Today’s song comes from the debut album by an Eighties’ supergroup. I’ve already posted about all the guys in this band but for Jeff Lynne, who was the lead singer/composer for Electric Light Orchestra, a band that became tremendously popular in the late Seventies and into the Eighties, but I only liked them early on—On the Third Day (1973), when they were so Beatlesque, and Eldorado (1974), when they were so prog. Lynne, though, was a meister of production and could create soundscapes that sounded like The Beatles might if The Beatles had made it to the Eighties. He’s the addition to the other guys—Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty—that insures that this album is going to sound contemporary. He did work with Harrison and Petty and helped them weather that meretricious decade on their own too. On this record, it’s all to the good. Traveling Wilburys Vol. I is good “adult rock,” a fun outing for all involved, not least the listener.
But today’s song is the one song on the album that takes a less playful vibe. It’s predominantly a Dylan song and he does a great vocal on it, so good, in fact, it makes you wish that there were more of it. Like what if Lynne had produced one of those less than stellar Dylan albums of the Eighties? Having a guy like that around might’ve thrown a spark into the proceedings. In any case, I pick today’s song because its mood jumped out at me when I played the album not too long ago.
And what is that mood? It’s borderline resentment, that’s what. I mean, the reason I love this song’s delivery so much is that Bob—who was a king of put-down songs in his mean Sixties persona—seems to be saying all this with a grim resignation, putting it out there through gritted teeth. And those gritted teeth can almost pass as a smile, right? Like, sure, congratulations are in order and the addressee of this song should be pretty damn pleased with herself, particularly as she has no reason, at this late date, to spare a thought for the guy speaking this song. He could become a borderline sad sack, pining after this no doubt newly hitched woman he still wants. What’s more, her getting what she wants means he won’t. Congratulations — you finally did succeed / Congratulations — for leaving me in need. Poof! Happy landings, you selfish bitch.
Except. Maybe he really doesn’t want her back, it’s just that, well, her luck is going better than his. And that’s where the resentment comes in.
Congratulations — you got a good deal / Congratulations — how good you must feel. See? He’s bemoaning not just that she’s making him feel bad, by not wanting him, but that she’s feeling good, or, in any case, better than he is. She’s moved on with someone else—or something else (marriage, job, big career move), and he’s still saddled to yesterday’s news.
And Bob sings it with that little catch of self-pity that is so effective, aided by all that backup vocalizing and Harrison's trademark slide on the intro and outro. We don’t necessarily feel for this guy but, for my money anyway, I get a big kick out of hearing him gripe. And the second-to-last verse is the corker here. Unlike most Dylan songs, here the best verse isn’t last; in fact that last verse drops the ball with that lame “you came out on top / you never did know when to stop” line. I suppose there’s something to the idea that she’s a real go-getter (and ballbuster), but, with that line, the guy begins to try my patience (as he must’ve tried hers too). But this is worth the price of admission:
I guess I must’ve loved you more than I ever knew / My world is empty now ’cause it don’t have you / And if I had just one more chance to win your heart again / I would do things differently, but what’s the use to pretend?
Oh yeah. First, there’s that sad realization: he felt more strongly about her than he was ever willing to admit, even to himself. So that emptiness he keeps feeling—which she’s unlikely to believe in and, in any case, would never feel for him—is going to be his only companion for some time. So much so that he’s still at the point where his favorite fantasy is getting her back—another chance to win her over, to prove what he didn’t manage—or try—to prove the first time. But, and this is where Bob separates the men from the boys or the pining sad sacks from the losers with a grasp of the Reality Principle, even though he can imagine doing it all differently, to a different outcome, “what’s the use to pretend.” Who is he kidding? Not even himself. Squelch.
So let’s imagine that sound you hear when you drop a flaming match into some water.