I deliberately let this one simmer for a while. As a more casual listener of Bob Dylan, I felt giving Rough and Rowdy Ways more time to sink in was the right thing to do. Dylan’s 39th studio album, his first with original songs since Tempest from September 2012, appeared yesterday on Columbia Records.
To be very clear upfront, I’m not trying to compete with clever music critics, so if you’re hoping for any sort of interpretation what the maestro’s lyrics mean and to what extent they are autobiographical, you can probably stop reading here. Frankly, I’m not sure anyone on the planet can fully figure out the man – I certainly can’t and won’t pretend I can!
When Dylan released the album’s first single Murder Most Foul in late March, I didn’t quite know how to feel about it. Clocking in at just under 17 minutes, my first thought was it’s massive. I also wondered whether we really needed yet another account about the murder of JFK, one of the most widely covered stories – not to mention all the crazy conspiracy theories around it!
Of course, I fully realize Dylan’s timing in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t look like coincidence and points to a broader meaning. But we’re getting into interpretation, which is exactly what I said at the outset I didn’t want to do!
Weirdly, the more often I listen to Murder Most Foul, the better I like it. To some extent perhaps it’s simply getting more used it. Another factor could be that Dylan without any doubt in my mind is one of the most significant contemporary music artists, so I kind of feel a bit reluctant to “dismiss” it outright. I mean who am I after all to judge him!
The next single was the record’s opener I Contain Multitudes, which came out in mid-April. While I didn’t exactly jump up and down, I felt that tune was easier to process. But it really did take the May 8 release of the third single, False Prophet, to get my full attention. I can’t deny the fact it probably helped that the track is a blues, one of my favorite music genres. Plus, at that time it also became clear we weren’t just looking at a series of one-off singles but a forthcoming new Dylan album.
Generally speaking, when it comes to songs, I primarily pay attention to the music and the vocals, viewing great lyrics more like nice icing on the cake. Otherwise, how could I possibly explain that I love songs with lyrics like I want to hold your hand; she loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah; or love, love me do, you know I love you! Nothing wrong with silly love songs, but that’s what they are: Silly, at least from a lyrical perspective!
So how about the remaining tracks on Rough and Rowdy Ways? Well, let’s get to some of them!
Here’s My Own Version of You. A lyrical excerpt: All through the summers, into January/I’ve been visiting morgues and monasteries/Looking for the necessary body parts/Limbs and livers and brains and hearts/I’ll bring someone to life, is what I wanna do/I wanna create my own version of you…cheerful stuff! Somehow as I’m reading this, I’m picturing the video of Tom Petty’s Mary Jane’s Last Dance.
Next up: Black Rider, a quiet ballad. Is it about death? No idea! But a cheerful tune it certainly is not. Black rider, black rider, all dressed in black/ I’m walking away, you try to make me look back/ My heart is at rest, I’d like to keep it that way/ I don’t wanna fight, at least not today/ Go home to your wife, stop visiting mine/ One of these days I’ll forget to be kind. As Max from PowerPop and I were joking earlier today, one would hope these lyrics aren’t autobiographical!
Crossing the Rubicon is another blues-oriented track. I kind of like the slow burning groove of that tune. And, yes, you guessed it, there are more cheerful lyrics here: …I feel the bones beneath my skin and they’re tremblin’ with rage/I’ll make your wife a widow – you’ll never see old age/Show me one good man in sight that the sun shines down upon/I pawned my watch and I paid my debts and I crossed the Rubicon…Jeez, don’t mess with Bob!
The last track I’d like to call out is Key West (Philosopher Pirate). I think this is actually becoming one of my favorite songs on the album. I find Dylan’s singing here strangely pretty in spite of his less than opera quality vocals and the lyrics:…I was born on the wrong side of the railroad track/Like Ginsberg, Corsi and Kerouac/Like Louis and Jimmy and Buddy and all the rest/Well, it might not be the thing to do/But I’m sticking with you through and through/Down in the flatlands, way down in Key West…
In addition to Dylan (vocals, guitar), who is also listed as producer, Rough and Rowdy Ways features Bob Britt (guitar), Matt Chamberlain (drums), Tony Garnier (bass), Donnie Herron (steel guitar, violin, accordion) and Charlie Sexton (guitar). These musicians make up the band that has been backing Dylan on his Never Ending Tour, which is currently on hold due to the coronavirus. Additional musicians/guests, among others, include Fiona Apple (vocals) and Benmont Tench, founding member, keyboarder and vocalist of Tom Petty’s former band The Heartbreakers.
I thought I give the final word to Dylan, so naively went to his website to see whether there is any statement there. Since that would have been the obvious thing, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that my search came up empty. Instead, one of the first things you see is a news item titled Bob Dylan remains an immeasurable and inimitable force, a review by The Line of Best Fit, which by its own description is “the UK’s biggest independent website devoted to new music.”
Sources: Wikipedia; Bob Dylan website; The Line of Best Fit; YouTube