Release Date: June 19, 2020
Track Listing: I Contain Multitudes; False Prophet; My Own Version of You; I've Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You; Black Rider; Goodbye Jimmy Reed; Mother of Muses; Crossing the Rubicon; Key West (Philosopher Pirate); Murder Most Foul
Rough and Rowdy Ways came out after a not unusual period of Bob Dylan not releasing original material. Instead, we got three albums of the American Songbook in the "Sinatra" cycle of albums, culminating with the 2017 three disc set Triplicate. The single "Murder Most Foul" was released March 27, 2020, as the world entered into lockdown and uncertainty during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic. A few months later, Rough and Rowdy Ways was released to great acclaim.
At this point in Dylan's career anything new is like a gift. In saying that, I find Rough and Rowdy Ways to be derivative of his later cycle of albums from a musical standpoint, but there a plethora of inspired moments of measured brilliance.
"I Contain Multitudes" is a playful opener with Dylan satirizing his own persona, placing himself where I suspect he prefers on among American arcana fast cars and fast food. After the deep middle age malaise expressed on "Things Have Changed" from the late '90s, Dylan appears content with his cultural status along the likes of Edgar Allan Poe and Indiana Jones.
The bluesy "False Prophet" captures some of the swagger of "Pledging My Time" from Blonde on Blonde, but musically more in the vein of the 2009 album Together Through Life. The song captures Dylan's fascination with vengeful figures who are fond of poetry, thinking "The Judge" from Cormac McCarthy's novel Blood Meridian.
"My Own Version of You" is lyrically and thematically the most exuberant on the album. Riffing on Mary Shelley's immortal tale Frankenstein, Dylan uses the literary concept to ruminate on world history. It's all there the hubris and idealism of the creator, pondering what's come before to understand the desire to create, the obsession with living and time passing. Impressive lyrically and musically.
"I've Made Up Mind to Give Myself to You" sounds like Dylan writing something for an aging Sinatra. Its minimal arrangement sounds like an echo of "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" many decades later tempered with a seasoned romanticism. The lackluster "Black Rider" could be seen as Dylan conversing with a mirror image of himself, not too far off from "Man with a Long Black Coat," another morally ambiguous figure from the netherworld.
The rollicking "Goodbye Jimmy Reed" suits the record like a well-worn baseball glove. Not a dour nostalgia piece, but nostalgia in the best sense of the term: taking solace and energy from what's come before.
"Mother of Muses" is a drowsy reflection on the past blended with mythological imagery, a hymn of sorts. Dylan's singsong lullaby vocal creates a mood, but it does stop the album in its tracks after the rocking "Jimmy Reed."
Julius Caesar must occupy a place in Dylan's conscience, the Roman empire builder who wrote his own story and created his own myth. Shakespeare wrote a play about him, although he's a minor figure in it. A labored track on Dylan's late period obsession with old world values of justice.
"Key West (Philosopher Pirate) is arguably the best track, a musing on the latter days expressing a pan- spirituality. Some of the cultural references may be too on the nose, but why quibble? Feels autobiographical. Accordion adds a mystical underpinning.
"Murder Most Foul" took everyone by surprise, a reconstruction and reflection on the John F. Kennedy assassination in the Homeric tradition. Overloaded with cultural references, everything about the song has a long in the tooth feel as it unfolds. Marking the JFK assassination as the watershed of American history is part of boomer mythology, an idea Stephen King wisely unraveled in his novel 11/22/63 (Don Delillo's Libra is also great) Not a catchy tune by any means, I'll mark it as a curio in Dylan's voluminous catalog.
The "Comin' Home Late" feel on Rough and Rowdy Ways gets to be a bit heady at times. It's akin to a late period Kurosawa film or watching an aging Nolan Ryan labor through a masterful shutout on a September afternoon. There's an impenetrable quality to it, at the same time a worldview one will unlikely find anywhere else (or maybe everywhere?).
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