|Song by Bob Dylan from the album Desire|
|Released||5 January 1976|
|Desire track listing|
This song is in a moderately fast 3/4 time, in the key of B-flat major. The arrangement is based on rhythm chords played on acoustic piano, accompanied by bass, drums, and violin. The harmonic progression consists of an ostinato using the following chords throughout:
The lyrics are all verses; there is no chorus. The melody is in the style of a modal folk song, emphasizing the tonic and dominant notes in the scale, with leaps of a fifth in between them. The mode is Mixolydian with a major third in the harmony, but Dylan's delivery of the melody and Rivera's violin accompaniment use a flatted third as in the blues.
“Isis” tells a tale of a man who married an enigmatic figure named Isis. The story’s main part, told by her spouse, is about his separation from her. The song opens with their wedding "on the fifth day of May," an allusion to Cinco de Mayo (a patriotic holiday of Mexico), one of several Mexican themes found in Dylan's songs during the 1970s. Still in the first verse, the tale describes the couple's separation and the narrator's adventure through what sounds like the Wild West or Mexico. He rides a pony and hitches it up "on the right" in a "high place" symbolically divided by a line "through the center of town" into "darkness and light." He goes to wash his clothes, as though to wash himself of his past. He falls in with a shady character who promises easy treasure. They ride “to the pyramids all embedded in ice,” and dig in freezing conditions until the treasure-hunting companion dies. So the narrator breaks into the empty tomb, finds no treasure, and realizes the adventure had been crazy. He buries the dead man in the tomb within the pyramid, says a quick prayer, and rides back to Isis because he still loves her. He sees her in a meadow where Isis asks him if he is going to stay this time. The narrator replies, “If you want me to, yes!”
The song was written and recorded during a time of separation and reunion in Dylan's own marriage; consequently, for fans and critics the temptation to interpret it as an allegory of Dylan's own marital difficulties is irresistible, especially since the Desire album contains the song "Sara" which is openly about their marriage and separation. Since Dylan was known to include autobiographical hints in his previous songs, this interpretation cannot be considered farfetched. "Isis" draws upon mythological themes of a male hero separating from his wife, going on adventures, and returning to the marriage, going back to the Odyssey.
Dylan did an up-tempo live version of the song with the Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975. A performance taped on this tour on December 4, 1975 was included in the 1978 film Renaldo and Clara, and released in 2002 on a bonus DVD accompanying the initial release of The Bootleg Series Vol. 5: Bob Dylan Live 1975, The Rolling Thunder Revue. The audio recording of this performance was also released on the compilation album Biograph in 1985. Dylan is heard introducing the piece as "a song about marriage". Another live version of the song, recorded on a tour date the previous month, appears on The Bootleg Series Vol. 5.
- "Isis" lyrics from bobdylan.com, with audio samples. Note: Some of the lines given here are different from the version released on Desire. Alternate lyrics were heard in the live performance.
- Review by Thomas Ward at Allmusic