Just 118 years after his death, it’s Walt Whitman’s time to rock. Not only is his definitive poetry collection Leaves Of Grass one of the main influences on the new debut solo album from Radiohead’s Ed O’Brien, but it’s epic everyman centrepiece ‘Song Of Myself’ provides the title for Bob Dylan’s second new track, one of the few modern artists who can fairly be said to have expressed their inner multitudes in song.
If his recent 17-minute exploration of the wider culture surrounding the assassination of JFK, ‘Murder Most Foul’, simmered with a dark swampland import and generational anger, ‘I Contain Multitudes’ is a more sanguine personal exposé. Lyrically, ‘Murder Most Foul’ was steeped in classic Americana; here Dylan roots himself there by adopting the tone of the ageing ragtime balladeer, not a million miles from the sadder moments of Randy Newman. And from there, he reels out a kind of literary folk ‘My Way’, a porch chair portrait of a life fully lived.
“Today, tomorrow, and yesterday, too, the flowers are dyin’ like all things do,” Dylan drawls over elegiac slide guitar, misted arpeggios and strings made for military elegies, occasionally slipping into impersonations of the wise old bluesmen. From this stoic statement of mortality he peels away the details of his journey with the grace and conciliation of a master making his peace.
Partners who wronged him are forgiven (“I’ll drink to the man that shares your bed”), follies of youth are relived (“I frolic with all the young dudes”) and secrets confessed (“Got skeletons in the walls of people you know”). In another flurry of pan-cultural references, he lays claim to the fear of Anne Frank, the guilt of Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘Tell-Tale Heart’, the adventure of Indiana Jones, the experience of William Blake and the danger of “them British bad boys” The Rolling Stones. His conclusion evokes Frank Sinatra’s: “I have no apologies to make”.
As with so much of Dylan’s work, there is no simple singular reading here. As the song progresses, it could just as easily be a character sketch of a flash, pistol-packing, moustachioed renegade who lives “on the boulevard of crime” and sleeps “with life and death in the same bed”. But the reflective tone and nobility of the track says otherwise, suggesting the artist’s personal multitudes unpacked. It’s a wonder it doesn’t make for another 17-minuter.