Richard Thompson can transport you to places in his songs like no-one else. Drawing his inspiration from folk songs, oral tales, tattered history books, half remembered stories, bizarre websites and advertising catalogues, Thompson is a master of time and space. Many of his best songs place you in a specific historical context, then move you somewhere else by subtle shifting of words. This is a trick Dylan has used in his most recent albums on a number of occasions, but Thompson has been doing it since his earliest days. The gloriously vicious ‘twisted nursery rhyme’ The Sun Never Shines On The Poor, for instance, from his 1973 album Hokey Pokey, is set an apparently Dickensian world full of street urchins, Salvation Army bands. You can almost expect Fagin or Scrooge to come creeping around the corner until we hear that …the last penny falls through a hole in your jeans… the word ‘jeans’ suddenly catapulting us forward a century. Similarly the 1940s style-ballad Al Bowwly’s In Heaven (1986), which purports to be a nostalgic song about World War Two, was one of the most subtle and damning indictments of the heartlessness of Thatcher’s ignoble reign. Thus Thompson’s songs identifiy elements of the past in the present, and vice versa, thus creating a body of work in which disparate elements history, time and place are continually invoked as metaphors for our current condition.

A lot of what makes this work is Thompson’s own all-exclusive musicality and his genius as a musical arranger. At barely twenty years old he was the main conceptual force behind the Unhalfbricking and Liege And Lief albums, which revolutionised the relationship between Britain’s folk tradition and rock and roll. Now he regularly presents the Thousand Years Of Popular Music Shows in which he covers songs ranging from eleventh century Middle-English ploughing dirges to Britney Spears numbers. No other artist would even dare to do this – any one else who did so might be accused of the grossest over-estimation of themselves. Yet Thompson carries it all off with modest, self-deprecating aplomb. To call him a ’folk’ musician is thus a vast underestimation of where he stands in our musical landscape. Certainly you can hardly call Sweet Warrior a ‘folk’ record. It’s a full on rock album, dominated by the sound of Thompson’s uniquely fluid, gloriously expressive yet disciplined electric guitar playing (though he also features on mandolin, autoharp, harmonium and God-knows what else) and Michael Jerome’s thunderous drumming. Sweet Warrior is one of Thompson’s most focused collections of songs, a series of meditations on human viciousness, fear and regret; leavened by some cunningly constructed  piss-takes and caustic, elegaic ballads. Like Bruce Springsteen’s Magic it shows us snapshots of a world in which our cultural and personal lives have been corrupted and constrained by the atmosphere of a world purporting, absurdly, to be ‘at war with terror’.

Thompson’s songs have always dealt with terror in uncompromising terms. Dark visions are his natural playground. The epic Dad’s Gonna Kill Me, in which he lays out staccato guitar work recalling Hendrix’s Machine Gun, is surely the most profound and effective song anyone has written about the Iraq War. Dad is the only song on the album specifically about Iraq, but that conflict’s presence informs the whole work. Thompson’s approach to the subject is clevely Orwellian. There is no real ‘story’ to the song as such – it merely consists of a frontline American soldier expressing his fears – but the focus  is  on  how the soldier’s terror is made somehow bearable by the use of slang – ‘Dad’ for Baghdad, ‘Old Ali Baba’ for any Arab, ‘HUM V Frankenstein’ is an armoured tank, ‘muzzle monkeys’ for soldiers. ‘Dad’ is personified as a ‘character’: …Dad’s in a bad mood, Dad’s got the blues… the soldier tells us. What seems to fascinate Thompson here is the way in which colourful language is used as a kind of psychic defence against unspeakable horrors and perpetual fear. This soldier has no dreams of glory. He only prays that his luck will hold out. In a specifically Orwellian reference he tells is …. Nobody’s dying if you speak double-speak… This ‘sweetening’ of  language thus becomes a powerful metaphor for the way in which not only the Iraq War but all wars can be rationalised away. Yet all this is done with the self-deprecating ‘gallows humour’ Thompson specialises in.

As ever, Thompson assembles a gallery of colourful characters and gives life to them. The wonderfully sarcastic Sneaky Boy purports to be a portrait of a boy who ‘rats’ on his friends to grown-ups but, just as 1993’s Mother Knows Best was a comic-horror portrait of Thatcher, so the Sneaky Boy is a dead ringer for Tony Blair. Recalling that our ex-PM was once in a rock band, Thompson spits out …Your teeth and your t-shirt were always too clean… Much of the invective in the song is comically snide, until the weary narrator waxes lyrical: …Spleen of Mammon, spleen of Midas/ Now you scold us, now you chide us/ Mammon lung and Midas liver/ Now you sell us down the river… The clipped rhymes and sudden change of lexical focus is typical of Thompson’s method, as he casts scorn on Blair’s supposed ‘spirituality’, identifying him clearly with ‘Mammon’, the god of materialisam and Midas, the king who gave up all control so that everything he touched would turn to gold. And we all know what happened to him… Mr. Stupid is another wonderfully tongue-in-cheek piece of derisive invective, proceeding a a jaunty pace, in which a rejected divorcee rails against a spoiled wife, piling up the sarcasm as he describes himself as a ‘performing monkey’. In contrast, the mock-cheery Bad Monkey, an energetic workout featuring prominent horns duelling with Thompson’s guitar (slightly reminiscent of frequent set-closer Tear Stained Letter), is written from the female point of view, mocking her over-sensitive and manipulative lover. Such songs work as effective vehicles for the band’s tough ensemble playing, as Thompson assumes various ‘put upon’ guises that we soon begin to see through.

