The song begins, uncharacteristically, with its chorus. The speaker seems frustrated with his progress, even acknowledging his limitations in this area: "I can’t run but/ I can walk much faster than this."
Then come three seemingly unrelated verses. The first is about the nuclear power plant disaster in Chernobyl, Ukraine, in April of 1986. It was one of the worst disasters in the history of such facilities, contaminating wide swaths of populated territory with toxic radiation. It was unequaled until the tsumani/earthquake-provoked nuclear catastrophe in Japan in 2011.
The verse summarizes the event's, well, fallout. The "rain" was "new" in nature due to the high levels of radioactivity, and everything from "trees" to "umbrellas" were used to shield the populace from it. Everything had to be analyzed for radioactive contamination, from the "soil" of what had been a Soviet breadbasket region, to the "food"-- now more "contemplated" than eagerly consumed-- to the "water" that had to be purified. Boiling water was supposed to free it of bacteria; if anything the radiation would have taken care of that, as radiation is used to kill, for example, cancer cells. Meanwhile, I doubt even boiling temperatures would affect uranium or plutonium radioactivity, given how this was itself spread by burning smoke.
The picture is one of overall incompetence, and the government's inept attempts to cover it up. The idea that umbrellas and boiling water would protect against nuclear fallout reeks of the same population-pacifying pablum as the films American schoolchildren used to watch, explaining to them that in the event of an atomic-bomb attack, they should "duck and cover" under their flimsy desks.
Next, the song turns to a description of the speaker's dream, possibly about his lover. It may have been brought on by drinking, given the mention of "bottles." (In the In the Blue Light version, the line "in the bottles and bones of the night" became "after the long goodnight." I feel this line is weaker and more cliche. Also, it says that the relationship was a desirable one, so why then afterward dream about pain?)
In the dream, he feels "a pain in [his] shoulder blade." His guesses? "...a pencil point? A love bite?" Both seem unlikely-- why would someone stab someone else with a sharpened pencil? And aren't "love bites" ("hickeys," in American slang) usually given higher, around the neck (and does that mean people lied about hickeys by saying a vampire had bitten them?) The two guesses seem to equate the pain of writing with the pain of love. And why the "shoulder blade"? Maybe his subconscious is telling him that he has been stabbed in the back. Perhaps he senses some infidelity or other betrayal. (Or maybe he fell asleep while writing and was jolted awake when he rolled over onto the pencil.)
Also in the dream, there is another couple: "A couple was rubbing against us/ Rubbing and doing that new dance." So first, we realize that the initial couple-- the speaker and his lover-- were dancing, in the dream. Then, this other couple is not accidentally brushing against them as they shimmy on the dance floor-- the word "rubbing" is used twice. In the dream imagery, this is to show that this couple is somehow connected with them.
My feeling is that they are them-- a manifestation of this same couple as they could be. They are doing a "new dance" and so are "hip" and in sync with the times. The man is somehow both formal and casual at once-- "wearing a jacket and jeans"-- elegant, yet relaxed (ostensibly a combination the speaker has not himself mastered). The woman is "laughing in advance," probably in happy anticipation of where the night would lead (ahem). He feels this other couple could be what they themselves ought to be.
Taken together, the two verses are images of frustration. In one, a country believes itself to be advanced and sophisticated, only to learn it is not, when it counts. In the next, a man dreams about his ideal relationship and realizes that his real one falls painfully short. Also in both, someone realizes he is being told something less than the full truth, and is being merely appeased instead of actually helped.
The last verse is as free-flowing as the "river" that forms its thin cohesion. The verse begins with the image of the river winding, then it getting "wound around a heart." Is the river somehow emotionally important to the speaker, that his heart is wrapped up in it? (In the In the Blue Light version, this verse is introduced by the words "The legend is," so perhaps the river/heart image comes from a folktale.)
The noose of the river tightens, but the heart is not strangled; instead, the river breaks-- its "waters part." The image of parting waters immediately calls to mind the parting of the Red Sea in the Exodus story of the Bible (although the river that turned back on itself to let the Israelites across was the Jordan, as told in The Book of Joshua).
However, the term "muddy waters" recalls something else: iconic bluesman McKinley "Muddy Waters" Morganfield. This is not an accident; the next image is of a "blues band" arriving at the banks of this river. (Performing a song with a "Muddy Waters part"?)
Last comes a dig at the music industry: "The music suffers/ The music business thrives." The idea is that the music was getting worse and worse, while the studio coffers overflowed more and more (this was before Napster, of course.) Now, the Muddy Waters story is a typical one of musicians suffering at the hands of rapacious studios, since the start of the recording industry. But--the implication is-- at least the music itself was worth stealing back then.
In the In the Blue Light version of the lyrics, however, the blues band has become a more au-courant "D.J." And, instead of a slap at the music industry, we get this review of this D.J.'s performance: "The sub-bass feels like an earthquake/ The top hand cuts like knives." Perhaps Simon wanted to seem more "with it," or perhaps taking shots at the music industry just felt like it took the song in a mean-spirited direction.
This last verse is a free-associative stream-of-consciousness. A river winds... it is wound around something... its waters are muddy... Muddy Waters played the blues... Muddy Waters is from Mississippi... the Mississippi is a river nicknamed "The Big Muddy"... the blues are played all along the river (there is a song titled "The Big Muddy," about the river)... the blues (the emotion, not the music) were made worse by the very industry that (like a river) carried the blues (the music) to the world. Compare this to the headline in the satirical Onion newspaper: "Affluent White Man Enjoys, Causes the Blues."
Why are things not better? Why, if you want to provide power for thousands, must you risk poisoning them with it? Why can't we be like that happy, dancing, laughing couple over there? Why does the music business succeed by destroying the very thing that sustains it?
By now, bemoans the speaker, I expect human progress to be slow. But slow is one thing-- I could even walk faster than this!
On guitar is J.J. Cale, a bluesy performer from Oklahoma (not to be confused with the Velvet Underground's John Cale). He returns later in the album as well.
Cale's songs have been covered by Eric Clapton, Kansas, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Captain Beefheart, Carlos Santana, and Widespread Panic.
Next Song: The Coast