Over sixty years Dylan has retained an air of being an enigma, his songs, indeed his whole life, seen by so many as puzzles to be unravelled. This writer has long cleaved to the heretical notion that Bob Dylan is a human being influenced by as many as he has himself influenced; a man, then, who sleeps and drinks and eats, watches TV, reads books and makes as much of his life as he is able. In some ways this is to suggest that the mystery is that there is no mystery.
Can he articulate moods that chime with society’s changes? Yes. Can he produce the poetry of love? Yes. Can he be vindictive in his put downs of those who have slighted him? Oh, yes indeed. Has Dylan, though, wasted his life setting us all cryptic crossword puzzles? If for no-other’s than his own sake you’d have to hope not.
And so to ‘I Contain Multitudes‘ – Dylan’s newly released list song, and this time the hook is that this is the list that finally reveals Dylan in total – after all, even the President of the United States must sometimes stand naked. Opening to gently strummed guitar notes Dylan looks over his shoulder, notes the time gone and sombrely sets his position in the world “today and tomorrow and yesterday too the flowers are dying, like all things do“. This acknowledgement of little time left leads to a revelation of personality that could have leapt from that famous 1965 press conference; to a question like “what do you do Bob?” he may have responded “I fuss with my hair and I fight blood feuds“. And almost as an echo of that same seminal press conference he admits that “I paint landscapes and I paint nudes” – well, you always said that you would.
There’s something more of that casual revelation which really tells one nothing as Dylan discusses influences – a thief steals, an artist borrows and Dylan name drops Poe, Mott the Hoople, Indiana Jones, The Rolling Stones and, most surprisingly Anne Frank. That last will feed a dozen PhD theses – what should we take from this? That Dylan is, or has been, Jewish, has been physically or mentally hunted and forced to hide from those who seek to harm him, or, at a more superficial level that he is a diarist whether literally or through his art? The real, and unsurprising revelation, is that Dylan see’s himself as “a man of contradictions I’m a man of many moods I contain multitudes” a man who can listen to “Beethoven Sonatas, Chopin’s preludes“. He is no one thing, but who is? There’s your secret if you need to be told it. Although Dylan does have the decency to tell the greedy wolves of analysis that “I’ll show you my heart but not all of it“. Or, as he could have put more succinctly “nothing was revealed.”
A new song from Dylan is always going to spike interest, and two within a matter of weeks surely suggests that a new album is, like a slow train heralding its arrival, a-comin’.