Other songs have even darker motives. The opener, Needle and Thread, is another stylised piece featuring a narrator wronged in love. As with earlier diatribes like Read About Love and Feel So Good there is the suggestion that the narrator is more than a little unhinged. The track is another masterful example of Thompson’s dark humour and his unique way of using suggestions of time and place to give his songs a distinctive colouring. Here the song is set, rather bizarrely in some Welsh mining village. The singer has a paranoid fear of women, repeating a chorus full of twisted sexual imagery. Thompson licks his lips around the Welsh names ‘Caitlain’ and ‘Myfanwe’ as the narrator miserably recounts the names of the women who have mocked his obviously rather retarded sexuality. I’ll Never Give It Up examines rampant male machismo from an equally sinister perspective, its narrator positively looking forward to a fight with his rival. The soulful, reggae-tinged Francesca is apparently more sympathetic, its narrator bemoaning a woman who has been bad-mouthed by gossippers, but who now …charges by the hour… Too Late To Come Fishing, a slower, more anguished number, again locates its characters rather bizarrely, as the ‘hurt’ narrator rejects the advances of a woman whom he memorably recalls as being  …type-cast as the Stone Age charmer/ In that Darwin docudrama… Although the song carries a stirring, regretful melody, it is still basically another mocking piece of invective, as is Johnny’s Far Away, which recounts the story of a faithless husband and wife. While the husband, who we hear…believes in chastity – for some…plays in a ceildh band, seducing rich widows during his engagement on a cruise ship, the wife is at home with another man  who she keeps ‘in a headlock’ while … the kids are in the front room watching movies…Eventually Johnny returns from the sea and they make up with a few cheap roses. As with Needle And Thread Thompson delights in the seediness of the whole situation. Again we are in some indistinct historical period, perhaps the 1970s, but as ever this is kept ambiguous. Such songs are like compressed short stories, analysing human frailties and hypocrisies with verbal knives sharpened..

Among the album’s slower, more reflective songs, all of which are graced by Thompson’s characteristic bitter-sweet melodies, several link the end of relationships with the imagery of death. In Poppy Red the song’s narrator mourns a departed lover with the stock phrase ‘in loving memory’. The blood-redness of the poppies overwhelms him as he pictures her walking away from him. The song’s imagery is deceptively simple but the song itself effectively evokes a mood of dreamy nostalgic regret.  She Sang Angels To Rest is similarly unearthly, the narrator declaring that …She had that look in her eyes/ Like she’d seen a ghost walking by… The closing Sunset Song also looks back on an ‘dead’ relationship, which the narrator constantly tries to summon back to life …Every day I’ll wear your memory… he sings …like a favourite shirt upon my back… These elegaic pieces leaven the vitriol of the black humour in the other songs. Take Care Of The Road You Choose is a classic Thompson ballad, punctuated by restrained but evocative guitar passages, looking back on a relationship from the past that turned out to be a missed opportunity, musing on the way the choices we make can determine our future path in life.

These themes of love, deception, regret and death are united in the album’s standout track, Guns Are The Tongues, an evocative story song which delves into the psychology of terrorism and tribal religious conflicts, made more bitter by an edge of sexual exploitation. Again the interplay between Thompson’s guitar and Jerome’s drums is crucial. Guns is a model example of Thompson’s skills as a musical arranger, slowly building to what is literally an ‘explosive’ climax. The use of mandolin and fiddle add lyrical colour, hinting at the song’s Celtic themes. Thompson’s breathy, understated vocals deliver this terrifying cautionary tale with great conviction. A passing reference to ‘Glengarry’ identifies the location as being some time during the ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland, but much of the song’s dynamics could equally apply to any situation in which terrorism  or guerilla warfare is being practised. The narrator, Carrie, is the ‘godmother’ of an IRA cell who seduces a rather naïve young man, jokily named ‘Little Joe’ by the compatriots because he is so gangly, persuading him to drive a car full of explosives into a roadblock manned by soldiers. In a few lines, Thompson creates some memorable characters. Carrie herself keeps a scrapbook of the other young men who had passed through the cell down the years, many of whom have obviously sacrificed themselves for ‘the cause’.  Little Joe is described with memorable precision: …. his whole body would sway/ Like a trawler boy/ Finding his legs ashore… A head case but his record was clean/ Just the kind they were looking for… The choruses, depicting how Carrie rouses Little Joe to murder, are the song’s high points, as she cries …Bring peace to the grave of my brother/ Bring peace to the grave of my father/ Dry the old eyes of my mother… memorably evoking how embedded the culture of revenge is in such a situation. She could just as well be instructing suicide bombers in Iraq or Lebanon. In the end Little Joe’s mission does turn out to be a ‘suicide bombing’. We hear that …Little Joe would’ve jumped clear/But for the awful fear/ Of scraping his knees there on the gravel… suggesting he is either rather simple-minded or just paralysed by fear. Carrie’s narrative concludes with the hauntingly deadpan … They marvelled how far/ His boots had travelled…

Of course, as critic after critic have pointed out, Thompson should be an awful lot more popular and famous than he is. Yet perhaps that’s not such a bad thing. He has a devoted, if ageing, following; controls his own music releases through an independent website and has no ‘pop star’ period to look back on. Indeed, his entire career (with the possible exception of a short dip in the early ‘80s) has been marked by remarkable consistency. Although naturally a rather shy fellow, who took several years of performing  to develop confidence in his own singing voice, his stage shows are now greatly enlivened by the narrative of self-mocking and ironic humour he uses between songs. Sometimes, when playing 1973’s I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight (originally recorded as part of the husband and wife duo Richard and Linda Thompson) he’ll joking refer to it as ‘a medley of  our greatest hit’. Thompson has remained refreshingly free of the pressures of overbearing fame. You won’t be seeing him in Hello magazine anytime soon. Though already prodigiously talented as a ‘teenage virtuoso’ his songwriting has only grown stronger and stronger over the years. Sweet Warrior is perhaps his most thematically focused album, a searingly contemporary effort which like all of its author’s hugely impressive forty-year body of work, stands firmly outside the influence of the vagaries of musical fashions. And although it resonates with many of today’s key concerns, its songs also exist in a space somewhere slightly out of time, so emphasising the timeless universality of the situations and conflicts it inhabits so eloquently; with such sly, barbed wit and such knowing wisdom.


This is the second of my examinations of contemporary albums by leading singer-songwriters… more to come!  In the meantime some extracts from my ‘Modern Times Track By Track’ series are now appearing at The Dylan Daily  

As ever I’d appreciate any comments at  or in the box below. Always glad to hear your views….





