Bob Dylan: Rough and Rowdy Ways review – A menacing and playful return

Fri, Jun 19, 2020, 11:32

   
 

Album:
Rough and Rowdy Ways

Artist:
Bob Dylan

Label:
Columbia

Genre:
Singer / Songwriter

What could reasonably be expected of a 79-year-old Nobel laureate with 38 studio albums behind him, countless archive releases and a lifetime of touring, all while carrying the burden of being an icon? Bob Dylan has laboured long in the field – not, granted, without a grumble or three.

Dylan deserved the indulgence of paying sentimental tribute to the great American songbook over a three-album cycle that followed his last record of original material, 2012’s Tempest. Certainly, his sojourn in the spirit of Sinatra gave no hint that another landmark recording was on the way, songs worthy of comparison with, if not equal to, his best work. 

Rough and Rowdy Ways takes its title from a 1929 album by country legend Jimmie Rodgers, the first of innumerable telling and intriguing references to popular culture, literature and Roman/Greek history that dot the 10 tracks.

Three have already been released as singles to whet the appetite. I Contain Multitudes, False Prophet and Murder Most Foul (his first Billboard No 1 after 60 years) did that and more, particularly the last track’s 17-minute-long graphic account of the JFK assassination and its impact: “What’s up, Pussycat, What’d I say?/ I said the soul of a nation been torn away/ And it’s beginning to go into a slow decay/ And that it’s 36 hours past Judgment Day.” 

At Dylan’s age, it’s not surprising that the songs share a rearview perspective with a bleak view of the future: “I sleep with life and death in the same bed” (I Contain Multitudes);  “Three miles north of purgatory, one step from the great beyond” (Crossing the Rubicon). Words cascade from his croaking character-filled voice, delivered with withering relish: “Transparent woman in a transparent dress/ Suits you well I must confess” (Goodbye Jimmy Reed).

But a sense of gloom does not pervade. Dylan is on a roll, menacing, playful; woe betide those who get in his way.

The music matches the mood. Dominated by the gritty blues trio of False Prophet, Goodbye Jimmy Reed and Crossing the Rubicon, but balanced by the waltz-like I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You, his noirish nod to Frankenstein on My Own Version of You, and the ethereal Key West (Philosopher Pilot), the double album strides convincingly to the climax of the recitative Murder Most Foul.

Given Dylan’s history of obfuscation and calculated slipperiness regarding fact and fiction – Multitudes’ reference to Longford’s Ballinalee, for example, has fired up Dylanologists with competing theories – beware hearing every song as a truth revealed. What is not in doubt, however, is that the master is back on song.