The further you are from something, the easier it is to analyse; the closer you are to it, the easier it is to feel. Bob Dylan’s latest song (and likely one-off) Murder Most Foul rings out simultaneously close and distant, a hollow elegy for a time which is finally seeing the sunset, usurped by all that has followed in the years since.
Ostensibly about the assassination of JFK, the song unravels uneasily over nearly 17 minutes, painting a portrait of an America that was never to be the same again. ‘His soul was not there where it was supposed to be at/for the last fifty years they’ve been searching for that’. What makes the song so remarkable is how much of the narrative span of the song covers Dylan’s rise to, and settlement at, greatness. The back end of this ballad is little more than Dylan listing great musicians who were around when Kennedy was, or have become famous in the years since he died; ‘Play Don Henley, play Glenn Frey/Take it to the limit and let it go by/Play it for Carl Wilson, too.
It could have been a schmaltzy, nostalgic, celebratory love-in for a time that Dylan has himself soundtracked (perhaps more effectively than any other musician). The effect, however is morose, elegiac, palpably woebegone. It’s as if Dylan is reaching into the abyss of our, and America’s, cultural history and assembling the pieces in front of us, forcing us to reckon with a period of time which has only recently come to pass. It is deeply, deeply moving.
The instruments, skittery percussion, creaking violin, spry piano, all coalesce, failing to resolve, lending the song a peculiar, featherlight tension. In terms of genre, it takes place beyond the folk and blues which has trademarked his career, written in a language that seems to have more in common with Nick Cave, post-rock, Tom Waits, even a little The Velvet Underground. The dialect is firmly his own, though. He doesn’t sing (it’s been a long time since he sang), but his voice, gravel-drenched and sorrowful, etches itself, syllable by uncertain syllable, on your soul.
If there is a point of criticism, it is that the song can hardly be described as subtle. Lyrics such as ‘I said the soul of a nation been torn away/And it’s beginning to go into a slow decay’ are hardly ambiguous. And yet, as with so many of Dylan’s lyrics, the candour with which he announces them seems to offset any potential disengagement. The tension, between the obvious semantic significance of the words, and the occasionally offhanded way in which Dylan delivers them, is one that will never not be thrilling. Nobody really knows the true meaning of Dylan’s songs, not Dylan, and not you.
To listen to a Dylan song (especially his best songs) is to occupy a world, a mood, a state of mind, a feeling, much more than simply being told a story. Tangled Up In Blue resists being a mere breakup song by obfuscating a clear narrative, by confusing the dates, by injecting it with hope. The result is heartstopping. Lay Lady Lay is a song with the potential to be seedy, full of male gaze, but the twangy country guitar and heart-on-sleeve declaration of ‘stay lady stay’ makes it incredibly tender. Desolation Row is so vibrant, so rich with detail, and yet so quietly mournful, that it neither works fully as a celebration of a place alive in squalor, or a clear-eyed account of that place. It is a great song because it could be both, or neither.
Murder Most Foul, too, is a great song, for lyrics like the below;
‘They killed him once and they killed him twice/Killed him like a human sacrifice/The day that they killed him, someone said to me “Son/The age of the Antichrist has just only begun’
It is obvious that the person killed twice is Kennedy himself, slyly recalling the famous maxim that a person dies twice, once when they stop living, and once when they are thought of for the last time. Yet, this lyric could also be referring to the times Dylan is eulogising. The moments mentioned in Murder Most Foul were over in an instant, Woodstock, The Beatles, Charlie Parker, and yet they continued to stay current, pored over, picked apart, relevant beyond their immediate reach. But now, fifty years later, they are finally segueing out of relevancy, and Dylan is here to guide them into the afterlife.
Bob Dylan as a peerless maven of the American song, someone who outranks almost every single one of his contemporaries. He unites two ages, two times, one hand of his reaching into the past, into the great American music tradition of Robert Johnson, Woody Guthrie, John Lee Hooker, one hand reaching into the future, his influence, fame, and legacy bearing on modern music like a monolith. It is unlikely there will be another like him, and it is an absolute certainty that every movement in Western art will have someone like him.
In articulating so much of what we take for granted in our cultural landscape, in acting as a large part of its firmament in himself, in documenting and observing and reporting, Dylan has continued to justify his place in the (rightly interrogated) canon of popular music. In 1964, he made the observation that the times were changing; in Murder Most Foul, he takes stock of those changes, and passes the torch.
It is as essential as anything else he has recorded.