My occasional song of the week post does not mean it is a great song necessarily but one that is, for some reason, notable…
Hamlet: O God!
Ghost: Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder
Ghost: Murder most foul, as in the best it is, but this most foul, strange and unnatural
—The Tragedy of Hamlet Prince of Denmark, Act I, Scene Five
Though Bob Dylan’s reputation as troubadour to the masses has long since been a given thing, in recent years his output has been one of covering the Classic American Songbook, something Rod Stewart also did when he ran out of ideas.
The most recent album of which I’m aware is one called Triplicate which came out in 2017 and which covers songs such as “Stormy Weather and “As Time Goes By.” A few years ago, Dylan appeared in a commercial with IBM’s Watson computer. The computer said it had analyzed all of Bob’s lyrics and found it his main themes were that “time passes and love fades.” Dylan said, “That sounds about right.” Funny. I thought his main themes were injustice and antiwar. But I guess I must have misinterpreted.
If you think I’m being harsh on Dylan well, I am. He seems to have completely turned his back on his past and now has become the song and dance man he once told the press he was. And I say this as a megafan, albeit a somewhat disappointed megafan.
And so it was with some interest when I heard that “at midnight on March 27, 2020, Bob Dylan released “Murder Most Foul,” his first studio release since 2017’s Triplicate and first original song release since 2012’s Tempest. He noted on Twitter that fans “might find [the song] interesting” and also to “stay safe, stay observant.”
Hmm, okay. So what is this song? Well, at 16:54 it is now the longest song in Dylan’s catalog. It was recorded sometime in the “recent past.” And what is it about? And how well-received? (Rolling Stone calls it “absolutely mind-blowing” but they have been uncritically pro-Dylan for a long time.)
Well, no elliptical statements here. It is about the assassination of John F. Kennedy and also somewhat of a recitation of popular culture. And songs, perhaps played by DJ Wolfman Jack who gets name-checked here.
The Music Enthusiast is somewhat of a JFK assassination buff having read quite a bit about it and visited Dallas and the scene of the crime a couple of times. In that respect, Dylan has done his homework about what happened here. He corroborates what many of us already know – this was not some random act by a lone nut.
But why the recitation of songs (“Only the Good Die Young,” “Mystery Train,” “Blue Sky.” (As an Allmans nut, it pleases me no end that one of their songs got in there. Dylan specifically references Dickey Betts but that’s in part due to it rhyming with Stan Getz and in part due to them having known each other and played together before.)
He also name-checks movies (It Happened One Night) and plays (Merchant of Venice). And he mentions Jelly Roll Morton, Bud Powell and Charlie Parker. But also – Bugsy Siegel?
The music is kinda hypnotic and rather than sing, he is largely reciting all of these cultural touchpoints. Some critics have said that Dylan is using this song to soothe us during a time of widespread disease and death. Maybe. But this is not Top Ten stuff and really, who will even hear it outside of his fans?
Some have also compared it to Don McLean’s “American Pie” which also uses the device of death to frame an epic about cultural happenings. Frankly, while McLean isn’t half the songwriter Dylan is, I think “American Pie” is the better of the two.
What do I think is going on? Well, that maybe Dylan is saying Yeah, you can take down our leaders but you can’t kill the great art that is out there. We can still enjoy “Misty” no matter how many Kennedys or MLKs or Gandhis or Malcolm X’s you take out.
That’s my guess. But your guess is every bit as good as mine.
There is definitely something hypnotic (maybe even dirge-like) about this song and – love or hate Dylan – I’d encourage you to give it a listen.