Rough and Rowdy Ways (June 19, 2020; Columbia Records) is Bob Dylan’s 39th studio album, his first album of original songs since Tempest eight years ago, and counts among his best.
Dylan is now 79 years old and, perhaps inevitably, for some years has been writing songs that reflect on his own mortality, but with this album he seems to go a step further. When he released the epic 17-minute Murder Most Foul in late March 2020, its timing, length and breadth caught many by surprise, but in some ways it harks back to a key moment in his life and provides a context for the whole album. US President John F Kennedy was assassinated on 22 November 1963, when Dylan was 22 and just as he was starting to make a name for himself (The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan was released on 27 May 1963), and the event would have profoundly marked him, as it did for America, and the world as a whole. Dylan uses this key moment as a point of departure to name-check around 80 cultural icons and touchstones as he looks back over a rich, and varied life, full of ‘rough and rowdy’ events and people.
In pre-releasing the epic Murder Most Foul, Dylan also seemed to be painting a backdrop for the songs and themes to come, which range through bitterness, rebellion, love, death, vanity, loss and promiscuity. ‘Step right up, you can find it all here’, he seems to be saying. But he also seems to be suggesting that despite the chaos and the tragedy, through art, and particularly music, solace can be found.
Dylan’s snarl is as biting as ever as he draws on a familiar blend of folk, raw blues, and rock music. Presumably Dylan relied on his trusty customized Gibson SJ-200 or one of his vintage Martins to accompany the acoustic numbers, for example on I Contain Multitudes, which kicks off the album. “I’m a man of contradictions, I’m a man of many moods, I contain multitudes,” he sings, as he namechecks people as disparate as Anne Frank, the Rolling Stones, “Beethoven's sonatas, and Chopin's preludes.”
The stormingly atmospheric southern blues track, False Prophet, was the third pre-release, and perhaps wryly references the time when he himself was viewed as a prophet and, dare I say it, ‘the voice of a generation’ by many. The humour is more explicit in My Own Version Of You, which is a Frankenstein fantasy in which the monster is assembled from ‘necessary’ body parts. “I’m gonna make you play the piano like Leon Russell, like Liberace, like St. John the Apostle,” he growls.
In contrast to the more humourous cuts are songs like Black Rider, where he again contemplates meeting the Grim Reaper: “Tell me when, tell me how,” he sings, “if there ever was a time then let it be now; let me go through, open the door, my soul is distressed, my mind is at war” or Mother of Muses, where he plainly states: “I’ve already outlived my life by far.”
Tucked among these songs are the ominous Crossing the Rubicon, in which he threatens to “cut you up with a crooked knife, Lord, and I’ll miss you when you’re gone,” and the outstanding accordion-driven Key West (Philosopher Pirate) about a grizzly old man heading off to Florida at the end of his life. “Key West is fine and fair, if you lost your mind, you’ll find it there,” he intones wistfully.
The ‘man of multitudes’ huge number of references on Rough and Rowdy Ways will be enough to keep Dylanologists happily searching the dusty corners of the internet for years to come, but the album will also be a great pleasure for those who simply wish to sit back and listen to the master at work. “I can see the history of the whole human race,” he sings on My Own Version Of You, and with a little imagination, you’ll believe he can.