Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 11 July 2020

'False Prophet': What is Bob Dylan singing about in his new song?

The US singer-songwriter released the new song with an announcement of his first album of original music in eight years

US legend Bob Dylan has released a new song 'False Prophet' along with an announcement of an upcoming album, which would be his first in eight years to feature original songs. AFP
US legend Bob Dylan has released a new song 'False Prophet' along with an announcement of an upcoming album, which would be his first in eight years to feature original songs. AFP

Bob Dylan’s new track False Prophet has all the depth, soul and poetry we've come to expect from the singer-songwriter.

Spoken more than sung, the song came as an announcement of an upcoming Dylan album – the first to feature original songwriting in eight years – called Rough and Rowdy Days.

The song is the third that Dylan has released over the last few weeks, coming after Murder Most Foul, a 17-minute ballad about the assassination of John F Kennedy, and I Contain Multitudes, which takes its title from a line in Walt Whitman's poem, Song of Myself.

Unpacking what False Prophet is about is an exercise in guess work, as with many of the famous crooner's most elaborate ballads. Maybe Dylan will one day expand on his lyrics himself, although that’s highly doubtful given the songwriter’s staunch position on letting his audience interpret his songs the way they’d like. But given the lyrics’ mystical and enigmatic qualities, we thought we’d give it a shot.

A political beginning?

“Another day that don’t end / Another ship goin’ out,” Dylan starts the song with a gruff confidence, showing how time has only served to add more character to his voice.

“Another day of anger, bitterness, and doubt / I know how it happened / I saw it begin / I opened my heart to the world and the world came in.”

This doesn’t offer much in terms of lyrical clues.

It suggests a Nietzschean eternal recurrence to everyday life as Dylan sees it. Maybe it even touches upon the cyclical nature of historic events, and of human nature.

Either way, the 78-year-old pop culture figure has certainly seen a lot in his six-decade career. Dylan has been as much an activist as he has a folk icon. His songs have been used in protests against the Vietnam War and a good bulk of his lyrics can be read as political commentary, from his latest Murder Most Foul to his 1983 song Jokerman, which is said to be a scathing critique of the politics of US President Ronald Reagan.

In short Dylan's seen a lot, and it's not much of a stretch to assume a political undertone to the lyrics of False Prophet.

However, the last line of the first verse ('I opened my heart to the world and the world came in') sends a message of love and acceptance – especially when confronted with a day of anger, bitterness and doubt. Open your heart, the troubadour says. And the world will gush in with meaning, love and reason – even if it seems dominated by anger and darkness at times, like it does these days.

It is some learned advice from the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer.

Then the lyrics get personal

As the song progresses, the lyrics gradually veer off the political and begin to convey a different, more personal meaning.

“I’m the enemy of treason / Enemy of strife / Enemy of the unlived meaningless life,” Dylan sings. “I ain’t no false prophet / I just know what I know / I go where only the lonely can go.”

In some way, the song seems to look back on Dylan’s own career. It hints at his activism as well as his search for meaning.

His claim that he isn’t a false prophet is intriguing. Often times, a person who is seen as a false prophet by some is also seen as a true prophet by others.

As the song came with an album announcement, perhaps this is Dylan’s rise from the ashes, his realisation that he is at his happiest while writing new music

Yet, we don’t think that Dylan is purporting himself to be a prophet. Rather, he is sure of the things he has seen, he is sure of the opinions he has and his perspective on the world.

But he is also aware that his viewpoints may not coincide with everyone’s. The key to this verse may be in its final line ("I go where only the lonely can go"). It is, perhaps, a way of seeing the world that is cultivated through loneliness, or more probably solitude, that he is preaching. Of course this is merely conjecture.

He sums up his career

Perhaps the most beautiful two lines of the song are sung in the middle: “I sing songs of love / I sing songs of betrayal,” which perfectly sum up Dylan’s songwriting approach and the essence of what made him a legend of folk music.

Dylan brings up the false prophet reference again in the song’s final verse: “I ain’t no false prophet / No, I’m nobody’s bride / Can’t remember when I was born / And I forgot when I died.” Again, Dylan here is calling out a solitary state.

The line "I’m nobody’s bride" brings to mind the string of relationships across Dylan’s life. From his failed marriages to Sara Dylan (which ended with a $36 million divorce settlement) and Carolyn Dennis, who was Bob Dylan’s back-up singer and wife until 1992.

Whether or not these relationships really have anything to do with the song’s final verse, we’ll leave you to decide for yourself.

The final line of the song is perhaps the most interesting. Does Dylan feel like he’s been dead for some time? Is he, with the song, reminding himself what he stood for, that he was an enemy of the unlived meaningless life, and has somehow found himself subdued by the monotony he hinted at in the beginning of the song?

As the song also came with an announcement for an upcoming album, perhaps this is Dylan’s rise from the ashes, his realisation that he is at his happiest, most fulfilled while writing new music. If that is the case, we couldn’t be more accepting and we welcome the return of the folk star.

The cover art for False Prophet has also as much to unpack as the song. It features a one-eyed skeleton in a flower-lapelled tuxedo and a top hat, holding a long gift-box that is reminiscent of how mob-assassins concealed their machine guns. In his right hand the skeleton has a syringe and a kerchief, the back drop shows a shadow of a hanging man. Is this a self-portrait of Dylan in vaudevillian macabre? Again, that is for you to decide.

Updated: May 11, 2020 12:30 PM

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