There were two long-awaited music releases this past week. One by the legendary Bob Dylan and the other by Australian singer songwriter Ian Paulin. And while they are physically a world apart, Dylan in Hibbing, Minnesota and Paulin in Hobart, Tasmania, their influence across music and protest movements over decades is shared. And the release of these new songs, similarly haunting, challenging, and comforting, at this moment is no coincidence.
Bob Dylan’s first original song in eight years ‘Murder Most Foul’ reminds us writes Nick Cave, “All is not lost, as the song itself becomes a lifeline thrown into our current predicament”. Cave’s post amongst the current avalanche of would-be-inspirational blogs, podcasts and the like would perhaps be lost was it not for the combination of the poignancy of Dylan’s song and the emotional force of Cave’s review.
The epic seventeen minute orchestral lament - only Dylan could get away with that today - over the assassination of John F Kennedy and the following decades of psychological and cultural aftershocks says Cave is “comforting, especially at this moment”. (Nick Cave, The Red Hand Files, April 2020)
And it is a moment of utmost global political and social turmoil.
Bob Dylan's first release in eight years, 'Murder Most Foul' Photo: Bob Dylan
“It is though it has travelled a great distance, through stretches of time, full of an earned integrity and stature that soothes in the way of a lullaby, a chant, or a prayer … a perplexing but beautiful song”.
“Whirling around the incident, Dylan weaves a litany of loved things – music mostly - that reach into the darkness, in deliverance. As the song unfolds he throws down lifeline after lifeline, insistent and mantra like, and we are lifted momentarily, free of the event. Dylan’s relentless cascade of song references points to our potential as human beings to create beautiful things, even in the face of our own malevolence.”
Asked whether this was perhaps Dylan’s swan song, Cave responded, “I certainly hope not. But perhaps there is some wisdom in treating all songs, or for that matter, all experiences, with a certain care and reverence, as if encountering these things for the last time. I say this not just in the light of the novel coronavirus, rather that it is an eloquent way to live one’s life and to appreciate the here and now, by savouring it as if it was for the last time. To have a drink with a friend sif it were the last time. To eat with your family as it were the last time, to read to your child as if it were the last time, or indeed, to sit in the kitchen listening to the new Bob Dylan song as if it were the last time. It permeates all that we do with greater meaning, placing us within the present, our uncertain future, temporarily arrested.”
Nick Cave Photo: The Guardian
Cave sagely ends his post with ‘I Do Not Speak’ by English poet Stevie Smith.
I Do Not Speak
I do not ask for mercy for understanding for peace
And in these heavy days I do not ask for release
I do not ask that suffering shall cease
I do not pray for God to let me die
To give an ear attentive to my cry To pause in his marching and not hurry by
I do not ask for anything I do not speak
I do not question and I do not seek
I used to in the day when I was weak
Now I am strong and lapped in sorrow
As in a coat of magic mail and borrow
For Time today and care not for tomorrow
Poet Stevie Smith Photo: Paris Review
There are it seems in moments like this, few songs being written, released and performed that bring true meaning to our lives, so desperately needed by so many at this time. And importantly, that wrestle our attention.
Ian Paulin’s new album, 'Neecha Creechas', is every bit as attention grabbing, ambitious and moving as Dylan’s latest release.
Paulin too has earned over a long career his status as one of Australia’s greatest folk artists. His music has been the soundtrack of environmental, social and political protest in this country and beyond since 1970 and came to prominence in the historic fight to save the Franklin Dam in the early 1980’s.
The ‘History of Australian Music’ says of Paulin, "(His) work has brought him to share the road with the homeless, at risk and marginalised people, heroes and fools, the best and the worst of souls. He’s campaigned for peace, sung to save the wilderness and searched for any way to share a road with any who need. Activist, environmentalist and campaigner for justice and the release of people from poverty. Fun, passionate, yet clear and relevant whether poetry or prose, live performance or through his recordings, something actually happens.”
Singer songwriter, Ian Paulin Photo: ABC
The parallel with Dylan‘a release - and with Cave's latest album ‘Ghosteen’ - would stop there perhaps, was it not for the modern-day relevance and deeply, poetic beauty found in Paulin’s songs.
Paulin’s first track, ‘Dragon Scales’ and later ‘Streets of Spain’ are reminiscent of Cave’s gravelly opening Ghosteen track ‘Spinning Song’ with the repetition of the soulful lyrics “And I love you” and “Peace will come in time”, and Dylan’s ‘Murder Most Foul’ circular iconographic narrative. In this vein, Paulin’s soaring title track extolling us to find the will and rise up follows, leading us in turn to the gentle, biblical allegory found in ‘Magdelene’.
In ‘Shore Drop’ Paulin returns to his thoroughly acoustic roots with this lilting lullaby, tracing the human experience of suffering loss, and the resilience of love.
Ian Paulin’s new album, ‘Neecha Creechas’ Photo: Ian Paulin
Ian Paulin in concert, Hobart Photo: Andrew McIlroy
In a similar way, the redemptive, soulful lyrics of ‘Touch’ are Paulin at his best. In this track Paulin’s grasp of classical and modern philosophy is evident, without falling into didacticism – perhaps a trap in the hands of less able songwriters of this oeuvre.
The album finishes with the anthem track ‘Walk with me for Farrokh’, a plea for equality of opportunity for and a journeying with displaced peoples.
In the end, these albums carry us along to a better place. They are albums that intelligently as a whole weave a single uplifting narrative of the triumph of hope over fear, life over loss, and love over hate. These songs too make us listen and react, helping us to make sense of our lives at times of great stress and challenge. We can recognise our own voices in these songs; repeating in the search of some comfort those phrases that too easily can slip from mind.
We owe much for these songs, and to their authors who deserve their exalted place in our music and social protest tradition.
Bob Dylan Photo: Rolling Stone
To listen to Bob Dylan’s new release, ‘Murder Most Foul’, click here
To preview or download Ian Paulin’s new album, ‘Neecha Creechas’, click here
To read Nick Cave’s blog, The Red Hand Files, click here
Andrew McIlroy is a visual artist and arts writer, living and working in Melbourne, Australia