Murder Most Foul
Be honest, you all knew what I was going to write about today.
It had been 2755 long days since the world was graced with a new Bob Dylan song, but the darkness had to give. Last Thursday night, while everyone was asleep, Dylan released “Murder Most Foul,” a 17-minute ballad about the assassination of John F. Kennedy. And it’s awesome.
The meandering song indulges Dylan’s long-winded tendencies, bringing back memories of classics like “Desolation Row” and “Highlands.” It takes its time and goes wherever it wants, with Dylan clearly taking advantage of the fact that everyone knows the story he’s telling. That gives him the freedom to take his time, and to write a song that’s more about a feeling than about the actual event. It’s a mood piece. It’s also a song that takes full advantage of his recent vocal renaissance. His last three albums, all devoted to covers from the Great American Songbook, include some of his best singing ever, and “Murder Most Foul” is no different.
Bob Dylan never does anything unintentionally. The song was clearly released with our current situation in mind. The song deals less with the details of the assassination and more with what it did to the country. The loss of innocence, the completely sudden loss of everyday joys, the darkness that followed. It all rings true today. And then he gives us a new direction to look in. A potential way out.
He follows his assessment of the nation’s darkness and decay with a very Dylan-esque list of American musicians and artists. He rambles off names and references, ranging from Billy Joel and the Eagles to Charlie Parker and Buster Keaton. (My personal favorite was the shoutout to Dickey Betts.) He repeats a simple refrain, telling everyone to listen to their work. Coming from an artist who likes his long songs and unconventional structures, and one who interspersed a list of US presidents with a list of Santa’s reindeer, none of it feels surprising. But his message is a great one: during times of darkness, our great artists bring the country together. They can distract us from the chaos, but they also give us something to be proud of. They unite us. Dylan ends the song by adding himself to the list, and it’s certainly deserved. Once again, the Nobel Prize winner knew exactly what to say at exactly the right time.
It’s a great comfort, knowing that no matter what happens, we’re alive at the same time as Bob Dylan. Now we just need to lock him in a germ-proof bunker until this all passes.