I contain multitudes: where do we start, where does it end?

By Tony Attwood

If the first new song in a few years took me by surprise, then so has the second; and I had no idea another was going to follow up so quickly.  But Bob is always full of surprises.

And here is a surprise, because both of the recent songs are not songs at all, but recitations.  Here it is…

Last time I worked myself up into a lather trying to decipher the words, which then resulted in a lot of abuse (not published) for the mistakes therein.  By and large I can do without that, so I have taken my time and anyway, as before, the Genius website helped me out.

What we have here are similarities between the two new songs – the almost total lack of melody is the major point, but this time there is more structure in the music.  But still the verses each take their own form.

And what we have got are the references to more of the people who have influenced Dylan through the years, such as William Blake, Edgar Allen Poe, Anthony Raftery,  and then that really strange line, “I’m just like Anne Frank/ and Indiana Jones/ And them British bad boys the Rolling Stones,” which I will come back to in a moment.

The tweet that announced the song was strange too: “#today and #tomorrow, #skeletons and #nudes, #sparkle and #flash, #AnneFrank and #IndianaJones, #fastcars and #fastfood, #bluejeans and #queens, #Beethoven and #Chopin, #life and #death.”

But just consider this verse

I’m just like Anne Frank, like Indiana Jones
And them British bad boys, the Rolling Stones
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 flowing all at the same time
I live on a boulevard of crime
I drive fast cars, and I eat fast foods
I contain multitudes

So the simple explanation is that this is Dylan is, well, explaining himself – that as he has said so many times, he takes in elements from everywhere, and so becomes a “man of contradictions”

But then are we really to believe, “I carry four pistols and two large knives … I sleep with life and death in the same bed”.

So, on a first few of hearings, I would suggest Dylan is saying yes, I take in everything that passes me by, the world I experience is what I am.

And indeed just from these first few listens to the song I think the reference to Blake is important.  Consider this for example:

“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.”

Is that not what Dylan has been striving for all the way through?  And of course if we take another of Blake’s most famous comments…

“If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”

Dylan’s work opens up the world to us, and reveals what otherwise might seem disconnected.

As ever, one needs a lot of time to consider a new Dylan song and all its implications.  The songs we have reviewed on this site, in most cases, have been heard over and over before we try and write any sort of review or analysis.  But pushed to say something I’d say once again Dylan is looking at everything that has influenced him, and is telling us, this is what has made him what he is.

Today, tomorrow, and yesterday, too
The flowers are dying like all things do.
Follow me close, I’m going to Balian Bali;
I’ll lose my mind if you don’t come with me.
I fuss with my hair, and I fight blood feuds
I contain multitudes.

Got a tell-tale heart, like Mr Poe,
Got skeletons in the walls of people you know.
I’ll drink to the truth and the things we said,
I’ll drink to the man that shares your bed.
I paint landscapes, and I paint nudes…
I contain multitudes.

Red Cadillac and a black moustache,
Rings on my fingers that sparkle and flash.
Tell me, what’s next? What shall we do?
Half my soul, baby, belongs to you.
I relic and I frolic with all the young dudes…
I contain multitudes.

I’m just like Anne Frank, like Indiana Jones,
And them British bad boys, The Rolling Stones.
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,
I live on the boulevard of crime…
I drive fast cars, and I eat fast foods,
I contain multitudes.

Pink pedal-pushers, red blue jeans,
All the pretty maids, and all the old queens.
All the old queens from all my past lives,
I carry four pistols and two large knives.
I’m a man of contradictions, I’m a man of many moods,
I contain multitudes.

You greedy old wolf, I’ll show you my heart,
But not all of it, only the hateful part.
I’ll sell you down the river, I’ll put a price on your head,
What more can I tell you? I sleep with life and death in the same bed.
Get lost, madame, get up off my knee,
Keep your mouth away from me.
I’ll keep the path open, the path in my mind,
I’ll see to it that there’s no love left behind.
I’ll play Beethoven’s sonatas, and Chopin’s preludes,
I contain multitudes.


