Menace and Ambiguity: Bob Dylan’s “Cold Irons Bound”

At the literary website The Millions you can read “Stuck Inside of Stockholm with the Nobel Blues Again,” my essay on Bob Dylan winning the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature. In this essay, I make the case that the literary genre of songwriting is similar to playwriting, a literary form that has been honored by the Nobel committee fourteen times in the past century.

Both forms begin with a text—lyrics, script—that depends on the collaboration of others to become fully embodied as an artistic experience. A play needs actors, a director and more, while a song lyric needs music and performers. Each initiating literary text depends on the collaboration of others, who in turn can transform the material into something the author didn’t perhaps originally envision. If the Nobel committee was looking to finally honor songwriting, as it has multiple times with playwriting, as a genre worthy of literary attention, then Bob Dylan was perhaps the likeliest candidate.

To see the longer argument in The Millions, you can click here.

For this blog post I’d like to accompany that Millions essay with a close look at one Dylan song, “Cold Irons Bound.” This song, which won the 1998 Grammy Award for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance, is part of 1997’s Time Out of Mind, the first of a trio of albums that marked Dylan’s late resurgence as a songwriter and performer, continuing into the 21st century with Love & Theft (2002) and Modern Times (2006).

Time Out of Mind album cover

Dylan first wrote the lyrics for Time Out of Mind on his Minnesota farm during the winter of 1996, and though he and his touring band then made demos of the songs, he continued revising the words until initial sessions began in early 1997, and even then he reportedly continued to make changes.

So let’s start with the lyrics, which are what Dylan started with when he first began creating “Cold Irons Bound.” It’s a song of menace and the hard ache of longing, the record of a mind struggling against a kind of madness brought on by ruined love.

I’m beginning to hear voices and there’s no one around
Now I’m all used up and I feel so turned-around
I went to church on Sunday and she passed by
And my love for her is taking such a long time to die
God, I’m waist deep, waist deep in the mist
It’s almost like, almost like I don’t exist

I’m 20 miles out of town, and cold irons bound
20 miles out of town and cold irons bound

There’s a wall of pride high and wide
Can’t see over to the other side
It’s such a sad thing to see beauty decay
It’s sadder still to feel your heart torn away
One look at you and I’m out of control
Like the universe has swallowed me whole

I’m 20 miles out of town and cold irons bound
20 miles out of town and cold irons bound

There’s too many people, too many to recall
I thought some of ‘em were friends of mine
I was wrong about ‘em all
Well, the road is rocky and the hillside’s mud
Up over my head nothing but clouds of blood
I found my own, I found my one in you
But your love just hasn’t proved true

I’m 20 miles out of town, and cold irons bound
20 miles out of town, and cold irons bound

Well the winds in Chicago have turned me to shreds
Reality has always had too many heads
Some things last longer than you think they will
Some kind of things you can never kill
It’s you and you only I’m thinking about
But you can’t see in, and it’s hard looking out

I’m 20 miles out of town, cold irons bound
20 miles out of town and cold irons bound

Well the fat’s in the fire, and the water’s in the tank
And the whiskey’s in the jar, and the money’s in the bank
I tried to love and protect you because I cared
I’m gonna remember forever the joy we’ve shared
Looking at you and I’m on my bended knee
You have no idea what you do to me

I’m 20 miles out of town and cold irons bound
20 miles out of town and cold irons bound

When the lyrics and music were largely set, Dylan then picked Daniel Lanois to produce the album (they’d worked together for 1987’s Oh Mercy), and they both brought in extra musicians to fill out the sound of Dylan’s touring band. Lanois is known for his particular production style, a spacious, almost ambient sound, while Dylan wanted the production to recreate the straightforward approach of his favorite records of the 1950s, and from the tension of those two conflicting visions comes the distinctive, gritty echoing aura of the songs.

On the album, there are between eight and ten musicians accompanying Dylan on “Cold Irons Bound.” But the version I’d like to focus on is a live performance recorded in 2003, with his long-time touring band, for the soundtrack of the movie Masked and Anonymous. It’s as if Dylan had chosen from among the possibilities of the original recorded version, which is perhaps a little too busy with all those instruments, and finally shaped an arrangement that best embodied both words and music.

