On “I Contain Multitudes,” Bob Dylan Transcribes Dreams For An Audience of One

Tim Sommer listens to the second new Dylan song since Quarantine began

Bob Dylan (Art: Ron Hart)

We hold panes of glass nearly as tall as ourselves and prepare to run across interstates, without going anywhere at all. At least that’s what it feels like.

We are waiting for the other shoe, made of crystal and filled with death and shit, to drop. Magically, during these times when chaos and stasis shake hands, Bob Dylan has released two powerful and provocative new songs, his first new original material to surface in eight years. The second of these surprises, “I Contain Multitudes,” is a stately and gorgeous elegy with the deep violet power of “Pale Blue Eyes.” It also sounds peculiarly like “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” but let’s talk about some other stuff first.

The moment an artist becomes popular, one dream begins and another dream ends.

With every gig played, every song released and every fan made, an artist is one step closer to making a living off of their art, one step closer to the elusive magic of becoming part of people’s memories, and one step closer to the Icarus of stardom. But there is a cost. With fame, the dream of the artist’s unfettered imagination almost always ends. This is necessary, of course, but still a death. This death begins the moment an artist steps off stage after the first performance. From that moment forward, an audience expects the artist to give them something more or less the size and shape of what they have been given before. Most artists stop being truly free the moment they achieve even a chalk outline of stardom, because from that moment on, they must dampen, if not outright numb, the unfettered, unboxed imagination that is at the heart of the artists’ dream. 

Let us not forget that it all begins with a dream. For the artist, the heart of music is a dream, a constant dialogue of fantasy and imagination. The origin of the artist is the urge to transcribe these dreams, to somehow make visible or audible a constant, lifelong interior dialogue. All art originates in the imagination before it is known as imagination, in the idea formed before words, when reality is still grasping to be defined. Think about what is at the heart of the artists dream: The sound of the highway heard from the crib, which the artist is always trying to reproduce (whether on guitar, piano, sampler, turntable or voice). The hum of the overhead wire, heard before we knew what a wire was, before we knew it brought electricity into our home. The mystery and anticipatory power of the television in the gray instant between commercial and sitcom, multiplied, celebrated, translated. The sound of the hiss of the heart when it is first speared by middle school’s first crush. The eternal desire to make something with your own hands that recreates the shiver and feelings-stroke you felt at that first moment you heard the Velvet Underground or the Beatles, and you knew the world would never be the same (how can I keep that feeling fresh, alive, vibrating, ecstatic, electric?!? I must make it myself!). And on and on and on. Art is one’s personal narrative, transcribed. 

Dylan in Glitch 1 (Art: Ron Hart)

Dreams have no boundaries. Yet, the expectations of others, especially when they feed your ego and your checking accounts, do. Expectations limit the childhood recklessness and belief in fairies and ghosts that is necessary for magic and art. Artists transcribe fairies, but usually these fairies become repeated ad infinitum and lose their wings. Most artists, even the geniuses, are either doomed to make something that can more or less fit into the shoebox of what they became famous doing, or, even worse, seek to make emotionally and artistically false work that is different just for the sake of being different. 

A very, very small handful of major artists in pop history have defied this formula, and continue to only transcribe their dreams. The most famous and successful of these, by far, is Bob Dylan.  

Bob Dylan does not belong to you or me. He belongs to a scrap of blues heard on a now Clear Channel-ravaged radio station on a cold night in 1957. He belongs to the chuckle-cheeked grin on Buddy Holly, seen from the front row the week of his death. He belongs to a sibilant patch of Texas Swing, heard in a southern California backyard and swayed to with a whiskey in one hand and an old iron fencepost in the other. He belongs to a painterly memory of a green saloon on Frenchman Street, as the bass saxes beat their ancient, loony boom and the horns pierced another noisy, Abita-stinking New Orleans night. He belongs to the echo of the transcendence felt when Whitman was first inhaled, singing, his angel-winged verses of bridges and turnpikes. And he, too, belongs to the hum of the highway, heard from the crib. 