 Bruce Springsteen’s Magic is a journey into the darkness of the ‘American night’; a portrait of a country mired in confusion, its value-systems broken down, its soul in torment. As a writer, Springsteen is often misunderstood. This is partly because he often casts his narratives in the form of raucous rock and roll workouts and partly because he chooses to speak through a series of narrators. It’s possible to experience his music on a purely visceral level. Reunited here as he is with the rich and expansive-sounding E-Street band, with more than three decades of playing together behind them, he guides us through a series of ecstatic peaks and emotional troughs using familiar musical tropes – the chiming ‘wall of sound’ of guitars, washes of organ, lyrical piano and pensive sax passages. It is a kind of all-enveloping sound first perfected on the Born To Run album, which attempts to subsume all of those disparate strands of rock which have inspired its leader – 50s rock and roll and doo wop, 60s soul, 70s funk – along with his more ‘intellectual’ interest in song as literature as purveyed by Dylan, his antecedents and some of his contemporaries. The result is a dense format which requires considerable attention in order to appreciate fully. Despite his image as a crowd-pleasing populist, much of Springsteen’s work is complex, allusive and full of subtle nuances. Although his role as social commentator has grown over the years, so much so that some see him as a kind of ‘conscience of liberal America’, he has rarely resorted to easy platitudes. Despite the tributes he’s paid to John Steinbeck in a number of past songs, as a writer he’s more Saul Bellow than Steinbeck – his work is intense, often psychologically ambivalent and grounded in the minutae of American cultural identity.

Magic is – like much of his previous two albums The Rising and Devils And Dust – profoundly influenced by the political and social climate of twenty first century America in the so-called ‘Post 9/11’ era. As ever he sings through a range of personas. What unites them is a mood of disillusionment, of disaffection. Springsteen’s characters feel misplaced, cheated by circumstances, yet often frustrated –  unable to actually change anything. They are prisoners of the past, with uncertain futures. The album’s mesmerising opener, Radio Nowhere, is dynamic slab of fast-moving rock and roll, driven by an edge of desperation and an urge for renewal. From the gut-wrenching Thunder Road onwards, Springsteen has often evoked the spirit of rock and roll as a force for redemption. Radio Nowhere is a desperate plea for the same process to occur, itself generating the kind of emotional uplift it pleads for, vociferously soliciting help from …a million different voices speaking in tongues… Led by thunderous drums and rhythm guitars, the mix almost buries Bruce’s desperate requests for the spiritual uplift of …some rhythm… and for ….a world with some soul… On one level, the song is a kind of post-apocalyptic fantasy, like one of those early ‘60s movies where the main character finds themselves alone in a world where everyone else has been wiped out by bomb or plague. The driver ‘tries to find his way home’ by tuning into a station which can uplift him. But there is nothing. The dial is dead. …Is there anybody alive out there?…he cries repeatedly, desperately. The lines are clipped, terse. Licking his dry lips over the rhymes,  the singer evokes Presley’s ghost: …I was drivin’ through the misty rain/ Searchin’ for a mystery train… The song also recalls the other Elvis  – Costello’s gloriously vituperative Radio Radio, a venomous attack on the blandness of radio programming – but the implications here are wider – the narrator is not so much angry as desperate. It seems unlikely that he’ll receive the nourishment his soul so obviously needs. The lack of ‘soul’ on the radio shows works as a symbol of a wider malaise – it is not just the music which has lost its soul, but the whole culture that surrounds it.

The two rather sour and twisted love songs which follow, You’ll Be Coming Down and Living In The Future, sustain this mood in a rather sly, deceptive way. In both cases the music is rather stirring and uplifting, with ‘The Big Man’ Clarence Clemons’ energetic, optimistic-sounding sax prominent. Living In The Future also showcases Danny Federeci’s luxuriant organ sound and ends in a chorus of …Na, na, nas… Both have strong, ‘stadium singalong’ chroruses. But the lyrics of both songs belie the music. In You’ll Be Coming Down the narrator addresses what may be an ex-girlfriend who has left him for a life in the public eye. …They’ll use you up and spit you out… he sneers  …You’ll be fine as long as your pretty  face holds out… He warns her bitterly that everything will fall apart for her soon. Living In The Future begins with the narrator relating news of a ‘Dear John’ letter his lover has sent him, after which he develops a number of apocalyptic metaphors in a kind of imagined fantasy vengeance scenario. The chorus casts doubt on the whole scenario in an oddly threatening way. Both songs employ a range of natural imagery. In You’ll Be Coming Down the sky’s colour changes from murky gray to dusky blue to cinammon to ‘candy-apple green’ . In Living In The Future the skies are ….gunpowder and shades of grey… and the sun is ‘dirty’. Behind both songs, something ominous lurks. Next up, Your Own Worst Enemy is wrapped in strings and harmonies and ends with the sound of fading church bells, but tells a rather paranoid, guilt-ridden tale. Told from a more detached third-person perspective this time, the song relates how its protagonist has to ‘remove all the mirrors’ from his house, having carelessly  left his fingerprints’ at what may be a murder scene. But it seems that the ‘worst enemy’ may be the main character himself.

While these songs conjure sometimes disturbing images of disharmony under  troubled skies, Gypsy Biker is more explicit in its focus. A story-ballad in the Nebraska mode initially led by acoustic guitar and harmonica, it deals with the effects of the death of a soldier on a family in a small American town. The narrator is the soldier’s brother. There is no specific mention of the Iraq War but the overtly cynical justapositioning of the political and the domestic in the opening lines leaves us in little doubt as to the scenario:…The speculators made their money on the blood you shed/Your momma’s pulled the sheets up off your bed… Both the family and the town are divided over whether this sacrifice has been worthwhile. As a tribute to the fallen soldier the brother and his friends take his beloved motorbike and incinerate it out in the desert. The song ends with the brother snorting lines of coke, trying to blot out any sense of morality. …To the dead… he points out …it don’t matter much ’bout who’s wrong or right…

