“The work of a literary and musical genius at the peak of his powers”
WORDS BY ROBBIE DADOMO-EDGINGTON
Bob Dylan’s 39th (yes, thirty-ninth!) studio album Rough and Rowdy Ways marks his first album of original material in 8 years, since 2012’s Tempest. Obviously, his first album this decade, marking the seventh consecutive decade in which he has released an album. The album was preceded by a few singles earlier this year, the first of which was March’s Murder Most Foul, a nearly 17 minute track that covers the Kennedy assassination and just about every cultural touchstone during Dylan’s lengthy career, from The Beatles to A Nightmare on Elm Street. At first these references may seem rather general and merely representative of various moments in time, but they also have extra layers of significance to Dylan. Of course Dylan was not only contemporaries but friends with The Beatles, particularly George Harrison, with whom he collaborated in the early 70s, and A Nightmare on Elm Street stars Ronee Blakley, who was part of Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue in the mid-70s, and played Mrs. Dylan in his (pretty much) unreleased film Renaldo and Clara. This incredibly dense and fascinating song seemingly came out of nowhere and was a balm in the early days of lockdown and isolation, connecting us to disparate and wide-reaching strands of pop culture and history. This song it turns out, with its many layers of significance and touchstones, is the perfect crystallisation of Dylan’s new album.
With Rough and Rowdy Ways, Dylan is back in top form, writing songs that only someone of his age and experience could, chock full of references spanning his seven decades of song writing and even before. The opening track, I Contain Multitudes is a slow and contemplative number that unsurprisingly is full of references from Edgar Allan Poe, to Anne Frank, Indiana Jones, William Blake, and Mott the Hoople. Such a track is a perfect opening for Rough and Rowdy Ways, an album which itself contains multitudes, lyrically weaving diverse aspects of history and culture into a unified tapestry. It also sets the tone for the more self-referential lyrics that pervade the album: “I’m a man of contradictions, I’m a man of many moods/I contain multitudes”.
False Prophet comes next, a blues rock track with a confident swagger, reminiscent of Dylan’s 2006 album Modern Times. The juxtaposition of downbeat and upbeat tracks runs throughout the album, preventing things from becoming too one-note or sentimental, just as Dylan contrasts his witty rhymes and references with more earnest and introspective moments to create a fuller portrait of the man of multitudes. Speaking of multitudes, the next track My Own Version of You, is Dylan’s very own version of Frankenstein, where he takes disparate elements to stitch together an imagined version of a person. Here the self-referential angle continues, as this is the very approach that he has taken to the song writing on this album, taking disparate elements from all levels of culture and history and forging them into his own new creation.
I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself Up to You recalls Dylan’s (incredibly underrated) gospel years, with its hushed soothing backing vocals, and lyrics which conflate romantic love with a contemplation of Dylan’s spiritual life and relationship with God. This spiritual thread continues throughout the rest of the album, with Black Rider, a sparse yet incredibly cinematic and haunting song, which wouldn’t sound out of place ushering in the credits at the end of a melancholy western, with a call to “let all of your earthly thoughts be prayer”. Before things get too sombre, in comes Goodbye Jimmy Reed, arguably the most rocking track on the album, featuring a harmonica, which when you hear it for the first time, you can hardly believe it’s taken six songs for him to get one out, but after all it’s Bob Dylan, ever unpredictable and always with a trick up his sleeve.
Following the most upbeat track is the most sombre, Mother of Muses, which sticks to the formula of cultural touchstones, but ends up with eerie explorations of the late stages of life. Ever since 2016, any time a musical legend references their own mortality it’s hard not to feel a little nervous. Lines like “Wake me, shake me, free me from sin/Make me invisible like the wind” are a beautiful yet haunting take on the afterlife, at once expressing a desire to be free of worldly worries, but also to become one with one with the world and a part of everything. “I’ve already outlived my life by far” is an incredibly interesting statement, as on the one hand it seems to be referring to the notion of outstaying one’s welcome, that his time is up, but on the other hand, it speaks to his great achievements as an artist, having made more of an impression on the world than ought to be possible within one lifetime. Here Dylan seems to be at peace with his legacy and his life, and as sad and inevitable as his mortality is, he offers a comforting approach with Mother of Muses.
The final three songs on the album are the longest, in ascending order, but never outstay their welcome. Crossing the Rubicon is a cool 7 minute jam with Dylan riffing on Julius Caesar’s crossing the Rubicon, but more generally the notion of passing the point of no return: “I turned the key, I broke it off/And I crossed the Rubicon”. Quite what Dylan is referring to remains elusive, but there is a great deal to explore within the song, and plenty more to speculate on. Is the Mona of “Mona, baby, are you still on my mind?” the island of Mona (now Anglesey) that Caesar was the first to write about during the Gallic Wars? Or could it be a reference to Vision of Johanna’s “Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues/You can tell by the way she smiles”, one of the songs he played acoustically the night a British audience member called him Judas for going electric? Or could it be the Mona of Stuck Inside of Mobile: “Mona tried to tell me/To stay away from the train line”? Or even the earlier Ramona from Another Side of Bob Dylan’s To Ramona: “Ramona/Come closer/Shut softly your watery eyes”? Could it be another musing on mortality? It’s impossible to tell what the true meaning is, so I’ll leave it to the Reddit conspiracy theorists and speculators, but it’s a lot of fun to explore the possibilities, and because it’s Dylan, the possibilities feel endless.
Key West (Philosopher Pirate) is not only a great title but a great track, in which Dylan seems to compare the road down to Key West with the journey of life, name checking fallen forbears of literature and rock and roll: “Like Ginsberg, Corso and Kerouac/Like Louis and Jimmy and Buddy and all the rest” as he passes them by. The Key West of the song could very well be a stand-in for heaven, however lines like “Key West is a paradise divine” seem just a little bit too obvious and neat for someone so synonymous with ambiguity and multiple meanings. Key West is certainly the end destination of the journey, but there’s no telling quite what it will be once you get there. Dylan also touches upon his relationship to Judaism, framing it like a mutual breakup: “That’s my story, but not where it ends/She’s still cute, and we’re still friends”. In keeping with the running theme of multitudes, Dylan touches on a few more theologies: “I played Gumbo Limbo spirituals/I know all the Hindu rituals”, perhaps suggesting that the journey through life can have many different stops and routes, but the destination is the same.
Finally, we come to the epic Murder Most Foul, which closes the album as perfectly as I Contain Multitudes opened it. The song is as fresh and as mesmerising as when it was unexpectedly released in March, and makes the most of its title as Bob Dylan’s longest song, clocking in at 16:56, beating Highlands at 16:31 and Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands at a measly 11:22. You could write an entire book analysing Murder Most Foul, and if you do, please send me a copy, I’d love to read it. I won’t be the one to write that book however, I’ll simply sing its praises. Murder Most Foul is pure poetry, a song which captures pretty much everything there is to love about Bob Dylan, and it caps off an album that confirms that he’s still got it, and he never lost it.
It almost feels ridiculous to praise Bob Dylan’s genius. The man has a Noble Prize for Literature, and I’ve only got a BA, so you don’t need me to tell you that his new album is the work of a literary and musical genius at the peak of the powers. I won’t even try to place it in a ranking of his seemingly endless catalogue, but let it be said that Rough and Rowdy Ways is an album that should be heard sooner rather than later.