Bob Dylan’s Highlands, and What it Means to Me

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When Bob Dylan was ready to bounce back into creating original music, he did so with a new album; ‘Time Out Of Mind’. Which, to this date, remains one of my favourite albums from him, possibly only surpassed by Blonde on Blonde.

The result of ‘time out of mind’ were exactly the same as Daniel Lanois’ first impression of Dylan’s initial songs he had been shown: “[the songs] had regret and hope, beauty and optimism. A lot of life experience. They were so complex.”

But what makes these albums so complex? So filled with beauty and hope, regret and despair? The answer is obvious, it’s in Dylan’s descriptive and emotional language, his singing and his lyricism. His lyrics had never been so cold and depressing, so utterly human and real. His voice had never been more appropriate for the words he was singing, it was like a defeated and crying rumble from somebody who really had been through everything that they were singing about.

So how does any of this relate to ‘Highlands’? Well, in my opinion, for all it’s worth, the song is able to personify everything I’ve said about ‘time out of mind’. The slow, plodding pace builds an atmosphere that is ancient and nouir-esque, letting every single one of Dylan’s words sink in and bounce around your head, projected from his voice that sounds simultaneously ancient, but also tired.

The plot of ‘Highlands’ involved the narrator going into a restaurant, ordering boiled eggs and leaving, but not before insulting a waiter with an awful portrait. At almost 17 minutes long, it seems like awful little for a song that length, but Dylan still manages to make it all work. In fact, 17 minutes was the shrort version of the song.

The song pulls itself from an old Robert Burns song called ‘My Heart’s in the Highlands’. In the poem, which is only four stanzas long, the narrator laments at the fact they are no longer in the Highlands, claiming that they are still there emotionally, yet not there physically. What Dylan does is he clings to the first verse, using it to show how his character is not wherever he is, he is in the Highlands.

Although Burns’ song was obviously meant to be talking about somebody who wished they still lived in the Highlands, Dylan’s Highlands could be anywhere really, since, as we’re about to discuss, the narrator in this song isn’t physically lost, he is literally in the wrong time.

When the narrator walks in to the restaurant, a waitress guesses that he wants a boiled egg, which is correct. It shows our narrator has been around here long enough that the waitress can guess what he’s going to he having already. However, there are no eggs anymore, he has come in too late for them, showing how he is out of time and what he’s wanted has passed him by, out of reach due to time.

The waitress character knows that the narrator is an artist, and asks him to draw a portrait of her on a napkin with a pen. When seeing her own portrait, the waitress can’t tell that it’s her. This can be taken in two ways. Either, the narrator has become so disassociated with the world, with the youth (since we presume the waitress is a lot younger than him), that what he sees is so changed to what everybody else sees that it isn’t recognisable. Or, it could be that the waitress has built up a false portrait of herself, and seeing a real one shocks her because she’s never had to face her own reality. Similar to how the narrator had a false portrait because of his old age altering his world view, so too does the waitress suffer because her youth inspired an idealistic view of herself. I like to imagine it’s a mixture of both explenations. However that works is up to whoemever is reading this.

Eventually, the narrator decides to leave the building, opting to go outside. Being outside shows how disenchanted the narrator is with the world, everybody he sees he is jealous of. He sees the youth and wishes to be like them, he feels entirely out of time with the youth around him. His heart is in the Highlands, though his body is not. He’ll return to the Highlands eventually, but wherever, or whenever that is, is unkown. It’s possible that the Highlands is both a place from the past and a place he intends to go to in the future. He could be out of time because he is still stuck in this past place of the Highlands, or the Highlands could be a place in the future where he intends to go. A place that is for old people like him, maybe it could even be the grave.

So what does all this inane rambling mean? It’s just my uneducated thoughts on some of the lyrics and scenes from my favourite Bob Dylan song. The thoughts aren’t wrong, nor are they right, they’re just mine.

Written by @irispoet.

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