Rough And Rowdy Ways
DOES BOB DYLAN HAVE a wizened Romani palm reader on call? His timing is uncanny. In the midst of a global pandemic, he’s released a new album – his first collection of new compositions in eight years. It’s not merely the novelty of new Bob songs that offers comfort in this black swan moment, it’s a set of songs that provides inspiration when it’s in short supply. Call it a vaccine against culture’s shrinking expectations and the subsequent sapping of spirit. or just call it great music.
The unifying theme for his 39th studio album is that Homo sapiens are a rough and rowdy species: self-destructive at our worst, wired for survival and transcendence at our best. In Mother of Muses he gives credit for creative spark to General George Patton, Elvis Presley and Martin Luther King as “heroes who stood alone”, while I Contain Multitudes is a solemn litany of our strengths and weaknesses: Anne Frank, Beethoven and William Blake; bling, blood feuds, and “British bad boys, The Rolling Stones.”
Tinged with Dylan’s wry wit, loping blues-rocker False Prophet can be heard as virtue signalling from a braggart in the midst of an attempted seduction. Or perhaps responses from a man who’s been endlessly labelled by those attached to pedestals and finite definition. Key West (Philosopher Pirate) begins as paean to the southernmost tip of Florida, but turns into a bizarre tale worthy of Tennessee Williams.
My Own Version Of You is a wishful recreation of another person by the protagonist, implying the projection we employ when we have expectations for others. Or, at its most literal, it might be Dylan’s variation on Bride Of Frankenstein. These beguiling layers are the stuff of endless debate – Dylan fans have revelled in them since he first blew in the wind. What are these songs ultimately about? About six to nine minutes.
Likewise, the gorgeous I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You is, on the surface, a surrender-to-love ballad framed with tremulous, understated background “oohs”. But when Dylan sings, “If I had the wings of a snow white dove/I’d preach the gospel/The gospel of love,” it’s possible the object of affection may be no mere mortal. Either way, the vulnerable lead vocal is a refutation of the myth that he can no longer nail pure melody.
The 17-minute elegy and album closer Murder Most Foul was first streamed in March – the initial indication that there was a new album. Here Dylan’s immersed in the Kennedy assassination (another black swan event), laying out the details of a royal murder that’s presented as the terrible results of a power grab. It rivals Shakespeare for grisly description and adds intimations from conspiracy theories, all layered over a stately arrangement. Then in the last seven minutes, he sings dozens of names of music and film icons, song and movie titles and cultural touchstones, all pointing to the artist’s role in providing redemption in the process of enduring tragedy. It’s one of Dylan’s most powerful statements in a long career full of them.
In his memoir Chronicles: Volume One, Dylan wrote of his close study of the Civil War: “If you turned the light towards it, you could see the full complexity of human nature.” The same can be said of Rough And Rowdy Ways; “I can see the history of the whole human race,” he sings in My Own Version Of You. For all the men and women of noble accomplishment that get namechecked, he also cites criminals and adversaries.
As I Contain Multitudes reminds us, Dylan is “a man of contradictions/a man of many moods.” But then, contradiction has always lived comfortably in Bob Dylan’s work – more evidence of the vast scope of his artistic vision. What’s extraordinary is how it continues to expand, containing multitudes no one else thought of.