I Contain Multitudes part 20 (final): The elegance of Euler’s identity


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:

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.

Blake Mills plays Dylan’s I Contain Multitudes

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:




  1. “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:” That is a huge “seems obvious”. As we have just witnessed in the Farm Aid appearance, Dylan after all these years of improvising is the master able to credibly and reliably say to his musicians, whether well rehearsed and long time members of his band or complete unknowns, “trust me it’s okay if it goes off the rails, WE know how to climb back on.” I think Blake Mills is a great player, but to suggest that Blake Mills somehow made the songs what they are is ridiculous. Mill’s post facto preening is the kind of youthful folly that Dylan doesn’t need to address, but I’m sure “Additional Guitar” came from a vibe in the room. I was always convinced Disease of Conceit was addressed to that person in the room. Clinton, pardon me … Jochen! Don’t be that guy.

  2. Thanks Marsh,

    An intelligent comment is always welcome and appreciated. Nevertheless, I’m going to contradict you: that Dylan relies on the input of hired musicians for the musical design of his songs seems hardly debatable. After all, we’ve seen and heard this method of operation for some sixty years now.

    From Al Kooper’s organ on “Like A Rolling Stone” and Wayne Moss’s guitar part in “I Want You”, the Nashville Cats, Robbie Robertson, Leon Russell’s construction of “Watching The River Flow” and “Masterpiece”, Kevin Odegaard’s influence on “Tangled”, Scarlet Rivera’s violin and Mark Knopfler’s interference on Slow Train Coming, to Daniel Lanois’s interventions, David Kemper’s set-up of “Cold Irons Bound” and Charlie Sexton’s interpretation of “Goodbye Jimmy Reed”… I’d say we know more than a hundred examples of third-party contributions that define melody, character or colour of a Dylan song. Not only do we hear this, but it is well documented in interviews, witness accounts and reconstructions as well, not least by Dylan himself. “Dylan doesn’t tell you exactly what to play. He does expect you to play what needs to be played. That may seem the same, but it’s a world of difference,” as Blake Mills says.

    Nor do I share your opinion, that such a process of creation would be “ridiculous”. That the Truly Great have the reflex to allow such freedom to collaborators shows, I think, an admirable mental attitude: it’s all about the song. And I’m pretty sure Dylan considers himself only the song’s servant.

    In conclusion: I, for one, do not see it as a devaluation of Dylan’s greatness at all.

    With collegial greetings from Utrecht,

  3. Absolutely, from Kooper and Bloomfield to Garnier and beyond, Dylan’s collaborators are integral to his music. It is the relative weighting of the individual to the group with which I argue the designation “largely”. Dylan’s obfuscation of credit where credit to due is frustrating. He the individual is only forgiven by virtue of Dylan the construct. We are talking about the process of a band in a moment in a session in a studio. “He” disappeared onto the stage with purpose many neverending years ago. I would argue for him, what he sought was the magnificence of the act of playing. Spector conducted The Wrecking Crew. Crew. The Band. The creative act is too frequently, in this era defined by a hypertrophied individualism, described as the domain of property and the private when the making of music is fundamentally communal. Isn’t that what contemporary art’s use of Appropriation addressing? Dylan is in the thick of it. See Richard Prince. When players like Mills, supported by critics try to anatomize and dissect parts in the name of due credit, we can lose the grandeur of the construction. I admire your writing, I just caution certain socio economic drifts can obscure a magnificent view.

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