Girls In Their Summer Clothes has the album’s most distinctive tune, its booming, echoey sound conjuring up the Early 60s ‘carnival sound’ that one always imagines was  the soundtrack to the teenage Bruce’s adventures, its soundscape emulating Phil Spector and classic Beach Boys. The song’s main melody line seems to echo a hundred American ‘boardwalk’ songs of the time but is actually partly derived from The Who’s The Kids Are Alright. The tone of fantasy-nostalgia is deliberate. The song begins with a series of idealised images of a place Bruce calls ‘Blessing Avenue’. We see lovers holding hands, a bicycle wheel spinning…. a rubber ball bouncing off a wall, the evening lights coming on. It’s what you might call an ‘American idyll’, brightly lit and somehow slow-moving, conjuring up a similarly surreal view of  suburbia to the opening sequence David Lynch’s masterful movie Blue Velvet (1986). Yet as in that movie, darkness lurks beneath the bright surfaces. The song’s narrator declares, rather ambiguously: ….Tonight I’m gonna burn this town down… The girls passing by on the street don’t notice him – as if he exists in a different reality. He sits in a diner downtown and indulges in a brief fantasy about a waitress who temporarily takes pity on him. …Love’s a fool’s dance… he mutters wistfully. The narrator is a  man out of time, out of step with this imagined America.

The next two songs are rather oblique fantasies. I’ll Work For Your Love may even be set in the same diner – here the narrator constructs an elaborate flight of the imagination around a waitress, indulging in bizarre Catholic imagery, comparing the bones in her back to ‘Stations of the Cross’ : ..Round your hair the sun lifts a halo… he muses… at your lips a crown of thorns…   He imagines her beauty will redeem him from the ‘perdition’ he finds himself in. Again the surfaces of the music are rich and warm, with the swirling organ again to the fore, the melody bearing some resemblance to Dylan’s Chimes of Freedom. In the final lines the religious/sexual imagery becomes suggestively menacing: …I watch your hands smooth the front of your blouse and seven drops of blood fall…   Magic is another deceptively ‘gentle’ song, its simple acoustic setting and near-whispered vocals recalling the stylings of Tunnel Of Love. The song begins innocently enough, with the ‘magician’ telling  the subject of the song that he has a ‘coin in his palm’ and a ‘rabbit in his hat’, but we soon move into a strange, dream-like territory: …Chain me in a box in your river/ And I’ll rise singin’ this song… the narrator intones. He then tells her …I’ll cut you in half/ While you’re smilin’ ear to ear… This may be, perhaps, some elaborate joke. But in the final verse we suddenly shift  into an apocalyptic scenario where ‘bodies are hanging from the trees’- a kind of twisted, hell-like vision. Magic is a kind of mysterious invocation, culminating in a sense of deep foreboding which is a kind of prelude to the more overtly dark worlds of the album’s climactic songs.

The first of these, Last To Die, is a supremely ambivalent effort beset by disturbingly violent images. Musically and vocally it recalls many of the brooding pieces on 1978’s Darkness On The Edge Of Town, but lyrically it takes us even further into disturbing  territory. The song begins with a couple driving in their car with …the kids asleep in the backseat… An apocalyptic scenario rages around them, with cities in flames. The suggestion of the early lines in the song is that the couple are on some kind of  random murder spree: … We don’t measure the blood we’ve drawn anymore…  the narrator sings …We just stack the bodies outside the door…although this is more likely to be a (somewhat disturbing) metaphor for a relationship under intense strain. The chorus quotes a well known question a young John Kerry once asked regarding the Vietnam War, which has obvious resonances with the current Iraq situation. The driver is listening to ‘voices on the radio’ which fill him with disturbing visions … ‘Faces at the dead at five’… suggesting a daily news roll call of casualties, is counter posed with the haunting…. Our martyr’s silent eyes/ Petition the drivers as we pass by… As with many of the earlier songs, news of the war seems to find an echo in the characters’ inner turmoil.

In Long Walk Home, another energetic rocker with a rousing chorus, is a picture of small town America with its values in flux. The narrator is a young man who has returned home to his familiar town (presumably from the war, though this is not made explicit). The town is the same as when he left, yet it is irrevocably changed. …I could smell the same deep green of summer… he tells us, trying to seek reassurance, … Above me the same  night sky was glowin’ … But the town diner is closed and the ‘veteran’s hall’ is empty. Borrowing a phrase from an old Stanley Brothers song he finds the familiar faces in the town are now all …rank strangers to me… As the song climaxes he desperately tries to cling to the notion that everyone in the town is a friend, which is underlined my his father’s remarkably moving words in the final verse that seem to solidify the certainties of middle America: … You know that flag flying over the courthouse/  Means certain things are set in stone/ Who we are, what we’ll do and what we won’t…. But from what we’ve already heard, allegiance to that proud flag is severely in question. The narrator’s town, like small towns all over the country, is deeply divided. Things are no longer ‘set in stone’, whatever the young man tries to tell himself. The central motif of the ‘long walk home’ powerfully suggests the gulf between the shared values which sent the young man to war and those he confronts when he returns, symbolising also the ‘long walk’ which the whole country will need to make to regain its shaken certainties.

A mournful violin introduces the album’s dramatic climactic song, The Devil’s Arcade, in which the hidden themes of the album surface with poignant poetic clarity. Like many of the other songs on the album its stance is one of ambiguous internal monologue, cataloguing bitter regret. Here the subject appears to be a wounded soldier lying in …a ward with blue walls… The narrator is his lover, who we can imagine is back home, confused thoughts rushing through her head as she remembers the first time they made love, the impressions overwheling her as she remembers …the rush of your lips, the feel of your name/ the beat of your heart… She remembers her ‘brave soldier’, who is probably only eighteen or nineteen, rationalising his going off to war … You said heroes are needed, so heroes get made… She pictures him sleeping in  …a sea with no name… dreaming of his lost buddies, then waking …with a thick desert dust on your skin…. In the final verse we hear her imagining her comforting him., reassuring him he can return to … A house on a quiet street, a home for the brave… Another American idyll here… but the tone of the song and its emotional intensity suggest strongly that the soldier is either about to do or will be coming home hopelessly crippled. The line that follows ….The glorious kingdom of the sun on your face…. Is beautifully ironic, setting the idea of ‘glory’ in an ambiguous context – the ‘kingdom’ may well be that of death. As the song climaxes the mournful lover sobs into the repeated …the beat of your heart…the album’s most dramatic moment, remembering their sexual union again but also willing him back to life and health. The image of ‘the devil’s arcade’ suggests a kind of  shooting gallery, a game of chance where life itself is at stake. The song provides this series of dark visions with a fitting closure, as we imagine what might have been. Throughout the album, an idealised America is contrasted with the reality of a country which – as Radio Nowhere implies – has sold its soul.

