For the title of his last song, “Murder Most Foul,” Bob Dylan borrowed from Shakespeare. For his unexpectedly rapid-fire follow-up, he’s cribbing from Walt Whitman. “I Contain Multitudes” takes its name (and the final line of each stanza) from a famous parenthetical thought in Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” And true to the declaration of personal complexity, the tune itself contains a legion’s worth of thoughts and attitudes… although, at a mere four and a half minutes long, not quite as many multitudes as the 17-minute “Murder.”
The two songs together represent quite a break in the drought of new material from Dylan, who hadn’t released a previously unheard song since 2012’s “Tempest” until he put out “Murder Most Foul” in a sneak attack at midnight March 27. Just three weeks later, he’s doubled the amount of fresh songs, with “I Contain Multitudes” also getting a midnight ET/9 PT surprise release with no advance warning.
Although it’s only a fourth as long as “Murder,” “Multitudes” does share some similarities with its immediate predecessor, including a drumless, rolling sound in which a scant few players, including a steel guitarist, seem to be gently improvising on a theme as they go along.
It also shares a flare for bizarre juxtapositions of cultural references, although not nearly on the bounteous level of the more epic song from three weeks ago. The most likely-to-be-quoted lyrics:
I’m just like Anne Frank, like Indiana Jones
And them British bad boys, the Rolling Stones
But the song isn’t so much of a triptych of Dylan’s record collection this time around, although there’s still a lot of cataloguing going on. It’s more like he’s thumbing through his many moods. At one point, he sounds like the defeated, lovelorn figure of so much of his 23-year-old “Time Out of Mind” album:
I’ll drink to the truth and the things we said
I’ll drink to the man that shares your bed
And he adds, “Half my soul, baby, belongs to you.” But later, he’s dismissive, even contemptuous, of a woman. The same one, or an unworthy successor? Who’s to say?
Get lost, madame, get up off my knee
Keep your mouth away from me
As with so many Dylan songs, individual couplets make perfect sense, then seem to be contradicted by something that follows. But maybe more than in any previous song, the rationale for that intra-song shape-shifting is summed up in the title itself. It’s not that “I’m Not There,” as the avant-garde biopic about him claimed; it’s that he’s everywhere. And if you want the tender Dylan or the snide one, the Dylan who quotes Blake or Bowie and Mott the Hoople, the lover or the fighter, they’re all here somewhere in one of these defiantly un-self-defining verses. “What more can I tell you? I sleep with life and death in the same bed,” Dylan sings, sending all the fan who were up late enough to get an unexpected treat off to their rest.
Dylan didn’t release any statement with this song, as he did with the March one, and whether the rumored new album is really on the way remains as much of a mystery as ever. Now, there’s reason to suspect that the man who sounded the alarm on changing times five and a half decades ago may have embraced change so much that he’s joined some of the kids in adopting a singles model.