by Jochen Markhorst
XX The elegance of Euler’s identity
17 April 2020
Apart from enthusiasm, there is also some relief on 17 April 2020, when “I Contain Multitudes” is surprisingly released. It is a real song. “Murder Most Foul”, which came out of the blue three weeks ago was equally surprising and overwhelming, but still more of a meditation than a song. No, “I Contain Multitudes” is “a delicate ballad with a minimal arrangement,” as Rolling Stone‘s Brian Hiatt immediately noted on the day of its release. On the other side of the ocean, Ben Beaumont-Thomas of The Guardian, also right on that same Friday 17 April, still sees similarities with “Murder Most Foul” (“Like that song, though, I Contain Multitudes is drifting and percussion-free, backed by acoustic, electric and pedal steel guitars”), but opens his short, quick review with a sigh of relief: “Bob Dylan has continued to release his first original music in eight years.”
By far the most attention, however, is given to the title and the lyrics. And all journalists do agree: Dylan is singing about himself. “I Contain Multitudes is a more sanguine personal exposé,” analyses Mark Beaumont for New Musical Express (also on 17 April). Rasha Ali of USA Today had three days longer to think about it, but also concentrates on the lyrics, and likewise comes to the otherwise unsubstantiated and puerile conclusion: “a ballad that paints a vivid picture of what his ‘multitudes’ contain,” a finding she then repeats twice more in other words.
The musical accompaniment to those supposed autobiographical words is largely ignored though.
It is quite likely that we owe the particular beauty of that musical accompaniment largely to guitarist Blake Mills. At least, it does seem obvious that Dylan himself arrived in the studio with a quite ordinary chord progression to open the song:
C Today, and tomorrow, and yesterday, too Am G C The flowers are dyin' like all things do
… C-Am-G-C, a ten a penny I-VI-V-I scheme, in other words, that we know from a multitude of songs, and on which most of us sweated in the first days of learning to play guitar. Nor is there too much melody; Dylan balances on the border between singing and speaking. But he does have the lucky hunch to invite the boy next door, Blake Mills, to the recording sessions.
The exceptionally talented guitarist Blake Mills from Malibu, young as he may be (born September 21, 1986), already has a name in Dylan circles and beyond. Eric Clapton publicly sings Mills’ praises: “The last guitarist I heard that I thought was phenomenal” (Rolling Stone, 2014). Jim Keltner, another undisputed great with plenty of Dylan experience, met him at a Jakob Dylan session, and judges: “He’s so good that you can’t forget what it would be like to be his age and be one of his peers – you either have to love the guy, or be very jealous” (Washington Post, 12 June 2020). We know him from the wonderful Dylan cover “Heart Of Mine” on the Amnesty project Chimes of Freedom, 2012, and from the Newport Festival in 2015, where he conjured a brilliant “When I Paint My Masterpiece” from Dylan’s old 1965 guitar, and from even more glittering tangents with Dylan.
But for now, the high point in Mills’ meteoric career is, of course, when Dylan not only chooses Mills’ workplace Sound City studio to record Rough And Rowdy Ways, but also asks Blake to bring his guitar. On the cover, he is only soberly listed in the album credits as one of the “additional musicians”, but we know by now that that is a somewhat overly economical description of Blake’s contributions.
Apparently, the sparingly worded job description does bother him somewhat. Shortly after the release of Rough And Rowdy Ways, June 2020, Blake Mills posts seven short videos on his Instagram account. The clips last no longer than a minute (except for “Black Rider”; which lasts 1’35”) and are visually unspectacular: a static camera films the guitar-playing Mills, who, sitting on a chair, hunched over his electric guitar, does not look into the camera once. But the content, especially for Dylan fans, is spectacular: in each clip, Mills demonstrates the guitar part he played on seven songs from Rough And Rowdy Ways: “I Contain Multitudes”, “False Prophet”, “Mother Of Muses”, “My Own Version Of You”, “Crossing The Rubicon”, “Black Rider” and “I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You”. They are mood- and colour-defining guitar parts, enviable demonstrations of creativity and craftsmanship, and one might suspect that Mills is sharing these remarkable clips with the world out of some sort of assertiveness.
The unsurpassed Eyolf Østrem, the Scandinavian musicologist who has been selflessly delighting the world for years with his dynamic, abundant and intelligent site things twice, takes the trouble of analysing all of Dylan’s songs and publishing them with their chord progressions. He sees and hears what Blake Mills does with that basic C-Am-G-C scheme and the continuation of the verse:
C C6 Today, and tomorrow, and yesterday, too Am G/b C The flowers are dyin' like all things do D#dim Em F6 Follow me close, I'm going to Bally-na-Lee C G7 I'll lose my mind if you don't come with me F F#dim I fuss with my hair, and I fight blood feuds C/g G11 C I contain multitudes
… “bridge-building” might be an apt description. Mills builds extremely elegant, tasteful little bridges from one chord to the next, creates ethereal beauty with slightly dissonant accents, and injects tension with jazzy “in-between chords” like that D#dim or G11. Perhaps the most beautiful bridge is the staircase bridge from verse 3, the camouflaged ascending D-E-F staircase to the equally masterfully embellished final section of the verse – which he carves out of an essentially just as ordinary base as the opening (C-G-F). Almost casually, meanwhile, Blake provides an intriguingly irregular pulse under the ambient-like tapestry of sound laid down by his colleagues; Tony Garnier drawing long, heavy lines with his bow on the upright bass, while Donnie Herron’s steel guitar paints the back wall with moody, unobtrusive, broad brushstrokes.
