Bob Dylan’s model for his just-released 17-minute song “Murder Most Foul” may well be Ezra Pound’s Cantos, a sprawling text that drew liberally from and poeticized a myriad of literary and historical sources. Tonally the track is sparse and pensive, bringing to mind 1997’s Time Out of Mind, particularly Daniel Lanois’ production techniques. “Murder Most Foul” doesn’t feature one of Dylan’s more compelling melodies; rather, it’s the singer’s trademark vocal variations, images, and observations – delivered between stanzas of namedropping – that serve to engage a listener.
Toward the end of the track, he offers one of the more striking passages: “Don’t worry Mr. President / help’s on the way / your brothers are coming / there’ll be hell to pay / brothers what brothers? /what’s this about hell? / tell them we’re waiting / keep coming we’ll get them as well” – invoking the deaths of Malcolm X, MLK, and Robert Kennedy, the election of Richard Nixon in 1968, the decline of progressive politics in the US.
“Murder Most Foul” is Dylan’s lament for the America that could have been but isn’t, the vision that was held but is lost, the political and cultural zenith that was glimpsed but now seems unreachable. In this way, he echoes Hunter S. Thompson, who wrote about the 1960s in ’71’s gonzo prototype Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: “So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.” With “Murder Most Foul,” Dylan, too, grieves the waters that crested but never made it to shore. By grieving the pivotal events of 1963, he grieves the status of things in 2020.
Featured Photo – “cover feed” for “Murder Most Foul”