For a man approaching his eighties, Rough and Rowdy Ways is unbelievably sprightly and bursting with innovation. If this were to be the Nobel prizewinning songwriter’s farewell gift to the world (and it certainly shouldn’t be) then it would be an incredible and intriguing puzzle to be left with.
The bard’s long-awaited album, the first of new material in eight years, burgeons with a young man’s enthusiasm but an older gentleman’s wisdom and experience. The ten tracks produce an image of world-weariness and superiority with gusto, of a benevolent arrogance from someone unaccustomed to it, Dylan seeming like a town crier with bags of bravado; recounting his tales while issuing warnings to the young.
As with most of his material, the only familiarity is that Dylan continues to surprise and intrigue, with shades of past Dylan-isms apparent but arranged through a new kaleidoscopic genre. Mother of Muses has faint whiffs of the much bemoaned “Gospel” era Dylan coasted through in the 80’s, but is far more palatable in it’s reflective tone and worship of a beloved figure. Here, the choir-like ‘ooo’s which also appear elsewhere on the album, are sumptuously mournful in the least cliched way possible. This track, but especially I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You,have a wonderfully forlorn, love-song quality and could easily sit alongside Dylan’s other gems of this kind; a la Forever Young, It Ain’t Me Babe, Simple Twist of Fate, Make You Feel My Love. Besides the aforementioned character Dylan seems to employ on the new album, the track list is sewn together by an overall bluesy rhythm and guitars. This chugging sonic energy mixes into Dylan’s swagger with ease, making cuts like Crossing the Rubicon, Goodbye Jimmy Reed and False Prophet particularly memorable.
The poetic mastery Dylan has always had is ever present with opening track I Contain Multitudes, and continues with Black Rider, a contemplation of his age and mortality. Here, Dylan still approaches the Grim Reaper figure/Black Rider with bravery, practically assuming the dark hood himself, confessing to his impending fate with candour. This is even more evident with his brash, lyrical jibe at the Black Rider’s endowment; equally hilarious as it is clever. This song’s sparse instrumental accompaniment, a lone guitar resounding ominous, slow strums, fits beautifully and the same is true for the rest of the album as Dylan’s band predominantly give out those bluesy guitars and light snatches of the snare drum. Even more than this being a choice to complement the songs’ stripped back energy, this highlights Dylan’s vocal nuances.
The iconic troubadour’s voice appears to have reached a comfortable plateau, where it is at times clean in amongst its murky, cigarette infused broth while elsewhere Dylan has the gravelly bark of his later records, but which is exceptionally impressive upon the ears here. Even naysayers of his wizened voice should see the goodness of it on Rough and Rowdy Ways, as comforting and full of interest as a kindly grandfather’s recital of traditional songs.
Perhaps above all, the album’s strength lies in it’s power to enable the monolithic, 17-minute Murder Most Foul not to seem so monolithic. With the swaggering, omniscient attitude of the album, Murder Most Foul’s dramatic retelling of history through Dylan’s eyes is a powerful ending. However, the 17 minutes could perhaps have been 15, or even 10.
For a man approaching his 80’s, Rough and Rowdy Ways is unbelievably spritely and bursting with innovations. If this were to be the Nobel prize winning songwriter’s farewell gift to the world (and it certainly shouldn’t be) then it would be an incredible and intriguing puzzle to be left with.
Listen to the album here.