A blog of music and the mind

Author: Michael (Page 1 of 2)

Eric Church’s Desperate Man Album Review

It’s almost unbelievable that I am listening to a contemporary country music artist for a blog post. I’ve known about Eric Church for a long time. I first heard of him in 2014, from a friend at the time who was just getting into him.

But Eric Church and I didn’t meet up again until probably 2019, when I was properly exposed to his music through my buddy Kyle.

With any mainstream “greatest hits” of Eric Church songs–the ones you’d expect to hear on country radio–someone like me will quickly go for a hard pass. Up to this point in my life, my general attitude toward songs that sound like “Before She Does,” “Hell on the Heart,” and “Drink in My Hand” has been “They’re too twangy, and I feel like I’ve heard them all somewhere before.”

But by and large, those songs are early Eric Church, the Eric Church who needed to break through somehow, some way. Having gone through most of Church’s discography, I still feel the same about most, but not all, of his earlier work.

I have to separate personal opinion from objective analysis, though. I don’t prefer Church’s early material, but I can’t knock the talent that went into those first few albums. The sound just isn’t for me.

Church’s songwriting, however, has always been something else. Eric Church has a lot of heart, and you can find it uniquely expressed in lyrics throughout his discography.

The Game Changer

We now come to Church’s 2018 album Desperate Man.

This was the first Church record I intentionally listened to. I wanted to see what exactly made Kyle such a monster fan of this guy.

My neurons must have started sending rapid-fire messages immediately upon hearing the opening track.

I understand the connections between music and emotions. I instantly knew the song’s sonic landscape and how it made me feel. I had heard that music before, a lot, but not from mainstream country singer Eric Church. More like, from my own music that I listen to every day, which couldn’t be further from twenty-first-century American country music.

But, like Kyle said, “That ain’t country music. It’s somethin’ else.”

Indeed, it is something else.

So, I actually sat down to study the record, and it’s been my musical focus lately.

I believe I have some worthy thoughts to add to the Eric Church conversation of other country music reviews, since I am a true outsider here.

Here is my album review of Eric Church’s Desperate Man.

Always Start Strong

It’s common wisdom at this point that, when it comes to creative works, you always want to kick things off with your A material, and Church doesn’t disappoint here. He does, however, offer a surprise, the one that got my synapses firing.

According to Church, “The Snake” is an allegory for politics in America, specifically his mistrust of the country’s two major political parties. This is a dense song; there’s so much here to digest that I really can’t do the song justice by writing about it. You should really go listen to it.

The gut-punching aspect of “The Snake” for me is its roots in acoustic blues music, which flows through my body like life-giving blood. I see how Church’s moody, apocalyptic guitar playing traces a lineage all the way back to Mississippi Delta guys like Robert Johnson and Skip James.

eric church concert

And we’ve heard swaths of Church’s blues guitar before. Check out “Jack Daniels,” “Broke Record,” and “Chattanooga Lucy.” Actually, check out Eric Church’s 10 best deep tracks from Rolling Stone; well worth your effort if you, like me, don’t prefer the poppy sounds of country radio.

I hadn’t heard those songs I mentioned prior to listening to Desperate Man, so “The Snake” really jumped out at me.

If we’re talking about the blues: in what better genre can you couch lyrics about the cunning, duplicitous nature of the American political system? With the rattlesnake and copperhead making secret deals for their own benefit, the only losers are the common people.

“The Snake” is a song that’s as threatening as it is subdued. Here’s proof that a strong opener doesn’t necessarily have to be a rock-banger.

We next go to “Hangin’ Around,” which is one of my favorites from the album. It’s a short Southern rocker, but that’s no knock on it. This one’s a killer: straightforward lyrics, a good beat. It’s perfect.

Don’t Go Soft in the Middle

If I were a musician making an album, I would struggle to keep listeners engaged from probably the third through the seventh songs. That’s usually the middle of a record, and it’s where the deep cuts are often found.

There’s no such struggle here with Eric Church, though, because we’re now listening to “Heart Like a Wheel.” It’s another surprise for me: a gospel-infused ballad about two mismatched lovers who are going to try things out anyway.

Did I say “gospel”?

I surely did. Church’s longtime musical collaborator Joanna Cotten adds some tasteful backing vocals here, and they are simultaneously refreshing and retro. They take me right back to Paul Simon’s gospel song “Loves Me Like a Rock” and every other 50s-style gospel music I’ve ever heard.

eric church and joanna cotten

The result is that “Heart Like a Wheel” is a perfect chillout song from the same man who sang “Guys Like Me.” What am I saying? I mean that we’re three songs into Desperate Man, and I can already see how Eric Church has grown and matured as an artist.

“Some Of It” and What Follows

Of course, the record also needs the more radio-friendly sounds of “Some Of It,” for example, but don’t interpret the song’s catchy chorus as a sign that this track is superficial in any way. There’s a ton to explore here. Let’s look at it.

Coming into this album as an outsider, I already know that “Some Of It” is a Church Choir favorite. When I first heard it, I didn’t like it. To me, the song was just another single. But I felt that way because I heard the song without actually listening to it. I hadn’t read anything negative about the song from anyone else, so I went back to examine it more closely.

Church co-wrote “Some Of It” with fellow album guitarist Jeff Hyde, Bobby Pinson, and Clint Daniels. The lyrics are structured as concentrated bits of knowledge and wisdom, as told by someone who, even at middle age, has already learned plenty about human nature and growing up.

