Monday, March 20, 2017

World Gone Wrong: Lead Me Through Seas Most Severe

Released October 26, 1993
In 1994 Bob Dylan released an album of traditional songs that earned a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album.  More intense and darker than Good As I've Been to You from 1992, World Gone Wrong takes a deep dive into the subconscious of the American mythos. Dylan also wrote his own liner notes.

The first track "World Gone Wrong" is a highlight, the most straightforward song on the album.  The tune is credited to the Mississippi Sheiks, a song Dylan describes as going "against cultural policy." Dylan sounds like he means it on this one, a raging epic on a dysfunctional relationship entering the end times. The narrator rages at the woman and himself, confessing "he can't be good anymore, once, like I did before." Dylan's driving guitar and grizzled vocal makes it clear he's not playing games, if you can't take the heat here you're best to stick with FM radio or Pearl Jam.

"Love Henry" tells a Gothic tale of avarice in the form of a woman who murders Henry because he prefers another woman.  Henry succumbs in the third verse "with a penny knife she held in her hand/she murdered mortal he." Then she disposes of him in the well and imagines the girl he left behind weeping over him with a sense of glee.  Dylan suggests "Love Henry" is about blindness, not being in tune with our instincts in the barrage of distractions life throws at us.

"Ragged and Dirty" is a desperate plea for salvation from the confines of a one room country shack. A rascal makes a plea for understanding. 

Then "Blood In My Eyes," another Mississippi Sheiks song that according to Dylan is about "revolt against routine." The narrator's enamored with a lady of the night "I went back home, put on my tie/Gonna get that girl that money will buy." Dylan paints a vivid picture.

"Broke Down Engine" chronicles another lost soul looking for grace anywhere it can be found. Beneath all the anxiety about mortality there's a driving insanity for meaning, people will fight for it and march to the ends of the earth (if they are wide awake).

The tragic "Delia" tells another dark love story from the viewpoint of a rejected suitor. He repeats throughout the song "all the friends I ever had are gone" and then relates the tale of his beloved Delia getting gunned down by a scoundrel. So the murderer sits in the jailhouse and Delia rests in the ground and life goes on. Meanwhile the narrator laments "You loved all them rounders, you never did love me."

Next comes the traditional "Stack-a-Lee," another sordid tale of a tavern dispute over a stetson hat.  The Stack-a-Lee character is a brutal killer who shrugs at moral conventions and kills without remorse. He murders Billy Lynn in cold blood, a father of three.  Dylan wrote of the song "Billy didn't have an insurance plan, didn't get airsick yet his ghost is more real & genuine than all the dead souls on the boob tube."

Dylan tells a Civil War tale without the romance on "Two Soldiers," they perish in battle and leave the women who love them burdened with grief.  It's terrain Dylan covered before in the anti-war talking song "John Brown." No one who perishes in war as an expendable person, yet history has a way of seeing to it anyways.  

The penultimate track "Jack-A-Roe" promises meaning and joy are a possibility on the temporal plain. A lovely daughter of a wealthy merchant disguises herself as a man to be with Jack the Sailor.  Somehow they both survive the war, Jack-A-Roe nurses Jack back to health and they get married.  Dylan's guitar playing features a ghostly reverb putting the song out of time, floating it into the ether.

In "Lone Pilgrim" a man visits a grave and something miraculous occurs.  Dylan's own musings on the song are like a futuristic telegram:

 . . . what's essentially true is virtual reality. technology to wipe out truth is now available. not everybody can afford it but it's available. when the cost comes down look out!  there won't be songs like these anymore.  factually there aren't any now .

Thus ends World Gone Wrong.  A few years later Dylan would revisit the existential themes in a more intimate way on another Grammy Award winning LP Time Out of Mind, the one critics would hail as Dylan's late masterpiece. More were to follow.

Work Cited

Dylan, Bob. "About the Songs (what they're about)." Liner Notes. World Gone Wrong. LP. Columbia, 1993.


  1. Great review great album. How about guitar playing and knocking sounds on Broke Down Engine". I can't get enough. Lone Pilgrim - very uplifting

  2. All the songs are great and Bob does them so well. It is a very satisfying album that I have listened to many times. Jack-A Roe has so much energy in it.