All across the country at this very moment, people are lost, scared, and grieving. The coronavirus crisis has transformed American life with shocking speed — and Bob Dylan wants you to know that he feels your pain.
How else to explain the midnight release of “Murder Most Foul,” a somber 17-minute ballad that’s eerily fitting for our current moment? It starts as a history song, recounting in poetic detail the “dark day in Dallas, November ’63,” when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. That was a pivotal time in Dylan’s career, and for a moment it seems like he might going back to the topical songwriting he was still best known for then — telling a story about violent injustice, like “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” or one about the soul of a nation, like “With God on Our Side.” (Folk historians will note the description of Kennedy as a “sacrificial lamb,” paralleling the extended metaphor from his early peer Phil Ochs’ 1966 masterpiece “Crucifixion.”)
But he rushes forward in time from there, into Beatlemania, Woodstock, and beyond. There are morbid jokes (“You got me dizzy, Miss Lizzy/You filled me with lead”) and ominous pronouncements about the end of the world. Dylan sings in a voice that’s out of time, like the sardonic ghost sifting through the wreckage of the 20th century on “Desolation Row.” He comes back to the gruesome facts of that day in Dallas a few times. Mostly, though, he makes song requests — asking the great DJ Wolfman Jack, or whoever’s listening, to play him something by the Eagles, Billy Joel, Fleetwood Mac, Queen, Nina Simone, Thelonious Monk, Beethoven. Folk songs, blues songs, gospel songs, rock songs. “All that junk, and ‘All That Jazz.'” The requests keep coming, a lifelong love of popular music expressed as a last-ditch plea.
You might expect “Murder Most Foul” to lose focus as it shifts from its initial subject to that long list of titles and names, but it doesn’t. It gets more powerful. That’s because this isn’t a song about the Kennedy assassination in the way that “Tempest” was about the sinking of the Titanic or “Roll On John” was about John Lennon — two songs from Dylan’s 2012 album Tempest that share certain similarities with this one, but that don’t go anywhere nearly as deep. “Murder Most Foul” is really about the ways that music can comfort us in times of national trauma. When everything in the world seems wrong, a favorite song can be the only thing that makes sense. The person singing this one just wants to hear something that speaks to the hurt and confusion in his heart. For those of us who often turn to Dylan’s catalog for that very purpose, “Murder Most Foul” has arrived at the right time.
Find a playlist of all of our recent Songs You Need to Know selections on Spotify.