Bob Dylan – We Better Talk This Over

Bob Dylan - We Better Talk This Over

Words and music Bob Dylan
Released on Street Legal (1978)


Paul Williams

The least ambitious song on the album is the most successful (We Better Talk This Over – it has got humor, it has got magnificent resonance between lyrics and music, it has even got some love in it, and some genuine humility)

Oliver Trager

With this sober look at a marriage in self-destruct, Dylan may have been trying to mend things with his wife – or simply convincing himself that the jig was up. Certainly, We Better Talk This Over comes across like a well-rehearsed “Dear Jane, let’s break up” speech, with just enough spontaneity to make it appear as if he is a man on the brink impulsively speaking with his heart and soul.

Wilfred Mellers deconstructed We Better Talk This Over musically and lyrically in his article God Mode And Meaning In Some Recent Songs By Bob Dylan, published in Popular Musix #1 in 1981. In a discussion of the paradox of human love, always imperfect when contrasted with the purity of God’s, he wrote, “This kind of paradox is more overt in We Better Talk This Over, in which jazzy elements further compromise hymnic solemnity. It might be a song of loss in that its ambiguous thirds are very blue and its rhythms both broken and irregular, the four pulse alternating with uneasy fives. Yey although Dylan says he is “displaced, I got a low-down feeling” because his woman has been double-dealing, and although he will have to leave tomorrow because there is nothing left of their love except “the sound of one hand clappin’,” the song’s general statemwent is far from being a negation.”

Dylan thought highly of this semi-confessional, and it does have an undeniable intimacy despite its sometimes strained musical arrangement. He performed We Better Talk This Over as a 1978 world tour exclusive, and brought it back as a short-lived Never Ending Tour performance experiment in the late-winter of 2000.

Clinton Heylin

Published lyric/s: Lyrics 85; Lyrics 04.

Known studio recordings: Rundown Studio, Santa Monica CA, 26 December 1977; 26-27 April 1978. [S-L]

First known performance [#344]: Paris, 4 July 1978.

Another Street-Legal track Dylan introduced at the Paris residency in July 1978, We Better Talk This Over slotted easily into a set which on a good day could include both its twin-song and 1978 rewrites of The Man In Me and Going, Going, Gone. All were part of the wholesale cull at tour’s end, as Street-Legal was excised from the post-conversion canon (somewhat contradicting Dylan’s claim in a 1985 interview, “I liked Street-Legal a lot”).

The inclusion, then, of We Better Talk This Over at an intimate warm-up show in Anaheim in March 2000, ahead of another year of sustained touring, looms large in the pantheon of Never Ending Tour surprises. Did the version performed that night suggest he had been listening to the remixed version of the album, issued a few months earlier, or that he was just looking to shake things up? Either way, such an invigorating rendition argued for retention in the set. In his finite wisdom, though, Dylan decided it really was something he had “gone beyond”.

Christopher Ricks

Virtue – Prudence

“We better” is more magnanimous than “You better”, in that anyone who says “We better” does not, on the face of it, exempt himself (or herself) from the advice that is recommended or commended. But magnanimity is well advised to stay sober. The first rhyme of We Better Talk This Over is furrily slurred: over / sober.

“I think we better talk this over
Maybe when we both get sober”

It matters that the song is not called, cumbrously and with a touch of the pretend-tentative, I Think We Better Talk This Over. This would have been the wrong first line to take. The words “I think” are decent of him (do not want to press the point) but are not about to weaken into any doubt on the matter. The same goes for “Maybe”, which amounts to “really” really. “It really would be prudent of us to leave it till we both get sober”. (Both? The hint may be that one of us is already sober. Me, I take it.)

And the run of the words and of the voice is prudently precise about where to place that “Maybe”. Not “We better talk this over, maybe” – no, that we’d better talk this over is a sure thing, for all the courtesy of “I think” – but “Maybe when we both get sober”. It is only the “when” that is in question.

Delicately done, again. It would be quite a different story if the-song were called, as in those vibrant moments in films, We Need to Talk.

“I think we better talk this over
Maybe when we both get sober
You’ll understand I’m only a man
Doin’ the best that I can”

“The best that I can” seizes the chance to justify itself, to feel that it really does follow climactically, by following the words “we better”. Meanwhile the pronouns are doing “a downhill dance” of a sort: I we we / You I I. There could easily have been a “he”: “I’m only a man / Doin’ the best that he can”. But this would have been too easy.

This man won’t duck. “Only a man”, which is engendered by the sexual situation, both is and is not gendered (someone, this particular someone, then, speaking from a man’s eye view all right). “Only a man” is not asking for a fight, it is on this occasion gender-pacific. And the phrase both concedes and intercedes: come on, there is a limit to the best you should hope from a man, given the run of men, to say nothing of original sin. Anyway, maybe you are only a woman, doing the best that you can.

