Bob Dylan has always been a student of America. An artist almost uniquely tuned in to the emotional spasms of the land that bore him, the country’s endlessly distinct landscapes – from highways to open plains – combine to forge the palette that drives his finest work.
New album ‘Rough And Rowdy Ways’ - his first in almost a decade, and 39th overall – will justifiably rank alongside some of those peaks, a record of savage wisdom, dark mystery, and endless suggestion, a 70 minute journey through cut-throat rhythm and blues that infuriates and inspires, forever refusing to be hemmed back or pinned down.
Reprising the torn-backwards-through-a-cactus-patch delivery that has bedecked the bulk of his work since 1997’s artistic reset ‘Time Out Of Mind’, the record is a patchwork of blues styles, essentially riding the real life Highway 61 that connects the Mississippi Delta area to Chicago. Produced once more by Jack Frost – a pseudonym for Dylan himself – it’s a bold listen, one in which ugliness and beauty are reflected with unerring clarity.
Opener ‘I Contain Multitudes’ springs forward from its Whitman-esque title, the delicate flurries of acoustic guitar notes under-pinning that simple, half-spoken delivery. Lyrically, Dylan leaps delicately from reference to reference, painting an alluring mosaic that moves from Anne Frank to The Rolling Stones via Indiana Jones in mere seconds – as he puts it, “I’m a man of contradictions / I’m a man of many moods...”
Perhaps the softest setting on the album, it’s a song that presents puzzle after puzzle – indeed, within days of its release, ‘I Contain Multitudes’ had already sparked ferocious debate over which ancient Irish poet it might be referencing.
That said, you don’t need a PhD in Dylanology to absorb the full emotional range of ‘Rough And Rowdy Ways’. An album as stark as the twilight hour jukebox scenes on its cover, it arrives with libidinous thirst and murderous rage. Following three albums of American standards, leaning particularly on Frank Sinatra, it sounds like a man unleashed, fuelled by blood-curdling Chicago blues, worthy of Junior Wells or Muddy Waters – you could even throw in his old Newport cohorts the Butterfield Blues Band.
‘Black Rider’ is ringed with a near Biblical sense of foreboding, while ‘Goodbye Jimmy Reed’ is shadowed by the legacy of the blues great himself; as Dylan puts it, “I can’t sing a song I don’t understand...” ‘Crossing The Rubicon’ finds Dylan absorbing himself in outlaw mythos, a song where the violence of the music is met by lyrical homicide. “I’ll make your wife a widow / You’ll never see middle age” he sings, twirling his six-gun in the process.
Remember, Dylan has got form here - he named an entire album after John Wesley Hardin(g), before taking a star turn in Sam Peckinpah’s ruthlessly revisionist Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid.
The deeply strange ‘My Own Version’ offers up a kind of artistic Dr Frankenstein, with the narrator piecing himself together from corpses, moving from Homer’s Iliad to Bo Diddley. Hell, even Martin Scorcese – who directed acclaimed Dylan doc No Direction Home – gets a mention.
‘I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You’ marks a break from the thunderstorm blues, affording Dylan space to channel a fondness for doo-wop, and other pre-60s pop styles brushed aside by the British Invasion. ‘False Prophet’ meanwhile, it all stabbing guitar lines and frenzied drums, as sharp as a razor blade working with the accuracy of a microscope. Little wonder, then, Dylan feels able to boast: “You girls mean business / And I do too...”
It’s easy to understate the vitality on display here, but ‘Rough And Rowdy Ways’ feels like the work of a much younger artist. Don’t forget: Dylan is now 79 years old, and while this is his first original album in eight years, he’s also released three LPs in that time delving into the American Songbook, while also picking up the Nobel Prize For Literature in 2016. And that’s before we touch on his touring commitments – the man is a force of nature, the lyrical equivalent to any of the Old Testament allusions he is so fond of dipping into.
The record ends with ‘Murder Most Foul’, the song Dylan chose to introduce the entire project with. A dense 17 minute song, it twins the assassination of JFK with a musical palette that feels pre-Second World War, all torn violins, brushed cymbals, and ageless daubs of piano.
In a recent New York Times piece he denies any thoughts of improvisation, and while this may well be yet more Dylan trickery repeated listens unveil hidden formulas, with the shocking randomness of its first-hearing settling into verbal worm-holes, nipping and tucking together eras, decades, and generations.
A stark work ‘Rough & Rowdy Ways’ arrives with remarkable timing. A record shadowed by death and fuelled by rage, it’s the work of someone who says he sleeps “with life and death in the same bed...” An artist haunted by the prospect of his passing while still facing down new challenges, Bob Dylan remains above all else a student of America.
Words: Robin Murray
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