• Nieve O'Donnell

Single Review: Bob Dylan - 'Murder Most Foul'

Bob Dylan’s decision to release his first original single in eight years and nevertheless one that lasts 17 minutes long has so far been seen as a typically unexpected move from the great. Ostensibly about the assassination of JFK, speculation can only reach a certain number of conclusions. Murder Most Foul is nevertheless a reminder that politics, in a 1984-esque fashion, is not always what it seems. Bob Dylan continues to be a lyrical tornado, merging hard-hitting political truths with a plethora of allusions to history and literary tropes, affirming his place in the American musical tradition whilst serving a bleak but necessary reminder.


Dylan’s lyrical potency is quite obviously the point. His assured use of tried and tested but dense lyricism exemplifies his 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature win. Whilst some contested Dylan’s win, Simon Armitage, proclaimed poet himself, came to his defence by stating that he lyrically ‘knitted himself – without anyone realising it, perhaps even him – into the warp and weft of American popular music. Borrowing wholesale from the past, reshuffling melodies, images, characters and attitudes, he helped assemble the components of a rapidly changing present.’ In Murder Most Foul, Dylan continues to knit himself an image of the past and present, narrating between Dylan and Kennedy, giving himself even more of a name in poetry employing characters which could resemble the near distance of apocalyptic politics:


Say wait a minute boys, do you know who I am? Of course we do, we know who you are Then they blew off his head when he was still in the car Shot down like a dog in broad daylight ‘Twas a matter of timing and the timing was right You got unpaid debts and we’ve come to collect We’re gon’ kill you with hatred and without any respect We’ll mock you and shock you, we’ll grin in your face We’ve already got someone here to take your place The day that they blew out the brains of the king Thousands were watching, no one saw a thing


Those who, at the beginning, are to blame for the assassination of JFK also remind us of similar powers that be, who control and dictate from the sidelines of the political arena. This is especially as we see politically motivated state figures debate and devolve, and we are often left to guess at their potentially corporate-funded motives. March of this year has involved great restrictions on the living experience of the population, however I don’t think Dylan’s commentary is an epic ballad intended to create distraught and discomfort at such a difficult time. Rather, an intention to incentivise community at a time when the force of politics can cause some to rise and others to unfortunately contend with a lack of good purpose and beneficial motions.

Image credit: Chris Pizzello

Known for being a social recluse, Dylan’s lyricism has always been thought of as containing his personal furnace of feelings. Murder Most Foul is certainly no exception, highlighting the murder of US President John F. Kennedy, almost 60 years after the event occurred, utilising Dylan’s wide knowledge of historical moments and weaving an impressionable and sparkling commentary on today’s political crisis. Sharp inclusions of lyrics in conversational lines such as ‘What’s new pussycat - wha’d I say’ morphs polysemy into well-known and motif-like references to popular culture. As Dylan sharpens an image, he also softens a listener’s gaze with his accompanying musical assemblage that renders the piece not only just a musical one but also an entirely polemic statement. With light and fluctuating uses of assonance and dissonance, Dylan again proves his poetry through riveting tones that are often obliquely set at polemical odds, whilst others seem like they were always meant to be placed beside the adjacent words. The extensive list of literary references that make up the maze of interesting allusions map together into an image of the past, showcasing Dylan’s skill in unprecedented fashion.


There’s twelve million souls that are listening in Play the Merchant of Venice, play the merchants of death Play Stella by Starlight for Lady Macbeth Don’t worry Mr. President, help’s on the way Your brothers are comin’, there’ll be hell to pay Brothers? What brothers? What’s this about hell? Tell ‘em we’re waitin’- keep coming - we’ll get ‘em as well


One of the many distinct ironies about the musical recollection of the tragedy is set up by Dylan’s own past, when he directly contested to writing such a song stating, in 1971, that “If I was more sensitive about it than anyone else, I would have written a song about it, wouldn’t I?" Potentially, the statement is just one of Dylan’s intentional juxtapositions.

"The extensive list of literary references that make up the maze of interesting allusions map together into an image of the past, showcasing Dylan’s skill in unprecedented fashion."

Whilst mass interpretations can be and are received from Dylan’s wide-reaching fan-base, Murder Most Foul places itself as, nevertheless, another achievement on Dylan’s list of poetic narratives. As an artist at the end of his seventies, Dylan is potentially perpetuating and furthering a musical tradition with intentions to be an artist of purity, who is in fact sensitive but refuses to be dictated to, especially in his constantly wilful and unorthodox explorations of writing.

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