The ‘hidden track’ Terry’s Song is a fairly straightforward lament for a dead friend which, ironically,  provides the only real moments of humour on the whole album: … And I know you’ll take comfort… Bruce sings, over a simple acoustic backing, …in knowing you’ve been roundly blessed and cursed…. In terms of how it is constructed it’s very different to the rest of the record. Arguably its inclusion takes away from the last track’s dramatic input, but as a lament for one who has died its placing is perhaps appropriate.

Magic is, overall, however, a remarkably unified piece of work, beginning as a journey into an imagined America – a very different kind of America to that of the teenage wonderland of his early albums. For years Springsteen has alternated between his ‘big rock’ sound with the E-Street Band and his solo acoustic ‘confessionals’. Here his musical stylings seem unified as never before and his lyricism has a new maturity and depth. The songs on Magic are not easy to interpret – they are complex exercises in narrative with considerable levels of ambiguity. Magic is, of course, deeply informed by a cynical view of Bush’s America and its disastrous foreign policy adventures. But it is no simplistic ‘protest’ album (like, say, Neil Young’s polemical Living With War). Its overarching subject is the psychology of ‘ordinary’ Americans (always Springsteen’s favourite constituency) in the shadow of a calamity which has shattered the ideological unity even of its small town heartlands. With cold precision, it holds up a shattered mirror for America’s soul.



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There’s no-one here, the gardener has gone…

The hooded pilgrim advances along a thin, dusty dirt track. There is no moon. All along the skyline the fires rage. His hidden face contorts in shaded darkness. He burns inside. In front of him he seems to see the whole world, billions of outstretched hands calling for help. He clutches his hand over his heart, drawing his long black cloak around him. He slowly fingers the smooth metal shape next to his heart. The wires that are connected to it encircle his waist. He approaches the squat grey cooling towers, glimpsing the reactor for the first time. Now his heart begins to pump faster, as if the device has set him up as a clock. He knows there will be only just so many beats. Vengeance is his only thought. Vengeance against the screaming bombers who came down from the sky to tear the heart out of his father’s house. Vengeance against the unbelievers, the deceivers, all who stand in his path. He is possessed by an absolute conviction. In the face of such towering truths his own life, this pitiful tiny focus of attention, means nothing.

            He must bring an end to it all…

          Modern Times is one of those Dylan albums – like Highway 61 Revisited, John Wesley Harding or Blood On The Tracks which, through a certain consistency of imagery, seems to create its own internal symbolic system. In Highway 61 the poetic mindset is wheeling, hallucinogenic, as Dylan relentlessly spews out a mad-eyed view of history and literature filtered through a gallery of fast appearing and disappearing ‘characters’; some real, some invented, some borrowed – Napoleon in Rags, Ma Rainey, Beethoven, Mr. Jones, Queen Jane, Sweet Melinda, The Roving Gambler, Ophelia, Einstein, T.S. Eliot and many others. It’s a methodology Dylan also follows in The Basement Tapes and, latterly, Love And Theft. On John Wesley Harding the language is restrained, full of suggestive allusion, as a coolly distanced Dylan relates enigmatic morality tales like The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest and I Pity The Poor Immigrant. Blood On The Tracks is a song cycle tracing a path through personal despair and rage in which the protagonist – presented as being both ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ the songs – appears to inhabit multiple personalities (as in Tangled Up In Blue) or be hiding behind a series of masks (as in Lily, Rosemary And The Jack of Hearts). The language is expressive, disparate emotional, full of colour, light and shade.
In each case the album’s closing track provides a kind of resolution. At the end of Highway 61’s Desolation Row the characters faces and names are ‘rearranged’ in a kind of glorious, if weary, celebration of the process of symbolisation itself. In the last of John Wesley Harding’s ‘symbolic’ songs the faceless Wicked Messenger declares …If you cannot bring good news, then don’t bring any… after which we are presented with Down Along The Cove and I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight, two apparently straightforward love songs. Blood On The Tracks ends with the wryly philosophical Buckets Of Rain, in which the pain in so many of the preceding pieces is seemingly resolved by means of an enigmatic ‘nursery rhyme’. All of these resolutions are – in their various ways – rather uplifting and hopeful. Yet Modern Times – its imagery a jumble of references and linguistic shifts – ends with a cry of existential despair. The symbolic landscape of the album, in which the scattered detritus of folk and blues song references and Biblical imagery is seamlessly interwoven to comment in oblique ways on the modern condition, is at its most heightened here. The song is set in a bleak moral universe and unequivocally concludes …at the world’s end… The protagonist is quite explicitly cruel and vengeful. He has, it seems, no hope of redemption.

As with so much of the material on Dylan’s last three albums, Ain’t Talkin’ is a kind of patchwork quilt of references. There is no apparent use of Timrod here, but the verse beginning …All my loyal and much-loved companions… is a paraphrase of lines from the Ancient Roman poet Ovid’s Poems Of Exile.  Lines like …yon clear crystal fountain… (from Wild Mountain Thyme, a Irish ballad performed by Dylan on a number of occasions)  and …the gal I left behind.. (the subject of an old prospector’s tune) are quotations from traditional songs. Such ‘quotations’ often have relevance to the themes of the song, as when the reference to …this weary world of woe… recalls the great American ‘spiritual journey’ ballad Wayfaring Stranger.  But in other instances Dylan will twist a phrase into a very different context. The phrase …Walkin’ with a toothache in my heel…, which Dylan makes so menacing, is lifted from the jolly if slightly surreal nineteenth-century minstrel song Old Dan Tucker (recently covered by Springsteen) in which we hear that Old Dan …died with a toothache in his heel… Hand me down my walking cane… is the title of another rather jokey traditional number which also contains the lines …The devil chased me round a stump/ I thought he’d catch me at every jump… The repeated chorus lines …Ain’t talkin, just walkin’… and ….Heart burnin’/ still yearnin’… are lifted from the Stanley Brothers’ Highway Of Regret, a stirringly uplifting piece of gospelly bluegrass (the title of which was also referenced in Time Out Of Mind’s To Make You Feel My Love). Yet while Carter and Ralph Stanley sing the lines jubilantly, Dylan’s narrator turns them into an index of despair.  The wonderfully gross …eatin’ hog-eyed grease in a hog-eyed town… is from Hog-Eye Man, another black-comic traditional song originating from slavery days. Again the phrase here symbolises how low the narrator has sunk.

