World Gone Wrong (1993) is a body. Not just a great body of work, but a body.
The greatness of this album of folk and blues classics is that there is one voice speaking on it and one person speaking with this voice, whether he speaks guitar, harmonica, or English.
I’ll try to make it a little clearer.
Perhaps if I start by saying what it’s not: The tracks on World Gone Wrong are not those of a one-man band, a skilled display by a person who can speak different languages at the same time, or, more down-to-earth, is able to sing and play harp and guitar at the same time.
Instead, it is as if the different parts of the performance — words, guitar, language, harmonica, rhythm, sound — come together and blend into one; here more than on any other Dylan album (or any album whatsoever, probably).
You speak to me in body language
It is as if the different parts of the performance represent different facets of the same language, which materialize first as ‘mouth language’ (which is not to be confused with spoken language): voice range, talking speed, voice quality, and — as a special case — harmonica style; and as ‘hand language’: the guitar playing. The languages of these different body parts are so prominent that they together form, if not a full human body, then at least the image of one, the impression of a full body in our presence, speaking body language in sound.
To phrase it differently, what I hear on World Gone Wrong is all the informational extras, the toppings on the ‘message’: that which we see/experience/understand when we speak with someone face to face, but which disappears in this medium, the disembodied text (or the un-incarnated Word, which is more or less the same), where they are replaced with smilies or rhetorics (or parentheses like this one).
Hence the distinction between ‘mouth language’ and the language that comes out of the mouth: speaking is a physical act of communication, not a structural representation of rational processes.
The stylized worlds of music and poetry frequently lead an uncertain life in-between: poetry departs from the written word by drawing attention to the physical quality of words and text. And singing usually takes one step back from the act of speaking, by inserting a layer of artfulness and/or aesthetics between what is said and who says it, adding something in the process, but at the cost of blurring the person at the other end.
But on World Gone Wrong I can hear him. I hear all that which fleshes out the message, i.e. makes it appear in the flesh, as a human expression and not just as a stick figure.
This would not have been possible had Dylan not been a great, natural guitar player: technically speaking, World Gone Wrong is Dylan’s greatest achievement as a guitarist since Freewheelin’. Worth pointing out is the consistent technique of picking out the melody line or fragments of it on the bass strings and strum on in the higher strings as if nothing special was happening. Two Soldiers is the standout track in this respect, but also Love Henry and one of the many superb outtakes in Dylan’s production, You Belong To Me shine. Delia and Ragged and Dirty do some of the same: the little riffs that go through each of those songs, echo snippets of melody line as well. World Gone Wrong could be on the curriculum of any course in “Solo song with guitar accompaniment”.
But even more important is the way Dylan makes the guitar one with the body, hence with the voice, hence with what comes out through the voice: the words. The interludes and ornaments flow as freely and naturally as the syllables of the text. An alacrity in the words is transformed into strokes on the strings — a slightly harder strum here, a vaguely noticeable tempo gain or hesitation there. The strokes set and adjust to a pace: the guitar breathes.
The Limbs of the Body
Among the individual performances, I have favourites, of course, musically speaking. But at the other end, I really can’t pick any of them out as superfluous, just as little as I can tell which finger I could do without.
World Gone Wrong, the title track and opener, is the most unappealing, unseductive opening track in Dylan’s catalogue. Never has his voice been raspier, more piercing, less redeeming. When the album came out, I still had a couple of albums from the back catalogue left to buy, and I was standing in the record store, trying to choose between some classic and this new one. When I heard the first seconds, I thought: “This is grim! I must have it.” I still feel the same about it.
Blood in my Eyes was one of the first songs I sat down to seriously figure out the chords to, and it was one of the first tab files at what was later to become dylanchords. It’s not revolutionary, it’s not pretty, and it’s not showy or particularly difficult. But it’s hypnotic and near, and I thought: “I must know how he does that.” I still feel the same about it too.
Apropos hypnotic: Ragged and Dirty . . . The hours I spent playing that little riff over and over again — some would say they were spent in vain and are now lost forever, but that’s a lie: they have etched that sound-and-body union into my fingers and my soul, and brought the memories of that part of my life with them. I’d be a poorer man and a lesser person without them.
The same goes for the little riffs and interludes in songs like ‘Love Henry’, ‘Lone Pilgrim’, and ‘Delia’. They are all based on the same figure, over the same chord structure. And they are all repeated almost identically throughout the songs: it would have easy for a musician with Dylan’s good knowledge of the style to vary the riffs, but the only variation there is, comes from imperfection: a wrong finger placement here, an accidentally struck string there, and here and there a missed beat.
In fact, the whole album is based on the same figures over the same chord structures: most of the songs are played with C type chords (varied through different capo position), embellished with Csus4 or Csus2 chords, either to echo the melody line, or as “hints” of F; and the Gsus4-like chord xx3300 which is so prominent in ‘Blood In My Eyes” is used in many of the other songs too.
Down in the Groove: a stick figure
This lack of variation might have led to the same verdict as for Down in the Groove, but it doesn’t. In fact, the difference between the albums couldn’t have been bigger. The difference is in principle the same as between “Mixed Up Confusion” and “In the Morning”, which I’ve discussed earlier: one fills a pattern the same way every time, and after five, ten, hundred repetitions, it becomes clear that the pattern is all there is. The other can be seen as a pattern the same way that people can (two arms, two legs, etc.), but in the end, what we notice and remember are all the things that deviate from the pattern, and we recognize the person as an individual, even though it may be hard to describe why.
World Gone Wrong: a body in sound
The use of Csus4 chords instead of F is a case in point: the pattern — the three-chord pattern of most western music — prescribes F, and it is perfectly possible to play F everywhere there is a Csus4. But Dylan doesn’t want that. The slot which schematically is an F chord, is occupied with every possible shade of chord between C and F. The differences are hinted at more than stated.
It is as if he is saying: this may be a song with a fixed verse and chord structure, but musically, this isn’t poetry, it’s prose. It’s a human talking freely, someone speaking guitar — not someone following and (ful)filling a given pattern.
The same variability can be seen on the rhythmical level. Delia is the most extreme case. The wait before the final “All the friend I ever had are gone” is differently long every time. Sometimes the basic pulse is maintained, but more often it is not. It is borderline annoying. The performance is balancing on the edge of falling apart, but miraculously it doesn’t. Again: the variations give body where the plain structure is just dead surface.
Greatest of them all, ‘Broke Down Engine’: Dylan’s best guitar track since ‘Hero Blues’, the outtake from Freewheelin’. The rhythmic drive and the precision of the playing is fabulous. The “Lordy lord” part is amazing, in more ways than one: It’s well played, of course, but it is also a good illustration of the synergy of body languages: I find it impossible to sing that line without a guitar, but effortless when the two are together.
I’ve always heard this song as the shadow of a rock history in miniature. There is a clear connection between Dylan’s version and Blind Wille McTell’s original, but despite the strong continuity, Dylan could never have played the way he does without forty years of rock in his baggage. This is not to say that Dylan’s version is a rock’n’roll song — far from it. But there is an energy, a punch, an attack in the playing which is not and could never have been there in Blind Willie’s playing — because he hadn’t heard Chuck Berry and Little Richard.
I haven’t said anything about the texts. That’s not because I don’t care about them — on the contrary, I feel very strongly about many of them. But while my most common impression of the interplay between words and music is that the music may enhance the words, it is the other way around here: I hear the lyrics as a commentary to the music. If I can identify with the ragged and dirty one who sneaks out the back door when his lover’s husband comes home, it is because I can identify first with the riff and the bodily state it puts me in.