As Bob Dylan releases his 39th studio album, Getintothis’ Matthew Loughlin-Day immerses himself in a Grand Canyon of talent.
In many ways, reviewing a new Bob Dylan album is as futile as passing opinion on the Grand Canyon; both exist outside of any cultural bandwidths and a thumbs up or thumbs down from a mere observer makes no difference to their existence, vitality or brilliance.
Even if circumstances around them change – it’s a misty day and you can’t see the canyon, or the album in question is Down in the Groove – that doesn’t matter, the essence of each is the same.
What Plato would call their Forms, their abstract, perfect, unchanging core concepts that transcend time and space, remain unaltered. Mist or not, it’s still the Grand Canyon; even if the album in question is a load of crap, it’s still a Dylan album.
By 2020, there can be very little said about Dylan that hasn’t already been said, in innumerable different ways and one can’t help but think that even if there was something new to be said, it wouldn’t matter anyhow.
Surely by now he has been elevated to the arena of Gershwin, Shakespeare and Picasso – so woven into the time-space and collective consciousness of recent centuries as to be inseparable from “good or bad”.
Hamlet, Summertime and Guernica have and will continue to long outlive their creators, just as A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall and Blowin’ in the Wind will outlive Bobby Zimmerman.
They have entered the ether of consciousness in the same vein that ‘trad.’ songs such as Amazing Grace or Stagger Lee have; it feels like they have always existed, like the big bang spat them out at the point of all creation.
So in a bizarre way, this writer, given the task of reviewing Rough and Rowdy Ways, Dylan’s first album of original songs since 2012’s blazing Tempest, would be doing you reader a disservice by simply reviewing it (although spoiler alert: it is excellent).
To write such a grand, hyperbolic (arguably hyperbollocks) intro and then to simply state “it’s good, I award it a B+” feels a bit.. cheap. Linking back to the opening sentiments, it feels like giving the Great Wall of China or Victoria Falls a 4/5 on TripAdvisor – what the hell does that even mean?
So what is a poor critic to do?
I could write about the brilliant musicality on show here – and there is plenty of it, of that make no doubt, and Dylan‘s delve into the Great American Songbook has done wonders for his voice. Or this review could pick apart individual songs or lines as many a Dylanologist has done over the years – and again, there is plenty to unpick here.
But that misses the point; it leaves us unable to see the wood for the trees, the body of work for its individual components.
Rather, this is an album best appreciated (at first, at least) by letting it wash over you. We can unpack the dense imagery another time and work out the chords later, for now, let’s just soak it in and see what rises back to the surface.
On first listen, it is apparent that as an album of originals, Rough and Rowdy Ways fits right in with Dylan’s output since his renaissance that was spearheaded by 1997’s magnificent Time Out of Mind in that it is a gumbo pot of the good, the bad and the ugly of 20th and 21st century American culture.
Chicago Blues romps mix with jazz chords and “olde time religion” whilst figures that inherit the collective subconscious shimmer in the half-light, before slinking away again, back into the swamp of half-remembered dreams.
The songs are peppered with non sequiturs, seemingly random quips or images that follow no logical pattern but somehow, together make sense.
In I Contain Multitudes for instance, Dylan compares himself to Indiana Jones and Anne Frank, promises to play Beethoven‘s sonatas, and Chopin’s preludes, explains “I’m here to bring vengeance on somebody’s head” and simultaneously declares that half of his soul belongs to someone else.
Why? We’re not offered a full explanation, other than “I’m a man of contradictions, I’m a man of many moods… I contain multitudes”. Fair enough.
On this note, in many ways, thematically, Rough and Rowdy Ways can be likened to an aural version of a James Joyce novel. Stepping into it is like entering a dream-like world in which Martin Luther King sits alongside Charlie Patton, Marilyn Monroe and “those bad British boys, the Rolling Stones“. Stan Getz plays while children are told not to worry because “The Beatles are coming and they’re gonna hold your hand”.
Empires rise and fall, ferries cross the Mersey, nations come and go – all of human life is in here (and in the case of My Own Version of You, even then the boundaries are blurred).
