Bob Dylan and his heart speak a real language to each other that Bob Dylan is then able to translate into songs. Think of him as the sibyl of his own heart.
Heart of Mine is a clever conceit, a piece of playful and self-aware hypocrisy until the line “so malicious and so full of guile.” His heart frightens and threatens him. It will create feeling to cause pain. He is his own enemy, and how well he knows his own enemy! The song, with its lyrical title, is indeed a lovesong to the heart itself, the heart which should be content to rest within its home, which is the singer alone. But the singer knows everything about his heart. It needs more than its very own self, it needs to roam, it needs to speak itself to someone else, it can’t be fed by its own life. We come to feel as certain as he does in the lie that the heart is a restless, hungry, free creature. We come to believe that Bob Dylan’s heart is his familiar.
Heart of Mine is a whimsy compared to Forgetful Heart, which gets across a kind of self-estrangement that is a dark and awful mirror. The recording sounds ancient from the very opening, scratchy and hissing as though we’re listening to something excavated and barely restored. There are only four verses, and the song is one of those that is over before you’ve had time to know it. The words are utterly simple and the vocal clear as stones beneath water, and the cadence has a simple and peculiar charm. There are short equally stressed syllables and then the words that rise on those currents of feeling that break through in different places: “the times we knew” “when you were there” “…that life could give”– the words themselves carry no more weight of meaning than other lines in the song, but the voice surges through them and it is in those surges that the coldness of forgetting opens up into the pain of forgetting.
No longer the singer’s companion in love, his heart is now a shadow in his brain. Think about the heart as a shadow–an outline, nothing but the shape of something blocking the light. Sometimes you can read what a thing might be in its shadow, that’s all you can do. And no rest for his brain always awake, always tormenting itself by reading that lifeless shadow in the absence of the feeling he once shared with his heart.
The door has closed for evermore. That’s a lovely lyrical convention, a well-chosen metaphor for time sealing up passion’s memories. If indeed there ever was a door. This is radically witty. It makes a real door.
Bob Dylan can make me believe that forgetting and remembering are conditions and not willed actions. Bob Dylan can make me believe that a heart is a familiar, an inseparable companion, and not simply his feelings as they happen to him. Then he can make me believe that feelings themselves have Being and are not fleeting and arbitrary impulses. He can make me feel pain that someone might call a self-inflicted fiction. He can make me feel he is never alone when he is alone, that he is intrinsically and often excruciatingly in perpetual conversation with an other that is the same.
Forgetful Heart is an unhealthy and unnecessary visit to pain we don’t have to have. When people complain that Bob Dylan’s songs are not as “relevant” as they would like, I wonder what is more relevant than being reminded of the truth of our hapless, sorry condition, and how deeply we relish being reminded of our sorriness via beauty. We are self-defeating and truth-seeking creatures in a terrible real world. “Welcome. And enjoy,” says Forgetful Heart.