Melancholy, Mirrors and "I Shall Be Released"

Emotional Resonance is a safe place where we can go deep on what a single song means to us. Happy times and sad, good news and bad, we explore the soundtrack to our lives.

The Band, and especially their debut 1968 album Music From the Big Pink, graced my consciousness at a particularly relevant time in my life, around the period of my 25th birthday. Previous to that I had been slowly rummaging (or shall I say re-rummaging) through Bob Dylan’s back catalogue. I’d always appreciated Dylan — my father was a veritable broken record that sang the man’s praises — but this time round the journey was effortlessly revealing diamonds when before there was nothing but coal. Naturally then, I eventually came across The Band. Before recording their seminal debut album, The Band (then known as The Hawks) stood in as Bob Dylan’s backing group during his tumultuous electric transition and would also sit in with Dylan after his motorcycle accident in 1966, recording a bunch of demos that would eventually be known as The Basement Tapes and released in 1975.

Music From the Big Pink then stood as The Band’s first foray into their own public entity, and while the album had a few writing contributions from Dylan, much of the work was original material written and recorded by The Band themselves. That is, except for a single song called “I Shall Be Released”, the last on the record, which was written entirely by Bob Dylan. Dylan’s version (which was recorded during the Basement Tapes sessions and can be found on The Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3) is something of a jaunty number, a country-infused track of lethargic optimism that would come to define Dylan’s own musical output in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Shedding his cryptic skin, Dylan began to write fewer lyrics, with a concerted effort on each line being impactful, a far cry from his previous mythic ramblings. The Band’s “I Shall Be Released”, however, is a much more mournful affair, driven initially by Richard Manuel’s twinkling piano that evolves into a gospel dirge, gorgeously harmonised by the trio of Rick Danko, Levon Helm and Manuel. It’s an absurdly beautiful way to end a perfect debut album and firmly stands at the crossroads of Dylan and The Band’s creative relationship.

What does this all have to do with this lonely listener though? As I previously mentioned, Music From the Big Pink seemed to emerge into my musical landscape at the most opportune of times. During this period, I was experiencing minor tectonic shifts in my life that were imperceptible in the moment but now seem monumental in my development. I was ending old relationships and beginning new ones. I was solidifying my own perspective in ways that I never thought possible, mostly due to a tipping of the balance between insecurity and confidence (in which direction, I’m still not sure). Worried that I wasn’t developing as a professional individual and yet excited about the opening of new social and personal possibilities, my 25th birthday marked a point of significant change and introspection, especially after the realisation that I had been alive now for a quarter of a century.

This is where The Band come in, and more specifically “I Shall Be Released”. On the day of my 25th birthday, the first and last song that I listened to was “I Shall Be Released”. It started with me waking up with the yearning to hear the track (not uncommon during this period) and ended with my desire to have the day come full circle by playing it again before bed. There was a strange contortion of burning anguish and bittersweet elation contained in the action that was profound to me, and although I wasn’t fully aware of why I felt so strongly about the track in that moment (in a way, I’m still not), I knew it was significant.

“I Shall Be Released” is written from the perspective of a wrongly convicted prisoner who aches for his freedom. Each of the three verses are straightforward enough, with the man first seeking redemption and finally crying out in desperation for his innocence to be recognised. The chorus that punctuates each verse maintains a purity of simplicity in its structure and affect, in which the prisoner solemnly pines for his freedom:

“I see my light come shinin’
From the west down to the east
Any day now, any day now
I shall be released”

Despite the fact that the track was actually written about a person, metaphorically or not, to myself the track revealed something much more potent than a tale of wrongful accusation. In The Band’s rendition, the angelic openness of the track came to stand for freedom in its purest form, a modern day form of manifest destiny in which the search for happiness is fated and yet just out of reach. Like the best Dylan songs it is mythic and truthful in its lyrical pursuit, yet The Band seemed to comprehend something beyond Dylan’s initial interpretation. Garth Hudson’s ghostly warbling on the roxochord organ, Richard Manuel’s trembling vocal chords and the way the music seems to loop for eternity, these qualities to me managed to transform Dylan’s tale of a tortured soul into a blueprint for lost souls in general, myself included.

Much like Mark Kozelek, I’d say I was a melancholic kid. Of course, I’d distance myself from such emotions with outward acts of stupidity, humour and misbehaviour, a practice I still find myself indulging in today. I still find it difficult to get close to people and I still get too emotionally involved in things most people would easily brush aside, but after 25 years, and an infinite amount of spins of my Music From the Big Pink vinyl, I’m starting to understand that I’m not alone there, a fact that “I Shall Be Released” helped to solidify in my mind.

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