Bob Dylan's new album begins and ends with death, "as all things do," he accurately notes in the first line of opening number I Contain Multitudes. It's a mood. I took a sip of my whisky, straight no ice, leaned back in my chair and closed my eyes.
Earlier in the day I'd been sent a digital advance copy of his new album Rough and Rowdy Ways. And while I acknowledge that the proper and correct way to listen to ol' Bob is on vinyl, that unfortunately doesn't release until next month. My hand was forced.
Especially as I'd already exercised great will and restraint in not listening to the couple of songs he'd put out in the lead-up, including the much raved about, 17 minute epic, Murder Most Foul.
With no patience left in the tank I downloaded the songs, waited until the family was tucked up in bed, dimmed the lounge lights and engaged in one of the most unromantic ways to listen to music by pressing play on my computer.
A gentle, melancholic strum filled the air, and ten seconds later Dylan, up front and gravely and with each of his 79 years proudly weighing down his words like a gold medallion, began his confession.
"I fuss with my hair, and I fight blood feuds, I contain multitudes," he explained. "I drive fast cars, and I eat fast foods, I contain multitudes," he laughed. "I sing the songs of experience like William Blake, I have no apologies to make," he stated in defiance.
"I'm a man of contradictions," he continued. "I'm a man of many moods," he admitted. "I contain multitudes," he concluded, in what is perhaps - or perhaps not - the ultimate answer to all those Dylan die hards who have dedicated their lives to unravelling the mystery of his.
As an album opener it sets the mood. Like lapping waves on the shoreline the song's soft, lilting rhythms coupled with Dylan's introspective vocals lull you into reflection as you listen to one of the most purposefully opaque artists to ever live reveal it all. Sort of.
You could write 10,000 words on any one line from this song. Heck, you could write 10,000 words on just the way he coos the word 'multitudes' alone, breaking up and imbibing each syllable with the weight and complexity of a life that's been lived.
His lyrics dart between truth and fiction, biography and myth building, romanticism and thuggish violence. Is he fabricating when he threatens, "I carry four pistols and two large knives"? He sounds like he means it, man. And, of all the artists in their senior years, it's easy to believe that Dylan is someone who actually does. His rugged outlaw approach to folk music informing everything he's ever done.
After, he segues into the raw blues stomp of False Prophet, a song that, bar the croak of his voice, could slot onto his 1965 game changer Highway 61 Revisited with ease. It's one of a handful of up-tempo joints that break up the album but never its vibe.
Elsewhere, the sublime beauty of I've Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You, is both love song and lament, Mother of Muses is a gospel interlude, while the Frankenstein vaudeville of My Own Version of You is a brilliant example of Dylan's whimsical wordplay. "Can you look in my face with your sightless eyes?" he wonders of his creation.
It's Dylan's first album of original material since 2012's Tempest, and damn, he has a lot to say, even if I didn't always know what he was on about. But that's par for the course with me and Dylan and not surprising when each lyric can simultaneously mean everything and nothing. The crucial things is I always feel like I understand or feel what he means.
The album builds to the startling Murder Most Foul. A song that starts off being about the Kennedy assassination before freewheeling out to document American culture, politics, history, memories, music and, well, everything. A university lecture compared to the comparative tweet of Billy Joel's similarly history recapping We Didn't Start the Fire.
The song's hypnotic with Dylan's almost spoken-word stream of consciousness floating on a whitewater stream of soft guitar, fragile piano and bows drenched in sorrow. It flows calmly but occasionally crashes up against jutting rocks to hit words and sentiment hard.
It is simply remarkable. Essential. A strikingly relevant instant classic. A song about the past written by a 79-year-old that perfectly encapsulates the global chaos of today. Of pandemics and protests. Divisiveness and hatred. A world where Neo-Nazis are making a comeback and saying something as simple as Black Lives Matter is considered controversial.
It's said those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it. Dylan's final lyric on the album is instructional, "Play Murder Most Foul". I poured another whisky and did.