Bob Dylan makes music for Bob Dylan, built out of the scraps, ashes, starways, highways, half-remembered movie posters and quarter-remembered leafs of poetry, and fantasies of his own musical history and dreams. Except for some intermittent errors here and again (mostly with live albums: Bob Dylan at Budokan, Dylan and the Dead, and MTV Unplugged are all clumsy, transparent attempts to give the people what they want, and Dylan’s lack of interest is evident), Dylan’s recordings and his live performances exists virtually only to reflect his own dreams, his own memories, his own fantasies, his own self-amusement. This is especially true of his most affecting, visceral, and emotionally true work, like the entire country era, the American Songbook recordings, and the rumbling southwestern saloon rock of the Never Ending Tour. The sluices and turns in Dylan’s artistic life are not the acts of a contrarian or someone seeking to be deliberately thought of as a chameleon. Rather, they reveal someone who is absolutely committed to transcribing their own dreams.


VIDEO: Dylan and The Dead, Giants Stadium 7/12/87

This is a category that precious few visible musical artists exist in (it is likely millions of invisible ones exist in this spectrum, responding only to their dreams and their needs; but as soon as light shines on their art, as soon as their transcribed dreams become visible, they become altered, irreparably, by the act of observation!). In fact, if I were to list artists who breathe this rarified air, those who continued to almost exclusively transcribe dreams even as they achieved notoriety, I would likely only list Dylan, R. Stevie Moore, the minimalist composer Moondog, and Mark E. Smith of the Fall. 

Why R. Stevie Moore? Why is he one of our greatest artists? And why am I discussing him in an article (ostensibly) on “I Contain Multitudes”? Let’s take a moment to sort that out, so we can fully understand what it means to be a truth teller, a transcriber of dreams in an era where dream’s fairies, once bought and sold, lose the ability to fly unfettered. 

Everyone has spent their entire lives with an imagination-fueled inner voice that belongs only to them, a near-constant running narrative of dreams, hopes, fantasies and stories. It begins when you are tiny and think you are an astronaut or a firemen, and you sing the song of the astronaut and the fireman (or the crane operator, or the paleontologist!). And you are always, always singing songs along with your story. It is your life musical! It is the musical of your life, heard only by you. Do not lie: Every moment of your life has a shadow life, full of magic, impossible goals, unicorns and colors that cannot be named. Most of us do not stop to transcribe this life of waking dreams, the running narrative that adds prosody to the monotone of existence. 


VIDEO: R. Stevie Moore “I like 2 stay home”

But R. Stevie Moore is one of the only visible artists who has made transcribing their soundtrack into their lifelong art, who has made it their adult child mission to transcribe that soundtrack. R. Stevie Moore is the sound of the artistic homunculus. Imagine him, the homunculus- the man or woman in our head who is always telling stories! Only what R Stevie Moore has said, I will listen to him, and what he sings, I dictate. Once you wave a dollar at the man or woman who transcribes the life narrative of the homunculus, business and reality ruins our fantasies, reduces their purity. Only R. Stevie Moore has spent a life recording the endless chatter of the melodic homunculus, un-ruined by business, un-ruined by the expectations of anyone waving a dollar for a kiss. 

The closest thing the mainstream has ever had to that – so close that they share static electricity, they share a connection to the starry dynamo of the transcription of desires – is Bob Dylan. His latest release, the beautiful, trembling, almost opalescent “I Contain Multitudes,” confirms this. 

In simplest terms, “I Contain Multitudes” takes the intense starlit tremble of Dylan’s American Songbook recordings and applies them to an original composition. We all wondered where Dylan would go next with his original material, if he ever chose to record original songs again. Would Dylan’s next recording landscape reflect the thumping, scraping, hissing bartop and beer sign Cajun/Texas boogie that is the backbone of his remarkable, spontaneous, in-the-moment live performances? Perhaps that will happen in the future, but right now, on both “I Contain Multitudes” and “Murder Most Foul,” Dylan has chosen to use the candle-lit textures and nearly-ASMR intimacy of much of his American Songbook work as the foundation for his new original songs. In fact, the resonant, dusty angel-in-the-room vibe of “Multitudes” so closely resembles the atmosphere of the standards albums (especially the first two, Fallen Angels and Shadows in the Night) that it would not surprise me one iota to find that “Multitudes” was recorded at one of those sessions (more on this shortly). Significantly, the grace and power of both “Murder Most Foul” and “I Contain Multitudes” indicates that the entire standards era must be regarded as a clear and important stage in Dylan’s ooooooh-vu-reeer. Strangers and Fallen Angels are beautiful and rich records, evidencing a great artist reaching not only for the vibrations of pop’s history, but also successfully using a brilliant band to conjure the blue smoke rising from the studio ashtray. Time will be very, very kind to Dylan’s American Songbook era — listen to them now, and see what gorgeous elegance and poise they contain — especially since, as “Murder Most Foul” and “I Contain Multitudes” suggest, his new original material will platform off the beauty and sepia effect of those records. 

