What a weird new song for Bob Dylan to drop—and what better time to drop it. “Weird” with its full Shakespearean force, as in the “weird sisters” of “Macbeth,” possessing “the supernatural power of dealing with fate or destiny.” And “new”—well, new to us, at any rate.

In announcing the song on Twitter early Friday morning, Dylan described it only as “an unreleased song we recorded a while back.” By the sound of it—both Dylan’s voice and the spare piano/upright bass/violin/drum arrangement—“Murder Most Foul” was recorded sometime in the past decade. The song’s reference to our searching for John F. Kennedy’s soul “for the last fifty years” might pin it to 2013, until we know better. Dylan last released original material on his album “Tempest,” from 2012. Ever since, he’s been covering the Great American Songbook, notably large portions of the Frank Sinatra catalogue. “Murder Most Foul” is the first evidence of original songwriting that we’ve had in eight years from one of the most original songwriters of our era.

The first half of the song is disappointing. When I’d finished playing the track on YouTube, the autoplay sent me directly into “Desolation Row,” which is a pretty canny pull for an algorithm to make from a new release. But—though it pains me to say it—the song’s opening minutes more closely resemble a doggerel version of Don McLean’s eight-and-a-half minute pseudo-epic “American Pie,” with aspirations to “Sympathy for the Devil.” “I’m goin’ to Woodstock, it’s the Aquarian age, / Then I’ll go to Altamont and sit near the stage”: if they weren’t written by Dylan, would anyone take lines like these seriously? Or these, which open the song:

’Twas a dark day in Dallas, November, ’63
The day that would live on in infamy

President Kennedy was a-ridin’ high
Good day to be livin’ and a good day to die

Being led to the slaughter like a sacrificial lamb
He said, “Wait a minute, boys, you know who I am?”

“ ’Twas,” indeed: at least it wasn’t a dark and stormy night. We recognize Dylan’s playfulness in the invented Kennedy quote, of course—a playfulness underscored by his voice in the recording—and hear the allusion to F.D.R.’s Pearl Harbor speech in the second line, and to the Book of Isaiah in the sixth.

But all the clichés (including Kennedy riding into Dallas like a cowboy in the third line) aren’t adding up to much. The “Desolation Row”-style associative lyrics actively invite speculation from the kind of amateur sleuth for whom the term “Dylanologist” was coined. Reading through the YouTube comments section, I was initially tempted to compare it to a QAnon-style conspiracy message board—until I began running into literal invocations of QAnon. The song is seventeen minutes long; “Q” is the seventeenth letter of the alphabet. Coincidence?

The first half of the song often descends into doggerel in a way that “Desolation Row” never does. The relatively brisk (at eleven minutes and twenty seconds) closing track on “Highway 61 Revisited” is both allusive and elusive; for its first ten minutes, “Murder Most Foul” is merely allusive.

Then something amazing happens—Wolfman Jack shows up and starts to play tracks. We’re presented with another version of the Great American Songbook, one that would have Sinatra turning in his grave. Indeed, the last seven minutes of the song resemble nothing so much as a playlist from one of the “Theme Time Radio Hour” shows that Dylan hosted from 2006 to 2009.

Wolfman Jack, he’s speaking in tongues
He’s going on and on at the top of his lungs

Play me a song, Mr. Wolfman Jack
Play it for me in my long Cadillac

Play me that only the good die young
Take me to the place Tom Dooley was hung

“Speaking in tongues”: this is what Greil Marcus calls “the shape of things to come,” “prophecy and the American voice.” The lyric “my long Cadillac” calls out to a late-fifties Warren Smith deep track, “Uranium Rock,” which Dylan covered in live shows (sometimes with Tom Petty) in the mid-eighties. “Only the good die young” is, of course, Billy Joel’s twist on the old saw; the Kingston Trio charted with “Tom Dooley” in 1958.

“Play” becomes the controlling verb for the remainder of the song and opens the majority of the song’s remaining lines. The song-as-playlist reaches far and wide, with an admirable ecumenicism—the Eagles are there, and Fleetwood Mac, and Stan Getz, and Patsy Cline, the Everly Brothers, John Lee Hooker, the Animals, and the Who. The song closes by inscribing itself into the corpus of American song through which American history is both forged and preserved:

Play “Love Me or Leave Me,” by the great Bud Powell,
Play “The Blood-Stained Banner,” play “Murder Most Foul.”





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