17 minutes. 1,370 words. No melody
Tim de Lisle
Well, this is an event: Bob Dylan’s first new song in eight years. It’s probably the first single ever released by a Nobel prize-winner. And since it deals with the assassination of President Kennedy, it’s one Sixties icon singing about another. It’s Dylan’s longest-ever track, four seconds short of 17 minutes. (On his first LP, that was the length of a whole side.) Running to 1,370 words, Murder Most Foul is not so much a song as an epic poem: the Kennediad. It was recorded, Dylan says, ‘a while back’. The timing of the release is top-class. A world on fast-forward has been forced to press pause: seldom have so many people had so much time on their hands. On Monday, Murder Most Foul was No 7 in Apple Music’s UK chart, just behind Harry Styles. So, as Dylan once sang, it’s all good – until you play the song. The first word is ’Twas. ’Twas! As so often at his gigs, you wonder if he’s having a laugh. The opening couplet – ‘’Twas a dark day in Dallas, November ’63/A day that will live on in infamy’ – is dreadful. Murder Most Foul does get better. It switches swiftly between then and now, and why and how. As reportage it’s effective, if gory – there’s blood on this track. As poetry, though, it’s mediocre. The similes are lethargic: poor JFK is ‘like a sacrificial lamb’, then ‘like a dog’. Moving on to the late Sixties, Dylan could tell the inside story, as in Chronicles, his masterly memoir. Instead he shows standard snaps from Woodstock and Altamont, adding nothing to the newsreels. So far, Murder Most Foul is a poor man’s American Pie. Soon it turns into something else: a playlist. Like Homer summoning the muse, Dylan invokes the late DJ Wolfman Jack; unlike The Iliad’s plodding catalogue of ships, his rock ’n’ roll-call is fully alive. It’s fun to see what he includes (Queen, Randy Newman) and what he ignores (everything after 1980). When Leonard Cohen died, Dylan said his melodies were ‘his greatest genius’. That’s what Murder Most Foul is missing. A piano and a fiddle circle each other, but the music doesn’t go anywhere. Which makes it even more topical.