These are things you know but probably rarely or never think about. Some examples: everybody makes mistakes. Don’t demand things. Be faithful. Money doesn’t mean what you think it means. When you have a woman, treat her right and don’t be an idiot.

Then, the chorus, the one that had put me off the first few times, explains that you don’t learn all these lessons at the same time or in the same ways. You can read about them, you can make mistakes and learn them that way, but mostly, you just need time to take them all in.

What’s fascinating about “Some Of It” is that Church’s co-writers had a lot of the song written when Church came onboard with it, as Pinson himself recalls. But the writers felt that the sentiments in the lyrics were perfect for Church to sing, and so they were. And even though “Some Of It” almost didn’t make it on Desperate Man, the cards eventually played out that Church decided to include it.

The result was a number 1 single. More importantly, however, “Some Of It” is a song that gets under people’s skins in all the best ways. It makes you think about your own life, the lessons you’ve learned, and also the ones you have yet to learn. And Church’s straight-talking delivery was indeed perfect for this, as the song’s co-writers predicted.

Even just two years after release, “Some Of It” really is classic Eric Church. My opinion of the song has improved a lot over the last few months. This is honest, bare-all expression, and it hits hard if you want it to.

The theme of advice continues with the next few songs. “Monsters” is an emotional ballad that juxtaposes the fears of children versus those of adults, and how a wise parent handles those two worlds. It has so much heart that I don’t mind its more country-ish sounds.

We stay in this emotional place a little longer with “Hippie Radio,” in which Church recounts memories of listening to music in his dad’s old Pontiac. It’s a nice story that sees the boy narrator grow up and find a girl and get married and have a son. And he does it all while driving in that same Pontiac, the one constant in an ever-changing life.

It’s the feels with this one, folks. This is poignant, quality songwriting.

The final song of what I would consider Desperate Man’s second act is “Higher Wire,” a love song that’s unusual in Church’s raised vocal delivery. It’s soulful once again, and the song overall has an aura about it, like being in a foggy room where everything is a little blurry. It’s perfect, though. It achieves what I think Church is going for: that fuzzy feeling you get when you’re really in love and can’t totally describe it.

Finish Like It’s Your Last Chance

We’re heading toward the finish now, but we’re not just cutting corners to get there: we now come to the album’s title track and lead single.

“Desperate Man” definitely sounds like a single, but in this case, that isn’t a fault. What stands out to me about this song is the juxtaposition of the anxiety-ridden lyrics and up-tempo music. Like “The Snake,” I see the influence of the blues here.

Chicago blues legend Buddy Guy has said many times that not all blues music is sad, and that’s true. But one hallmark of the genre is singing about life’s most challenging struggles while playing music you can dance to. It’s the most bitter of ironies, saved for the darkest lyrical subjects.

That’s kind of the story with “Desperate Man.” Church has said he was inspired to write the song after the 2017 shooting at Las Vegas’s Route 91 Harvest country music festival, where he himself had played two nights earlier.

But the song isn’t about mass murder or victims of the tragedy. It’s about the cards being against you, being behind the 8 ball, and yet going on with every ounce of strength you have left.

Co-written with Ray Wylie Hubbard, the song uses minimalistic lyrics to describe, for example, how a fortune teller told the narrator he has no future, but he’s going on regardless. He has no excuse, no logical reason for thinking things will turn out well, but he’s a desperate man, and he’s going to try anyway.

With the catchy chorus and Church’s strong vocals, “Desperate Man” is a song about hope. Hope for a better future is what Church ultimately got out of the Las Vegas shooting, and it makes for one of the best songs on the album.

Church brings this confidence into the next song, “Solid,” a soulful, mid-tempo track about staying strong in a world that wants to keep knocking you down. Church sings about drawing his strength from old things that are long past their prime. His old 501 jeans may not look like much to you, but to him, they mean plenty.

“Solid” is a song about staying faithful to yourself and not letting the world bend you to its ways. That’s a message we can all get behind.

Speaking of finding comfort in the pleasures of a simpler time, Church shows us one more side of that diamond in yet another chillout song: “Jukebox and a Bar.” It’s a straightforward point: the world’s got a ton of crazy technology now, but nothing can make Church feel better than hanging in a bar, drinking beer with some quality tunes on the jukebox.

It’s a throwback to retro America, the era of all of Church’s musical heroes, and it makes me feel nostalgic for a time that I didn’t even get to experience. Church lets those emotions out when he performs, and if you’re open to them, they can infect you, too.

Like Bob Dylan said, the only thing that matters is that a song moves you.

Desperate Man’s closer is “Drowning Man,” which to me channels Merle Haggard as strongly as anything Church has ever done. For all his success as a country music star, Merle never forgot about his humble beginnings. He uplifted and honored the lowly and the working class throughout his songs, as did Johnny Cash and so many other American musical icons I could name.

eric church signing record

“Drowning Man” carries on that tradition by taking up the case of the common American, the ones who work hard every day and yet don’t see much for their efforts. Even Uncle Sam and the Statue of Liberty are looking the other way here.

So, the drowning man drinks his troubles away with $50 of whisky, reveling in the world where he’s comfortable and caring nothing for the lives of the rich. The song is both disturbing in its reflection of reality and yet reassuring in its praise of the “lowly.”

Final Thoughts

One major thought I take away from Desperate Man is that Eric Church’s performances are always tasteful. In no part of this album did I feel that he went overboard with his vocals or guitar playing. In fact, there were parts of the record where I expected Church to sing louder or with more gusto, and yet he consistently keeps things under control.

