Friday, October 2, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #155: Three Angels

I'm not really sure what to make of "Three Angels". As we come to a close on New Morning, it seems kind of strange for Dylan to suddenly pull out a gospel-inflected (check out that organ!) philosophical piece about angels hovering above us as people go off and live their little humdrum lives, never stopping to see if they can find the ethereal so close to the mundane. It's not that it's a bad song, at all - it's kind of like Bob's "Everybody Hurts", only with a little less universality and a little more slice-of-life lyricism - so much as it's a really odd downer at the end of the album, especially given the one-two-three punch that had preceded it. There's something that just seems a little off, I can't tell you what.

It isn't that Bob hasn't given us character pieces in the past (what is "Ballad of a Thin Man" if not a character piece?) or delved into everyday life in a metaphysical way. What makes the song seem strange to me is that Dylan gives us a really good example of the keen eye that he has as a songwriter, whipping up a little slice of life that gives us well-observed details and people seemingly snatched right off the street - but for what purpose? A two-minute throwaway tacked on the end of the album because it would've sounded even stranger coming after "Winterlude" or something? Maybe it's just the sequencing, then; but that still doesn't explain why there's something lacking about the whole thing. Could it be the length? The weird Christian underpinning that sort of but doesn't really jibe with what's going on with the rest of the album? Maybe it's just another experiment Bob decided to try, giving us a speak-sung O. Henry pastiche set to music? Baffling.

It occurs to me, typing these words, that I'm probably doing a 180 on the stuff that I've typed in the past, where I've chastised others (and myself) for looking for too much or thinking too hard about one of Bob's songs, and that I should just listen and enjoy the song for what it is. And I think I still do that, or at the very least make an effort to do that and not let my feelings about the music get overwhelmed by what I'd like to talk about for the song's blog post. But a song like this...I mean, where do I really go? I've talked about Dylan's nice usage of imagery (the U-Haul truck in particular manages to be the most evocative, and I'm not really sure why), and about Bob reaching into his John Wesley Harding Biblical playbook, only with a little less subtlety, and about how the song touches on a very deep and spiritual subject for a few minutes before coming to an abrupt end. That doesn't seem to leave too much out.

The disappointment I feel at moments like these, where the (usually latent) limitations of this project I've undertaken and enjoyed so often become glaringly apparent, is something I wouldn't wish on any Dylan fan. It can be said about Dylan that even his bad music gives you something to talk about (the last two-three months prior to this album should've been proof of that), and his good music can encompass our whole wide world in terms of subjects of conversation. That, of course, is something that can be said about most great artists in most of the artistic fields. And, let it once again be said, I think that this is a fine song, maybe even a good song. I know that there are bigger fans of this song than I, people that are more likely to tell me something they love about this song that I may have missed, and people that are more than happy to elucidate on why this deserves a deeper look than I'd given it. And believe me when I say that I would be more than happy to hear them out.

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João Pedro da Costa said...

It seems to me that New Morning has a strong narrative structure. The acute power of observation in THREE ANGELS seems to be only possible due to the meditation pathos he's talked about on prior songs of this record like IF DOGS RUN FREE, NEW MORNING, SIGN ON THE WINDOW and ONE MORE WEEKEND. One has to liberate himself to the distractions of everyday life to be able to see those three (a number full of religious symbolism) angels. And the narrative closes beautifully with the last song. But i'll wait for your post to express my feelings about that short, wonderful piece of music.

Anonymous said...

just wondering-- are you gonna do Billy and Knockin' on Heaven's Door or go straight to Planet Waves?

Nick said...

This is a great song to drive around to late at night/early morning in the city. You feel like Bob is there narrating what's going on around you. It's a neat little song and a fitting way to close out a neat little album.

iriefire said...

hey i love your blogs buti reckon you would have been gushing about this song if it were on the basement tapes ;)

Rob said...

It's like the opening bit of urban poetry on Theme Time Radio Hour.

194jerry said...

I've always LOVED this perfect little piece. It's tender, and witty/funny in a surreal/absurdist way e.g.
"The wildest cat from Montana passes by in a flash
Then a lady in a bright orange dress
One U-Haul trailer, A TRUCK WITH NO WHEELS
The Tenth Avenue bus going west
The DOGS and pigeons FLY UP and they flutter around
A man with a badge skips by
Three fellas crawlin’ on their way back to work" etc. One of his very best IMHO. Lovely odd lines. (Like the great one on Blood On The Tracks "the only one on the scene missing was the Jack of Hearts")

Anonymous said...

It is VERY autobiographic.

The 10th avenue bus going west locates the PoV very specifically in place time.

Gronk said...

This song is about seeing a bunch of fake angels in the window of a New York department store at Christmas time. Nothing more, and certainly nothing less - not when it contains the line "this concrete world full of souls". It's his Christmas song! Ya dig???

Unknown said...

What about the angels playing horns in Rockefeller Center? Look it up in Google Images.

David George Freeman said...

Hello Tony, yes another fine essay. Come inside Bob Dylan's Music Box and listen to every version of every song.