In short, I am the sum of the life I have experienced, and since life and experiences are themselves made up of contradictions, then so am I.

What else is on the site?

We have a very lively discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook with over 3600 active members.  (Try imagining a place where it is always safe and warm).  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

You’ll find some notes about our latest posts arranged by themes and subjects on the home page of this site.  You can also see details of our main sections on this site at the top of this page under the picture.

The index to all the 603 Dylan compositions and co-compositions that we have found on the A to Z page.

If you are interested in Dylan’s work from a particular year or era, your best place to start is Bob Dylan year by year.

On the other hand if you would like to write for this website, or indeed have an idea for a series of articles that the regular writers might want to have a go at, please do drop a line with details of your idea, or if you prefer, a whole article to Tony@schools.co.uk

And please do note our friends at  The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, plus links back to our reviews (which we do appreciate).

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14 Responses to I contain multitudes: where do we start, where does it end?

  1. TonyAttwood says:

    Balian Bali:
    “With unsigned roads, throngs of scooters, and areas where even Google Maps can’t reach…”

  2. Larry fyffe says:

    Dylan references people who suffered under the Nazis or fought against them in one way or the other.

    Though the Stones are often misunderstood, they are mocking the Nazis ( and neoCons), not glorifying them. And in context of his works as a whole, Dylan contradictions are not as great as they first appear to be, irony being no stranger to the singer/songwriter.

    There are even those who say Dylan is on side of the likes of Trump! Weberman, for example.

  3. Larry fyffe says:

    Dylan:

    Today and tomorrow and yesterday too

    Shakespeare:

    Tomorrow, tomorrow, and tomorrow….
    And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
    (MacBeth)

  4. Jüri Aidas says:

    The title references the poem Song Of Myself by Walt Whitman. Stanza 51, “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

    Bob could very well be Everyman as for the ‘I’ of the song-poem. (Would the word oratorio be appropriate?)

  5. Larry fyffe says:

    In Poe’s tale, the murderer gives himself away to police because he thinks that it is not only he who can hear the thumping of the dead man’s heart – the dead older man likely representing ‘the other’ within oneself.

  6. Kiwipoet says:

    In this song, and the previous ‘Murder Most Foul’ Dylan breaks from the Modernist orthodoxy that our creative work must spring from a single immutable personality or persona. Keats called it the ‘negative capability’. In Dylan’s case he has merged his personality with the cultural flow. Dylan has said:‘I change during the course of a day. I wake and I’m one person, and when I go to sleep I know for certain I’m somebody else.’
    The great Persian mystic poet Rumi said: ‘Study me as much as you like, you will never know me. For I differ a hundred ways from what you see me to be … I have chosen to dwell in a place you can’t see.’ (see the first article on the Never Ending Tour, 1987)
    Or, maybe Dylan is telling us that he is the Devil. Mathew (8:28-34), Mark and Luke describe an incident in which Jesus meets a man, or in Matthew two men, possessed by demons who, in the Mark and Luke versions, when asked what their name is, respond: “My name is Legion, for we are many.”

  7. It sure is Bally-na-Lee (or maybe BallyNally) , compare the lines :

    Follow me close, I’m goin’ to Bally-na-Le
    I’ll lose my mind if you don’t come with me

    with the lines in the irish poem of Antoin O Raifteiri: The Lass from Bally-na-Lee (http://lovepoems.inrebus.com/2009/04/antoin-o-raifteiri-maire-ni-eidhin-the-lass-from-bally-na-lee.html)

    My mind is now well satisfied,
    So walk with me to Bally-na-Lee

    Daniel

  8. Robert Ford says:

    “I rollick and I frolic with all the young dudes”. Lovely, subtle melody in this song.

    As with all great Dylan songs the more you listen to ‘Murder Most Foul’ the more you begin to appreciate the song including the merits of the vocal performance.

  9. Kieran says:

    I also think – from the careful way he pronounces it – that he sings Bally-na-lee.

