This piece is actually what I was writing when I started thinking about the so-called baby boomer generation, and the whole generations scheme, which led to a separate post on that theme. More about that further down.
A month or two or three ago when this album came out there was a promotional video for it using the first track, "I Contain Multitudes." I listened to it and thought "Well, this is an album I can skip." I mean, Dylan's recent work has been pretty good, but there wasn't all that much that I felt like I couldn't do without. There's so much music I want to hear that I wasn't going to bother with this one. But my friend Stu told me I really should give it a listen. So I did: thanks, Stu.
I do think it's a mixed bag. But the good stuff...well, I'll take it track by track.
"I Contain Multitudes"
(The phrase is from Whitman, as you probably know.) I just don't care much for this. It's not so much a song as a recitation over some not especially effective music. There are some good lines but overall the lyrics are not so great. "I drive fast cars and I eat fast foods / I contain multitudes." It's a good thing that it's not that long.
Now the album really gets started: blues riff, words somewhat on the dark side. I would quote some of it but you really have to hear it in his voice. At six minutes it doesn't seem too long. His vocals are impossible, by which I mean that it seems impossible that they are as effective as they are. As has been the case for some time, it's often a stretch to call what he does singing. But it really works.
"My Own Version of You"
All through the summers and into January
I’ve been visiting morgues and monasteries
Looking for the necessary body parts
Limbs and livers and brains and hearts
I want to bring someone to life - is what I want to do
I want to create my own version of you
Over a descending spooky-movie line the song goes on like that. Is he creating a Frankenstein's monster, or an ideal lover, or maybe even creating God in his own image? I'm not sure--making linear sense is not what Dylan does--but this is a strong track. Everybody knows Dylan traffics in allusion, but I suspect he does it even more than most of us recognize. Like this line: "You can bring it to St. Peter - you can bring it to Jerome."
Because I've had a copy of Bo Diddley's 16 Greatest Hits since I was 18 or so, I happen to know that the second sentence refers to one of his lesser-known songs. I don't know how many people who listen to this album would catch that. Or how many such references I miss.
"I've Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You"
A love song that, like all love songs, could be addressed either to a person or to God. Every now and then Dylan writes what seems to be a conventional love song, and I tend not to like them. I didn't like "To Make You Feel My Love" on Time Out of Mind and moreover thought it was totally out of place on that album. Not surprisingly, it was covered by some other artists. Anyway, this is good, but not one of my favorites.
I'd call this "pretty good": an interesting lyric, not much musically. As with "Multitudes," it isn't overly long, which is good.
"Goodbye Jimmy Reed"
I love this one. It sounds like Jimmy Reed and the lyrics are sharp. It's a tribute to Reed, with musical and lyrical allusions to some of his songs, and weighted with a sense that he had something that we still need.
"Mother of Muses"
Slow, kind of pretty, a sort of prayer. But I'm afraid I don't care much for it.
"Crossing the Rubicon"
Now this is a killer. There's a pattern in my reactions here: a preference for the more rock-oriented and sharp-tongued songs. This one is both. The more I hear it the more I like it, and want to say it's up there with some of his classics. As the title suggests, it's about a moment of decision and determination in the face of long odds, and it's very powerful:
Three miles north of purgatory, one step from the great beyond:
I prayed to the cross and I kissed the girls
and I crossed the Rubicon
I really wanted to like this one. I've never been to Key West but from what I've seen and heard it must be an enchanting place. This song should enchant, but for me at any rate it does not. And at nine and a half minutes it goes on too long to suit me.
"Murder Most Foul"
Now I will contradict what I said about the pattern of my reactions. ("Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself.") Superficially this song is like "Multitudes"--really just a recitation over a musical background. And I did not expect to like a 17-minute Dylan song. I expected it to go off the rails, like the long closing song on Time Out of Mind, which spends too much time on a silly episode apparently sparked by rhyming "legs" and "eggs."
This is where the "generations" stuff comes in. In the post I mentioned earlier I argued that if we're going to classify people in that way one of the groups should include those born between roughly 1940 and 1960--which is to say those who had the experience of growing up in the 25 years or so following the end of World War II.
For better or worse, it's a feature of the constantly changing modern world that if you live a normal three-score-and-ten or more you're going to see the world you grew up in disappear. I've seen it happen to my parents and their parents and now it's happening to me. Naturally it often seems to the passing generation that the changes are for the worse, but whether that's actually the case or not, it's a sad thing.
This song is Dylan's farewell to the world he and I grew up in. Or rather to the America we grew up in. And it's a lament, which he hangs on the myth of the Kennedy assassination. I call it a myth because that event became almost immediately a symbol that was at least half-detached from the reality. I was never caught up in the Kennedy mystique--it wasn't a political thing, I guess I just don't care much for Glorious Leader cults. And I never thought much of the idea that the nation lost its innocence at his assassination, and so forth. (America innocent? Oh, come on.) But there is a kernel of truth there: there really was a sense of hope and expectation abroad in the land in the late '50s and early-to-mid '60s, and the assassination was a blow to it, and a symbol of its waning.
Over a quiet and somber background of piano and bowed bass, the song begins with the assassination and then begins branching out into cultural references. A little more than halfway through, it becomes a litany.
Wolfman Jack, he’s speaking in tongues
He’s going on and on at the top of his lungs
Play me a song, Mr. Wolfman Jack
Play it for me in my long Cadillac
Wolfman is requested to "play" one after another mid-century image: songs, movies, people.
Play Oscar Peterson and play Stan Getz
Play Blue Sky, play Dickie Betts
Play Art Pepper, play Thelonious Monk
Charlie Parker and all that junk
All that junk and All That Jazz
Play something for The Birdman of Alcatraz
Play Buster Keaton play Harold Lloyd
Play Bugsy Siegel play Pretty Boy Floyd
The instrumentation grows slightly as it goes on, including a bass drum that sounds as big as a room. It's funeral music for a funeral song or poem, and I find it very moving. The thing about the times is, they never stop changing.