Nobel prize-winning singer and songwriter Bob Dylan has appeared to be in effective retirement since the release of his last album of original music, 2012’s “Tempest.” Granted, he has toured continuously and released three cover albums in the intervening period, but Dylan’s true work has always been the writing.
On March 27, though, Dylan showed the music world that he still has something to offer, releasing on his YouTube channel a previously unreleased song titled “Murder Most Foul.” It is just one song, and it is unclear when it was recorded, but the track is an emphatic declaration that Dylan is not done developing musically.
“Murder Most Foul” is possibly Dylan’s most ambitious song to date. The 17-minute epic starts as an elegy reacting to the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy and goes on to explore the tumultuous era of the 1960s counter-culture movement in the same tone.
Lyrically, Dylan almost uses the song to present a historical thesis — that the conflict that defined the 1960s began with Kennedy’s assassination — in a deeply sentimental, elegiac style. Dylan describes Woodstock and Altamont with the same tone, with which he describes the titular murder and sings that 1963 ushered in “the age of the anti-Christ.”
Still, “Murder Most Foul” is not Dylan rebelling against the movement and the era that birthed his career. While he likens the strife of that era to an apocalyptic age, he alludes to the great music of the time as a reaction to the conflict, as the product of young people trying to make sense of the terror of the unraveling world. Dylan whispers to the age’s children “you’ll soon understand / The Beatles are coming they’re gonna hold your hand.”
The lyrics of “Murder Most Foul” are packed with allusions to the era’s pop culture, and diehard Dylan fans will spend years analyzing the track to uncover its secrets. Still, possibly the most interesting aspect of the song is its instrumentation.
Musically, “Murder Most Foul” might seem to most Dylan fans to be a complete left turn, a wholesale departure from the artist’s previous style. It is even tempting to describe the song as completely unlike anything Dylan has released before.
The track features a soft, delicate backing of piano, violin and percussion which feels almost like the instrumental backing to a dramatic play’s central monologue. The music sets the tone and nothing more, leaving Dylan’s vocals free to do their work.
As unique as the music is, the style is not without precedent in Dylan’s discography. In fact, there are obvious similarities between “Murder Most Foul” and the last track on “Tempest,” “Roll on John.” The music in that track — which bears lyrical similarities to “Murder Most Foul” as well, recounting the death of Dylan’s friend John Lennon — is similarly sparse and spiritual, though it does exhibit slightly more flourish and melody than the new track. With “Roll on John” as a data point, Dylan’s progression to “Murder Most Foul” feels natural and continuous.
Dylan fans have been starving for eight years, but they finally have a new bone to chew on. With the lyrical depth and simple instrumental beauty that “Murder Most Foul” has to offer, fans should be satisfied for a good while.