Let’s just start with When He Returns, and listen to it as a…song. A song that tells you what it’s about within its own words and sounds, a song that is not a coded text belonging to an exclusive culture, either you’re in or you’re out. Either I already am committed to the story that Jesus Christ will come to earth from heaven and all of human history will come to an end, and something new will begin and last for all eternity–the song only truly belongs to people who already tell the story of their lives within the frame of this larger story. For everyone else, the song is at best a chance for great vocal performances by Dylan, with some strong images and declarations of emotion. I think we can hear the song otherwise, outside of its frame. The vocals on the album version
are so arresting, such an exercise in restrained articulation and then released emotion, that it is nearly operatic–you would be interested and moved without understanding the lyrics. And certainly throughout the gospel shows, the song was an aria. Clips of Bob sitting at a piano, howling the word wilderness–this is bloodcurdling drama, and to say it’s just abstract feeling is totally inadequate. I’m not just thrilled to tears to hear When He Returns because Bob Dylan rips his throat out when he sings it. What is it then, that I believe that lies outside the custom behind the song?
What will happen when this He returns, and what’s it mean to the singer? What’s it like to wait for this He to return? The sound of the song communicates two states of feeling to me: first, it is always performed at a stately and patient tempo. For a relatively short song, there is a sense of great patience underlying it that makes it seem longer than it is. It is not slowness to the pacing of the music and the phrasing, it is the control and precision that creates this effect. I must make this clear, and I will take my time to do so, the singer seems to say. From all the recordings I have heard, he does not rush this song in concert, it always occurs as a gathering-up of energy. The voice declares each word, and then breaks into pitches of released feeling: the WAR won’t cease; weakness you conceal or it lowers to emphasize the phrase–listen to the word unconcerned, or passes through. So we have this quality of patience, and also the qualities of controlled and released emotion. And it is a song about waiting, and about waiting for something that will change everything-the strongest wall will crumble and fall– what’s going to happen is inexorable–never *if* he returns–and its very power lies in our not having any way of predicting or controlling its coming–he’ll return like a thief in the night.
The singer is a lonely man in terrible pain and he is certain, he is certain of something that he must tell us. I always have an odd little pang when I hear “Of all those who have eyes….It is only he who can reduce me to tears,” and I know of course I’m supposed to have that pang. He’s rejected me, the eyes and ears I’ve brought to the very performance of this song. I can’t move him, nothing can move his heart but Christ, a figure that does not move me except in his ability to shut me off from the singer. For all the outrage and betrayal Dylan fans have expressed with righteousness over the years regarding this period and this music, simple jealousy deserves its due here. It is a peculiar jealousy, however.
So we have left the singer isolated from all contact but with Christ, and so his patience is only logical. But the lyrics address us. From the hallowed isolation of the saved one who knows how narrow truth’s gate is, who knows that the return will usher eternal peace, who knows that Christ will replace wrong with right, who seems to speak to us from certainty–from this hallowed isolation comes cries of doubt and self-laceration, and confessions that the singer can’t extricate himself from the world of ignorance he shares with the un-saved. With me. He appeals to me–with a touch of kindness that is all too rare in this album and Saved–not to cry and not to fear death or destroy myself, and not to burn by continuing to sin. So he knows I’m here, listening, even though his concern is misplaced and unnecessary, since I’m not waiting for what he’s waiting for. And in the second verse he loses his confidence, he confesses to us that he hears the lies of the ignorant, and he himself becomes narcotized by fear, finds himself stranded without the light of certainty. After asserting a conviction in the might and the truth that’s coming, he confesses terrible weakness, inability to escape the falseness that surrounds him in this fallen world. He cries out “can I cast it aside?” –a line of beautiful assonance and consonance–and my heart is moved in pity for this awful self-imposed suffering and the honesty of his weakness. Myself, I’m not strong enough to tell the world I am proud and my loyalties are to the wrong things. And at the end of this verse, he admits that he has not learned the lesson he is trying to teach us–it’ll all be better, peace will be here. He knows it is true, and he has not learned it yet well enough to bring him outside fear and sin.
Given that he will tell us in the next verse that God and Christ know our needs and our deeds, then he must feel that these powers can hear his confession of doubt, even as he has taken it upon himself to use his own gifts and his own ability to summon an audience–and so the inner stakes for this singer, to confess doubts and fears so publicly with the certain knowledge that the powers who can save him are hearing these doubts–this is an existential state of courage and abjection and loneliness that does not require my sharing the myth that provoked it as part of my own personal story. The strength of Dylan’s art has brought me into contact with this state.
How long can you hate yourself for the weakness you conceal? Now he is inclusive, deeply inclusive–he has already let us hear him expose his own weakness, he’s shown us what he sees in the mirror and condemns–can we do the same? Religion articulates self-knowledge and conscience, it does not create them. His appeal to me here is human and it works–through the language he needs to express this appeal. And the song ends on a note of transcendent, sacred ignorance, the opposite of the lies of prejudice. Lovely internal rhyming here: plan/man/plans; known/own/throne. And then the glorious inimitable “unconcerned” for my money one of the most beautiful words he’s ever sung, in every version. The three unaccented syllables, sustained just long enough for the word to be the dying note of the song: the peace we can attain here, before the return, is the peace of knowing all we do and all the suffering we endure through desire, is nothing at all to Christ and God. The maker and the savior are, always and already, unconcerned. Shantih shantih, I suppose. Although I don’t mean to be flippant–Bob Dylan has taught me more about the human condition of religion than anything TS Eliot ever did.