What does it all mean? Well, who can say and ultimately, what does that even matter?
Again, let it wash over you. Like a dream, the more you try and remember it or make sense of Rough and Rowdy Ways, the further the details fade away; rather, sit with the essence of the dream, how it made you feel – even if it was a nightmare.
This is arguably best illustrated by the staggering Murder Most Foul. Ever one to surprise, the track was released unannounced in late March and in true Dylan fashion, left us mere mortals dumbfounded.
Here is a 17 minute-plus long track, with no chorus and nothing more than what sounds like a cello, bass and sparse percussion accompanying a piano. Naturally, it gains Bobby his first Billboard Number One single because of course it fucking does, but its magic lies in what it’s not about as much as what it is about.
I am aware that sounds like nonsense, but let me expand.
On face value, the song is about the assassination of JFK – that the artwork simply featured an image of the former president backs this up, but as the song meanders and swells, it is clear that things aren’t that straightforward.
This is not a narrative song, like Hurricane or Tempest, but rather, it uses the still shocking event of 22nd November 1963 as a springboard to turn the song into a cross-generational state of the nation address – “What’s new, 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”.
As the song progresses even further, the subject matter fades from view in the rear mirror as a radio DJ is urged to “play Hot Pepper, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker and all that junk” alongside Another One Bites the Dust, Buster Keaton and Cry Me a River, “for the Lord of the Gods”.
It is stunning and central to understanding Rough and Rowdy Ways – so much so that on the CD and vinyl versions of the album, the singular song is given its own disc, so keen Dylan apparently is is ensure it doesn’t get missed or overlooked right at the end of the album.
Although there are websites, forums and Twitter threads poring over the minutiae of each reference in this epic song, and as tempting as it is to use this piece to break down each line and metaphor, that doesn’t get us any closer to the heart of the matter; if anything it takes us further away.
Again, sit with its essence, its Form. Let the dream wash over you.
It is grand in its scope and delivery and it must be pointed out that a song like this, in lesser hands, becomes an exercise in showing off. A “look at me, I know all of these artists, aren’t I well read?” meaningless list, but not so here.
What Dylan does, not just on Murder Most Foul, but right across Rough and Rowdy Ways, goes beyond a deep knowledge of culture – rather, this is culture made flesh.
Anyone can write a song simply listing cultural greats, but that doesn’t make the song great, just as anyone can read the same books James Joyce read, but that doesn’t mean they’re well equipped to then write Ulysses or Finnegans Wake.
There are countless examples of this masterful weaving of cultural greats into the material of the songs throughout the album, but to highlight just one; in My Own Version of You, in which the protagonist is apparently creating a Frankenstein’s monster, after asking “what would Julius Ceaser do?” Dylan explains “you can bring it to Saint Peter, bring it to Jerome, bring it all the way over, bring it on home”.
On face value, that might be a fairly throwaway line, with Dylan naming two saints, but look a little closer – he is planting Bo Diddley Easter Eggs within a song, right next to Saint Peter, Liberace and a Roman Emperor.
Honestly, he is, look again. Go listen to Bring it to Jerome by Bo Diddley, of which the key refrain is, yes,“bring it to Jerome, bring it on home…”
Yes, on face value, that might be a bit “so what?”. Dylan nicking a lyric is hardly news.
But this isn’t just chucking in an old blues lyric for the hell of it – shaping the key lyric to Bring it to Jerome to fit within a song so far removed from its original source is inspired, it changes the meaning completely and as it isn’t a jarring reference crow-barred in for the sake of it, it allows us to keep a foot in both camps – the original song and the new one Dylan is creating.
This isn’t pilfering, it is alchemy.
Compare this with someone like Noel Gallagher, another songwriter known for his magpie-like scavenging of other artists’ material, who literally opens a song with “something in the way she moves me”.
There, the reference is clunky, needless and ultimately lazy. It is a distraction and the listener’s attention is drawn to the fact it’s a blatant lift; it adds nothing to the texture of the song and only serves to make the songwriting appear half-hearted.