For the particular beauty of the twice-played bridge we have again to thank Mills, to an in itself simple artifice, which in all its simplicity has the same elegance as the most beautiful mathematical formula of all time, Euler’s eiπ+1=0 (Euler’s so-called identity, 1734). Just as Euler manages to capture the two most important natural numbers, the most important mathematical constants and the three most important mathematical operations in one simple formula, Mills unites in this bridge the three most important keys (major, minor and seventh), the three pillars of pop music (blues, jazz and rock), and, most importantly, the three melody options (descending, ascending or unchanging). The latter most beautifully in the second line:
Am /g# I'm just like Anne Frank, like Indiana Jones C/g D9/f# Eaug And them British bad boys, The Rolling Stones Am /g# I go right to the edge, I go right to the end C/g D7/f# I go right where all things lost are made good again
… while the root note appears to be rising (A-C-D-E), Blake pushes the bridge down by descending the bass in four firm steps, on each beat of the four measures, with his right thumb on the d string: a-g#-g-f#. Simple and classic (it’s the same four descending steps as “Stairway To Heaven”, for example), and irresistibly dynamic; simultaneously descending and ascending, after all.
The song, like almost all Rough & Rowdy Ways songs, has been a regular fixture on the setlist since the resumption of the Never Ending Tour, 2 November 2021 in Milwaukee. “I Contain Multitudes” is almost always the third song of the evening.
The musical accompaniment is just as anchored as the lyrics: small, not too drastic additions, small, hardly atmosphere-determining variations in the arrangement. In the studio the song is the only track on the album without drums or percussion; in the live debut on 2 November 2021, Charley Drayton may briefly pick up his sticks in both bridges and add some modest drumming on the toms. Six months later, when the tour resumes in March 2022, the drums have been silenced again, Tony Garnier still, as in the studio, plays his upright bass with a bow to draw those long, droning lines and the guitar still carries the performance. After the summer break, as Dylan resumes touring in Europe, his piano steps forward, pushing the guitar more into the background – only for a few weeks though, just until the finale in Dublin on 7 November 2022. And a bit of drumming is allowed again (even beyond the bridge, albeit very restrained – rustling cymbals here, a careful brush on the snare there).
Perhaps most consequential then is the revision introduced in 2023, after Dylan takes a five-month break, and then resumes his tour in Japan. Right from the first concert, Osaka 6 April, we hear that Dylan has done some thinking about a new arrangement, back home in Malibu. Bassist Garnier abandons the bow, plucking the strings, giving the song a compelling pulse and most importantly: new drummer Jerry Pentecost gets to join in. Pentecost drops in like a true rock drummer, after forty seconds (in the last line of the first verse, I fuss with my hair), with swelling bangs on the upright tom, and then switching to a steady, compelling beat – it’s gone rock.
Bob Dylan – I Contain Multitudes (live Osaka 6 Apr 2023):
Exciting enough, but two months later, for the summer tour of southern Europe, the master has yet again decided otherwise; Garnier has his bow back, the drum part, while still quite prominent, is halved compared to Japan, the piano keys dominate again.
Dylan seems to be a man of many moods.
Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold. His books, in English, Dutch and German, are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:
- Blood on the Tracks: Dylan’s Masterpiece in Blue
- Blonde On Blonde: Bob Dylan’s mercurial masterpiece
- Where Are You Tonight? Bob Dylan’s hushed-up classic from 1978
- Desolation Row: Bob Dylan’s poetic letter from 1965
- Basement Tapes: Bob Dylan’s Summer of 1967
- Mississippi: Bob Dylan’s midlife masterpiece
- Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits
- John Wesley Harding: Bob Dylan meets Kafka in Nashville
- Tombstone Blues b/w Jet Pilot: Dylan’s lookin’ for the fuse
- Street-Legal: Bob Dylan’s unpolished gem from 1978
- Bringing It All Back Home: Bob Dylan’s 2nd Big Bang
- Time Out Of Mind: The Rising of an Old Master
- Crossing The Rubicon: Dylan’s latter-day classic
- Nashville Skyline: Bob Dylan’s other type of music
- Nick Drake’s River Man: A very British Masterpiece
- I Contain Multitudes: Bob Dylan’s Account of the Long Strange Trip