Church gives each song exactly what it requires and nothing more. He’s quiet when he needs to be and more exuberant when a song calls for it. I sense a lot of musical and lyrical intelligence throughout the album, and that made it an unusual and surprising listen.

I admit it’s still somewhat of a jolt for me to listen to contemporary country music. However, as I explored in “Why Do We Like the Music We Like?” I know that simple exposure can get me the rest of the way with this genre.

This is the most modern music I have written about so far on Musical Record, but it really was a rewarding experience.

Eric Church’s Desperate Man is a fine album by one of the most unique and trailblazing artists on the scene today.

It gets an A+ from me.

Paul Simon and the Power of Musical Repetition

Have you ever listened to a new piece of music that you’ve heard was “perfect” or an artist’s “masterpiece” and not actually liked it right away? Or, have you ever heard a new work by one of your favorite artists, still not loved it upon first or even second listen, but maybe warmed up to it later?

I have definitely been there, and I’ve noticed something interesting in maybe 90% of those cases: the frequency with which I listen to new music seems to correspond to how positively I feel about that music over time.

In my first post, “Why Do We Like the Music We Like?” I mentioned how early familiarity with certain genres of music helps to shape our musical preferences as adults. When I wrote that, I hadn’t thought of this side of that issue, the matter of liking music you once disliked.

One of my favorite YouTube channels is called Canadian Studmuffin, where Trenton, Ontario-based YouTuber Larry Graves reviews classic rock music and does comedy videos. Over the years, he has mentioned this matter every so often: the importance of giving yourself time to appreciate music that you don’t like at first.

So, all of this has got me thinking. I want to explore this subject and talk about the power of musical repetition, or how music can grow on us, given enough time and exposure to it. I’ll illustrate the matter using a perfect example from my own life: how dramatically my opinion has changed over the years on Paul Simon’s 1990 worldbeat album The Rhythm of the Saints.

What Is the Mere-Exposure Effect?

German psychologist Gustav Fechner is believed to have been the first to study what is now called the mere-exposure effect, in 1876. The name of the concept describes it well: this is a phenomenon in which we enjoy and appreciate something the more familiar we are with it.

The effect is also called the familiarity principle, and it can apply not only to our music preferences, but also to love, attraction, and advertising.

Think about your workplace, as an example. You get a new job, and everyone is a stranger at first. But that isn’t the case after a few months or years. Some people become attracted to certain coworkers over time. Our familiarity with these people tends to breed that attraction. We know them. We know what to expect from them. We start liking them.

The mere-exposure effect happens all the time, including with people and music.

enjoying music

Paul Simon, the Mere-Exposure Effect, and Me

Paul Simon’s The Rhythm of the Saints really is the perfect example for me to use in describing the mere-exposure effect. In the decades after Simon and Garfunkel broke up in 1970, Paul took his solo career in some interesting and to-me unfamiliar directions.

Paul has always known how to make a hit. He did it multiple times over with Simon and Garfunkel and continued it with his solo work. This is why I enjoyed his 1970s records so much, and so easily.

Then, I started skipping around Paul Simon’s discography and landed on 1990’s The Rhythm of the Saints. On this album, Paul continued the tradition he had started with his 1986 record Graceland: that of recording worldbeat/pop music with musicians from other countries and cultures.

With Graceland, the focus had been South African music. On The Rhythm of the Saints, it was Afro-Brazilian and other Latin American influences, played with musicians from those cultures.

When I first heard The Rhythm of the Saints in 2012, I hadn’t yet heard Graceland, so I didn’t know what Paul had been up to at this point in his career.

My first listen to The Rhythm of the Saints was terrible. To my 21-year-old self, the album was slow and boring. For the most part, it had no recognizable melodies that I could recall after a listen. The songs meandered through their tunes with lots of strange percussion instruments that I identified as being from other cultures, but that I still didn’t like any more.

However, I stuck with it, and listened to The Rhythm of the Saints over and over again. I still hated it after several months. I chalked it up to one of those albums that maybe received some good reviews at the time, but that I would just never “get.”

Then, one day, with no prior warning, it clicked for me. I don’t remember much about where I was when this happened, or when it happened, except that it was quite some time later. That’s how unremarkably The Rhythm of the Saints slipped into my personal canon of favorite music. It seems I literally went from disliking it to liking it.

I think it’s important to repeat that I gave this album quite enough time to sink in. I probably listened to The Rhythm of the Saints between 15 and 20 times before I got it. And I didn’t attempt to “cram” in all those listens in a few weeks. I’m talking about years here.

Now, the Afro-Brazilian batucada music made sense in my mind. The heavy percussion of this samba-music subset gave me that driving rhythm feeling that I love in my tunes. The congas sounded cool, and the melodies were free to meander all they liked. Songs such as “She Moves On” and “The Coast” are relaxing and enjoyable now, whereas before, they were simply confounding.

Exposing myself to that music over time had indeed done its long work. I now appreciated how Paul Simon had combined Western pop music with Latin American musical styles to create a unique work of art.

The Power of Musical Repetition Can Open New Doors

Being unfamiliar with any form of Latin American music had prevented me from liking The Rhythm of the Saints initially. I gave it about 20 listens over several years, and now I’m enjoying the fruits of that labor.

This is how I think the mere-exposure effect can open all kinds of new musical doors for us if we allow it. There’s that level of music that each of us already knows we like. It’s probably music that’s familiar to us already in some form. But then there’s another level of music–the stuff that goes against our grain–that we can access if we’re just patient enough to let it work our minds.

For me, learning about the mere-exposure effect has at least given me the option of trying to like certain new music. If I really feel like I want to attempt that, then I now know what’s involved. And I think that can be fun.

Exploring Music and Emotions through Bob Dylan’s Work: Part 2

Bob Dylan is an elusive one. He has been in the public eye as a poet-musician since 1961, and yet he is still the subject of so many questions, speculations, and myths. Millions of words have been written about Dylan as a man, a writer, and an American cultural icon.

Dylan is a person who can be open and honest in an interview in one moment and then start spinning his typical Dylanesque misinformation in the next. He is notoriously private and a master at deflecting questions he finds too probing. He can spin, avoid, and joke his way out of any verbal exchange.

As such, there isn’t a great wealth of information that one can learn from Dylan himself about his songs or the emotions he felt when he was writing and performing them. When questioned about even his barest and more vulnerable album–Blood on the Tracks (1975), in which he seems to confess all his feelings about the fading of his marriage–Dylan claimed he simply wanted to write songs in the style of Anton Chekhov’s short stories.

One responsible way to interpret the emotions Dylan intended to project in a given song is to perform close readings of the song lyrics. The words are there for all to see, so if we are going to study anything, that’s a good place to start. I think we can also learn a bit from Dylan’s delivery of those lyrics in the actual tracks.

I feel I can also offer insight into some Dylan songs with what I happen to know about the man’s personal life at the time of a given composition.

The component of this endeavor that I will find the most interesting is when I attempt to convey the emotions I experience when I hear certain Dylan songs, and whether I think my emotional responses match what Dylan was feeling.

I don’t think disconnects in that area will signify any kind of song misinterpretation on my part. The songs mean whatever they are to the person hearing them. That’s just how music and mood work in every individual.

For the sake of organization, I will divide the post into three major emotions I feel when listening to Dylan.

Dylan and Contentment

Dylan and Anger

Dylan and Sadness

I’ll discuss some specific songs that fit into those categories and see if I can read into what Dylan actually meant when he wrote them (it doesn’t help that he has sometimes admitted to not knowing what his own songs mean).

You can check out the first post in this two-part series to get a bit more granular on how music and emotions go together.

Dylan and Contentment

If you look at a hundred photos of Bob Dylan from the early 1960s to 2020, you’ll see him smiling in maybe 25 or 30 of them. The man’s likely an introvert who doesn’t need to express his every feeling for a camera. However, his chronically reserved demeanor doesn’t mean he is never happy. I detect a ton of contentment and joy in many Dylan songs. It’s a nice, positive place to start.

New Morning

The titular track from Dylan’s 1970 album New Morning finds our hero opening with lines about watching the wildlife scurry about outside while he enjoys his lover’s smile on a beautiful morning.

It’s a raucous track, by 1970s folk standards. I don’t need to do much of a close reading to determine Dylan’s outlook here. As a longtime fan of Dylan, I happen to know that the year 1970 found him happily married to his wife, Sara, and raising his young children while living in New York. Dylan had lived in the countryside of Woodstock, NY, in the late 1960s. He enjoyed the simplicity and solitude of life there, especially after the chaos of his highly public 1966 world tour.

What I think “New Morning” comes down to is the contentment Dylan felt in the quiet man’s life. Dylan’s “new morning” was every morning the rooster woke him so he could see a rabbit running out in the sunshine. It was him returning to the house to see the love of his life smiling back at him.

What my exercise in music and emotions requires of me is to be able to empathize with another person, even someone I’ve never met. As a married man who adores my wife, I get Dylan’s sentiments here. I feel the exaltation in the simple pleasures of being young and married, of waking up to see the friendly wildlife outside and knowing my wife is near me.

Listening to “New Morning” makes me wistful for the life I’m currently living. It’s a strange thought, and yet it’s something Dylan has been able to achieve with a song so simple, straightforward, and seemingly devoid of much poetic artistry. That connection to Dylan’s feelings makes me happy for Bob himself when I listen to “New Morning,” even though it was 50 years ago and that period of his life is over.

All the same, as we learned about music and memories in my previous post, I know what I’ll always think about when I hear “New Morning,” whether it’s tomorrow or in another 50 years.

countryside

Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You

If we’re talking about Bob Dylan and contentment, then we’re likely going to be finding a lot of songs from the late 1960s and early 1970s. As I wrote above, I am someone who has read Dylan’s biographical information a few times over, and so I know the reason for this happiness. Still, I don’t believe a listener needs this information to detect elation and satisfaction in “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You,” which comes from Dylan’s 1969 country album Nashville Skyline.

Dylan sings about getting off a train so he can stay with his lover forever. This isn’t the standard poppy love song about failed love or a ruined relationship. It’s Dylan doing a country croon with lively piano accompaniment while singing lyrics about tossing away his hardships and settling down for good.

Those are words spoken by someone who has seen his share of trouble, loneliness, backstabbing, and anything else you can imagine one person doing to another. He’s finally found what makes him whole. This is a happy Dylan, one content to stop rambling down the dusty road and plant himself down with the right woman.

I think about all this as I hear the song. The lyrics and the positive musical arrangements suggest rising joy, acceptance of the pleasures of a pastoral life, and a celebration of the miracle of finding real happiness.

The words and music get in my brain and do their work, I suppose. As with many songs I have heard over the years, I seem to take the place of the narrator in “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You.” Dylan conjures up images of domesticity, having a life partner you love, and being relieved that a certain set of life troubles are behind you. The song makes me wistful and content right alongside Dylan. It’s an incredible musical achievement, and yet, on paper, one so simply composed.

Dylan and Anger

The trouble with Dylan songs, and maybe with all popular songs generally, is that it is nearly impossible to tell which parts of the lyrics, if any, are autobiographical to the writer.

Dylan has claimed he does not write confessional songs. However, he has always been a known purveyor of smoke and mirrors, and so I often struggle to take him at his word.

Regardless, even in the two Dylan and Contentment songs above, I really can’t prove anything. I wouldn’t even say I’m out to produce proof, so far as it would even be possible to do.

angry singing

With Dylan and anger, as with any emotion, one of two things is probably true: either Dylan himself was angry but masked his identity with cryptic lyrics, or he wrote angry songs as plot devices, so to speak, breathing those feelings into his first-person narrators.

Dirge

Planet Waves (1974) is a little-discussed album by Dylan and his longtime collaborators The Band. It seems it’s the diehards only who care about or know many of the songs from this album. That doesn’t mean the content isn’t worthwhile. It is. One song in particular stands out to me, a deep cut, an angry piano-and-guitar ballad called “Dirge.”

Once again, who can say what Dylan’s true subject was, but we can analyze the words themselves. The narrator expresses self-hatred for loving someone and bitter satisfaction at the relationship having ended. It’s strong Dylan, no watering down with this one.

He goes on to mention concepts such as solitude, hollowness, and doom. “Dirge” ends with a remake of the opening line, about the narrator hating himself for the love he felt.

What kind of situation makes a man hate himself for once loving someone? Who is that other person? What did they do to warrant such a song being written? Furthermore, what do these lyrics say about the narrator, to feel hatred about a feeling as positive as love?

One fact we know from psychology is that anger is often one and the same with sadness. In fact, a psychologist might tell you that anger many times is sadness in masquerade.

The difference is that anger allows us to be on the offensive. It lets us seem like forceful beings, appearing as if we can now control a situation.

Conversely, sadness exposes us as victims of tragedy or unfair treatment. By being sad, we are choosing to “accept” those events and let them get us down.

In that case, the lyrics of “Dirge” seem like a person in defeat and denial. The narrator is saying, “See? I already hate myself for ever thinking I needed you. I’m over you. You can’t hurt me.”

What I fully love about Dylan’s lyrics is just this very thing, Dylan’s ability to get at human feelings through words. We know that humans use anger to cover up their hurt. I hear the words of “Dirge” as the inner monologue of someone who has been through the worst parts of life and is using a classic defense mechanism to go on surviving.

We know what has to lie beneath that kind of emotional savagery. “Dirge” lashes out, if only to keep the song’s subject from lashing first.

Idiot Wind

Dylan’s masterpiece “Idiot Wind,” from 1975’s Blood on the Tracks, is an exercise in bitterness, sarcasm, and hostility, not unlike “Dirge” before it.

Whether the music and mood of “Idiot Wind” is a complete fabrication meant to survive suspended in time for eternity, as Dylan has more or less suggested, or simply Dylan angry at his soon-to-be ex-wife, Sara, one fact remains: “Idiot Wind” is a blistering verbal assault that never lets up throughout its nearly eight-minute run time.

Dylan, or the narrator, attacks people who are telling lies about him in the media before laying into an unnamed female target. The jabs include references to the woman being dead in a ditch and the speaker wondering how she is even able to breathe on her own.

The imagery is violent and disturbing. Even Dylan’s delivery is all-in with the song’s fury. He sings-shouts the words from start to finish, spitting out the lyrics like poison. It might be worth noting that initial takes of “Idiot Wind” found Dylan performing the song as a mournful ballad, alone with his acoustic guitar, while the album version features a full band and Dylan’s more energetic vocal delivery.

Those first few quiet cuts of the song reflect a narrator who is admitting his own hurt but is still no less angry. The released version is all rage.

Here again, the emotions I feel when I listen to “Idiot Wind” are ones I suppose most people would consider negative: sadness and anger.

Why, then, is it a “good” song? I think the reason is that Dylan is able to use his greatest tools, his words and his ragged voice, to project his own emotions so clearly.

His tone is fierce and unbridled, and yet his lyrics remain so eloquently structured as to suggest the self-control of a master poet. It would seem Dylan created these eight venomous minutes during some kind of tantrum, but the word construction suggests otherwise.

Do I enjoy listening to “Idiot Wind,” given all this? Yes and no. The performance is solid and will do when I’m feeling pissy, myself. When I’m not, the song is grating and even unpleasant. Dylan’s emotions can clash with my own.

Sometimes, I can enjoyably let that anger wash over me. Other times, it just isn’t for me. But that’s the force of this song.

Masters of War

I had a select amount of angry Dylan songs that I almost chose for this one, but “Masters of War” won out for its unabashed take on the global nuclear tensions of the early 1960s. Dylan recorded the song for his second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963).

“Masters of War” is unusual in the Dylan pantheon because it does away with the ambiguous poetry that characterizes most of Dylan’s work.

The song speaks directly to those “masters” who were threatening the world with nuclear war at the time. Instead of couching his feelings in any kind of allegorical stories, Dylan monotones his anger in lines about the masters hiding away while young soldiers die.

It’s a moralistic condemnation of warmongering, which Dylan saw as irresponsible to the entire world population. How dare you keep ramping up hostilities, Dylan is saying, while expecting all the young people to do the eventual fighting for you?

Later, Dylan questions whether all the money the masters have made in their positions of power will be enough to earn them forgiveness for their sins. The killing stroke comes in the final verse, as Dylan states flatly that he hopes these people die, and that he will follow their bodies as they are lowered into the ground forever.

