Bob Dylan (photo by William Claxton, PR)
Rough And Rowdy Ways
His timing couldn’t be any better. To a backdrop of political turmoil and civil rights issues, compounded by a worldwide pandemic that has altered the lives of virtually the entire planet’s population, Bob Dylan has delivered his latest masterstroke—a 10-song double album called Rough and Rowdy Ways.
Rough and Rowdy Ways is Dylan’s first album of new, original material since 2012’s Tempest. It comes at an unusual point in his recording career, because it follows three consecutive covers albums focused on traditional pop standards: 2015’s Shadows In The Night, 2016’s Fallen Angels (both emphasizing songs recorded by Frank Sinatra) and 2017’s triple album, Triplicate. As longtime admirers know, Dylan is adept at keeping his fans off base and never allows his music to fall into any one comfort zone for too long; Rough and Rowdy Ways is a notable shift.
Dylan announced the album in an attention-grabbing fashion too. In late March, as the Covid-19 pandemic was forcing millions into lockdown, he released a nearly 17-minute opus as a single, “Murder Most Foul.” The song’s sudden appearance and epic length was surprising and it transfixed a captive audience that was stuck at home. Fans lit up social media discussing the meaning of "Murder Most Foul," citing its lyrics and even its unexpected arrival. As a result, “Murder Most Foul” jumped to No. 1 on the Billboard Rock Digital Song Sales chart, weirdly the first Dylan single to reach that top spot on any Billboard chart. Three weeks later, as the initial buzz quieted, he released another single, “I Contain Multitudes,” and three weeks later, followed with a third tease from the album, “False Prophet.”
On Rough and Rowdy Ways, Dylan draws on the vocal techniques he developed as he reimagined popular standards. He speak-sings in a husky croon that is gentle, hushed, and dusty. The restrained “I Contain Multitudes” again points to Dylan's standards work as an influence on his composing and arranging. He also name drops Edgar Allan Poe, Anne Frank, the Rolling Stones (“them British bad boys”), and even Indiana Jones. “I’m a man of contradictions, " Dylan sings. "I’m a man of many moods/I contain multitudes." Later he observes, “I sleep with life and death in the same bed.”
In the sinister and bluesy “False Prophet,” the song’s antagonist declares, “I’m first among equals/Second to none/Last of the best/You can bury the rest" and “I ain’t no false prophet/I just said what I said/I’m just here to bring vengeance on somebody’s head.”
Dylan’s blues flips to an uptempo, stomping mode on “Goodbye Jimmy Reed,” where we get to hear a bit of harmonica. He takes an eerily fantastical turn on “My Own Version Of You,” a tongue-in-cheek, dark tale told by a Dr. Frankenstein-like character, scrambling for the "necessary body parts" to "create my own version of you.”
Things are often pretty bleak on Rough and Rowdy Ways and mysterious characters, like “Black Rider,” lurk in the album’s long shadows. There is a little blood here and there and plenty of unnerving sounds emanating from the foggy darkness, but there are also moments of tranquillity, like in the gently strummed “Mother Of Muses.”
The most chilling and poignant moments come via the album’s final two songs, which encompass its final 26 minutes. “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” is about an aging man, not far from death, heading to Key West for one last hurrah. Finally, sitting by itself on the album’s second disc, is the aforementioned, “Murder Most Foul.” A somber elegy rooted in the killing of President John F. Kennedy, Dylan stretches out here like never before—it is the longest song of his career.
From the recurring nightmare of Kennedy’s assassination, Dylan’s words and images flow like surreal stream of consciousness, listing a litany of historic and pop culture references. Dylan namedrops throughout the song, but he always circles back to that fateful date of November 22, 1963.
There are many qualities that elevate Rough and Rowdy Ways to masterpiece status. One is Dylan's age: at 79, and a full 58 years after his debut album, he has discovered fresh territory, exploring it with lyrical heft and depth. In a career filled with iconic albums like Blood on the Tracks, Blonde On Blonde, and Oh Mercy, it’s mind-boggling that he remains every bit as provocative and compelling, and in these days of turbulent change, as relevant as ever, coming full circle to his start.