Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Modern Times track-by-track: When The Deal Goes Down

Chris Gregory, who has just finished writing an engaging, thoughtful track-by-track analysis of Modern Times, has kindly consented to The Dylan Daily publishing a sample of his writing, on two of the album’s ten songs.

The first article, in two parts, analyses When The Deal Goes Down. A second two-part article, on Workingman’s Blues #2, will follow next week.


By Chris Gregory

…We all wear the same thorny crown…

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Modern Times is its lyrical and emotional clarity. The lyrics of 2001’s Love And Theft, like so many Dylan albums before it, featured often wildly allusive patterns of reference. But here the songs are carefully constructed to convey specific emotions and themes in a way that we may not generally think of as ‘Dylanesque’. When The Deal Goes Down is perhaps the most precisely written and the least ambiguous piece on the album. It deals with mortality and the fragility of existence ‘in this earthly domain’ with great humility and dignity. As ever with Dylan, we are presented with a number of apparently very different reference points. Its rich fusion of natural imagery and restrained ‘plain speak’ is reminiscent of the poetry of Robert Frost. It is delivered in a breathy, almost whispered Willie Nelson-style croon which befits its bittersweet nature, in a tune based on an old Bing Crosby number. There is a sparing use of archaic language, including some lines lifted from the work of Civil War poet Henry Timrod. The song is also infused with the spirit, and some of the imagery, of the blues. Yet these disparate elements are quite seamlessly combined in a transcendent, sometimes almost heartbreaking, performance. The song is a kind of open confession, in which the singer lays forth his spiritual confusion in what becomes a kind of conversation with his audience, the rest of the world and himself.

When The Deal Goes Down is especially reminiscent of two earlier Dylan songs, both of which wrestle with loss of faith, mortality and the mysteries of the cosmos. Every Grain of Sand (1981) was written at the end of his most overtly religious period, following his dramatic conversion to Born Again Christianity in 1979. But here the moral certainty of the songs of two years before is replaced by profound self-doubt. Although he declares that he can …see the Master’s hand…. in every aspect of creation, he finally confesses that …sometimes I turn, there’s someone there, other times it’s only me… as if his whole experience of God has been merely one of his own projections. By the time of Not Dark Yet (1997) the singer faces a complete loss of faith, feeling that his …soul has turned into steel…. and telling us that …sometimes my burden is more than I can bear… When The Deal Goes Down attempts to provide a resolution to this ongoing spiritual crisis. What makes the song so moving is the way it depicts a struggle for, and perhaps a final attainment of, a kind of grace, or spiritual enlightenment, achieved not through any conventionally ‘religious’ path but through making a personal ‘deal’ with the spirit of creativity. Dylan has stated that he now places his faith not in any deity but in the old songs he constantly revisits and refers to in his art, many of them (such as Hank Williams’ manic gospel number I Saw The Light) rather turbulent expressions of faith. As with Spirit On The Water and Rolling And Tumbling, Dylan makes the spirit of creativity his touchstone, his ‘God’, his ‘Tambourine Man’.

The song begins like a slow country waltz, with some mournful steel guitar and tense percussive brush strokes. In the first verse Dylan describes the state of spiritual confusion he has found himself in, confessing that he is ‘bewildered’ and that …we live and we die/We know not why… Any prayers that may be offered up are like invisible clouds, floating away unnoticed. The ‘pathways of life’ are dark and the singer stands in the symbolic landscape of …the world’s ancient light/Where wisdom grows up in strife… The declaration of …But I’ll be with you when the deal goes down… is the first statement of defiant faith, apparently contradicting what has gone before. Although the song sounds nothing like the blues, it has begun in the typical manner of a blues lament – by stating the singer’s troubles. The phrase ‘when the deal goes down’ is used in a number of blues songs, including Honey Babe Let The Deal Go Down by Dylan’s particular favourites The Mississippi Sheiks and Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down, originally recorded by Charlie Poole and The North Carolina Ramblers in 1925 (and covered by Dylan on several occasions). The ‘deal’ in these songs is a gambling metaphor which the singers extend to life in general, the idea being that you have to face life with whatever ‘hand’ you are dealt. Here, despite what the singer identifies as the apparent purposelessness of life, he is determined to hold onto the ‘cards’ he has been given.

As the band sticks to the minimal backdrop, Dylan continues with his understated delivery. The song continues to shift between the personal to the universal. The first lines of the second verse ...We eat and we drink, we feel and we think/far down the street we stray… suggests, in a philosophical tone, that we are all fallible creatures who will inevitably ‘stray’ from the path of virtue. The singer is ‘haunted’ by regret for ….things I never meant or wished to say… The second half of the verse moves from plainspeak into more imagistic expression. …The midnight rain follows the train… is the song’s most ‘Dylanesque’ line, itself derived from blues imagery. ‘Rain’ is a frequent image in Dylan’s work, frequently symbolising chaotic confusion and spiritual desolation. …I’m out in the rain/And you are on dry land… Dylan cries in 1975’s You’re A Big Girl Now, expressing his exclusion and desolation. ..Everybody’s making love… he sings in Desolation Row (1965) …or else expecting rain… In A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall lies and confusion threaten to flood the entire world. Here the ‘midnight rain’ stands as a metaphor for life’s troubles, following the train which symbolises the progress of a human life. The next line …we all wear the same thorny crown… delivered with a kind of light, sighing compassion, is perhaps the song’s most resonant image, suggesting that the burden of sin is carried by us all. Despite the obvious reference to Jesus, this is decidedly not a line he would have used on Slow Train Coming or Saved. Dylan’s work has always been steeped in Biblical imagery and a concern with what he once called ‘the politics of sin’ has always been one of his central themes. The delivery of the line here is so moving because of the sense of dignity he imparts to what amounts to an almost tearfully world-weary acceptance of the inevitability of the burden we must all bear. Whereas in Not Dark Yet the burden seems to be too much for him, here he is able to bear it lightly. The next line, the exquisite ...soul to soul, our shadows roll… further emphasises the idea that ultimately we are all equally mortal, our ‘shadows’ merging together in the spiritual world. Dylan caresses the words, with their neat internal rhyme suggesting his acceptance of a kind of universal harmony. The title line at the end of the verse now begins with ‘and’ rather than ‘but’. The contradictions of the first verse have clearly, to some extent, been resolved.

… continued on The Dylan Daily tomorrow …

All lyrics quoted are used for the purpose of criticism or review. All lyrics quoted are by Bob Dylan.
DESOLATION ROW Copyright © 1965 by Warner Bros Inc; renewed 1993 by Special Rider Music.
YOU’RE A BIG GIRL NOW Copyright © 1974 Ram’s Horn Music; renewed 2002 by Ram’s Horn Music.
EVERY GRAIN OF SAND Copyright © 1981 Special Rider Music.
NOT DARK YET Copyright © 1997 Special Rider Music.
WHEN THE DEAL GOES DOWN Copyright © 2006 Special Rider Music.

See all Chris’s writing at: