Bob Dylan: Infidels

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Infidels_(Bob_Dylan_album)

Recorded: April-May 1983

Released: October 27, 1983

Infidels has almost broken me. I’ve listened to it five or six times, and still don’t quite know what to make of it. What can I say about Infidels that wouldn’t come back to haunt me?

Infidels is a good album.

Infidels sounds great.

Infidels isn’t an evangelistic record, but it’s full of biblical imagery.

I listened to Infidels soon after it was released. I didn’t really revisit it over the years, and I don’t know that I’ll do this a lot in the future.

Let’s talk about the songs.

“Jokerman”. This is the song I find most elusive, both lyrically and musically. I’m not a close interpreter of Dylan’s lyrics. I look for two things: (1) Striking lines that jump out at me. (2) An overall sense of the song’s meaning. I’d compare this to an impressionist painting: the details might be blurry, but I know what it’s about. “Jokerman” has the striking lines, but I can’t figure out the meaning: who’s Jokerman? The Antichrist, Satan, Dylan himself… ? I’m with Tony Attwood on this one. I don’t think there is a clear meaning here. That’s not good. Musically, the song is very appealing, but every time I listen to its beginning with the throbbing bass, gentle organ, tasteful guitar licks, I get this weird feeling that that is… mellow. Dylan should not be mellow! He should be rough and rowdy, raw and raspy, protesting and praising, but. Not. Ever. Mellow!  But: that chorus: the music starts to swell, and then:

Jokerman dance to the nightingale tune

Bird fly high by the light of the moon

Oh, oh, oh, Jokerman

Despite all my doubts, this insinuates itself past my defenses and sticks in my mind, and heart.

“Sweetheart Like You”. Maybe I’m crazy, but this performance seems gentle, but appropriately so… not mellow. I also feel like I know what it’s about – and it doesn’t matter if it’s literal (about a woman or Woman) or metaphorical (about the Christian Church???), because those interpretations work together. Someone (something) precious is in bad surroundings, maybe due in part to her (its) own actions. And Dylan laments the situation. This I think is how to understand “a woman like you should be at home / that’s where you belong.” “Home” is a place of safety, where you’re surrounded by loved ones, where “you belong”. 

“Neighborhood Bully”. I love the rocking sound, it gets me every time, but boy, are the lyrics problematic. The metaphor is so unsubtle as to not even be a metaphor, and so simplistic and one sided as to be offensive. 

“License to Kill”. This is a song I’ve come to like more and more, and perhaps would be one of the songs I would be most likely to revisit. Another of Dylan’s songs about someone who’s been corrupted, but there’s a lot of compassion here:

Now, he’s hell-bent for destruction, he’s afraid and confused

And his brain has been mismanaged with great skill

All he believes are his eyes

And his eyes, they just tell him lies

He’s been manipulated into this state, but still:

there’s a woman on my block

Sitting there in a cold chill

She say who gonna take away his license to kill?

No matter how it happened, now he’s a threat, a danger.

And the final damning verse:

Now he worships at an altar of a stagnant pool

And when he sees his reflection, he’s fulfilled

Oh, man is opposed to fair play

He wants it all and he wants it his way

Which brings us back to the lingering, unanswered question that we’re left with:

Now, there’s a woman on my block

She just sit there as the night grows still

She say who gonna take away his license to kill?

“Man of Peace” – evil comes in disguise: watch out!  “About 500 years into the Second Age, Sauron reappeared,[T 17] intent on taking over Middle-earth and ruling it as a God-Kin. To seduce the Elves into his service, Sauron assumed a fair appearance as Annatar, “Lord of Gifts”, befriended the Elven-smiths of Eregion, led by Celebrimbor, and counseled them in arts and magic.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sauron) For all of us Lord of the Rings stans. Also, this song rolls along nicely.

“Union Sundown”. Another one that I like the sound of. Maybe excessively nationalistic. I always thought this was about labor unions, but I guess it’s more about the Union, i.e., the United States… right? The anti-greed, anti-exploitation message sure isn’t any less relevant today.

“I and I”. This is a song that I thought was pretty amazing when I first listened to Infidels, and I still think so. I think I’m being inconsistent, though, as I’m not sure that it passes my “Jokerman” test: is there really a meaning here? I’ve always focused on the duality of “I and I” – God and Man, two sides of the same person, the light and dark side… – but I can’t figure out how they relate to that. Maybe the “I and I” are the spiritual and profane in all of us? Maybe the first lyric – “Been so long since a strange woman has slept in my bed” is the key. Is Dylan leaving behind the rigidities of Christian fundamentalism for the pleasures of the flesh? Is he torn between the two? Some of the verses fit that, some don’t. But I do love the sound of this one – I claim it’s moody and eerie, not mellow, with the chorus vocals an echo of Dylan’s singing of Desire tracks like “One More Cup of Coffee”.

“Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight”. This grew on me. Maybe because of the video for the alt version? This is a pleasurable love song, with the nice twist that it’s really the narrator who might be falling apart. And it is one of Dylan’s great “regret” passages that I’m always a sucker for:

I wish I’d have been a doctor

Maybe I’d have saved some life that had been lost

Maybe I’d have done some good in the world

’Stead of burning every bridge I crossed

Infidels is a good album…

One thought on “Bob Dylan: Infidels”

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