In these grim times, it’s great to have a new Dylan epic to explore. Unfortunately, on first listening to the 17-minute ‘Murder Most Foul’ on headphones, whilst walking the dog through a semi-deserted Crouch End, it’s hardly a mood enhancer, unless you find dread and paranoia somehow enhancing. “The Age of the Antichrist has just begun…” just about sums it up. No-one seems to know whether this is a precursor to a new album of original tunes, i.e. the first since 2012′s Tempest, or exactly how old it might be, (Dylan has stated, with typical laconic vagueness, that it was recorded ‘a while back’), but, whatever, it was an as-yet unreleased Dylan song, indicating that the old master is even now capable of surprising us, and this song demonstrates that he, to paraphrase Brian Wilson (whose brother, Carl, gets a mention in the text), is still “made for these times”
I’m sure that people don’t mind being reminded that epic Dylan songs.are hardly a new thing: ‘Desolation Row’ from 1965 was perceived as an absolute back breaker in 1965, ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ was the first 6-minute 45, ‘Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ took up a whole side of Blonde on Blonde’ (a tad overrated, imho), Desire had two lengthy narratives in ‘Hurricane’ and ‘Joey’, and, at a comparative length to ‘Murder Most Foul’, ‘Highlands’ from 1997′s Time Out of Mind.. By Tempest, he was still testing attention spans, with the title track and ‘Scarlet Town’. ‘Murder Most Foul’ sounds like all and yet none of these, and uses the 1963 assassination of JFK as a ‘frame’ to an allusive list of American legends, mostly of song and film.. It has the surreal pile-up of references of the early ‘wild mercury’ years, anchored by less non-sequitur flights of ideas than these, with a compulsive, ongoing narrative arc that pins it down to post-Kennedy cultural content, and an ‘end of days’ tone, with Bob intoning/reciting, rather than singing. The instrumentation is sparse, beginning with a sombre pizzicato double bass (Tony Garnier?) and rippling piano (Dylan himself, maybe?), and the eventual introduction of a violin (Donnie Herron?) inevitably conjures up memories of Scarlet Rivera throughout Desire.
Alexis Petridis’ great review in today’s Guardian explores, in some detail, the multiple references (mentioning interesting comparisons to ‘American Pie’ in the process), as does Richard Williams’ blog, so I won’t dwell on these, but would point out how Dylan now sounds more like Mark Knopfler than the south Londoner himself. I honestly can’t picture myself listening too much to this important ‘new’ song, as it’s far too close to the bone, in these days of a rampant Covid-19 (the death toll having quadrupled over the past 24 hours, from 181 to 759). The observation that I most want to make, however, is that Dylan/Zimmerman, who will be 80 years of age next year, is still as capable of unleashing a devastating contemporary commentary, as he was with ‘Masters of War’ in itself, itself now nearly 60 years old. Compare this ‘leader of men’ with the likes of Trump and Bojo. And weep.