Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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This was originally published as free content, in Robert Christgau's And It Don't Stop newsletter. You can have Christgau's posts delivered to your mailbox if you subscribe.

Another Side of Another Side (Of Another Side?)

When "Murder Most Foul" surfaced, I never got around to playing it. Not having left my apartment except to visit the doctor since well before the official quarantine was in place, I listen to music literally all the time until TV with Carola after dinner. For me ear time is a precious resource both spiritually and economically. But then my old friend Greil inspired me to give it a shot, and whaddaya know--I had trouble getting to the end much less working up any interest in what it "meant." (For a more authoritative Kennedy rumination by an NYC-spawned '60s rock totem, I recommend while lacking the expertise to endorse eternal Fug Ed Sanders's 348-page illustrated investigative poem Broken Glory, about the RFK assassination.)

I've always admired and enjoyed Dylan as an artist, but I've never paid him any mind as a prophet, gave up on him as a zeitgeist marker as of his brief Christian period, and was appalled by the singing on the 2015 standards album Shadows in the Night, which I found so horrible I not only didn't buy the next two but didn't bother to stream them--there's voice is shot, and then there's voice is utterly fucked. "Murder Most Foul" does do something with this deficit, but for 17 minutes? I was appalled by all the hoohah. So I wrote Joe Levy, an on-again-off-again Dylan obsessive who is now my editor, de facto manager, and chief musical advisor as well as the man without whom And It Don't Stop wouldn't exist, just to find out what he thought--we talk all the time but it had never come up. And soon he emailed me a briefer version of the essay below. Like Joe, I've found that both "Murder Most Foul" and "I Contain Multitudes" have grown on me a little. But this somewhat expanded version of that email says far more than I could have far better than I could have. I've been telling Joe what a great critic he is for 25 years. Here's proof positive no one who's ever read him needs:

My Twitter feed was full of chatter about "Murder Most Foul" for days. Thought "Real Life Rock Top 10" captured that, with what felt to me like an appropriate sense of both excitement and suspicion: "The hundreds of instant and definitive Captain Midnight Decoder Ring analyses of every word. . . . in an instant it can feel as if the whole world is listening, talking back, figuring it out, and playing with it as if it's a cross between the Bible and Where's Waldo." The feeling of that item is like the song itself, the way it apes Dylan's Homeric list of song requests with a recitation of the birth and death years of the artists. The news that there's a serious publisher out there looking for a book on a song Greil says works like "a cross between the Bible and Where's Waldo" -- that's pretty funny.

But first few times through I thought "Murder Most Foul" was fucking awful, and can't understand: does no one else hear it this way? I mean, he used to have music in his music, so if he's going to do spoken word, the words better be really good. By his own standards -- not mine, not the Nobel Committee's, not those of my high school English teacher who taught us "The Waste Land" (Mrs. Dewey, I salute you!) -- these aren't. But they're interesting! Maybe. Though I find it hard to forgive the invocation of conspiracy theory in a moment when conspiracy theory runs the game, and I don't care if that's the point. (Tip your hat to Revelations on your own time, not when the guys pulling the strings actually believe that shit and are practically building a helipad for the Antichrist so we -- sorry, I mean they, because I'm not going -- can rapture up sooner.) It's all going to hell, just like that dark day in November when a man put his hand over the sun (that took me a couple of seconds, unintentional Christ imagery and all, and seems about as good as anything in "Murder Most Foul"). But he's been saying everything is going to hell for decades. In a world where everything is broken, your clock is right twice a day -- more if you've got a lot of busted clocks, which dude does.

The second song, "I Contain Multitudes," sounded better -- funnier -- but . . . the first song mentions the Beatles, the second song mentions the Stones. Why? It has the sickly sweet smell of nostalgia to it, which the Lennon song on Tempest did as well. Both songs about men named John who were shot down. Yet if you take out the one verse about the Liverpool docks from "Roll On John," it's a real song. Mawkish. ("Shine your light / Moving on / You burned so bright / Roll on, John" -- yeesch. He steals so much. Can't he lift something sharper than that?) But real. You can't do the same with "Murder Most Foul."

Do I like it more the more I listen to it? Yeah, though I wonder if reads better, less slack, than it sounds. I can't get over how nonexistent the track itself is, the way its sleepiness makes his Titanic song seem as alive as Eminem or Otis Redding by comparison. It's a fever dream says one friend. It's like The Irishman says another. It's about the collapse of America, at a time when American is collapsing all over again! (Oh, America, we love you. Get up.) But I hear a guy who so often insisted on existing outside of history now wanting to own it by reciting it. This is Dylan's general strategy in what I'd call his post-original phase -- the five (or is it six?) discs from the songbook, the autobiography, the documentary, the second documentary, the repackaging of his most despised work into totems. This is all a retelling. His story, his way. Or a story told so many ways you can't tell up from down, good from bad, now from then. He exists past any sense of originality or creation. Has he written a song since Tempest? His website describes "Murder Most Foul" as "an unreleased song we recorded a while back," and even Dylan nuts can't tell when or where these tracks are from. His voice sounds suspiciously good, especially compared to the stones-in-his-throatway croak on his cover of "Things We Said Today" that came out in 2014. One friend wonders if these tracks were recorded with the current touring band, because the drums don't sound like . . . whoever the fuck is playing drums with him now. I mean, I'm hung up on this guy -- I've looped "Highlands" so it goes for an hour, then looped it again because my long walk or my book weren't done -- and I don't have the patience for this stuff.

I liked the idea in the Rolling Stone piece that the roll call of requests to the Wolfman in the sky makes the song about "the ways that music can comfort us in times of national trauma." So: play "The Stumble" by Freddie King. Play "P*$$Y Fairy" by Jhené Aiko. Play the whole Dua Lipa album and then play it louder. Play Harry Styles and Harry Partch at the same time and drink a coffee for Hal Willner. Play "Good Bad Times" by Hinds. Play whatever Joni Mitchell song was playing when Dylan fell asleep listening to Court and Spark at David Geffen's house. Did you play "The Stumble" yet, because I'm telling you, you underestimate Freddie King, he's a muthafuhya, could make a dead man dance. Play whatever you want, whatever brings you joy. But, honestly, would you ever play this?

And It Don't Stop, April 26, 2020