The piano plays a light and inviting tune with a slightly old-fashioned loveliness to it. Wake up, relax, and enjoy, the tune says. The voice comes in a little higher than is usual, a sweetness and playfulness in the phrasing and even the low growls are playful and not ominous.
Spirit on the water, darkness on the face of the deep/I keep thinkin’ ’bout you, baby/I can’t hardly sleep.
There’s a vastness out there, there’s an infinity, a Spirit that moved across the seas and all life sprang from darkness….. Or it’s a long dark sleepless night, and I’m stuck here, I can’t get this woman off my mind.
Like Ain’t Talkin’, Spirit on the Water begins by stepping directly through Genesis, and then straight on into endless walking, restlessness prodded by desire, through a world where faith and certainty are memories or fantasies. The melody of Ain’t Talkin’ seems to be a current of dark water, inexorable and beautiful and grim. And Spirit on the Water seems to be a fresh young stream, sunlight glinting off it. Dylan’s Ain’t Talkin’ voice seems as low as it’s ever been, the words come up from the earth below his feet. Dylan’s Spirit on the Water voice comes from the air and the light around his head. And the songs both describe the same world.
He’s a wanderer in Spirit on the Water: he travels by land, through a new morning after the sleepless night, it’s the dawn of the day, and yet he doesn’t sound exhausted by his journey. There’s the stop-time inside his mind, the thoughts of this woman, he can’t stay away from this inner life of love’s trials–it doesn’t sound like she’s a sure thing, since he wonders why she can’t treat him right and he threatens to throw his love away into the sea of he can’t have her. And always the delicious playfulness of the phrasing, the rising lilts (“If I can’t have youuu..”) In Ain’t Talkin’, he doesn’t have to tell us how arduous and rough his road is, and when he tells us he’s “trampling through mud” in Spirit on the Water, we don’t hear an ordeal, we hear a cavalier attitude in the pursuit of this love.
And then there was light, but he’s blinded by the colors he sees, in this newborn world, it’s so rich–not the same as the wounded flowers of Ain’t Talkin’s garden. He has hidden pain, but he can’t explain the source of it, he doesn’t know anything about causes, about the root and truth of things, he only knows what he feels, his apparently unrequited love. He’s pining from love, pale as a ghost, bearing his love token–but this bit of lyrical drama either backfires because she’s never seen a ghost, or he realizes as he’s saying it that it’s not going to work. All you have to do is hear him acting out those lines–“You ever seen a ghost? No. But you have heard of them”– he fits the question, the pause for thought, the funny appeal to a kind of inconsequential faith (you’ve heard of them) all into the bouncy melody. Suffering and belief turn to levity.
The singer is somehow sentenced here as in Ain’t Talkin’, he can’t go to paradise ever again. Because he killed a man back there. This has a noirish feel to it, a hip underworld cleverness, and we’re also back in Genesis, no return to Eden, no one can go back to paradise. There’s an appalling expulsion at the end of Ain’t Talkin’, when the singer finds the gardener has left, but here there is wit, bravado, and insouciance. And there are old familiar shrines, comfortable places where her sweet voice calls to him, reminding him of pleasure, hardly the bitterly missed altars on the road in Ain’t Talkin’.
Bosch’s one world of delights and torments and fantasies seems just right for the one world of Ain’t Talkin’ and Spirit on the Water. One world in which love, pain, ancient certainties tested and longed for, can appear as a landscape of grim depthless anguish, or a landscape of humor, light, and play. And the palette for each landscape is sound.