Bob Dylan “I Contain Multitudes,” Columbia 2020

Both in tumble and imagery, “I Contain Multitudes” is thoroughly Whitman-esque, a source and inspiration Dylan has turned to time and time again. In fact, “I Contain Multitudes” seems to specifically borrow the vibe (though not any specific words) from Whitman’s “Salut au Monde!” (this is especially interesting, since this is also the same poem from which Dylan took the basic “I see/I hear” lyric scheme of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”). Here’s my interpretation, which is, uh, mine: In “Multitudes,” Dylan may be discussing how we are comprised of equal parts fiction and reality, fake bravado and real experience, imagined experience and true courage; and the running narrative in our head, our secret history of fantasy and daring, impacts how we interact with everything in our world.

He may also be exploring the “inter-be” perspective of Buddhism (most beautifully elucidated in the writings of Thich Nhat Hanh); that is, everything is empty of a separate self, and that the five aggregates that comprise a human being (form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, consciousness) are “…empty of a separate self, but full of everything in the cosmos.” In fact, both interpretations are compatible. Though “I Contain Multitudes” shares it’s title with a well-known book about the power and ubiquity of microbes, Dylan is not talking about microbes in the sense of their ability to spread disease – that’s one of Dylan’s famous red herrings — but in their ability to be the foundational element of the inter-being-ness of all things, or the spiraling and multi-dimensional fantasy life within every one of us, regardless of age. 

The last two verses of “I Contain Multitudes” are another red herring (this shouldn’t surprise us; after all, the entire flush of “Murder Most Foul” was a red herring, an indictment of a generation’s political impotency disguised as a somewhat sophomoric re-hashing of the JFK assassination conspiracy theories). The snarling, squint-eyed gunslinger perspective of “Multitudes” last two verses would appear to be a somewhat awkward indictment of our current administration, and I am guessing that it may have existed as a different text entirely, tacked on here to create the distraction of relevance. I suspect this is a game Dylan is playing. On “Multitudes,” Dylan is not dealing with immediate events, regardless of a cranky, pointed line or two; he is actually assessing the long chain of life and creation, and transcribing flashes of his own fantasy and myth, from the perspective of a learned elder, prone to flights of fancy. 

Oh, one more curious fact: As Bo Brout excitedly pointed out to me, “I Contain Multitudes” has an actual bridge, something that surfaces with great rarity in Dylan’s original songs. And here we have another giant hint, and perhaps a rather dramatic reveal: This bridge (it’s the bit that begins with the lyric, “I’m just like Anne Frank, like Indiana Jones/And them British bad boys, The Rolling Stones”) bears a pronounced melodic and rhythmic resemblance to a section of the Fat Waller standard, “Ain’t Misbehavin’” (give a listen to the part of the Waller song that begins with “Like Jack Horner/Sittin’ in the corner”). I would not rule out the idea that “I Contain Multitudes” began life as a unused track from the standards era – specifically, a cover of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” – repurposed here with an original lyric and a slightly altered melody line. 

“Murder Most Foul” was a goddamn good return to original composition, after an eight year hiatus (the entire distance of time between Dylan’s recording debut and New Morning!), and “I Contain Multitudes,” which shimmers like eight hundred crescent moons reflected in a blue/black late summer lake, is even better. In 2020, Bob Dylan, one month away from his 78th birthday, continues to transcribe dreams. But now, maybe, he dreams about death. And he considers childish fantasies of cowboy film masculinity and Bogart/Mitchum swagger on one hand, and the optimistic unity of existence on the other. And he dreams with the hush and wind-rush of a prayer. 


AUDIO: Bob Dylan “I Contain Multitudes”

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Tim Sommer

Tim Sommer is a musician, record producer, former Atlantic Records A&R representative, WNYO DJ, MTV News correspondent, VH1 VJ, and founding member of the band Hugo Largo. He is the author of Only Wanna Be with You: The Inside Story of Hootie & the Blowfish and has written for publications such as Trouser Press, the Observer and The Village Voice. Learn more at Tim Sommer Writing.

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