|Song by Bob Dylan|
|from the album Desire|
|Released||January 5, 1976|
|Recorded||July 31, 1975|
|Songwriter(s)||Bob Dylan, Jacques Levy|
|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 guitar, 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. Dylan ends the performance with a brief upward glissando on the piano.
"Isis" tells the tale of a man (the narrator) who married an enigmatic woman ("a mystical child") named Isis. The story covers his separation from her, his subsequent adventure and, ultimately, his return. The marriage took place "on the fifth day of May," (an allusion to Cinco de Mayo, one of several Mexican themes found in Dylan's songs during the 1970s). After the wedding, he "could not hold on to her very long", so he "cut off his hair and rode straight away for the wild unknown country..." He reaches a "high place" divided by a line "through the center of town" into "darkness and light." He hitches his pony and enters a laundry, as though to wash himself of his past. He meets and falls in with a shady character who promises "something easy to catch." They ride "to the pyramids all embedded in ice". They carry on in freezing conditions until the bounty-hunting companion dies. The narrator breaks into the empty tomb ("the casket was empty"), finds no treasure, and realizes the adventure had been a fool's errand. He leaves his dead companion in the tomb, says a quick prayer, and rides back to Isis, whom he still loves. He sees Isis in a meadow and when she asks him if he is going to stay this time, he 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. Dylan was known to include autobiographical hints in his previous songs. "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.
- Bob Dylan – vocals, piano and harmonica
- Scarlet Rivera – violin
- Rob Stoner – bass guitar
- Howie Wyeth – drums
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," and adds "This one's for Leonard, if you're still here!" referring to Leonard Cohen (the Biograph version was recorded in Montreal, Cohen's birthplace). Another live version of the song, recorded on a tour date the previous month, appears on The Bootleg Series Vol. 5.
- Soni, Manish (2001). Mystic Chords: Mysticism and Psychology in Popular Music. New York: Algora. pp. 212–215. ISBN 1892941708.
- Dalton, David (2012). Who Is That Man? In Search of the Real Bob Dylan. London: Omnibus Press. ISBN 9780857127792.
- Varesi, Anthony (2004). The Bob Dylan Albums: A Critical Study. Toronto: Guernica. p. 176. ISBN 1550711393.
- "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