Bob Dylan's new album "Rough and Rowdy Ways"
by Ryne Clarke
The Ryne Experience
Bob Dylan is back and bolder than ever. Now, the two responses you'd hear to this are "Back? I didn't know he disappeared" or "I thought that guy was dead." He's not, nor has Dylan really disappeared. While 2020's "Rough and Rowdy Ways" is Dylan's first album of original material since 2012's "Tempest," there have been a few releases in between. 2015's "Shadows In The Night," 2016's "Fallen Angels," and 2017's "Triplicate," all featured big bands with strings and horns as Dylan covered songs from his childhood and songs by Frank Sinatra. While I love Frank Sinatra and Bob Dylan, never would I have really wanted to hear Dylan do Sinatra, mainly because Dylan (especially now) is a strong songwriter and an okay singer, whereas Sinatra sings his soul out on others' tracks. So it's safe to say with his new album, Dylan is back, more sincere than ever and doing what he does best: writing songs that still run deep with current times as well as offering space for the listener to connect to the tunes.
The lead-off track was the album's second single, released back in April, "I Contain Multitudes," a fitting title for a 79-year-old songwriter who just released his 39th studio album. In this track Dylan compares himself to Anne Frank, Indiana Jones and the Rolling Stones. He's said in many interviews that the lyrics on this album are meant to be taken literally with no metaphors, a former staple of his early hits. Dylan's band for this album is a familiar one, with the same folks he's worked with the past 20 plus years: Charlie Sexton, guitar; Bob Britt, guitar; Donnie Herron, steel guitar, violin and accordion; Tony Garnier, bass and Matt Chamberlain, drums. "Rough and Rowdy Ways" also sees some collaborations from Fiona Apple, producer Blake Mills, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench and session musician Alan Pasqua.
Track two out of 10 on this 70 minute album is the third single, "False Prophet," released in May. A foot-romping blues tune with Dylan proclaiming himself as anything but a false prophet. Even by the second song in, I'm reminded of some of Dylan's pivotal albums "Highway 61 Revisited," "Blonde on Blonde" and "Blood on the Tracks." I feel this point is further proved with some blues songs and the last three songs, which are all lengthy, slow ballads touching on some serious topics.
Track three is "My Own Version of You." On this track we hear some of the darker side of Dylan, musically and lyrically, with lines like "blood from a cactus" and "I say to the willow tree, 'don't wait for me'" and music in a chromatic fall and ascent... just to drop back down again. We also hear references to the bible, Leon Russell, Bo Diddley and Shakespeare. It seems apparent that "Rough and Rowdy Ways" is chock full of references to the past and world history.
"I've Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You" is the next track, a swaying crooner of a love song with Dylan's crackling voice cutting through the music to still have you think of that special someone. Light drums and vocals flesh out the track. Heavy lines like "my heart's like a river, a river that sings, it takes me a while to realize things" hit home on a slower track like this.
"Black Rider" follows as a Spanish-style ballad about a night rider. "Goodbye Jimmy Reed" is another self explanatory track about the 1940s blues musician. "Mother of Muses" is next, a shift from the last track's upbeat blues feel to another slow ballad, a bit less complex lyrics as well.
Entering the last three songs on the album we get a seven minute song, a nine minute song, and a 16 minute song. First off is "Crossing the Rubicon." This track is a slower blues tune word playing on the popular phrase "past the point of no return," or in this case Julius Caesar's crossing the Rubicon river in 49 BC, precipitating the Roman Civil War. This song is mainly talking about the "risky" things Dylan has done or will do.
"Key West (Philosopher Pirate)" is next, and it's about where Dylan has been living, seeming as though Dylan himself is the philosopher pirate of where he lives. It's hard to say exactly what this means, but the swaying guitars and accordion make this a pretty track. Reading recent interviews surrounding this album, it appears Dylan has been staying healthy and active, so I think it's safe to say this won't be a goodbye album from one of America's best.
And finally, the first single released for "Rough and Rowdy Ways," "Murder Most Foul", released back in March. This is perhaps the most straightforward song, a 16-minute ballad about the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy. I have to admit that this seems like an odd way to end the album, but someone who lived through this historical tragedy during their musical career is bound to still be shaken to this day from an event that happened almost 50 years ago.
All and all, I'm left with a warm feeling upon finishing the album. I do find the album to be a bit front-loaded, with the stronger tunes ruling the first half and some slower tunes on the second half. Regardless, I'm sure this will be a Bob Dylan album to revisit time to time for a postmodern perspective from arguably the best songwriter of all time. Not all that rough or that rowdy.
Final score: 8/10
Favorite track: "I've Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You"
The Ryne Experience's latest LP "Funky Town" is available from underthecountertapes.bandcamp.com, ryneshyne.club or theryneexperience.bandcamp.com.