Twos and threes: these are set before us in this first shaping of pronouns and in the verse-form itself. It looks as though it is constituted of twos, pairs, couplets or couples whether happy or not. The song is about coupling, “the bed where we slept”, and about uncoupling:

“The vows that we kept are now broken and swept
‘Neath the bed where we slept”

Couplets, then, from the start: over / sober, man / can. And this is not only a matter of the look on the page but of the weight in time and in speed in the singing. But the verse-form could be lineated on the page as a supple couplet followed by a tripping triplet:

“I think we better talk this over
Maybe when we both get sober
You’ll understand
I’m only a man
Doin’ the best that I can”

Or, in verse 2, there can be felt both this shaping spirit of imagination:

“This situation can only get rougher
Why should we needlessly suffer?
Let’s call it a day, go our own different ways
Before we decay”

and this different unauthorized lineation:

“This situation can only get rougher
Why should we needlessly suffer?
Let’s call it a day
Go our own different ways
Before we decay”

The one verse-form goes its own different ways.

The bridge then takes the form of a duly undulating couplet:

“You don’t have to be afraid of looking into my face
We’ve done nothing to each other time will not erase”

Yet even here, two and three are heard to interplay, for laced with the rhyme face / erase there is the strong assonance afraid / face / erase. And this sound, too, is followed up in the downhill momentum of the song, in the very next phrase, “I feel displaced”.

“We’ve done nothing to each other time will not erase
I feel displaced, I got a low-down feeling
You been two-faced, you been double-dealing
I took a chance, got caught in the trance
Of a downhill dance”

The “low-down feeling” (he is feeling low, his spirits are down, because she has behaved in a low-down way) will be felt to be warranted when he gets down to “a downhill dance”, but on the way he will let her know that he knows, letting us in on a fact: “You been two-faced, you been double-dealing”. Two-faced, so maybe it is not altogether true that “You don’t have to be afraid of looking into my face”. My one face. My integrity, your duplicity, your double-dealing. You and I have ceased to be a twosome. Two and four, now, perhaps, since the verse’s opening couplet might now take the lineated shape of a foursome:

“I feel displaced
I got a low-down feeling
You been two-faced
You been double-dealing”

And from such a two-cum-four to three again: chance / trance / dance.

It is immediately following this accusatory verse that there comes the only other one that sets itself to the two-cum-four rhyming of the opening couplet. A sudden pang is felt, a wish that there had been no need to accuse, a longing for what had been fantasized but could not be realized:

“Oh, child, why you wanna hurt me?
I’m exiled, you can’t convert me
I’m lost in the haze of your delicate ways
With both eyes glazed


“Oh, child
Why you wanna hurt me?
I’m exiled
You can’t convert me”

This is cryptic, as though unable to bring itself to declare all that it is feeling. There is no difficulty in understanding “I’m exiled” – she has done this to him, has banished him, even though she may not have known that this would be the upshot of the downhill dance. And there is no difficulty with “You can’t convert me”. A lost soul, “I’m lost in the haze”. Lost time is not found again, nor is lost faith. But what is the relation between “I’m exiled” and “You can’t convert me”? Exiled afar to another country, another continent? Beyond the reach of conversion, beyond the reach of even the best-positioned missionary? The elusiveness fascinates.

“I’m lost in the haze of your delicate ways
With both eyes glazed”

He admits it, he sees the haze clearly, he even sees that his eyes are glazed. This, too, is delicately done. “Both eyes”: no one-eyed jack or jill. If he needs a third eye, he just can’t grow it. “Why should we go on watching each other through a telescope?” The days when each was under the other’s loving microscope have gone.

The acknowledgement that their number is up comes when he breaks into this dusty answer:

“The vows that we kept are now broken and swept
‘Neath the bed where we slept”

Or in this lineation:

“The vows that we kept
Are now broken and swept
‘Neath the bed where we slept”

Three in the bed of rhyme. There were three in the bed, and the little man said, Roll over, roll over. So they all rolled over, and one fell out. The little man, for once, before the end. Displaced. There were two in the bed, and the little man said, “I guess I’ll be leaving tomorrow”, leaving the other two to it. The eternal triangle? No, not eternal, for time is the mercy of eternity. “Oh, babe, time for a new transition”.

The song, which gambols and gambles, is one form of a numbers game. “Two-faced” will face off, not only against “my face”, but against “this universe”, both of these being variants on the old one-two, or on two to one.

“You don’t have to yearn for love, you don’t have to be alone
Somewheres in this universe there’s a place that you can call home”

This universe may be vast but it is one, a single whole, or it would be a multiverse.

