Bob Dylan – Rough and Rowdy Ways
Americana | Folk
What can you say about Bob Dylan that hasn’t already been said a thousand times before, and put a thousand times more eloquently? He’s one of the few people whom you could honestly claim has influenced the course of popular music more than anyone else in history. He’s long been canonised as the greatest living songwriter, attested to by the fact that he became the first musician to ever be awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. The voice of a generation for those who felt that their voice wasn’t being heard. His lyrics are as gospel, his words touching the hearts and minds of millions, and inspiring countless artists to follow in his footsteps.
With a legacy such as his no one would begrudge Dylan fading away without making any more big statements when he’s already said so much. Indeed until now that very much seemed to be the case; he’s now on the cusp of 80 and most of his musical output from the past decade has consisted of covers. And yet, out of the blue, he offers up Rough and Rowdy Ways for our consideration. To compare any record to Dylan’s heyday (even one from the man himself) is tantamount to sacrilege, but it’s hard to escape the fact that it’s his best body of work in decades.
Dylan is true to his word with opening track ‘I Contain Multitudes’, as this record shows many different artistic facets. Be it the sleazy blues of ‘False Prophet’ that sees him delivering his lines with a cocky swagger, the twirling romantic balladry of ‘I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You’, or the moody Spanish inflection on ‘Black Rider’. The old-school roadhouse blues of ‘Goodbye Jimmy Reed’ or the macabre Frankenstein love story that is ‘My Own Version of You’ evoking a Nick Cave murder ballad. Even Dylan’s much maligned vocals feel as though they’ve aged like a fine whisky on this release. The right side of gruff, and assured enough to stand on their own in the record’s quieter moments.
While the album makes for a stunning late-career high water mark, that’s not to say it’s without faults. It’s a long record with a few tracks guilty of being longer than they really need to be, which at times does leave you longing for a bit more variation in the arrangements to compensate. ‘Crossing the Rubicon’ and ‘Key West (Philosopher Pirate)’ are by far the worst offenders in this regard and get ever so close to outstaying their welcome.
One area unsurprisingly beyond reproach however is the lyricism. Dylan’s word’s are dripping with wisdom in every track. These are the ruminations of a man who’s well read, well traveled, and whose well of knowledge is as broad as it is deep. Likely the best example is the record’s gargantuan 17 minute closing track ‘Murder Most Foul’ which reflects on the assassination of JFK. As a deep dive into an impactful event which is laced in allegory it is highly reminiscent of ‘American Pie’, yet in the latter half it also spools though a string of cultural touchstones that can chart back a line of influence in a way that reminds me of ‘We Didn’t Start The Fire’. You could write a whole dissertation just from dissecting this one track. In fact you’d likely be worthy of a prize just for a literary analysis of this record, never mind actually writing it. While perhaps it’s not a “capital c classic“, it’s still a remarkable record. It show that Dylan still has something to say, and when he speaks from the heart you owe it to yourself to listen.