“Today and tomorrow and yesterday, too
The flowers are dying like all things do”
Thus begins Bob Dylan’s 39th studio album. His first of new material since 2012.
Bob is in a biblical mood on ‘Rough And Rowdy Ways’. He comes across like some kind of preacher. Each song an atmospheric sermon delivered over a melancholically minimalist sonic architecture. That minimalism is the main theme here, sonically. Many tunes eschew percussion completely, leaving a kind of softly strummed, string-drenched soundscape. Structurally, ‘Rough And Rowdy Ways’, seems to straddle two genres in the main: Blues and a kind of spiritual gospel, which fits perfectly the preacher/sermon comparisons.
Lyrically, this is a radically different album for Dylan. Where his past works wove an entirely original literary landscape (or universe) of fictional characters with roots in American folklore, ‘Rough And Rowdy Ways’ features real people and their literary creations. Gone are the Jokers, thieves and Sad Eyed Ladies Of The Lowlands. In their place you’ll find Anne Frank, Indiana Jones, JFK and all manner of other significant personalities from the last 60 years of Western culture. “I Contain Multitudes” is named for a line in Walt Whitman poem, for example.
Dylan of old was awash with metaphors and similes. Abstract imagery and far out concepts which Dylan absorbed from the worlds of art, music and literature. When he talked about “Ezra Pound & T.S. Eliot fighting in the captain’s tower” in “Desolation Row”, this was obviously used as a metaphor for the differences between their styles and for a young Bob Dylan to signal his literary love and knowledge. When he sings, on “Mother Of Muses”: “Sing of Sherman, Montgomery, and Scott/And of Zhukov, and Patton, and the battles they fought/who cleared the path for Presley to sing/who carved the path for Martin Luther King,” he really means, literally, to thank these generals and that Elvis and MLK couldn’t have done what they did without them. There’s no artifice or alternative interpretation. On ‘Rough And Rowdy Ways’, Bob says exactly what he means and means exactly what he says.
I don’t know if anyone would agree with this interpretation, but I get a feeling of encroaching mortality and tying up of loose ends from ‘Rough And Rowdy Ways’. It’s fair to say that Dylan is no spring chicken, and he’s not getting any younger, so I think it would be more surprising if he didn’t think about his own mortality. I already wrote, in my review of “Murder Most Foul”, that I thought Dylan was singing about things which had been occupying his thoughts for some time. I imagine when JFK was assassinated, Dylan thought to himself: ”I should write about that.” “Murder Most Foul” was, in my interpretation of the Dylan mythology, the old man finally achieving the ambitions of the young man.
This review has taken me longer than it should have because I have a had a hard time getting my thoughts in order about it, but in a display of serendipity, ‘Rough And Rowdy Ways’ made the news today, Friday 26th June, one week on from release. Today the BBC reported that Dylan has broken/set the record for oldest artist to have a number one album in the UK. This only a couple of short months on from Murder Most Foul becoming his first Billboard chart number one. We might all be having a rough year, but Bob Dylan seems to be having a great year. Career-wise. And where serendipity comes into this: if I had being able to write this review quicker, I would have missed this incredibly exciting news. <and if I had published it quicker you, dear reader, would have been reading this excellent piece from Tom in June! – Bill -Editor>
Written by Tom Ray.
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