It’s strange to think that Bob Dylan is in the sixth decade of his career. Rough and Rowdy Ways is his 39th studio album and over the years he released countless albums in the Bootleg Series which, in a way, offered an alternative history to the music of Bob Dylan.
Still, 6 decades aside, many (and I am referring to casual observers) still remember the 1960s Bob Dylan, the “spokesman for a generation.” As erroneous as this is, it makes a statement of how “iconized” he was in the sixties to the extent that he became frozen in that era. Everything he did was compared to 60s Dylan and when he picked up an electric guitar he was booed off stage. This is the way his story is written by most but it is far from the truth. Dylan started playing electric guitar long before he was booed. He abandoned his 60s image of politically aware troubadour at least by album number 4 (Another Side of Bob Dylan in 1964) and most definitely by album number 5 (Bring it all Back Home in 1965).
People seemed to want him to be something he had outgrown. He defied every expectation, not necessary out of rebellion, more out of a changing perspective. Dylan always cited his heroes and expressed a vast knowledge of music and art. These were his teachers. When he changed, he never changed teachers rather he was learning new lessons from these old teachers. They gave him the ability to move on and sustain a sixty-year-old career.
With that said, what expectation does one have of a new Dylan album? Is it excitement? Is it worry? Do you ask yourself: “Is he going to mess it up?”
I am not sure. The best thing to do is shut up and listen to the music very carefully because this man has a tendency of making critics eat their words. My view is that the Bootleg Series helped clarify various stages of his career. It highlighted that he was/is ahead of his time and that he made a few missteps…not many if you ask me. The Bootleg Series allowed a reassessment of some of his most reviled work and proved many detractors wrong. Dylan does not look back hoping to create a replica of something he has already done. He expressed many times that even if he wanted to, he would not be able to repeat previous victories…at least not consciously.
Dylan’s ability to look way into the future could attribute to why he is still around and still relevant. Dylan was asked in an interview in recent years if he could still write songs like the younger Dylan did, his answer was a frank “no”. He added though, that he could now do “something else”. This “something else” is intriguing to me because, without a doubt, the young Dylan would not have been able to write albums like Modern Times ((2006), Love and Theft (2001) and even Rough and Rowdy Ways. Dylan’s latter works rely on a different ability, the confidence of an older man rather than a cockiness of a young man. The “older” Dylan is still learning but learning in a different way. He is aware of who he is and what his limitations are. The “older” Dylan is able to take those limitations and turn them into assets. This is on open display on Rough and Rowdy Ways. Dylan looks and sounds like the person he always wanted to be… a prudent old man. He knows his teachers are all around him, they have always been with him but he is learning different lessons from them (as mentioned earlier).
He is often accused of “stealing” and he never denies it…he attributes “borrowing” as part of the folk tradition. A simply analogy: Dylan will steal the fruit from your trees and then turn it into the sweetest jam. It may be your fruit but it’s definitely NOT your jam. Your fruit has been transformed into something better. Whether you agree or not, its undeniable that Dylan is his own genre. No one has a catalogue that has so much importance. This does not happen magically. It takes work and it takes knowledge.
Rough and Rowdy Ways displays this knowledge and highlights all the lessons he has learnt over time. This new album is a work of beauty.
A notable highlight for me is the glorious singing backed by a band who intuitively plays with their singer. I honestly believe Dylan does not breath when he is singing. I believe his singing is breathing. It is more natural and relaxed than it’s ever been and it serves the songs amazingly well. This is the strongpoint of Rough and Rowdy Ways… great songs performed supremely. As mentioned, the band surpass any of their previous efforts managing to raise Dylan’s voice and lyrics into a solemn realm. Its fucking beautiful!
Dylan is a practical guy, here is evidence of someone taking a limitation and turning it into an asset. Dylan proves to be a great singer… one of the best articulators. His phrasing allows you to hear every syllable and every emotion. There is no doubt in my mind that he learnt his lessons well from the “Frank Sinatra” albums (Dylan recorded three albums of songs made popular by Sinatra between 2015 and 2017). Dylan adopted a similar tact prior to making Time Out of Mind (1997), he recorded two albums of folk songs (Good as I Been to You (1992) and World Gone Wrong (1993). These two albums saw Dylan return to his “teachers” and get inspiration. Enough inspiration to revitalize his career and win a Grammy. Time Out of Mind was deemed a masterpiece and a “return to form.” It also won three Grammy Awards. Rough and Rowdy Ways (his first album of original songs since Tempest in 2012) sees Dylan armed with more lessons and showing off what he has learnt. He has found a suitable voice to deliver these songs…and he delivers them with poise. Many of them are delivered in a half-spoken/half-sung manner. I have no doubt he also took some lessons from Leonard Cohen’s last few albums. All these lessons and teachers aside, Dylan still does it his way…
The opening track, ‘I Contain Multitudes’ is like a slightly slower version of ‘Mississippi’ which appeared on Love and Theft. The lyrics of ‘I Contain Multitudes’, with its formal rhyme scheme, amuses and confounds in equal measure. It’s a great opening track for an album that unfolds with beauty and confidence. Dylan sings: “I fuss with my hair and I fight blood feuds/I contain multitudes.” This statement is so loaded and the distinct impression I get is that this music and words are not from this world. It’s from the mouth of a man who seems ancient and a man who is definitely his own universe.