Dr Clark Kerr, of the University of California, earned the credit or the discredit for coining “multiversity” in the 1960s. The protests at his Berkeley, though, were about the war in Vietnam.

One is one and all alone, and evermore shall be so. But you do not have to be alone. “Somewheres” is a word that is happy to play its part or parts, feeling plural while being singular. This form of the word has come to feel singularly American, and it is true that The Oxford English Dictionary, which introduces it with a quotation from Bartlett’s American Dictionary (1859), does label it dial[ect]. or vulg[ar]. But “somewheres” does not mean exactly the same as “somewhere”, any more than the American “quite a ways” means quite the same as “quite a way”, and Robert Louis Stevenson was safe in employing it in Treasure Island: “I know you’ve got that ship safe somewheres.” Not just some place but a great many possible places. “Somewheres in this universe there’s a place that you can call home”.

Throughout the song, Number One (“one’s self, one’s own person and interests”, The Oxford English Dictionary) is being looked after, reasonably enough, while looking towards two, even as two can look towards three. So that when the rhyme of “half” with “laugh” arrives, it is not only comic relief but fun and games with numerations.

“I guess I’ll be leaving tomorrow
If I have to beg, steal or borrow
It’d be great to cross paths in a day and a half
Look at each other and laugh”

The couplet tomorrow / borrow tucks up within itself a borrowing of the’ notoriously unscrupulous triplet, “beg, borrow, or steal”. A borrowing, but a twisting, too: Dylan’s “beg, steal or borrow” has a happy ending, or at any rate what may be an honest one. (“Neither a borrower nor a lender be”, in Polonius’s words, but if you do borrow, please return.) “If I have to beg, steal or borrow” does not, unlike “beg, borrow or steal”, descend to a life of crime, it just flirts with stealing and then steals on. Dylan doesn’t borrow things without making them his own. But the telling stroke is “in a day and a half”. It would be great to cross paths in a day or two, surely…A day and a half? The divisive calculation is perfectly calculated to lead into the inexorable “But” which introduces a further subtraction:

“But I don’t think it’s liable to happen
Like the sound of one hand clappin’”

Zen and the art of rhyme. What would it be, in the total absence of any other word, for one word to rhyme? What is the rhyme-sound of one rhyme-word when it does “have to be alone”? The amiably impudent rhyme happen / clappin’ conveys the truth that a worthwhile rhyme is a happenstance worthy of our applause, while wittily confirming the impossibility that it sets itself to imagine – and of which it speaks with a becoming tentativeness (we better not be too sure about those Masters of Zen): “But I don’t think…”

On the other hand, we can not only imagine but we can see and hear “one hand waving free” in Mr Tambourine Man. Yes: “Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free”. No downhill dance, this glimpse.

The song is about making an end, or rather, about not flinching from the fact that a love has ended. That the end draws near is intimated to us by Dylan’s changing what had been the manifest pattern within the song. Three times there has been unfolded for us a particular pattern: two quatrains, followed by the bridge-couplet. But on the third occasion, this trio is succeeded, not by a quatrain but by the bridge-couplet again, a bridge having led not to a destination but to a further bridge.

And only after that is there a final quatrain, standing alone as no previous quatrain had done. Not four, four, two, but two, two, four. The word “Eventually” earns its placing, as does the invocation of “a new transition”. The sequence is by no means tangled, but this end is twisted and turned and justified.

“Don’t think of me and fantasize on what we never had
Be grateful for what we’ve shared together and be glad, oh”

“Why should we go on watching each other through a telescope?
Eventually we’ll hang ourselves on all this tangled rope”

“Oh, babe, time for a new transition
I wish I was a magician
I would wave a wand and tie back the bond
That we’ve both gone beyond”

There is something very wasteful about what has happened to the word “share” in modern English, whether American or British. Hardly a day goes by without your reading somewhere that they share something in common, or that they both share it. So I hope that I am right in feeling grateful for Dylan’s line “Be grateful for what we’ve shared together and be glad”. Not the usual unthinking redundancy, but a sense of the overflowing gladness of what was once the case. “Shared together”: we have shared a bed, “the bed where we slept” (as he sang a moment ago), and we have slept together, and we have been in bed together. “Be glad”.

Rhyme can be a magic wand. I wish. The rhyme transition / magician is saucy sorcery, audible, too, in the swish of wish / magician, unsentimentally aware of all the things that no amount of rhyming can effect or affect. The finality of this consummation is there in the triplet’s fourfold rhyming, the first and last such patterning, going beyond its previous bonds of rhyming:

“I would wave a wand and tie back the bond
That we’ve both gone beyond
“Oh, babe”. It’s all talked over now.”




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