‘‘It was a dark day in Dallas, November ’63
A day that will live on in infamy.
President Kennedy was ariding high
Good day to be living, and a good day to die’’
There’s no exhortation in Dylan’s voice, as per Hurricane, to tell the world of justice gone wrong. Murder Most Foul is meditation and contemplation from a man of 78 years. Soft-spoken, barely sung, sun-gilded whispers of life, mortality and, perhaps, resignation. Dylan drifts from sun to the shadows, from the joys to the lows of being alive, and knowing that being alive leads to one day being dead. If there is a template to his songs, it is simply the soul of a man.
The provenance of the song is unknown. With its release last week via social media, Dylan called it ‘‘an unreleased song we recorded a while back that you might find interesting’’.
Interesting? It’s alchemy. For 16 minutes and 54 seconds, Dylan takes the chemistry of words and music into the present day and back. Time is not linear, it is all around us. Murder Most Foul is allegory and Dylan is the master of the moving tableau. He gives you just enough to be compelled to peer deep into its heart, listen to it closely, hold your ear up to Dylan’s breath.
But what is it specifically about? As a young firebrand Dylan replied to a reporter who asked a similar question: ‘‘Some of my songs are about four minutes, some are about five and some, believe it or not, are about 11 or 12.’’
This one is not verse and chorus. It flows like a river from the assassination of JFK through contemporaneous musical and social references, Woodstock to Altamont, the civil rights movement, the ebb and flow of emotions, personal and universal.
Dylan said of Hard Rain that each line was the beginning of a song: equally so here, backed in the most gentle manner, simple piano, a wisp of strings at its back, sometimes a faint touch of drums. The Nobel laureate has wrought a work that in its evocation of the passing parade is a monument to the ever-present.
Murder Most Foul is the four seasons; it is a song of the ages, for the ages. It is, to evoke T.S. Eliot as Dylan does, fire to ash to earth.