Recently I holed up with a couple buddies in a friend's basement to record the first White Mountain Murder Circus album, and fueled by creative juices and alcohol, I uttered (amidst many other forgettable and unforgettable lines), "Like most great lyrics it doesn't really stand up to logical scrutiny." The Basement Tapes, the 1975 release of unpublished collaborations between the legendary Bob Dylan and the nearly-as-legendary The Band, puts this to the limit.
OK, back up the train. I know what you're thinking: after Dylan went all psychedelic on Another Side of Bob Dylan, sense-making pretty much went out the window for the fifty or so years. In a sense, that's true: no one will cite the lyrics from Mr. Tambourine Man ("in the jingle-jangle morning, I'll come following you") as a textbook example of clarity. Still, there's a difference between psychedelic lyrics and nonsense lyrics, and The Basement Tapes treads largely in the latter. "I looked at my watch / I looked at my wrist / I punched myself in the face with my fist / I took my potatoes down to be mashed / And then I went down to the million-dollar bash," Dylan sings in "Million-Dollar Bash" - and that's actually fairly coherent, as the album goes. "Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread" has not only a silly title but is replete with silly one-liners: "Slap that drummer with a pie that smells." The difference between that and a line like "With your mercury mouth in missionary times" (which leads off the epic "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" from Blonde On Blonde is that you can ruminate on the possibly meanings of "Sad-Eyed Lady," chew on it for days. There's no chewing on "Yea! Heavy." It just passes through the mind like a vapor.
That said, this isn't universally true. While none of the lyrics are straightforward, classics like "Crash on the Levee (Down In the Flood)," "This Wheel's On Fire," and "Tears Of Rage" are tied to larger themes of mortality and, in the spirit of Dylan's best writing, seem to have a meaning not indicated in the denotations of the words. This play with death gives even the silliness some gravity, like it's a spiteful thumbing of the nose at the Reaper. And, of course, we're dealing with masters here - master instrumentalists and arrangers in The Band, and a master wordsmith in Dylan, whose real gift is stringing together words that sound good. That sounds like a reductionist theory of a songwriter's job, but what else is there? The Basement Tapes isn't the best work by either entity, but it's still fine, fun, and frolicking.
Bob Dylan official site
The Band official site