Even in normal times, it’s hard not to read too much into Bob Dylan’s songs, what with their layers of images, countless allusions, and word play that rivals Shakespeare.
These are not normal times.
Last night cloaked in darkness, Dylan released his first piece of original music since 2012’s lauded album Tempest. The surprise drop came in the form of a singular seventeen-minute work “Murder Most Foul,” and can be found on Dylan’s official YouTube channel and streaming services.
“Murder Most Foul” sounds as though it was recorded by Dylan and his band during those sessions for Tempest but that’s merely conjecture at this point. What is clear is that it is a sprawling piece, and Dylan’s longest to date. (Time Out of Mind‘s closing track “Highlands” clocks in at sixteen minutes.)
Good day to be livin’ and a good day to die…
It was a matter of timing, and the timing was right
You’ve got unpaid debts, we’ve come to collect
We’re gonna kill you with hatred without any respect
We’ll mock you and shock you and we’ll put it in your face
We’ve already got someone here to take your place
The song is sparse: it’s Bob Dylan’s voice, clear as ever, accompanied by piano, light strings, and a touch of drums. And, quite frankly, it’s beautiful.
“Murder Most Foul” merely flirts with melody and time signature as if it exists beyond time, despite using Kennedy’s death as the pin in the map of decline. Throughout, the images float by as if ghosts from a distant past, a past that will only be clear once we get the whole story though none will live to tell the tale.
Don’t ask what your country can do for you
The song resonates heavily now that we’ve fully entered late-stage capitalism. It serves as a comment on where we’ve been as a country, or worse: where we’re going. Dylan uses the assassination of President John F. Kennedy as a lens to begin such an examination of all sorts of death with various allusions weaved throughout. These are the woes of America and the world at large. It’s no wonder he released it this week with a note on his website for his “fans and followers” to “stay safe, stay observant.”
Goodbye Charlie, goodbye Uncle Sam
Frankly, Miss Scarlet, I don’t give a damn.
What is the truth? Where did it go?
Ask Oswald and Ruby, they ought to know.
Shut your mouth sayeth the wise, old owl
Business is business and it’s a murder most foul
Sure, it’s stark, but the song is still a whirlwind featuring folk quotes to a Nightmare on Elm Street reference.
It’s more of a dirge than song, more of a elegy than poem.
What Dylan presents with this surprise song is one of the most majestic works of the past decade that’ll take weeks to unpack and easily one of the most important works in the short but long-lasting time of corona.
Let me know when you decide to throw in the towel
It is what is and it’s a murder most foul.
It slightly builds through to the effect of lingering. In the final line, the song references itself. It’s all happening again, and it’s a murder most foul.