As we have seen throughout this exploration of Modern Times, Dylan’s latter-day art is immersed in what can only be called a ‘spiritual’ devotion to the musical culture which originally inspired him. …Those old songs are my lexicon and my prayer book… he told Jon Pareles of the New York Times in 1997 …All my beliefs come out of those old songs, literally, anything from ‘Let Me Rest On That Peaceful Mountain’ to ‘Keep On The Sunny Side’. You can find all my philosophy in those songs… In another interview, with Robert Hilburn of the L.A. Times in 2004, Dylan revealed that …What happens is, I’ll take a song I know and simply start playing it in my head. That’s the way I meditate. A lot of people will look at a crack in the wall and mediate, or count sheep or angels or money or something… I don’t meditate on any of that stuff. I meditate on a song… People will think they are talking to me and I’m talking back, but I’m not. I’m listening to the song in my head. At a certain point, some of the words will change and I’m writing a song… Although, like much of what Dylan says in interviews, we may be tempted to take this with a pinch of salt – it’s hard to believe he writes all his songs this way – the statement is highly revealing. A number of commentators (particularly on Christian or ‘faith-based’ culture-commentary websites and blogs) have referred to the plethora of Biblical allusions on Modern Times as ‘proving’ Dylan’s continual ‘faith in Jesus’. But this is surely just wish-fulfilment on their part. Dylan has always been fascinated by Biblical story and symbolism and regards it as a rich store of highly allusive material, a kind of symbolic treasure trove. His own ‘born again’ period – quite explicit and uncompromising though it was for a short time – ended many years ago. But for the brief period Dylan did immerse himself in organised religion (during his ‘Born Again Christian’ phase from 1979-80) his poetic imagination was narrowed and limited as never before, to such an extent that it took him many years to recover his full gifts.  Although the sheer intensity of his engagement with his ‘new found faith’ during his ‘born again’ period produced some of the most powerful performances of his career, his albums Slow Train Coming (1979), Saved (1980) and Shot Of Love (1981) represent diminishing poetic returns. The only truly great Dylan song of this period, Every Grain of Sand (1981) reflects movingly and with aching sadness on the abandonment of the faith which had given him such temporary joy and energy.

For the next few years Dylan languished in the most uncertain, confused period of his career, epitomised by his ditching of the brilliant Blind Willie McTell in favour of the dreadful doggerel of Union Sundown on the half-assed Infidels album (1983). Although the deeply cynical and doubt-ridden Oh Mercy (1989) provided a sudden burst of poetic inspiration after the career-lows of his late 80s output, it was only through his re-immersion in his basic source material through his two albums of covers Good As I Been To You (1992) and World Gone Wrong (1993) and his expansive exploration of traditional folk, blues and country material in the early years of ‘The Never Ending Tour’ that he was able to truly reinvent himself as a meaningful contemporary artist on Time Out Of Mind, Love And Theft and Modern Times.  For Dylan, one kind of faith had supplanted another. Thus his concert performances in the late 90s and early 2000s of bluegrass spirituals by the Stanley Brothers and others can be seen as affirmations, not of the religion they proselytise as such but of Dylan’s ‘faith’ in the songs themselves. …Hallelujah!… he sings, in the Stanley Brothers song he’s covered most of all …I’m ready to go!…

Many of Dylan’s songs – and especially those from John Wesley Harding onwards – have been focused on a kind of spiritual quest. But to Dylan, as with his fellow seeker Leonard Cohen (who once claimed he’d never met a religion he didn’t like) his main interest and focus has usually been with religion as a source of imagery, of metaphor… Any ‘true poet’ can be said to be, in the very nature of their art, engaging in a ‘spiritual quest’, as ultimately all religions are poetic descriptions of the cosmos. As Dylan’s great antecedent William Blake wrote:

The ancient Poets animated all sensible objects with Gods or Geniuses, calling them by the names and adorning them with the properties of woods, rivers, mountains, lakes, cities, nations, and whatever their enlarged & numerous senses could perceive. And particularly they studied the genius of each city & country, placing it under its mental deity; till a system was formed, which some took advantage of & enslav’d the vulgar by attempting to realize or abstract the mental deities from their objects: thus began Priesthood; Choosing forms of worship from poetic tales.
And at length they pronounc’d that the Gods had order’d such things. Thus men forgot that All deities reside in the human breast.

         In these lines from The Marriage Of Heaven and Hell Blake puts his finger on the tragic misunderstanding that turns religious understanding towards bigotry, hatred and tightassed fundamentalist closed-mindedness. You only have to open a newspaper to see how relevant Blake’s words are to our modern condition. While liberal humanism has made many advances over the last few hundred years, and the patriarchal religions have loosened the absolute grip they once had on our societies, religious fundamentalism – the creed of those who …forgot that All Dieties reside in the human breast… has, perhaps as a reaction to the general loosening of so-called ‘morals’, continued to grow in strength. Behind the rhetoric of both the so called ‘War on Terror’ and the ‘Jihad’ (‘Holy War’)  lies the blind moral posturing of those who take ‘the word’ literally, who refuse to understand that the religious texts they venerate may be metaphorical rather than literal. Metaphorical or poetic truth is multi-faceted and multi-dimensional, allowing for many different interpretations to exist at once. The story of The Garden of Eden, for example, can be seen as a richly metaphorical statement of the human condition, which can be interpreted ‘poetically’ in many ways. But there are those, who – quite staggeringly, perhaps – believe it was an actual historical event, just as there are those who believe God planted dinosaur bones under the ground to ‘test our faith’. Of course, there are those who believe in Santa Claus, too. But they don’t generally control armies, or weapons of mass destruction. Thus the conflict between those who believe literally and those who believe metaphorically is central to the political and social conflicts which threaten to teat our world apart in these Modern Times. It is on this moral and philosophical battleground that the songs on Modern Times wage their war of words. …The hammer’s on the table/ The pitchfork’s on the shelf… as the narrator of Thunder On The Mountain tells us. The dark, devilish terrorist-hero of this great concluding song has given up ‘talking’ – or thinking –  about what he is about to do.  He is dedicated to purging what he sees as …the cities of the plague… The plague he wants to eradicate is poetic thought, individual thought, free thought….

