Music Reviews
Rough and Rowdy Ways

Bob Dylan Rough and Rowdy Ways

(Columbia) Rating - 9/10

Contained within Bob Dylan's fictional chronicle, Rough & Rowdy Ways lie stories and observations of cultural history and human nature. And yet, the 79-year-old veteran doesn't like to explain things or stick to one idea for too long. He enjoys to chop up references like minced garlic, leaving listeners puzzled and awed by his humanist, roundabout tales—and they usually always land where they should. But for all that he leaves unsolved, Dylan is equally generous with all the knowledge that he shares. It hasn't always been like this. Since 2012's Tempest, he's stuck to covering popular songs and jazz standards without ever really hinting that he'd get back to writing original material. That album's final words were meant for the late John Lennon ("Let him sleep"), though it felt like they could apply to him too—as if he didn't want to be bothered and was content with going through the motions.

At the same time, Dylan is the kind of trickster that can fast outnumber anyone. And trick us we did, since Rough and Rowdy Ways is the ambitious opus we didn't think he'd return to after close to a decade of elegantly phoning it in. I Container Multitudes is one of the softest and most sentimental openers of his career, where he acknowledges his contradictions over beachy steel guitar and patient chord progressions. Surprisingly, there are dozens of references tucked into such a simple sentiment, from Cadillacs and The Rolling Stones to William Blake, but what makes the biggest impression is when he speaks directly about himself: "I contain multitudes." Sure, it doesn't take long for him to get back into the blues. And False Prophet takes us to well-worn territory with its standard blues progression, directly lifted from Sun Records artist Billy "The Kid" Emerson's 1954 track If Lovin' is Believing, but his homage-within-a-homage isn't surprising considering he's been he's been a vocal champion of Memphis blues for many years.

Dylan is deeply indebted to classic rhythm and blues throughout, and he pulls it off without a sweat with his Never Ending Tour bandmates by his side, but it's the ballads that impress. I've Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You is one of the exquisite love songs he's ever written since Love & Theft highlight Mississippi, albeit less mischievous and more direct, where he commits fully to his faith as he thinks about his mortality. Be that as it may, hearing Dylan mutter the words I'll lay down beside you when everyone's gone over its slow shuffle is why romantic dances exist. On the epic narrative Mother of Muses, he's more meditative and poetic as he throws in some self-referential quips, delivered as an acoustic lullaby: "Forge my identity from the inside out/you know what I'm talking about." Even after all these years, his sleight-of-hand wordplay keeps us guessing.

Despite returning to likeminded songwriting sensibilities, it's surprising to hear how Dylan's rumbling croak has turned into a deeper whiskey baritone. There's a dusky sternness to his voice which accentuates the stark minimalism of songs like Black Rider, personifying the equivalent of Max von Sydow playing chess with the Grim Reaper as he sings over a tempo that sounds like a slowed-down Spanish bolero: "If there ever was a time, then let it be now/let me go through, open the door." And on My Own Version of You, he does that thing where he repeats an intoxicating, slightly off-kilter groove as while cranking out a plethora of stream-of-consciousness references—singing in a noir-ish tone as he examines what it is to be Bob Dylan. For someone who's voice earned him much ridicule for sounding gruff, yet sincere, as if he's never sung in an affected tone (actually, he has!), his chainsmoking has finally caught up with him and is doing him quite the favor.

And then there's Murder Most Foul, a song so knowingly powerful that he astutely puts the track by itself in a second disc on a double CD. Rich with vivid detail, Dylan takes us back into the day of JFK's assassination as a jumping-off point to describe a moment in time that may rear its ugly head again. Or is it already? Like some strange prophecy, Dylan articulates how that event paralyzed the nation and, in many ways, changed the course of US politics for good. But through all its pop references, he also wants to tell us that music and culture have also been integral to shaping current events. He's not telling us what is and isn't right; if anything, he's giving us the tools to act upon it and to reevaluate history.

Curiously, it also runs parallel to Dylan's career, and how he looks back at how the landscape has changed since then. Sixty-plus years later, he's still very much in the conversation. And as it is with his most defining works, Rough and Rowdy Ways will have us trying to decipher and untangle Dylan's thoughts for sixty more to come. But the one thing he wants to make clear above all else, even when contemplating his mortality and the transcience of life, is that he's far from writing his obituary. [Believe the Hype]