As our Deputy Editor Jonathan Aird prophesied recently, two new Dylan tracks in as many weeks must mean that an album is on the way. And now we have three tracks and the announcement that the said long-player is indeed ready to be released (17th June to be exact). Our information is that it will be a double with the mammoth ‘Murder Most Foul’ taking up one side. Obviously we will fill you in with the exact details when we have them. In the meantime there is this new song to deliberate over and, as always with Dylan, deliberate we must.
First the basics. Well… it’s ‘bluesy’. Which is akin to saying that Benny and Bjorn were a bit poppy or that Page and Plant were a bit heavy. This thing was recorded in a southern swamp, the assembled musicians required to check their usual footwear in at the recording studio door in favour of alligator skin shoes and the session engineer having to refrain from shaving for three months in order to generate the required amount of ‘fuzz’. It’s dirty, dark, desolate Dylan paying his dues to the delta blues. Bob, indeed, is now all over the blues, baby. To our ears this is a guitar(s), bass and drum affair but somehow the guitars are figured to have the effect of a horn section which, of course, we love. And the voice? That voice? That divisive instrument which sorts the fans from the fanatics? It’s perfect in this setting – it’s not exactly Cash in the latter ‘American Recordings’ (please Mr. Zimmerman we don’t need that kind of bad news now) but it has a similar fractured quality, the famous ‘sandpaper’ timbre upgraded from ‘medium’ to ‘ultra coarse’. The fact that he can manage to have it sound even remotely tuneful is a marvel in itself. The song is well played, well-timed and well sung. What sets it apart? Well, its Our Bobby, innit? And this wouldn’t be a Dylan review if we didn’t delve a little deeper.
So what is Dylan actually saying with this new tune? Oh, crikey – if Heinz were to release a new line in tinned invertebrate consumables even they would struggle with that can of worms. A 20’s era be-suited skeletal figure with syringe in hand stands affront a hanging figure in the accompanying artwork. What’s that supposed to mean? Are you an expert in global pandemics, Bob? Are you predicting a 20’s like global depression, Bob? You know when we used to obsess over your lyrics back in the day, Bob? Have we actually contracted a severe case of Subterranean Homesick Blues, Bob? What are the symptoms of that, Bob? A persistent cough, a high temperature and an obsessive attention to the tiniest of details, Bob?
Dylan is historically fond of telling us that he’s not a prophet and in the course of the tune he declares “I ain’t no false prophet” three times (ignoring the double negative…probably). If he’s not a prophet is he merely really, really good at presaging our current difficulties? I mean in the present lockdown what better way to make people sit up and listen than by releasing three new tunes and announcing an album when we all have little better to do than watch fitness videos and listen to cookery podcasts. Did he know that this was coming? Is he ‘that’ good? Not sure but that aside there are, inevitably, lots of references and clues to be had by listening carefully.
“Hello Mary Lou” he sings. Easy that one. Tick it off. “I’m first among equals” he sings. The Roman concept of ‘princeps’ which is what the Caesars would call themselves. Ok, yep. “Hello stranger, a long goodbye” he sings. What, The Beatles? He referenced them in ‘Murder Most Foul’ so maybe. “A cool breeze encircling me” he sings. His acquaintance Van Morrison on ‘Old, Old Woodstock’? Again someone referenced in the previous tune. “I climbed the mountains of swords in my bare feet” could be a metaphor for ‘I Walk On Guided Splinters’. You just don’t know. Am I clutching at straws? That’s not actually a lyric just my mind wandering off whilst pondering the infinite possibilities contained within any given Dylan lyric. As a photographic historian myself the lines “Open your mouth, I’ll stuff it with gold” recalls John Heartfield’s image of “Adolf, The Superman: Swallows Gold and Spouts Rubbish”. I don’t know for sure the meaning in that context and if anybody tells me that they do know, for sure, then I am more than willing to listen.
Right now what we have are three songs and the promise of more to come in June. A seventeen-minute magnum opus, a freewheeling folk tune and a six-minute blues workout. On that promise I’ll take my place in the queue, thank you very much.