Ain’t Talkin’ is a kind of cyclic song – it does not really tell a linear story but is set in an eternal, timeless present. Although its narrator is clearly a traveller through this …weary world of woe… by the end of the song he does not seem to have moved beyond the ‘mystic garden’ where he began. All the ‘action’ occurs in the narrator’s mind, consisting as it does of a series of personal ‘confessions’ and reflections on the misery and suffering caused by the …gal he left behind… This timelessness is reflected both in the musical presentation of the song and in Dylan’s vocalising, both of which remain steady and unwavering throughout, reflecting the unbendingly harsh and unyielding logic of the narrative. The track begins with an ominous flourish of piano, acoustic guitar and mournful viola before muted drums and acoustic bass take us into the verses, keeping up a restrained, repetitive rhythm over which snatches of guitar and viola occasionally surface. Such emotional restraint is mirrored in Dylan’s singing, which is a kind of almost-unwavering husky breath. The whole effect is to create a feeling of continual tension and dark menace. After the song ends, it’s as if you can hear its echoes, fading away into the distance.

There is something disarming in the first verse’s initial reference to …the mystic garden… It’s rare for Dylan to use such a pointedly symbolic term, which is reminiscent of the kind of introduction Van Morrison might use before going into one of his entranced meditational rants. Thus the notion of ‘mystic’ already seems somewhat dubious. We are being taken inside the mind of the protagonist, in whose mind this garden is ‘mystic’. In fact the ‘mystic garden’ is the world itself, perhaps imagined by the narrator to be in some kind of prelapserian condition. But the second line, with its striking reference to …wounded flowers dangling from the vine… already indicates that in the mind of the narrator this world is hopelessly corrupted. The next two lines counterpose the deliberately archaic … I was passing by yon cool crystal fountain… with the explicitly contemporary …someone hit me from behind… This is a quintessentially Dylanesque juxtaposition which Dylan licks his tongue around with relish. Throughout the song the narrator continually refers to the great wrong that has been done to him. By the second verse his sense of despair is clearly signposted. The narrator professes that he trying, in a conventionally Christian sense, to …love my neighbour and do good unto others… But such virtuousness is clearly not working, suggesting that dark, powerful forces are present here. What makes this verse so disturbing is the narrator’s appeal to …pray from the mother… counterposed with his final, heartfelt cry …But oh mother, things ain’t goin’ well … Clearly the ‘evil spirit’ inside him that he refers to earlier has won out over the feminine healing principle. From here on, he will have no choice but to let the ‘evil spirit’ take full control.

The narrator now begins an explicit descent into wretchedness and violent retribution towards whoever has …hit him from behind…  He tells his enemy he will …burn that bridge before you can cross… and mutters to him (or her?) that he intends to show ‘no mercy’ when his victory is complete. The next verse is perhaps the most shocking of all. After telling us how …worn down by weeping…and thoroughly distraught he is, he snarls …If I catch my opponents ever sleeping/ I’ll just slaughter ’em as they lie… Dylan doesn’t really give the line any special emphasis, but he sounds like he is wearing an uncaring sneer throughout. The following chorus indicates a soul in confused torment, walking through a world …mysterious and vague… as if vagueness itself is a kind of sin. The reference to …walkin’ through the cities of the plague… may be suggesting some kind of medieval context, which is further borne out by the reference to the …speculation/ That the whole wide world which people say is round… The narrator then rails against an unknown ‘they’ (presumably the ‘enemies’ he referred to earlier) who seem hell bent on victimising people like himself. The accusation that ‘they’ will …tear your mind away from contemplation… seems to suggest that the ‘enemies’ are some kind of opposing sect, again suggesting that the song may be set in some context where religious groups are at war with each other, quite possibly ‘burning’ each other. In this context it may be relevant to recall that the medieval mind saw plagues and the like as punishments from a (highly vengeful) deity.

But Ain’t Talkin’ is not, of course, a ‘medieval’ song, as we are reminded in the next chorus. The narrator is apparently …eating hog-eyed grease in a hog-eyed town…, a startlingly revolting image but one apparently located somewhere in modern America (or in a Mexican cantina, perhaps, in a Spaghetti Western) rather than in Europe in the middle ages. The narrator is eating a rather disgusting version of ‘humble pie’. …Some day you’ll be glad to have me around… he growls menacingly. Yet the suggestion of a medieval mentality seems to hint at the narrator’s true intentions, which are clearly destructive, in the name of some unnamed ‘faith’. In the next verse he combines further lamentations regarding his supposed victimisation: …They will crush you with wealth and power/ Every waking moment you could crack… hinting that he is nearing breaking point. This hint is reinforced by the next line …I’ll make the most of one last extra hour…suggesting that he himself is under a ‘death sentence’. In the verse’s final line he reveals that his mission is to avenge his father’s death. It seems he is determined to do this even if it costs him his own life. He seems to be ‘on his last legs’: …Hand me down my walking cane… he demands, as if his needs assistance to complete his task.

