Photo Credit: Fred Tanneau
Bob Dylan will turn eighty-years-old in 2021, but apparently he’s still trying to decide just exactly who he is. “I’m just like Anne Frank, like Indiana Jones // And them British bad boys, the Rolling Stones,” Dylan sings on “I Contain Multitudes”, the opening track of Rough and Rowdy Ways, his brilliant thirty-ninth studio album. In a single breath he compares himself to a young female historical figure best known for chronicling all that she saw and heard, a fictional character who exemplifies thrills and adventures, and the one band whom, for many, epitomizes rock and roll.
In this single song (which lyrically has more layers than many artists’ entire albums) Dylan also name-drops William Blake and Edgar Allen Poe. This isn’t too much of a stretch, since Dylan’s work has often been regarded as poetry first and music second. Although his ability to write a catchy song has never been in question (as is attested by “Mr. Tambourine Man”, “Lay Lady Lay” and “Tangled Up in Blue”, among many other classics), that’s clearly not Dylan’s concern here: most of the music on Rough and Rowdy Ways is there to mainly provide the clothesline on which the lyrics are hung.
This is not to suggest that the music is unimportant. Dylan continues to explore his longtime interest in twelve-bar blues on three key tracks, “False Profit”, “Goodbye Jimmy Reed” (which, as the title suggests, pays direct tribute to the blues pioneer) and “Crossing the Rubicon.” All three songs alter – and pick up the album’s pace at precisely the right moments. Minor-keyed “My Own Vision” hangs on the same four notes throughout but still might invoke “Ballad of a Thin Man” (while the title might be a nod to his “Visions of Johanna”).
In terms of other musicians who provide the session work on the album, Dylan clearly didn’t feel the need to recruit any sort of an all-star roster but nonetheless chose his friends well, as usual. This includes guitarist Charlie Sexton (an artist once seemingly poised for superstar status, which never quite materialized) and recently reclaimed ‘90s figure Fiona Apple, who plays classical-like piano on “Murder Most Foul”, the nearly seventeen-minute mini-opera about the 1963 Kennedy assassination and its infinite cultural aftermath (of which Dylan himself had been no small part).
Still, the hymn-like “Mother of Muses” is mostly just acoustic guitar, which of course is exactly the way Dylan began his career as the linchpin of the folk revival of the early ‘60s. As with every other track here, the lyrics taken alone are still both poignant and emotionally striking (“Mother of muses, sing for my heart // Sing of a love too soon to depart // Sing of the heroes who stood alone”). As much as the music tends to be secondary on the album, just reading the words by themselves on, say, Google, will never achieve the same (or the desired) effect. These are all songs on which we can perhaps say that while the importance of the lyrics and music are equal, the lyrics are just a bit more equal.
While Dylan’s influence on rock and folk are already immeasurable (Elvis Presley and the Beatles were just two major artists who took notable cues from Dylan’s work at some point), aspects of his career have also found him to be identified as a spiritual predecessor to punk and even hip hop (Rough and Rowdy Ways would make a great title for an album in either of those genres). For a younger music fan, this one would probably not be the best introduction to the artist. In fact, for just about anyone, the hour and ten minutes that comprise this album would probably take a bit of patience to listen to truly appreciate. But so does reading Charles Dickens, going through the Louvre in Paris or watching Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. In the end it’s worth it, because Bob Dylan at his best represents just that level of genius.