The sound here is streamlined and sleek, three electric guitars, bass and drums, roaring at a slightly faster pace than the album version. The guitars shimmer with broad chords that are both beautiful and yet scratch like exposed nerves, the syncopated rhythms of the drums both propel the music and make it seem to lurch back and forth, and the electric bass repeats a doom-laden descending riff that shifts between five and three notes just before each chorus and seems to echo the desperate fate of the raspy-voiced singer. Throughout the song, Dylan leans on the lyrics to give them more power. My favorite example here is

One look at you and I’m out of control
Like the universe has swallowed me whole

On the page, this is powerful enough, but in performance, Dylan amps it up with his phrasing: “Like the universe . . . has swallowed me whole.” That pause sets up a certain anticipation, and then the swift honesty of the last four words, painfully wrung out of the singer’s voice in a cross between a croak and growl, shears through you, offers a deeper window into the man’s anguish.

And this is just the music—there’s also the performance. Dylan casts a remarkable presence, a grizzled figure with a pencil-thin mustache, slight in stature and yet in absolute control of the band, moving things along with a nod of his head or a shifting of a shoulder, sometimes facing the camera with a world-weary stare. Wearing a crisp Nudie Cohn-style embroidered country suit and a dashing cowboy gentleman hat, Dylan of course is not the character singing—he’s certainly not bound in chains after committing a heinous crime, and yet through his phrasing he inhabits this tormented fellow who has seen much and is not impressed with much of what he’s seen, who has loved and been loved badly and yet still can’t let go. It’s a first person narrative, the author hiding behind the guise of an invented character, and yet it’s also Dylan the performer (another character, of course), wearing a snazzy Country Western outfit and telling a tale.

So let’s return to the story of those lyrics, specifically the ambiguities of the song’s refrain, the last three words of which make up the song’s title:

I’m 20 miles out of town and cold irons bound

The singer is bound to this woman, can’t escape her, and even though he’s 20 miles out of town he might as well be bound in cold irons, because his shackles are emotional. It seems as if the song’s chorus takes place in the present moment as he’s travelling out of town, while the rest of the song between that refrain takes place in the character’s mind, memories racing through him of the unhappy life he has left behind and yet can’t escape.

Or—and here’s the brilliance of the song—perhaps he’s speaking in his mind to this woman he can no longer emotionally reach and he’s already 20 miles out of town and certain that his anguish will result in his doing something stupid and violent out in the wider world that is bound to land him in prison.

Or—and here the implications of the song turn stranger—maybe he has murdered this woman he loves. These chilling lines suggest it:

Some things last longer than you think they will
Some kind of things you can never kill

Which is followed by

It’s you and you only I’m thinking about

He could be trying to justify his despair and regret to the dead woman’s ghost, while he’s bound in chains and 20 miles along the journey to the nearest prison.

On the other hand, he could be returning to town, which is now only 20 miles away, and the closer he gets the more he knows that, against his better judgment, in his misery he’s bound to do something terrible, perhaps to this woman who haunts him, perhaps to someone else, some crime that will land him in jail, still without peace.

So much of the ambiguity here emanates from one word, “bound.” Does “bound” mean being restrained, in chains either literal or metaphorical (or both at once)? Or does “bound” mean destined, or compelled?

“Cold Irons Bound” is a song that can be listened to again and again, for the bracing electricity of the music, which captures the unsettling menace and torment of the lyrics, and for the multiple ways the words can be interpreted. Did Dylan begin the conception of his song with those three charged words that became the title? Did the developing music and arrangements shape the lyrics’ unfolding further, encouraging additional revision? Whatever the answers to those questions, we have here a concise literary text, a desperate love ballad that follows the simple structure of traditional songwriting and transforms it into at least four possible scenarios for the reader—or listener—to contemplate.

Plus, the music truly kicks ass.

The music kicks ass

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For those interested, here are more essays by Philip Graham on music:

The Pleasures of Saudade

The Difference Between an Artist and a Performer

Welcome to a Hidden World

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