Friday, November 27, 2009

2. Bob Dylan "Mississippi" (2001)

It sounds like it took Bob Dylan his entire life to write "Mississippi." I see it as a response to "Like a Rolling Stone," the period at the end of the sentence "Rolling Stone" began. Where "Rolling Stone" condemned an unnamed person for being a worthless vagabond, "Mississippi" turns the scorn inward for staying somewhere for "a day too long." It's a song drenched in regret, yet leavened with a weary optimism unseen in Dylan's music before.

The song marks a turning point for Dylan. Yes, Time Out of Mind is an extraordinary record, but it was a sidestep. With "Mississippi" Dylan established the template for his most recent records, some of his best.

Lyrically, nothing Dylan has written matches "Mississippi." It's as good an argument as any for why he has a real shot at a Nobel in literature. His command of rhyme has reached its peak, as has his verbal eloquence:
Every step of the way, we walk the line
Your days are numbered, so are mine
Time is piling up, we struggle and we stray
We're all boxed in, nowhere to escape

City's just a jungle, more games to play
Trapped in the heart of it, tryin' to get away
I was raised in the country, I been working in the town
I been in trouble ever since I set my suitcase down

Got nothing for you, I had nothing before
Don't even have anything for myself anymore
Sky full of fire, Pain pouring down
Nothing you can sell me, I'll see you around

All my powers of expression and thoughts so sublime
Could never do you justice in reason or rhyme
Only one thing I did wrong
Stayed in Mississippi a day too long

Well, the devil's in the alley, mule's in the stall
Say anything you wanna, I have heard it all
I was thinking about the things that Rosie said
I was dreaming I was sleeping in Rosie's bed

Walking through the leaves, falling from the trees
Feeling like a stranger nobody sees
So many things that we never will undo
I know you're sorry, I'm sorry too

Some people will offer you their hand and some won't
Last night I knew you, tonight I don't
I need something strong to distract my mind
I'm gonna look at you 'til my eyes go blind

Well I got here following the southern star
I crossed that river just to be where you are
Only one thing I did wrong
Stayed in Mississippi a day too long

Well my ship's been split to splinters and it's sinking fast
I'm drowning in the poison, got no future, got no past
But my heart is not weary, it's light and it's free
I've got nothing but affection for all those who sailed with me

Everybody's moving, if they ain't already there
Everybody's got to move somewhere
Stick with me baby, stick with me anyhow
Things should start to get interesting right about now

My clothes are wet, tight on my skin
Not as tight as the corner that I painted myself in
I know that fortune is waiting to be kind
So give me your hand and say you'll be mine

Well, the emptiness is endless, cold as the clay
You can always come back, but you can't come back all the way
Only one thing I did wrong
Stayed in Mississippi a day too long
Some people throw Dylan a bone and say he's still a great songwriter, but then dismiss him as a performer. That's nonsense. Just listen to Sheryl Crow's version of the song, which Dylan gave to her for the Globe Sessions record before he released it on "Love and Theft". I enjoy Sheryl Crow, but a side-by-side comparison shows why no one can perform a Dylan song like Bob Dylan. Her version is toothless and sterile. It's a small embarrassment compared to Dylan's impeccable performance on "Love and Theft."

It seems like Dylan knew how great "Mississippi" was when he wrote it. He recorded three other versions of the song, which were recently released on his Tell Tale Signs compilation. Each version is approached differently, yet the brilliance of the lyric remains throughout. Whatever the version, "Mississippi" is a huge achievement for an artist whose career is filled with huge achievements.

Click here to view the entire list.

[You can listen to the song on the Lala player below. It requires you get a free subscription to the service.]