“I am the enemy of the unlived, meaningless life”
– Bob Dylan, “False Prophet”
Of late, the generosity of spirit that has long inhabited Bob Dylan’s music has been manifesting itself via sessions devoted to other people’s words and ideas or in more namedrops per song than you hear this side of hip-hop. It feels almost kindly, after more than a fair share of stern glares and southpaw stances.
Marking his first album of original songs since 2012, Rough and Rowdy Ways finds Bob Dylan and his band working at full power–blunt yet enigmatic lyrics swimming at the surface of positively stirring and hypnotic soundscapes. As he has been wont to do for so long now, Dylan again teaches us history lessons, as though he is looking back at us over his shoulder from the future.
In 2012, Dylan released Tempest, and it’s difficult to recall any record of his that carried more outward-facing rage. The ferocity in his voice and in his words there was and is almost overwhelming; “Pay In Blood” still sends chills up my spine, as I cower from my speakers whenever it plays. Even ostensibly gentler things like “Soon After Midnight” and “Long and Wasted Years” are laced with vengeful threats; “Scarlet Town” and “Tin Angel” are haunting narratives too, Dylan delivering every word from a gritty tongue dripping with poison. Phew!
Well, then what?
Dylan took his band around the world a lot; his alternate universe of a Bootleg Series continued to pump out black gold; and then in 2015, Shadows in the Night; in 2016 Fallen Angels; and in 2017, a triple LP called Triplicate.
When you speak with other fans about this three-year album arc, it’s known as “the Sinatra stuff”—Dylan spending three (no, five) records singing songs that Frank Sinatra sang or might have sang in a certain way and making them his own. These “old songs” are truly, perhaps even sadly, timeless—tales of crisscrossed hearts and minds, of human nature at its most romantic, righteous, and charming. Foul at times, too.
After roaring through much of Tempest with menace (there are more than a few lyrical flourishes on that 2012 album that anticipated America’s post-Obama calamity but man, I am leaving that alone for now), Dylan spent three new records crooning like only he can.
His is one of the most original voices we’ve ever heard. The songs he chooses to sing activate his muscles, physically and emotionally, and based on their sentiment and structure, he gives them all a custom job. Coupled with his band’s unsettling, cool new musical amalgam (it might be “rock” or “blues” but I think it’s essentially “jazz,” in that way that jazz tends to absorb every sound that is very good and then wrings it out into something we can’t quite place but, as mentioned, is generally very good), some of these “standards” sounded altogether new once Dylan reinterpreted them to the max.
I mention all of this because, to my ear, it can’t help but inform Rough and Rowdy Ways.
Here, Dylan’s voice is impassioned, hard, tuneful, and just a rich, emotive instrument–the way he phrases “Nobody ever told me/It’s just something I knew” on “I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself to You,” which, unusually of late, features tasteful, male backing vocals, or “I ain’t no false prophet/I just know what I know” on the edgier rocker, “False Prophet” tells us a lot about his state of mind.
Tough, certain, fragile, vulnerable—such confident lines feel like tricky revelations discovered after an honest self-assessment.
If it seems like there’s a lot of this reflection going on, it might be because “I Contain Multitudes” leads the record off, as a seemingly autobiographical tone-setter. Musically, it feels sombre and rubbery, gentle strings and pedal steel supporting Dylan’s close-to-the-mic vocal, in which he alludes to things like “All the Young Dudes,” and says that he’s “just like Anne Frank, like Indiana Jones / and those British bad boys, the Rolling Stones.”
It’s maybe a little jarring to hear this flurry of names representing very dissimilar people, cuddling together, but it also serves to prove the song’s central point, while paying tribute to some who may well be a part of Dylan’s creative make-up.
On the horror-noir “My Own Version of You,” Dylan becomes Dr. Frankenstein: “I’ll take the Scarface Pacino, and the Godfather Brando / mix it up in a tank / and get a robot commando.” This musical highlight features more name checks (i.e. Leon Russell, Liberace, Freud, Karl or possibly Groucho Marx) and is playfully macabre, as though Dylan is stroking his old Vincent Price moustache the whole time, while quoting Shakespeare and Jagger/Richards.
A Nick Cave fan, Dylan sort of channels him on “Black Rider,” with sparse music complementing a dark song about a mysterious figure that’s a nemesis and earns all sorts of foreboding bile. “Black rider, black rider / Hold it right there / The size of your cock will get you nowhere.” It’s almost a vocational feud, full of medieval imagery and, in spite of its forlorn delivery, is really wild.
There’s another kind of kingdom on “Goodbye Jimmy Reed,” a loose homage to the blues guitarist and “old time religion,” which, in its “Love and Theft”-style barn-burning blues, complete with some increasingly rare-on-a-record harmonica from Dylan, feels custom made for the live show.
