Ranking Bob Dylan Songs, #47: 4th Time Around

“4th Time Around” is an easy song to forget about, coming towards the end of Side Three* of Blonde on Blonde, sandwiched between two more up-tempo, absurdist numbers, “Absolutely Sweet Marie” and “Obviously 5 Believers.” On an album as groundbreaking and epic as Blonde on Blonde, “4th Time Around” is something of a throwback: a breakup song set in simple waltz time.

*It’s a little odd that we still refer to “sides” of albums that originally came out on vinyl, even though hardly anyone still listens to it regularly in that format anymore.

This song is often compared to The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood,” with some going so far as to call it an “homage” or “parody” of John Lennon’s tune. Lennon himself even implied as much in interviews. Such comparisons are probably a stretch—I don’t think Dylan was ever concerned with responding to The Beatles the way The Beatles were concerned with responding to Dylan—but there are a lot of similarities in the songs: the waltz time, conversational lyrics, etc. For The Beatles, though, such a song was a notable step forward—for Dylan it was more of a return to form.

The central story of “4th Time Around” is about a relationship gone wrong thanks to the singer’s unwillingness to give himself up to the demands of his lover. When she tells him that, “Everybody must give something back for something they get,” he responds by “gallantly” offering her his last piece of gum. Just as important as the worthless and condescending offer, though, is the lyrical buildup that works toward it, that gives the sense of him actually trying to think of something to offer.

There are holes in the story that allow the scene to take on an archetypal form, but at the same time Dylan offers us details that color it with a specificity. The image of the singer standing alone in the hallway trying “to make sense out of that picture of you in your wheelchair,” before she returns and interrupts his train of thought is as puzzling to the listener as it is to the singer. That parts of the story are as impenetrable to the listener as the themes are relatable gives the song an air of realism.

Finally, the last stanza of the song is really just a touching, straightforward summation of the themes of the song. Dylan is known for obscure, often abstruse lyrics, but he also knew when simple lines like, “you took me in, you loved me then, you didn’t waste time” could have their maximum power. In general, “4th Time Around” is a great example of Dylan embracing the power and impact of simplicity.   

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2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by James Schneider on November 7, 2009 at 5:03 PM

    what is it with you guys, and like, not going in order?

    Reply

  2. […] I’ve hinted at before, though, Dylan’s efforts to become “simpler” and more specific generally made his songs more […]

    Reply

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