The three 12 bar blues tracks on this album seem like something Dylan could write in his sleep. He really makes it sound effortless. That said, he somehow manages to revitalize it magnificently and make it sound fresh. This is true of ‘False Prophet’; ‘Goodbye Jimmy Reed’ and ‘Crossing the Rubicon’.
This music is in Dylan’s blood. All he has to do is cut himself and it will come flowing out.
This album is filled with songs that will be viewed as Dylan classics in the future. The first, ‘My Own Version of You’ is bizarre. It indicates a weird subversion of a murder ballad. Instead of killing someone he professes to be moving around collecting body parts in order to bring someone back to life…like a god creating someone from “spare parts”. Dylan sings: “All through the summers, into January/I’ve been visiting morgues and monasteries/looking for the necessary body parts/limbs, livers, hearts and brains/I’ll bring someone to life, is what I wanna do/I wanna create my own version of you”. How utterly absorbing and magnificently strange.
My favourite track on the album, ‘I’ve Made Up my Mind to Give Myself to You’, is filled with mesmerizing moments. The first is the gentle backing vocals…it creates a gospel feel. The second the most amazing lyrics: “I’m sittin’ on my terrace, lost in the stars/listening to the sound of sad guitars/been thinking it all over and I’ve thought it through/I’ve made up my mind to give myself to you”. The third is the vulnerability in Dylan’s voice, the genuine pleading in his voice. This vulnerability stands in stark contrast to Dylan’s “hate” songs like ‘Idiot Wind’ and ‘Positively Fourth Street’. It’s a total wonder to be able to hear him sing this song so tenderly.
‘Black Rider’ is another amazing track. Once again the lyrics intrigue, you are left wondering what world Dylan lives in or rather what world his characters inhabit. Just check out these opening lines: “Black rider, black rider, you’ve been living too hard/Been up all night, have to stay on your guard…Every step of the way, another stumbling block/The road that you’re on, same road that you know/just not the same as it was a minute ago”. Ultimately this is the effect music should create, a platform for cerebral activity and entertainment in equal measure. At least from my perspective. This album delivers on that and way more.
“Mother of Muses”, my second favourite track is probably the most intriguing on a vocal level. Dylan weaves his voice around the cryptic lyrics. The melodies are deeply entrenched in Dylan’s phrasing. How the hell does he do it? It’s beautiful. The song title references Mnemosyne who was the mother of the nine muses. In this song he also references Patton, Presley, Martin Luther King and a host of others. Here Dylan shows what a skilled lyricist he is as well as highlighting what a broad frame of reference he has. He lyrics flow smoothly but they are highly cryptic. This has always typified his writing but on this album it’s on another level. For further evidence of this check out the 17-minute-long ‘Murder Most Foul’.
‘Key West’ is the song with the best instrumentation. The instrumentation is reminiscent of some of the tracks on Together Through Life (2009). The accordion on ‘Key West’ is absolutely breathtaking. It sounds like one of his most fully realized songs. He uses the same vocal technique that he used on the Modern Times track “Workingman’s Blues”. Although there are no other similarities, its evidence that Dylan places a lot of emphasis on vocalization. It works wonders on this really amazing song. It also highlights the consistency of the album that is woven together beautifully by great singing and by a great band.
The album ends with the ‘Murder Most Foul’ that serves as a perfect outro to this album. Dylan seems to ooze confidence with every cryptic line he delivers. What is the song about? It’s about 17 minutes and it is filled with mystery. We don’t expect anything less from the master. Rough and Rowdy Ways is an album that can stand proudly next to Time Out of Mind (1997), Love and Theft (2001), Modern Times (2006) and Tempest (2012).
It is an album with a depth and mystery that will ensure its brilliance will unfold with each listen.
And in a new turn of events, Bob Dylan has become the oldest artist to reach number one in the UK charts with an album of new material.
Review: Captain Michael Erfort