“Masters of War” leaves almost nothing to the imagination. While the Cold War leaders continue to threaten one another with mutual destruction, Dylan thinks of the safety of everyone who would actually be put in harm’s way because of that.

lightning storm

Another aspect of this song I find worth noting, aside from its directness, is Dylan’s vocal delivery.

Unlike his performance of “Idiot Wind” 12 years later, Dylan sings “Masters of War” in measured tones. It’s controlled anger. He has thought through what he wants to say. The repetitive sounds of his guitar and vocals tell me that this performance expresses a different anger than “Idiot Wind.” This one sounds menacing.

I can feel Dylan’s emotions infecting me when I hear this. I’m a calm person by nature, but if I felt strongly enough about something, I can also see myself penning something like “Masters of War.” If anything, listening to the threatening tone of Dylan’s voice puts me in a state of mind in which I begin considering the world’s troubles from the most sober of perspectives.

Dylan and Sadness

We end this investigation into music and emotions in Bob Dylan’s repertoire with a closer look at sadness in Dylan songs.

With “Dirge,” I mentioned the basic psychological fact of people sometimes using anger as a deep cover for sadness and hurt. Being sad is admitting to ourselves that someone or something has gotten to us where it pains us the most.

Expressing that sadness tells the world we are vulnerable and opens us up to ridicule and other forms of criticism. Yet, sadness is what we can find in Bob Dylan songs from throughout his career. When I think about Dylan, I can truly say, “Here is a man who’s at least honest with himself.”

If we’re talking about sadness in Dylan songs, I could write a book. But let’s cover just a few and discuss how Dylan uses words to convey that sadness to listeners.

Most of the Time

Dylan didn’t always need to be cryptic, apocalyptic, or even especially poetic to express a sentiment. That’s the case with “Most of the Time,” which opened side 2 of his critically acclaimed 1989 record Oh Mercy.

This song is lyrically straightforward, and yet it’s one of the most effective expressions of human emotions in Dylan’s catalog. It gets at how the human brain works in the aftermath of turmoil. Dylan sings about being strong, being a survivor, but only most of the time.

How many of us have felt this way? We encounter great strife in our lives, struggle a bit, and then get into a mindset of being strong again and able to take on the world.

Those feelings are not necessarily permanent. We feel that way…most of the time. Everybody knows those old weaknesses can come creeping in at random. Or they can violently blindside us at the most unexpected moments.

Of course, we recover and get back to our new normals. And we’re all right again, until the next time.

Imagine Dylan, or the narrator of this song, making himself so vulnerable. He is only admitting what many of us feel but don’t discuss. We can present our stone walls to the world almost every minute of every day. The world sees and essentially accepts that illusion of complete strength. But the illusion lasts only so long.

That’s human emotion for you, isn’t it? That’s what sadness appears to be after we’ve recovered from its initial onslaught. I have wondered what was lingering in me in the months and years following traumatic events, the effects of which never seemed to go away completely.

Dylan put into words that otherwise indescribable feeling: I’ve recovered. I’m strong again. Mostly.

Not Dark Yet

Our last song selection is “Not Dark Yet,” which comes from Dylan’s 1997 comeback record Time Out of Mind.

Dylan had not produced much original material in the previous eight years. In the mid-1980s and into the 1990s, he experienced a major career slump, and he was feeling tired and uninspired.

Whether any of this informed how Dylan was feeling about his life and work in 1997, I cannot say for sure. In any event, Daniel Lanois produced that year’s Time Out of Mind, meaning the album bears his characteristic murky and moody atmosphere throughout.

Dylan brought lyrics to match. Each of the songs seems like its own confession of depression, its own rumination on impending doom.

As we’ve been discussing, music and emotions can do funny things to us. Time Out of Mind is a dark work, to be sure.

Why listen to it? Because enveloping yourself in those kinds of feelings can be cathartic. If you let Dylan’s existential crises from this record subsume your thoughts for an hour and 12 minutes, you may just come out the other side having exorcised the demons that were haunting you.

If that’s the case for you, as it has been for me many times, then the mid-album track “Not Dark Yet” is sure to make you feel the most human you’ve ever felt.

broken piano keys

The melancholy guitars and other instrumentation accompany Dylan’s foggy-twilight lyrics. He sings of the lengthening shadows, his unhealed scars, his apathy in the face of other people, and the numbness of his body.

The most poignant parts of the song are the last lines of each stanza, in which Dylan sings that, while things aren’t that bad just yet, darkness will be here soon.

One could perform a dissertation-length analysis of lyrics such as these. I think that, from a psychological perspective, there’s no truer expression of human sadness. It sounds like utter indifference, giving up.

To cap it off, Dylan or the narrator knows what’s coming. No, it isn’t dark just now, but darkness is but one moment away. What will the tipping point be? It almost doesn’t matter.

What is concerning, if a person ever said these words to you, would be how that person arrived at this place to begin with. Would there be a way to bring that person back?

I truly don’t know. I can’t listen to “Not Dark Yet” and not hear someone crying out in this way in the moment before death, possibly even a self-imposed death.

The catharsis that songs produce in listeners can be enormously beneficial to us. Imagine going into “Not Dark Yet” with repressed feelings of sadness, perhaps sentiments you have been hiding away from everyone, even from yourself. Maybe the song gets at you like nothing else has. Maybe you express those feelings.

If music can help you cleanse those secreted emotions, I would say it has done its job.

