Revisiting Bob Dylan’s Apocalyptic Side

A look at decades of ominous songwriting

Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan in 2010.
The White House/Creative Commons
By Tobias Carroll / May 31, 2020 5:55 pm

Earlier this year, Bob Dylan released his first new song in 8 years — an epic look at history and violence called “Murder Most Foul.” It was far from Dylan’s first foray into harrowing lyrical imagery in his long back catalog. But where, exactly, does the line for Dylan exist between ominous and simply apocalyptic?

At CrimeReads, Richard Z. Santos explored the multiple ways in which Dylan evoked the end of the world in his music. As Santos notes, Dylan’s second album contains a trio of songs which all venture into thoroughly unsettling territory: “A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall,” “Masters of War” and “Talking World War III Blues.”

“Talking World War III Blues” is Dylan laughing at the absurdity of the end of the world, but the blistering anger of “Hard Rain” and “Masters” are nothing short of the soundtrack to the apocalypse. In these two songs, Dylan is less a protest singer with a guitar and a harmonica, and more a prophet holding a scythe and an hourglass.

Santos makes the observation that Dylan’s apocalyptic observations didn’t end after the 1960s. He points to his 1980s conversion to Christianity as another impactful period when it comes to this tendency in his work. And even after that, there’s still been a bleak side to his music — from the 1993 album World Gone Wrong to the song “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’,” heard on 2009’s Together Through Life.

For Santos, this aspect of Dylan’s work has its ominous side, but it also points to the singer’s insight and vision when it comes to the state of the world. It’s an insightful look at one of the most fascinating bodies of work by a musician working today.

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