“Mother of Muses” is aesthetically a cross between a contemporary ballad and Dylan’s latest “Sinatra records,” where the music is rich and substantive but knows its role, as a foundation in service of Dylan’s powerful narrative voice. He sings especially clearly, with humility and something of a pleading tone—for a soldier’s absolution (the Civil War is invoked, for the extremely formative American thing that it was) but perhaps even for further inspiration (it’s right in the name of the song, really).
A particularly telling passage here, in the grand scheme of this record, finds Dylan citing historical figures like various military heroes by name, and then Elvis Presley and Martin Luther King, all of whose efforts he summarizes by stating that they “did what they did / and they went on their way / Man, I could tell their stories all day.” There’s mortality, memory, and essential work rolled into these words, which provide a window into Dylan’s philosophical sense of self and how towering figures in history are so easily made to lay down.
Man, Charlie Sexton is something else. Dylan’s longtime guitarist has a lot of space to play with on Rough and Rowdy Ways, which feels like it has less of Dylan’s keys on it than records he’s made since 2001’s “Love and Theft” and tours that immediately followed its 9/11 release (he seemed to semi-permanently switch to piano and keys when he began paying tribute to Warren Zevon’s music at shows in 2002, after the singer announced he was terminally ill and before he died in 2003).
This is germane because “Crossing the Rubicon” is anchored by an insistent guitar riff and off-kilter stomping, which is a sort of surreal arrangement choice for Dylan’s rather meditative song, based on a metaphor and lore about Julius Caesar, whose name is mentioned more than once on this record. “Oh lord,” Dylan says at one point, deliberately off-mic, like it’s a faux secret–something he actually wants us to hear.
“Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” has an almost ambient vibe, a sturdy guitar riff that comes and goes, while accordion floats by, like the E Street Band is taking it a bit easy in a three or four AM daze. Dylan sings of Key West, like it’s some kind of miraculous mirage that he eyes with equal parts desire and suspicion.
At one point, he tenderly describes himself standing there, booing. It’s purgatory or maybe it’s hell, where you can catch “bleeding heart disease,” and “stay to the left and then you lean to the right” and when you’re 12 years-old, you’re made to “marry a prostitute.”
On “Key West,” something is happening, but you don’t know what it is. Could all be about the falseness of Florida—a promised land for older ways of thinking, sung about with all the even ease of someone inviting you to your first cult meeting.
The first inkling we got about this new album was the standalone release of the single, “Murder Most Foul,” a near 17-minute song detailing the way in which baby boomers lost and somewhat partially recovered their innocence after John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas; how nobody ever believed any explanations about how and why it happened; how the rawest possible footage of the incident was released, and has been running on a loop in our blown up psyches ever since (“Ugliest thing you ever have seen,” Dylan says plainly, like a guy on his stoop, just shooting the breeze, telling us about an unreal horror that has become nothing more than an acceptable anecdote).
“Murder Most Foul” features a litany of cultural figures, products, and incidents, all of which seem to frame the before and after of an American president getting brained in a car and his fellow citizens having to process that. Dylan might say he doesn’t really know why he might be citing the Eagles and Oscar Peterson and Fleetwood Mac and Houdini and Lady Macbeth in this song, all the while taking us back to the Kennedy assassination and its technicolour sequence of events and cast of characters. They’re connected somehow in “Murder Most Foul,” and reflect a good chunk of America. His particular America, before and since he’s been “Bob Dylan,” is neatly accounted for and summed up. The song contains multitudes.
“I am the enemy of the unlived, meaningless life,” Dylan sings, lashing out on “False Prophet,” which is another kind of point he makes throughout the album; Dylan cites so many historical figures, locations, and axioms here, it’s like he’s shining a flashlight into the darkness of the past to show us something we should probably have a look at.
“Hello Mary Lou / Hello Miss Pearl,” he sings, just shouting out some old proto-rockabilly songs (by Ricky Nelson and the Ronnie Hayward Trio, respectively), for what? So we go searching for them ourselves maybe; a Dylan song can be a pretty great scavenger hunt.
For us, Dylan is a vibrant and vibrating artistic force; for some others, Dylan is and has long been a relic from the past. Imagine being a relic from the past who lives in and makes things in the now. How does it feel? Well here, Dylan seems to identify the most with those figures and stories that have been relegated to history by time and the dictates of fashion and short attention spans.
History, lives lived—they have a lot more to teach us about the present than we might want to admit without detachment and irony protecting us from the feelings. Rough and Rowdy Ways is overflowing with feelings. The sentiments and the language are either plain as day or else shadowy and weird but, in its reflection of his own lives and times, it’s all truly beguiling, forward thinking, and some of the best work in Bob Dylan’s catalogue. He is taking stock of himself; it’s telling how much of him is still speaking to the world about us. – VISH KHANNA
Ep. #27: Greil Marcus