again? I’ll be back in a minute You can get it together by then
Who is he talking with? What is the frame of mind of that person? The last line implies that this other person is the one in a fog. The line previous indicates that the narrator is leaving the room (or this scene) for a minute but will be back.
What was it you wanted You can tell me, I’m back
We can start it all over
Get it back on the track
You got my attention
Go ahead, speak
What was it you wanted
When you were kissing my cheek?
It appears to be a couple. Something was getting started but then it went off the rails. 
Was there somebody looking When you give me that kiss Someone there in the shadows Someone that I might have missed? Is there something you needed Something I don’t understand What was it you wanted Do I have it here in my hand?
This third stanza gives the impression that the narrator is equally befuddled. Where is this going? Where have they been? The narrator's confusion gets further elaboration in the fourth segment.
Whatever you wanted Slipped out of my mind Would you remind me again If you’d be so kind Has the record been breaking Did the needle just skip Is there somebody waiting Was there a slip of the lip?
What was it you wanted I ain’t keeping score Are you the same person That was here before? Is it something important? Maybe not What was it you wanted? Tell me again I forgot

The slow rhythmic beat continues unabated. The metronome of time, passing slowly. We're still in the dark as to what is really going on.
Whatever you wanted What could it be Did somebody tell you That you could get it from me Is it something that comes natural Is it easy to say Why do you want it Who are you anyway?
The narrator doesn't even know who he's with? Or is this a question of, "I thought I knew you but maybe I didn't." Are the characters in a drug or alcohol induced stupor?  
Is the scenery changing Am I getting it wrong Is the whole thing going backwards Are they playing our song? Where were you when it started Do you want it for free What was it you wanted Are you talking to me?

Copyright © 1989 by Special Rider Music

Questions and more questions. But a very different set of questions from Blowing in the Wind. The haunting mood created by the sketchy score. 

Perhaps it's not important what is literally happening. It's about the mood, what the song makes you feel. In this regard it is extremely effective, emotionally textured and vivid. 

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On the other hand, because it is Art there are possibilities far beyond merely an exchange between to confused friends or lovers. In this 2013 essay from the site Manifest Propensity, the author considers the possibility that Dylan in this song was responding the counter-culturalists who wanted to put him on a pedestal, or worse, a throne. 

* * * * 
Tony Atwood's essay on the song is worthy reading. Atwood goes into the music accompaniment, its minor key and minor chords, and the misty dreamscape feel. And like dreams, they can be vivid while concealing meanings instead of revealing. Read Atwood's insights here

Every track on the album Oh Mercy is rewarding. Each has the power to stay with you once it's internalized. If you're not the kind of person who has to own every Dylan album but want suggestions for a smaller "must have" collection, Oh Mercy is one of these. 

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