It’s been almost eight years since Bob Dylan released brand new music – the albums that followed ‘Tempest‘ were, in general terms, the Sinatra Covers Years. In these strange times though the Nobel prize winning poet has chosen to release a new song that has been years in the making.
‘Murder most Foul‘ is an epic – at seventeen minutes long it lasts longer than many EPs that get reviewed here – which takes a meandering walk through the 20th Century, with the assassination of JF Kennedy as the central point around which everything rotates. With piano and violin to the fore, it’s a song that rolls slow, like the Mississippi of history passing by Dylan’s backdoor as he observes highs, lows and cultural icons that catch his eye before sinking away from sight again. It’s not an encouraging song, the predominant sense is of a long slow decay from a peak of national optimism.
For a song of this length its astonishing how quickly it passes – somewhat like ‘Roll on John‘ the listener hangs on every one of Dylan’s words, the mind racing to find the references and their place in the vista – with Dylan throwing in a knowing aside for all those puzzle solvers in his audience “and if you want to remember you’d better write down the names“. The ‘Murder most Foul‘ of the title is, of course, the death of Kennedy – but is Dylan giving it a Shakespearean turn by borrowing from Hamlet, or is he referencing Margaret Rutherford as Miss Marple and suggesting that the events in Dallas are an unsolved Agatha Christie puzzle? The song’s most striking image though is Kennedy’s surgery and subsequent autopsy “they mutilated his body and they took out his brain / What more could they do, they piled on the pain / But his soul was not there, where it was supposed to be at / For the last fifty years they’ve been searching for that.” For Dylan it was nothing less than the death of the soul of America that took place that day in Dallas: “I say the soul of a nation has been torn away / and it’s beginning to go into a slow decay“.
Against this in focus disaster there’s a musical backdrop passing, whether its the Blues and Jazz, the music of America that changed with the British Invasion as “The Beatles are coming they’re going to hold your hand” offered something to cling to, to keep that dream of a movement of inspired youth alive. And we know how that story ended as well: “I’m going to Woodstock it’s the Aquarian age / then I’ll go out to Altamont and sit by the stage.”