    It’s a curious song, reminds me of What Good am I?, or Disease of Conceit on Oh Mercy, a simple single idea dragged across several verses. Unlike those songs, this at least has some wit, and his new idea of namechecking cultural heroes and stars. I love the new sparse, unornamented sound of it too, and hope if there;s a new record, this form of declamation is used severally, though obviously we’d all like uptempo tracks too. But he’s definitely onto something new here, a new phase and a different lyrical and musical style. I wonder how many more of the tracks will take quotes from great works for their titles? And how many more references to Beethoven will we hear?

    From the way he repeats the line, “all the old queens”, it reminds me of how he repeats “all that junk” on Murder Most Foul, and it makes me wonder did he record these songs together, and maybe (re)wrote them in part that time too?

    “Last time I worked myself up into a lather trying to decipher the words, which then resulted in a lot of abuse (not published) for the mistakes therein.”

    People who abuse others online are psychopaths. You were wise to not publish them. Genius is a good site to follow, I use that too, they had great references for Murder Most Foul.

  10. J. O'Connell says:

    My first reaction was “Oh No!” – magazines such as Private Eye with their Pseuds Corner will have a field-day with someone gravely intoning “I contain multitudes”. You can sense all the usual suspects lining up to slate Bob for his “pretentiousness”. I briefly wondered whether it might be a parody or Bob playing games with us. Some of the lines such as the”Anne Frank and Indiana Jones” verse seemed to be put there simply because they rhyme. As always, it’s not that simple. “I sleep with life and death in the same bed” is great. For me, I am not a fan of songs where Bob constantly repeats the title – “Disease Of Conceit” great though it is – “If Not For You” – “Forever Young”etc. so perhaps it is my personal taste.The timing is strange also, I feel “Murder Most Foul” should have been allowed more time to sink in. A thumbs up though with some reservations.

  11. Mirte says:

    ‘I’m just like Anne Frank, like Indiana Jones,’

    I seem innocent, I seem courageous, but I am not what I seem to be.

  12. We are actively promoting a link to this interesting topic on The Bob Dylan Project at:
    http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/4862/I-Contain-Multitudes

    If you are interested, we are a portal to all the great information related to this topic.

    Join us inside Bob Dylan Music Box.

  13. John Carvill says:

    >And here is a surprise, because both of the recent songs are not songs at all, but recitations.

    I would not quite agree: I think it’s undeniably true to say that Murder Most Foul is not really a song, per se. But I Contain Multitudes walks a fine line between talking and singing and is much more of a song, to me. It’s a far, far better piece of writing and performance, yet Murder is getting all the plaudits because “it’s an epic”. For my money, Multitudes is perfectly balanced, and that includes the duration; Murder really ought to have been edited down.

  14. Marta says:

    “I am just like Anne Frank..” brings to mind another Frank which Bob doesn’t mention here but I who was born in Krakòw know about and I am sure Bob does too. Anne Frank was a Jewish girl who wrote diary in hiding during World War II and was a Holocaust victim as she died in the end of the war in concentration camp in 1945. She was 15 years old (young). She was first in Auschwitz-Birkenau and then she was transferred to Bergen-Belsen in Germany where she died probably from typhus.
    Hans Frank was Governer General of the occupied territories in Poland during WW II. His headquarters were in Wawel (the historical kings castle) in Krakòw. Hans Frank was directly involved in the mass murdering of Jews in the extermination camps. After the war he was tried in Nuremberg and died by hunging in 1946.
    Anne Frank and Hans Frank. Their names sound almost the same, although they were unrelated. One is a victim who had her bright future as a writer or journalist taken away from her and other is a war criminal who actively helped to try to wipe out another nation from the surface of the Earth. Germans didn’t succeed but they did murder about 6 million Jews during the war (please correct me if I am wrong about the number). This is the entire country ( e.g. Sweden has 7 million citizens). This is one contradiction which I wanted to point out. I contain multitudes relates to mankind as a whole. There are multitudes in one person and there are multitudes of people who are capable of the most unimaginable crimes or behave in very beautiful and heroic way. And they are all humans. As I said it before we are our worst enemies. To be human it sounds proud but it also sounds scary and dangerous. We are capable of absolutely everything.

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