By Tom Pyle
Bob Dylan knows when to pick his moments. As pestilence, fire, and discontent swirled around America, the venerated songwriter resurfaced with a 39th studio album to rival any of the previous thirty-eight. Hints that he was descending into an ether of nostalgia, after an eight-year hiatus from original material and a series of Sinatra cover albums, have been emphatically debunked by Rough and Rowdy Ways; an album that not only works, but has genuine contemporary relevance. It may not have the zeitgeist energy of Blonde on Blonde or Highway 61 Revisited, but Dylan’s latest offering is a swaggering trip through history, the literary classics, and the failings of western society, laden with a healthy dollop of tongue-in-cheek cynicism.
Those whose image of the 2016 Nobel Laureate remains that of the fresh-faced, sixties kid, ‘blowin’ in the wind’ may be shocked to hear me claim that Dylan’s most consistent and perceptive material has been produced in the last twenty-five years. With the release of Time Out of Mind in 1997, Dylan reinvented himself from an ageing rocker with deteriorating vocal chords, to a sharp and wizened commentator on society, a persona he successfully developed over a further three high-quality albums. Rough and Rowdy Ways edges above the other recent achievements primarily due to its striking Jekyll and Hyde nature, with half the album being Dylan at his barnstorming best, and the other deeply reflective. The washed-up figure that stumbled his way through the eighties and nineties is now officially a distant memory.
Lyrically, Rough and Rowdy Ways is Dylan at his most gloriously contemptuous. “What are you lookin’ at – there’s nothing to see” snarls the poet, clearly relishing his role as the anti-hero. For half the album, the 79-year old struts around threatening to “hack off your arm”, “make your wife a widow” and “break open your grapes”, even declaiming “I’m the last of the best, you can bury the rest”. He also deviously satirises Julius Caesar, Walt Whitman and, particularly notably, Victor Frankenstein in My Own Version of You, a macabre tune in which his protagonist rifles through morgues for “limbs and livers and brains and hearts”. Although straying into the absurd on several occasions, the album’s dark humour is astute and paints the image of a man genuinely enjoying himself as he cackles malevolently round his cauldron of blues.
Dylan’s vocal performance, noticeably ragged on 2012’s Tempest, is here strong and delicate. He doesn’t strain to emulate the ferocious rocking of his youth, as he has done dubiously in the past, instead embracing a softer approach that brings out the colour in his poetry in the album’s introspective half. Mother of Muses and Key West are moments that when this softer technique really works. Reining in his animalistic growls also gives more power to the moments when he does choose to let rip, such as False Prophet and the blues stomp Goodbye Jimmy Reed, where his voice is, at times, reminiscent of the great Howlin’ Wolf in its drawn-out savageness.
The album culminates with Murder Most Foul, a seventeen-minute meditation on the murder of JFK and its role in American history. This stand-alone tune, Dylan’s longest song to date, contains lyrics that initially appear prophetic in the light of recent events. “They mutilated his body, they piled on the pain”, “It’s vile and deceitful, it’s cruel and it’s mean” and “We’re gonna kill you with hatred, without any respect”, seem disturbingly foretelling of George Floyd’s chilling murder in May. A quick flick through Dylan’s back catalogue, however, shows that there is nothing prophetic about his new content. In 1963 he was singing about the Mississippi segregation riots in Oxford Town, in 1964 the murder of a black barmaid in The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll and in 1976, the false prosecution of black boxer Rubin Carter in Hurricane. Not so much prophetic as perpetual. Dylan’s lyrics are as relevant to racial injustice in 2020, as they were at the height of the civil rights movement.
“What are these dark days I see, in this world so badly bent”, muses the poet bleakly. The current global climate gives an unprecedented gravity to Dylan’s cheery reminders that the world is going to the dogs. But does the harbinger of doom suggest a glimmer of hope in his apocalyptic vision of modern society? Well, more so than any album since his so-called ‘born-again’ trilogy of the early eighties, Rough and Rowdy Ways contains a series of references to faith. “Shake me, free me from sin” follows “I prayed to the cross” in Mother of Muses and “If I had the wings of a snow-white dove, I’d preach the gospel”. Perhaps the most explicit is in Crossing the Rubicon, as Dylan sings “I feel the holy spirit inside, see the light that freedom gives, I believe it’s in the reach of every man who lives”. Whilst attempting to analyse Dylan’s lyrics is generally like fishing in a murky pond, these allusions are frequent and seem sincere, in a way that his typical Biblical imagery rarely does. These scattered rays of light stand out amongst the darkness of the album’s lyrics enough to make a listener sit up and take notice.
And so we reach the eternal question, will this be the final act of the Dylan saga? At a time when, apparently, only septuagenarians are “credible” American figureheads, he should be in his prime. Politics aside, with Dylan still performing 200 shows a year, on top poetic form and with more advanced recording equipment than ever before, there is no evidence that Rough and Rowdy Ways will be the curtain call. After all, critics have spent the last fifty years writing him off, and if there’s one thing that Bob Dylan relishes, it’s proving them wrong. As the old bard wryly sings: “I couldn’t believe after all these years, you didn’t know me better than that”.
Featured Image: Brett Jordan via Flickr Creative Commons