In the early 1970s, Bob Dylan was famously recorded on tape trying to wriggle out of a meeting with fan-turned-‘garbologist’ A.J Weberman by saying he needed to build some tables and shelves for his wife and he’d been putting it “way off”.
During lockdown, and with his Never Ending Tour on hiatus, Dylan appears to have again put the home maintenance jobs on hold, having signalled his first album of original material for eight years.
After several years of releasing cover versions of Frank Sinatra lounge standards followed by a series of shows that placed his own canon firmly in that vein, the icon, who turns 79 on Sunday, appears back at his elusive best.
The new double album Rough and Rowdy Ways will be available from June 16, but Dylan has already dropped three of its songs online.
Such is the fervour of Dylan’s ageing audience of ‘completists’, there’s little doubt the pre-digital types who have heard the songs will also buy the album – not the least because he again appears to be giving hints about his world view.
On March 26, as the world was in the first weeks of lockdown, the 2016 Nobel laureate offered up a 17-minute opus on the assassination of President John F Kennedy, Murder Most Foul.
In a distinctly un-Bob-like message, Dylan thanks his fans for their “support and loyalty”, adding: “This is an unreleased song we recorded a while back that you might find interesting. Stay safe, stay observant and may God be with you”.
Given the reclusive star suffered in 1997 from a life-threatening fungal infection, histoplasmosis – often caused by bird or bat droppings – in the age of the coronavirus, it moved some fans to ask “Is Bob OK?”.
Turns out Dylan’s musings on all angles of JFK’s demise was just the start of a promotional blitz for new material that offers a few hints into his thoughts on our current age.
Murder Most Foul is not perfect, it’s sprinkled with a fair share of clunky lines among the familiar Nobel-prize-winning brilliance, but it also places Dylan back in the spotlight as a chronicler of a place and time.
“The day that they killed him, someone said to me, ‘Son, the age of the Antichrist has just only begun’,” Dylan sings over lilting violin that channels the Sinatra crooning he’s been practising on the road.
“Air Force One coming in through the gate, Johnson sworn in at 2:38
Let me know when you decide to throw in the towel. It is what it is, and it’s murder most foul.
What’s new, pussycat? What’d I say? I said the soul of a nation been torn away. And it’s beginning to go into a slow decay. And that it’s 36 hours past Judgment Day.”
The song then morphs into a series of playlist requests to radio DJ Wolfman Jack featuring classic songs and pop culture moments that may, or may not, have redeemed America in the years since the tragedy in Dallas.
If Bob had stopped at this track, the Dylanologists would have had a year’s worth of material to write about, but he followed up in April and May with two more tracks.
They also offered some intriguing lines, which may, or may not, show us what the great man has been thinking in the eight years since he released Tempest.
First was I Contain Multitudes –a riff on the famous Walt Whitman poem, Song of Myself, which sees the protaganist muse: “Today, and tomorrow, and yesterday, too. The flowers are dyin’ like all things do.
“Follow me close, I’m going to Bally-na-Lee. I’ll lose my mind if you don’t come with me. I fuss with my hair, and I fight blood feuds. I contain multitudes”.
Bally-na-Lee was the home of Irish poet Anthony Raftery, the only one of nine children to survive a smallpox outbreak.
In the final lines the singer could be talking direct to death, albeit in the guise of a woman: “Get lost, madame, get up off my knee. Keep your mouth away from me. I’ll keep the path open, the path in my mind,
I’ll see to it that there’s no love left behind.”
Then if there was any doubt that Dylan’s new material is rooted in both the path and the present, the bluesy False Prophet appeared to provide even more proof.
Released with an image of a skeleton holding a blood filled syringe and the image of a hanged man with a suspiciously familiar Trump-quaffed hairdo, the growling stripteaser walks a fine line between the protagonist smiting false prophets or actually being one.
“You don’t know me, darlin’. You never would guess. I’m nothing like my ghostly appearance would suggest. I ain’t no false prophet. I just said what I said. I’m just here to bring vengeance on somebody’s head.
“Hello, stranger. Hello and goodbye. You ruled the land. But so do I. You lost your mule. You got a poison brain. I’ll marry you to a ball and chain.”
With Murder Most Foul already topping the Billboard digital charts, Dylan’s first No.1 under his own name, there’s little doubt the new album will be picked over as one of 2020’s most intriguing comebacks.
He may have been putting off releasing new original music, but now Dylan has ticked that off the list he can get back to the home renovation jobs he’s been putting “way off” and popping up some shelves like the rest of us.