When Bob Dylan released “Murder Most Foul” as a single in April, he called it “an unreleased song we recorded a while back that you might find interesting” -- which sounded as if it was something he’d had in the can a while and had decided to release for the heck of it. I bought it as a high-resolution single, and I wasn’t alone. The song was Bob Dylan’s first No.1 on Billboard’s singles chart.
But when, in subsequent weeks, two more Dylan singles appeared -- “I Contain Multitudes” and “False Prophet” -- it was no surprise to learn that he’d recorded an entire new album. Not counting some Bootleg Series releases, Rough and Rowdy Ways is his 39th studio album, and it’s clear that this 79-year-old is thinking about age and history. To some extent, those subjects have coursed through his albums since Time Out of Mind, released in 1997, when he was a mere 56. Rough and Rowdy Ways is about Dylan’s own passage through time, but also about the transformations of history and culture that he’s seen and been a part of.
“Today, tomorrow, and yesterday, too / The flowers are dyin’ like all things do,” Dylan sings in “I Contain Multitudes” -- the title, which is also the song’s refrain, comes from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” Singing almost conversationally, Dylan invokes in one verse Anne Frank, Indiana Jones, and the Rolling Stones -- and, just before that, nods to David Bowie: “Oh, while I cannot frolic with all the young dudes / I contain multitudes.” Along the way he references various influences on his work, from William Blake and Poe to rockabilly singers.
The album’s other eight tracks are effectively bookended by “I Contain Multitudes” and “Murder Most Foul,” the latter’s 17 minutes comprising the only track on disc 2. The two songs have similar chord patterns, but “Murder Most Foul” is darker, using John F. Kennedy’s assassination as a starting point for a rumination on the impact of myth on history and culture.
Like all Dylan lyrics, “Murder Most Foul” will be picked over and analyzed for a long time. The reality of Kennedy’s assassination seems less important to him than that event’s resonances -- the art, music, and historical events Dylan mentions were and are all parts of the culture of that era and of eras since. While the song’s long list of musicians, actors, films, and songs offer reassurance and hope, Dylan reminds us of the conflicted histories of even cherished boomer memories:
I’m goin’ to Woodstock, it’s the Aquarian Age
Then I’ll go over to Altamont and sit near the stage
As he always has, here Dylan occasionally bases a new song on those of others. For “My Wife’s Home Town,” from Together Through Life (2009), he borrowed Willie Dixon’s “I Just Want to Make Love to You.” Here he builds “False Prophet” on the foundation of “If Lovin’ Is Believing,” by blues singer Billy “The Kid” Emerson, and in “My Own Version of You” channels a bit of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’s “I Put a Spell on You.” Any number of old blues tunes helped form “Goodbye Jimmy Reed,” a tribute to the great blues singer. Dylan uses these to help tell his own stories about fame, image, creativity, and mortality.
“Crossing the Rubicon” uses a down’n’dirty John Lee Hooker approach for a long tale of making peace with the results of life decisions made long ago. It’s harder to point to any direct influence on “Black Rider,” in which a few simple chords, delicately played, are used as backdrop for a portrait of death, but the song is all the more effective for its easy-flowing arrangement. Also calmly presented is the lovely “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You” -- Dylan’s singing here is tender and wise.
Some of the musicians on Rough and Rowdy Ways -- guitarist Charlie Sexton, steel guitarist and violinist Donnie Herron, and bassist Tony Garnier -- have been with Dylan’s touring band for well over a decade. Others, such as guitarists Bob Britt and drummer Matt Chamberlain, are more recent additions, and there are a few guests, such as Fiona Apple and Benmont Tench. Each shows a clear understanding of what Dylan needs in the album’s varied settings. The sound, engineered and mixed by Chris Shaw and mastered by Greg Calbi, has a wide dynamic range, and captures the instruments and Dylan’s voice in great detail.
Dylan’s last three releases -- the five CDs of Shadows in the Night (2015), Fallen Angels (2016), and Triplicate (2017) -- were filled with his takes on the Great American Songbook. It was easy to think of them as comprising a final statement, a summing-up reaffirming a particular slice of American musical history and, by extension, his own place in that tradition. Which makes the appearance of Rough and Rowdy Ways all the more unexpected and welcome. While these songs are sometimes inscrutable -- I’m not sure I know half of what “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” is about -- it’s worth trying to get to the bottom of Dylan’s puzzles as he tackles creativity and influence, personal and generational history, and much more.
. . . Joseph Taylor