Two days ago, in the shadow of COVID-19, hot on the heels of the recently released ‘Murder Most Foul’, Bob Dylan’s first original song in eight years, comes a follow-up song, ‘I Contain Multitudes’. Dylan fans, scholars and Bobcats worldwide are undoubtedly hoping the new songs may herald a soon-to-be-released album.
The seventeen-minute ‘Murder Most Foul’’s lyrics addressed the assassination of John F. Kennedy, scattered with numerous references spanning the past 150 years of American song and political culture.
‘I Contain Multitudes’ albeit at 4min 30sec a more condensed work, similarly references American and UK song, film and literature, but this time in the form of a self-portrait built piece-by-piece through assemblage, in the way we think we can know someone by perusing their books, favourite films or record collection.
LISTEN: Bob Dylan’s ‘I Contain Multitudes’
This is a song of the Facebook and Instagram age, with the ever-elusive Dylan interweaving people, places, objects and artwork references to suggest he is a man of complexities and contradictions, directly quoting and referencing Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself – including the source of Dylan’s title:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.) – Walt Whitman, Song of Myself, stanza 51
Song of Myself opens with the lines:
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
In ‘I Contain Multitudes’ Dylan is similarly ‘singing himself’ but also echoes Whitman’s insistence that ‘every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you’, with Bob’s ‘Half my soul, baby, belongs to you’.
Dylan’s Nobel Prize for Literature acceptance speech similarly credited many influential literary works that he suggests shaped his sensibilities and creations, particularly Moby Dick, All Quiet on the Western Front and Homer’s Odyssey.
Dylan paradoxically says of Moby Dick: “The book makes demands on you and also that reading gave you a way of looking at life, an understanding of human nature, and a standard to measure things by.”
While also stating: “If a song moves you, that’s all that’s important. I don’t have to know what a song means.”
So, with Bob comfortably contradicting himself, we may let ‘I Contain Multitudes’ move us impressionistically, or perhaps focus in on its eclectic cast of musicians and writers quoted or cited: The Rolling Stones, Beethoven & Chopin, David Bowie (all the young dudes), Edith Piaf (The Boulevarde of Crime), Mr (Edgar Allan) Poe (Tell-Tale Heart), Anne Frank, William Blake (Songs of Experience) and see them as jumping off points for further exploration, reflection and ‘ways of looking at life’.
‘I Contain Multitudes’ may also be read as a hyperbolic love song echoing ‘To Make You Feel My Love’:
I’ll lose my mind if you don’t come with me and
Half my soul, baby, belongs to you
Or as an extended metaphysical koan, with typically Dylanesque pearls:
I go right to the edge, I go right to the end
I go right where all things lost are made good again
I sing the songs of experience like William Blake
I have no apologies to make
Everything’s flowing all at the same time
William Blake’s The Sick Rose, published in 1794 has never sounded more apposite:
O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.
With Dylan echoing Blake:
I sleep with life and death in the same bed.
At this point in time, perhaps we all do, and although Bob opens with:
Today and tomorrow, and yesterday, too
The flowers are dyin’ like all things do
We may yet all contain multitudes, embrace contradictions and hope to be
Where all things lost are made good again.