In contrast, what Dylan does so well here (and across his whole career in fact) involves taking the original lyric or melody, making it malleable and barely noticeable once it is incorporated within the rest of the song.
Maybe I’ve made too much of one line there, but for this writer, it backs up the old adage that good artists borrow, but great artists steal, as Picasso probably didn’t say.
Of course, as he approaches his eighth decade with us, much has been made of Dylan‘s mortality and questions have been raised about whether this is his swansong and whether or not he is writing his final acts, much like Leonard Cohen did with his final albums, which very directly addressed his impending decline.
What is clear across Rough and Rowdy Ways however is that this is way wide of the mark. Lest we forget, many were asking the same questions in 2012 with the release of Tempest, highlighting that Shakespeare’s final play had the same name and were asking if this was a hint the Never-ending Tour was about to end.
That clearly didn’t happen and here, Dylan is again showing no signs of slowing down.
Although Dylan confesses “I’ve already outlived my life by far…” he continues to search for inspiration, pleading with the Mother of Muses to deliver the goods, and on the stunning, yearning Key West (Philosopher Pirate), he details how he is still searching for inspiration on the pirate radio stations coming out of Luxembourg and Budapest.
This brings to mind an observation the great Lloyd Cole made whilst promoting his own album Standards in 2013.
There, Cole had been grappling with the thought that he was too old to “rock” anymore, but upon being asked to review Dylan’s Tempest, he had the lightbulb moment that this is a meaningless quandary.
Via songs like Duquense Whistle and Pay in Blood, Cole had the clarity that psychologically speaking, age is only a reflection of how old you feel.
Cole concluded that he half-suspects Dylan himself doesn’t even know how old he is, something alluded to here as Dylan sings on False Prophets: “I’m the enemy of the unlived meaningless life… can’t remember when I was born and I forgot when I died…”
As with Tempest, there’s fire and fury here but this isn’t a rage against the dying of the light. Dylan tells us he carries guns and knives and, in a murderous rage, threatens “I’ll make your wife a widow, you’ll never make old age…”
But then just as quickly, he turns on a nickel and delivers a song like I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You, a woozy, intoxicating song that wonderfully details the moment we delude ourselves into thinking we’re jumping into love rather than admitting we’re completely surrendering to it.
Dylan states he has made up his mind, but let’s not kid ourselves, there’s no choice in such a matter.
The song features rare backing vocals (apparently featuring among others, Fiona Apple) and is a lilting, hazy number, harking back to the late-at-night-mid-sticky-summer sound Oh Mercy or the more tender moments of Together Through Life and is one of the more immediate numbers on the album.
As tender as it is, it is no skeleton key that helps us unlock any sort of truth when it comes to Dylan the man, but by now, if you’re after that in any way, you’re fifty years too late.
As revelatory as Dylan the artist might be here (“I sleep with life and death in the same bed”), we’re not offered any glimpses into anything behind the mask – and when it comes to Dylan, that’s exactly the way it should be.
Bob Dylan remains inscrutable, complex and mysterious. He does after all, as Walt Whitman first said, contain multitudes. I appreciate that I’ve scribbled nearly 2,500 words by this point and I still feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of the album.
So lest, I rambled any further, what to make of the album?
As intimated right back at the start of this, comparing a Dylan album to anything feels like a false equivalence. Is it better than Tempest? Is it as good as Blonde on Blonde?
I don’t know, is the Grand Canyon as good as the Northern Lights?
I do appreciate that’s unsatisfying, so rather than review it, let me try and place it within the wider context of Bob Dylan’s long and illustrious career.
As a starting point for those new to Dylan, Rough and Ready Ways is likely to be baffling. Similarly, this isn’t going to convert naysayers.
As an addition to an already stunning canon however, it is, on first listen, certainly worthy of being talked about with the same reverence as latter-day masterpieces such as Time Out of Mind, “Love & Theft” and “Modern Times”; albums that deserve patience, attention and repeated listens; albums that contain multitudes and reward you the more effort you put in.
Albums that thankfully confirm, that for Bob Dylan at least, even if it’s getting there, it’s definitely Not Dark Yet.