Music

Bob Dylan’s Trump-Card Album

Bob Dylan performs at the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles in 2004. (Robert Galbraith/Reuters)
The Sixties pop prophet describes a revolution in reverse.

Bob Dylan got his first No. 1 single, “Murder Most Foul,” on the Billboard chart in April, and nobody blinked. It didn’t have the impact of his epochal 1965 recording “Like a Rolling Stone.” But that doesn’t mean “Murder Most Foul” doesn’t matter, only that in the era when an erroneous slogan such as “Black Lives Matter” becomes a rallying cry — without actually expressing what its shrill, hysterical street belters, politicians, and media parrots want it to say — Dylan has lost his artist-oracle place. His voice is blowin’ in the fetid COVID wind.

Not even Dylan can challenge a culture that refuses to listen, and “Murder Most Foul,” at 17 minutes long, became part of the ceaseless noise that only streaming subscribers have the privilege to admire or ignore. It should have been an event. Instead, its complacent reception shows that our popular culture has simply become indifferent. This new song, a summary of everything Dylan knows, bears witness to cultural revolution that is in fact a revolution in reverse.

Unlike the teasingly inexplicable “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Murder Most Foul” is blatantly political, describing the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. That is the one seismic Sixties incident that Millennial media denizens don’t prattle about because it cannot be manipulated for contemporary political purposes — unlike the Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. killings. Dylan ponders its significance in the low, whispery voice that haunts his new album Rough and Rowdy Ways in a timbre that is both intimate and accusing throughout.

We’re gonna kill you with hatred, without any respect
We’ll mock you and shock you and we’ll put it in your face
We’ve already got someone here to take your place.

So the national trauma that filmmakers Brian De Palma, Arthur Penn, and Robert Altman could not get over is narrated by Dylan as national sin and guilt. The extended balladry of “Murder Most Foul” doesn’t exactly sound like a dirge, but it casts a pall as it swings from that Sixties turning point all the way back to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and then further back to the ever-present Bible when Dylan growls the line “The Age of the Antichrist has just only begun.”

But Dylan’s no street-corner crank or “dark Web” lunatic; his troubadour’s sorrow (and his apocalyptic penchant) is in touch with our own — particularly in how Rough and Rowdy Ways relentlessly catalogs history and culture as part of human consciousness. He reviews Western civilization, as he did in his Nobel-prize address, because that’s what formed him. “Murder Most Foul” offers a cultural and moral history lesson that Black Lives/Antifa don’t know, a lesson that the movement’s enablers — those desperate, still agnostic Sixties liberals — conveniently disregard. That’s why even Dylan’s devout followers are in denial about the obvious contemporary allusion in “Murder Most Foul.” It is clearly a Trump song, an epic poem that summarizes the self-annihilating resentment amassed in the anger of Trump Derangement Syndrome.

Only Dylan could get away with this, launching a history-saturated album into the midst of cancel culture. Rough and Rowdy Ways is both retrospective and prophetic. “I ain’t no false prophet / I just said what I said,” Dylan talk-sings in a preacher’s voice, a prophet’s voice, a blues singer’s voice. He is a defiant oracle, irradiated with history and godliness, as here in “My Own Version of You”:

Step right into the burning hell
Where some of the best-known enemies of mankind dwell
Mr. Freud with his dreams, Mr. Marx with his ax
See the rawhide lash the skin from their backs
Got the right spirit, you can feel it, you can hear it
You’ve got what they call the immortal spirit

This album’s personal summation suggests “My Way” from God’s perspective, as per Judeo-Christian identification. It’s Dylan’s easiest-to-like album since Slow Train Coming, and secular liberals excoriated him for that, too.

The second-best thing Dylan did this year was inspire the title of Morrissey’s album I Am Not A Dog on a Chain (from Dylan’s “Only a Pawn in Their Game”). In turn, “My Own Version of You” and “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You” seem influenced by Morrissey. Consider how Dylan’s “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” song references pirate radio stations — the alternative media we all long for in the wake of Silicon Valley’s shadow-banning conservative speech. Like Morrissey, Dylan perseveres against the fact that there’s no common music culture anymore. “Murder Most Foul” laments that there’s no more common morality. Dylan recites culture and history with dread — as if from memory — because both have been flipped.

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Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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