Final Thoughts

I hope this series–both the previous post on music and emotions and this one specifically related to Bob Dylan’s songs–has laid bare the true force of music on the human mind. Humans are the ones making the music, so we mostly know the elements to infuse into our work to evoke feelings in others.

What we cannot know is how this or that person will take a piece of music, or how the music will infect the person of its own volition.

Dylan’s songs are akin to literature. They are whatever the listener interprets them to be.

Once you realize what emotions a Dylan song is conveying to you, then only you can decide how you respond to those emotions, what they do for you. Do you feel the same? Do you feel differently? Do you like how it makes you feel?

For myself, I know that I have a Dylan song for every day, every occasion, every moment of my life. I know which feelings I want to use Dylan’s music to enhance or suppress, and which songs can actually access those feelings.

I suppose that’s the crux of this two-part series, that Bob Dylan has long been a central figure in my quest to understand the emotional effects of music.

In that sense, Bob has done me a great service: through his own poetic expressions of the complete range of human emotions, he has allowed me to know myself like nothing else has.

Exploring Music and Emotions through Bob Dylan’s Work: Part 1

In mid-2007, I was coming away from a two-year campaign of rock-and-roll headbanging, spearheaded almost exclusively by Led Zeppelin. The band had also directed me to the likes of AC/DC and Rob Zombie, but for the most part, those years belonged to the electric riffs of Jimmy Page, the ground-shaking rhythm section of John Paul Jones and John Bonham, and the primal wailings of Robert Plant.

I was headed for a hard break from all that, but I didn’t know it yet. Led Zeppelin was like a fancified junk food for my mind: tasted great but offered me not much that was real. Thinking back on the band’s catalog, maybe Robert Plant brought emotion to his lyrics when he sang them, but Jimmy had an uncanny ability to play over even sad songs without sounding as though he was expressing his own feelings. He’s secretive that way. The truth was that I didn’t go to Led Zeppelin for emotion, anyway. I went to them to rock.

Then I heard Bob Dylan.

It happened by accident. My local classic rock station mostly stayed away from sensitive singer-songwriter poets like him in favor of Van Halen or Motley Crue. On this particular day in July 2007, the station slipped in its token Dylan for the week in the form of “Positively 4th Street,” a 1965 single.

When that organ started up its wistful lament and Dylan began spitting his lyrical vitriol, I felt like the song had infiltrated a part of my mind that had been lying unused until then.

Dylan’s words hit home for me at that time. He spoke us people calling him a failure or  traitor, when he knew that it was the other way around.

Critics have been wondering as to Dylan’s target in the song for the last 55 years. It’s possible Dylan was attacking those from the Greenwich Village folk scene who had criticized him for abandoning their ranks in the mid-1960s and adopting a more commercial rock sound. Whatever the case, “Positively 4th Street” is classic angry, sarcastic, bitter Dylan, feeling hurt at being treated unfairly.

I listened to these lyrics like a student being taught something by a teacher. Yet foolishness remained. My mind quickly flashed to the mildly inane questions:

“How did Dylan know about that breakup I just had?”

“How did he know that I, too, had been treated unfairly?”

“Why are these lyrics penetrating right to my heart?”

My Led Zeppelin phase was over. Bob Dylan had shattered it.

I now needed to know more about him and where he came from so I could understand his pain. Maybe, if I learned about his experiences to that point in his life, I could comprehend why I had responded so dramatically to his music.

Why Bob Dylan?

Pondering these matters now, I know the explanation of “Positively 4th Street”’s power has to do with the relationship of music and emotions. I understand on a superficial level that music made by humans is capable of affecting the emotions of other humans. But how does one create such music? How would you tap into that? How does a person write a song that resonates so strongly with a 16-year-old 42 years after it was recorded?

Just as my first post spurred me to research why we like the music we like, so does the issue of music and mood drive me forward here. I want to know how and why music can so effectively encourage, diminish, or otherwise balance the emotions of our everyday lives.

bob dylan wall

And I want to do it through the lens of Bob Dylan’s music. Dylan has been a resource–a muse, even–of music critics for 60 years, and for good reason. In Bob Dylan songs, listeners will find no shortage of emotional diversity, from anger and sadness to joy and contentment, from isolation and bitterness to resignation and longing.

I’ve listened to nearly everything Dylan has ever released; I’ve ridden the roller coaster of his career from start to present, from “You’re No Good” (1961) to “Murder Most Foul” (2020). I plan to learn a few things along the way, not just about music and emotions, but maybe about what Bob Dylan really means to me.

This is part 1 of a two-part series. You can read part 2 here.

Music and Emotions: The Basics

I’m sure anyone who actively listens to music knows that it can play with our emotions quite easily. I feel the anger and outrage right alongside Bob Dylan in “Ballad of Hollis Brown” (1964), the sad acceptance of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” (1973), and the apocalyptic melancholy of “Blind Willie McTell” (1983).

To expand upon those examples, I want to reference a 2020 study performed by the University of California, Berkeley. Scientists there wanted to discover the same answers I’m now seeking. They played an eclectic mix of songs from all kinds of genres to 2,500 American and Chinese people to gauge their emotional reactions. Even in these two disparate cultures, the researchers found that “The subjective experience of music across cultures can be mapped within at least 13 overarching feelings: amusement, joy, eroticism, beauty, relaxation, sadness, dreaminess, triumph, anxiety, scariness, annoyance, defiance, and feeling pumped up.”

And so, what I want to get at here is why and how music can hold such sway over us.