Thus Ain’t Talkin’, despite its suggested historical and Biblical contexts, taps into perhaps the most pressing of our contemporary fears. To say it is a ‘song about a suicide bomber’ is far too simplistic. After all, the narrator tells us he will ‘step back’ after wreaking his revenge. But the mentality of the ‘war on terror’ is one which forces us all to be afraid, especially of a stranger in the darkness on some monomaniacal religious mission. In the next verse, perhaps the most mysteriously enigmatic in the whole song, the narrator grows ever more possessed with angry self-righteousness. …All my loyal and much-loved companions… he scowls …they approve of me and share my code… The last word of the line is particularly challenging. Does the narrator possess, or think he possesses, some secret arcane numerical formula, a Da Vinci code or the like? What is certain is that he seems to think he has some kind of secret moral formula in his possession, that perhaps only his ‘loyal and much-loved’ followers understand. There is certainly a suggestion here that he is some kind of extremist cult leader. The next line …I practise a faith that’s been long abandoned… is deliberately and teasingly ambiguous, indicating that Dylan is not in any way attacking the proponents of any one religion but a certain type of religious mentality which inevitably leads to intolerance and extreme violence, which thinks it has the ‘secret codes’ to tell us all how to live. The narrator’s …long and lonesome road… lacks any ‘altars’ or formal religious institutions. He does not need them. He is walking – it seems – towards death, the end of experience, all innocence drained out of him. And he is breaking down. Even his mule is ‘sick’. And his horse, like that of the ‘little boy’ in Dylan’s strange ‘ecological nursery rhyme’ Under The Red Sky, is blind.

The song’s narrator is a kind of everyman figure, stumbling towards his own death across a barren landscape. He tells us he’s …carrying a dead man’s shield… suffering pain that is ‘unending’, with a …toothache in my heel…. Yet as the song begins to enter its final phase he looks upward for inspiration, seeing the heavens lit up by ‘flying wheels’ (of fire, presumably). He seems to see himself as having a direct connection to ‘the heavens’, as if he is some kind of ‘chosen one’. This, of course, is what all religiously-driven mass murderers choose to believe. …Who says I can’t get heavenly aid?… he asks, rhetorically. To paraphrase Dylan himself, the narrator thinks God Is On His Side.  Now the man begins to will himself towards his final task. He is determined to let us know that he is driven towards this still-unspoken destiny, that he has no doubts and is absolutely serious about his task: …I’m not playin’, I’m not pretendin’… he tells us, …I’m not nursing any superfluous fears… And then, suddenly, we are back in the ‘mystic garden’. But instead of being in darkness, we are in bright sunlight. And we are told that …there’s no one here/ the gardener has gone… The narrator has entered the ‘Gates of Eden’ once again, to find that its creator has disappeared. The ‘mystic garden’ is now the source, not of the world’s creation but its end. Finally it is described, quite remarkably, as an ‘outback’, a word suggesting an endlessly stretching desert, baked by the sun. As we see the narrator disappearing into the distance we are left here, high and dry, in a place where all vegetation has withered and all hope has gone. We are in a place where God has abandoned us. The implication seems to be that this is where, as a race, we are headed.

Bob Dylan first came to fame as a ‘protest singer’, in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the world seemed imminently to be consumed in apocalyptic fire. Many of his greatest ‘political’ songs, like Masters of War, When The Ship Comes In and With God On Our Side, couched their apocalyptic warnings quite explicitly in Biblical terms. Appalled by those who wanted him to become a ‘leader’ or to use them for their own ends for whatever cause they might have been espousing he abandoned this ‘prophetic’ stance, preferring to be seen as a poet, a family man, a fallible human being. Since the mid-1960s he has quite deliberately avoided what one of his songs from Oh Mercy quite disgustedly labelled as the ‘political world’. Yet his poetic stance and sensibility have continued to reflect the condition of the world in which we live. On Modern Times, and in Ain’t Talkin’ in particular, he produces a sustained poetic meditation on the modern condition. Yet all of the songs on the album have shifting contexts, placing us now in the past, now in the present… as if there is no difference. By deliberately being ‘unmodern’ Dylan jolts us into seeing the world in which we live with ‘new eyes’. The overall theme of the album seems to be that, despite what shiny surfaces the modern world gives us to polish, if we stare hard enough into them we will see not only the reflection of the past but also the possible horrors of the future. Dylan once said that his ambition was to write songs that would ‘stop time’. In Modern Times’ most effective moments we are placed in a situation in which past, present and future are fused together. We stop, we listen, we laugh, we shiver. And sometimes, we tremble…


Hello again… it’s taken some time to complete this series, but here’s the final installment…  The next big series (by popular request) will be Love And Theft Track By Track, before which I’ll be doing a few entries on Dylan’ ‘soundtrack songs’ Things Have Changed, Waiting On You, Cross The Green Mountain, Tell Ol’ Bill and Huck’s Tune… watch this space!

In the meantime, as always I’d very much appreciate your thoughts on this entry, which can be sent to

Or you could leave a comment below…

Thanks to all those who have written in with their comments. They’ve been very inspiring!

I’m also pleased to announce that my just-completed book Who Could Ask For More: Reclaiming The Beatles, published by the plotted plain press, is now available as either a printed book or download HERE

The book combines readings of The Beatles songs with fictionalised narratives which reflect on their life and times. My aim is to ‘reclaim’ The Beatles from nostalgia and institutionalisation and to focus on their role in giving expression to the sexual, social and cultural ‘revolutions’ of the 1960s.

More extracts from this will be coming up soon on this site. Dylan fans may be interested to know it contains many references to Dylan and his influence on The Beatles. A lot of writers have mentioned this in passing but I’ve attempted to look at specific Beatles songs and link these to Dylan’s songwriting techniques in some detail. Dylan’s influence can, as I’ve discovered, be discerned as much in Paul’s songs as in John’s.

I’ve already put up several extracts on this blog, including a ‘fictionalised’ account of Dylan’s first encounter with The Beatles – follow this link to read these

And of course, it makes a wonderful Xmas present!!!


For a (rather fanciful) Christian interpretation of Ain’t Talkin’ check out this page.
This is a good example of what I meant above by Christian writers trying to fit Bob’s Biblical allusions into their box!

Dylan news can always be found at the ever-reliable Expecting Rain

Visions Of Dylan is a site always worth checking out

Michael Gray’s site is here

Tant Mieux is a great new site I’ve just discovered edited by Sadi Ranson-Polizzotti- here’s a link to the Bob Dylan Section