It's been a while since I've gone on a Bob Dylan bender, right? James Tata recommends Luc Sante's magisterial review of recent Boblications in the New York Review of Books. I recommend it, too, though, as often in Dylan criticism, there’s a reluctance to discuss the music. One of Sante’s few attempts at musical description occurs in the following paragraph:
Among the four fifths of the Basement Tapes material that remains officially unreleased is a song called "I'm Not There" (1956). It is glaringly unfinished—Dylan mumbles unintelligibly through parts of it, and throws together fragments of lyrics apparently at random—and yet it is one of his greatest songs. The hymn-like minor-key melody, rising from mournful to exalted, is certainly one reason for this, and another is the perfect accompaniment by three members of The Band, but the very discontinuity of the lyrics, in combination with Dylan's unflagging intensity, creates a powerful, tantalizing indeterminacy that is suddenly if provisionally resolved by every return of the refrain: ‘Now when I [unintelligible] I was born to love her / But she knows that the kingdom weighs so high above her / And I run but I race but it's not too fast or soon [?] / But I don't perceive her, I'm not there, I'm gone."
Two ultra-pedantic points. First, “1956” isn’t the date of composition; it’s part of the title. What it means, no one knows. Second, the song’s in B major. Why it ends up sounding sad and “minorish” is an interesting topic. I think it has something to do with the curious, not quite logical order in which Dylan shuffles through the five chords of the song (three major, two minor), and the way he lands on a G#-minor chord at the beginning of the second phrase of the refrain, where you might expect the tonic. You hear the same major-key mournfulness in “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” In any case, the fact that you can’t really make out the lyrics to this song, and yet keep listening, should be a clue that the music itself is the heart of the matter. As Eyolf Ostrem writes on his excellent Dylan-as-composer site, “’I'm Not There’ is Dylan's most musical song …. The meaning is veiled in the same way as the meaning of an utterance in a language that one does not understand is veiled: there seems to be a meaning there, but it is hidden.” This is not to deny that there are powerful verbal images at work — “the kingdom weighs [or waits] so high above her” — but if you go chasing after only the words you’ll be left with nothing, because much of the time Dylan may not have had words in mind at all — only chords, shorn tunes, and unsayable feelings.