Music and Pleasure

A good place to start is the research-based assertion that, for our brains, music acts as a controlled substance of sorts. It is generally thought that musical information enters the brain and encourages it to release dopamine, the neurotransmitter that regulates pleasure.

My first reaction to this is that music sounds suspiciously like drugs in this context. I did just compare music to a controlled substance. But it makes sense. Like alcohol, good food, sex, and certain illicit drugs, music makes our brains and bodies feel just fine, like everything is okay with the world.

What’s interesting about this is that grouping music in with those other pleasing consumables suggests that music can also be addicting. A 2017 study by Adiel Mallik et al. found that giving the anti-addiction medication naltrexone to subjects prevented them from drawing any pleasure from hearing their favorite songs. In this context, that apathetic mental state is referred to as musical anhedonia, and it’s apparently found naturally in about 5% of the general population.

The UC Berkeley study notes one vital detail related to this: that mental arousal from hearing music is one thing; which feelings a piece of music arouses in people is endemic to the party hearing it. In other words: the entire world might agree that Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” is meant to be morose or depressing, but individuals will decide whether they draw pleasure from feeling that sadness.

Music and Other Emotions

Pleasure is one of the major emotional ways that humans experience music, but there are many others to discuss, as well. The gatekeeper that seems to make any of this possible at all is the brain’s neocortex, which permits us to engage in highly refined mental activities such as perceiving stimuli, using reasoning, and processing language. People who are able to respond emotionally to music (which is most of us) are believed to have stronger connections between the neocortex’s auditory cortex and the emotion-regulating region.

We see from this that it takes a real group effort from our brains’ disparate elements for us to feel emotion at hearing music. And pleasure is not the only way we experience music. Music may also surprise us, for instance, by not progressing in a way our brains have come to expect. Music can generate literal action in us by making us want to dance or drum our fingers to a beat.

jazz girl

Humans also tend to model their demeanors and behavior on the emotions of the music they are hearing, as in: Dylan’s “From a Buick 6” will never not make me smile and give the car just a little more gas while I’m cruising the backroads.

Music and Memory

And, of course, many people know about the power of music to evoke memories, even ones from long ago. Memories of favorite music have been found to remain in the brain even when other memories have failed due to old age or any other reason. The brain is able to create musical memories due to the collaborative, large-scale effort among its components to take in and process music. That processing leaves connections and other imprints of the music all over the brain.

That’s a layperson’s description of how musical memories work, but it makes sense even on that level. Whether it’s Dylan or any other musician I love, I can almost always recall some specific memory of a time and place when I first started enjoying a certain song. Many people anecdotally report being able to do this.

For context, here are some examples from my own experiences, with Dylan songs in this case:

  • When I hear “Queen Jane Approximately” (1965), I think of the year 2010, when I first listened to the album that came from, Highway 61 Revisited. I was in college, and the sounds and feelings of Dylan’s first legitimately great album made me feel like I had a new friend in the world.
  • The Levee’s Gonna Break” (2006) reminds me of my 2014 Northern California trip. I was driving back up State Route 1 from San Simeon to my hotel in Monterey in the twilight hour of 8 or 9 o’clock. That was a long-haul drive, and for whatever reason, I played that song on repeat for most of the journey.
  • Shot of Love” (1981) takes me right back to the summer of 2011, when I first listened to that song and the album named for it. That was an idyllic summer for me, for no reason other than the fact that I had the time to read some great books and listen to a lot of meaningful music.

 What’s fascinating about musical memories is that they also seem to retain the emotions we experienced when the memories themselves were created. As such, people can go back and listen to this or that song and actually relive the memory in a certain kind of way, to ride the wave of nostalgia for a few moments.

I don’t mind taking on some bittersweet flashbacks now and again. I’ve done it many times. “The Levee’s Gonna Break” instantly conjures the excitement of my solo crusade up and down the Northern California highways, while “Shot of Love” flashes the hot summer of 2011 through my head. In a matter of seconds, I can recall the images and feelings of those times, and I take comfort in revisiting them once again.

Even though I now know why humans are able to recall the past from music, I still find the phenomenon incredible. This makes me truly stand in awe at the power of music.

Applying the Science of Music and Emotions

I’ve learned quite a bit about music and emotions from the research I’ve presented here. The above is not an exhaustive detailing of all there is to know about this subject, but I feel I have a decent foundation now to think about my favorite music in new ways. I understand why my relationship to music is so strong, and, based on the research, it’s likely due to factors beyond my control. I have some robust white-matter connections in my neocortex, like billions of other people on the planet. Science says that music and mood come down to simply that.

However, looking back on this, there’s a certain negative feeling I get when I consider that we can boil down human emotions to the biological processes in our brain matter; putting emotions that way seems to lend our collective humanity a sterile, laboratory-type quality. I know it’s a much more attractive standpoint to refer to emotions as something other than what science can describe, something more human and relating to the “heart.”

To get into any of that would be beyond my scope here. I would only say that, although science can explain the relationship between music and emotions quite efficiently, I don’t think of my white matter when a song is affecting my emotions. I am a human, and my feelings ebb and flow through me as they do with anyone else. I tend to leave them there, in their natural habitat.

With all that covered, I feel prepared to move on to a discussion of how Bob Dylan’s most interesting work has connected with me emotionally over the decade-plus that I’ve been listening to Dylan. I know intuitively what those feelings are, but it will be something else entirely to convert that information into a consumable form for an audience.

Regardless, I hope that’s an adventure you take with me. That part of this post will appear soon, and when it does, I will update this post to link there.

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