Can you see what this is? It’s a rusted compass needle. Do you want to know what a time-rusted compass blade sounds like? Listen to Beyond Here Lies Nothin, the first official release from Bob Dylan’s upcoming album, Together Through Life. The voice, with more teeth in its rasp than ever, saws against all kinds of time– the tempo of the song, the losing-but-never-quite-lost battle with the past, and love’s fantasy of eternity in a moment.
Why does this song leave me filled with a strange and hopeless sadness? It starts out uptempo, dark and danceable, a rolling big band blues if there’s such a thing. The vocals start out with great rough bravado: here’s black jack davey himself calling out to his “pretty baby” who makes him feel like the whole world is his “throne” . And so fast he shows his hand. Beyond here lies nothin. The rusty voice picks out this phrase with elegance and finality. The slight fall of the word “nothin” tells us all we need to know about the cold empty lightless world the singer is trying to escape with this moment of love. It’s the dream of this love that he can’t do without as he walks through the blasted world that’s a boulevard of broken cars. He begs her to put her hand on his head, save and heal and bless him, because his ship is in the harbor, and its sails are spread.
Beyond here lies nothin–and it’s the nothing that we feel and can’t stop feeling as soon as we’ve heard the first refrain. The song seems to end so quickly, yet there is a great sound to it as it rolls along, as the arrangement pulls up and stretches out again while the vocals snake in and out. The song seems an odd race against time. He’s got to get back on that ghost ship, the love has had its entire moment in the span of the song, the nothing is going to claim him again.
And it’s all in the serrations and syncopations of the voice. We’re called to attention at the vocals’ emphatic beginning of each verse, and are carried through to the nothing that each verse leads to.
“It’s all the Arabs’s fault,” Bob once said. “They invented the zero.” We shouldn’t be surprised that Bob Dylan can darken and illuminate our own worlds by making us feel…nothing….at the sound of ….nothing. The no-place that is the world in this song belongs to a family of no-places in his songs. Remember that utopia means no place, it does not mean paradise (the Greek for that would be eutopia, or good place).
Gates of Eden is a utopia: it can’t or won’t laugh at the absurdity of the world that idealizes it; trials and kings aren’t needed there; nothing outside this unreachable place is true. Where teardrops fall: where sadness is marked, and where the tears finally come to rest. It’s far away from it all, this romantic dream. Highlands. There’s love beyond the horizon, and if the world is round there is always a new horizon with no beyond, and if the world is flat, we simply come to the end.
But why does this new utopia, this nothing, leave me with such terrible sadness?