When Murder Most Foul dropped into an unsuspecting world, the surprise was palpable, given that eight years had passed since Dylan’s previous album of original songs. That it was a 16-minute epic that took his writing into new areas (including No1 on Billboard) is also astonishing. Mixing modes of popular verse with his own telling twists of imagery and narrative, it was a widescreen, mythological retelling of Kennedy’s assassination wrapped up in a “king list” of players, songs and singers, as if to suggest some immortal flow through 20th-century popular music’s Elysium Fields.
Now we have the album it comes from, its first track I Contain Multitudes similarly encompassing a plethora of places, characters and times. Here, the “I” has never felt less individual, packed as it is with the inner multitudes of experience, age, persona, projection, association and shared culture. So it is with the entire album. Second song, False Prophet, carries Dylan’s heavily barked voice on a slow march through a blizzard of brags, threats, denials and confessions, while My Own Version of You is funny, creepy, evocative – a Frankenstein-meets-Reanimator tale, delivered deadpan: “All through the summer into January, I’ve been visiting morgues and monasteries, looking for the necessary body parts, limbs and livers and brains and hearts…” Verse after great verse lead off at tangents before returning to the shifting chorus, a genius song that roams far but holds tight.
I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself To You is sung gorgeously, captured perfectly, played subtly. It’s a song of devotion, but not necessarily to any human or worldly object of affection. It’s paired with The Black Rider, circling quietly around the figure of death, its wagons hitched up to the fleeting and ruling passions emptying out of life – rage, love, suffering, fortitude, fear. It’s beautifully spare and hauntingly sung.
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Cranking it back up to life is a raucous tribute to bluesman Jimmy Reed, with plenty of arresting, lascivious verses to chew over – “Transparent woman in a transparent dress, suits you well I must confess …” To follow, the lush Mother of Muses and bluesy Crossing The Rubicon are steeped in classical mythology, the latter’s haunted verses returning again and again to that point of no return, and all the irreversible ways of crossing the Rubicon.
The lapping riff of closing song Key West (Philosopher Pirate) – (Murder Most Foul stands alone on the second) is bathed in accordion and evokes an American road trip to the Elysium Fields. It’s casual, metaphysical, full of detail, wonderfully sung, with Dylan making his spring-heeled way through a plethora of times, faces and places, all returning to roost on that two-word sign, Key West.
What to make of it all? It’s unlike anything else Dylan or anyone else has done. It ranks with his best. Entropy is the third universal law, so for a 79-year-old artist to produce a work of such expansiveness, humanity and mystery – that might be the greatest mystery of all.