When Bob Dylan finally responded to the Swedish Academy that awarded him the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature with the required lecture, about six months after the fact, he did so with a rambling, recorded monologue that at its best detailed some of his literary and musical influences and at its worst was a parody of an academic lecture, regurgitating Cliff Notes-like commentary about “Moby-Dick,” “All Quiet on the Western Front” and “The Odyssey.” It was, in its own way, a very Dylanesque gesture.
With his new album, Rough and Rowdy Ways, however, Dylan has delivered a masterful, authoritative song cycle that redeems both the Academy and the man himself with what could well be read as Dylan’s real Nobel Prize response. It only makes sense that having been honored for his work as a songwriter, his reply should come in the form of an album of songs.
And oh, what an album it is.
Dylan sounds more present and immediate on this album than he has in decades. The musical arrangements sensitively support his vocals, which while appropriately grizzled for any singer pushing 80 are remarkably sweet and intimate. The half-decade he spent recording three albums of pre-rock pop standards perhaps taught Dylan a new approach to singing. It clearly taught him a new approach to songwriting. The album consists mostly of folk- and pop-influenced ballads with a smattering of blues, but in sum it’s still folk-rock, singer-songwriter, Bob Dylan music.
The narrative persona Dylan assumes here dwells in a liminal space, one between here and there, yesterday and today, and life and beyond. Dylan’s thematic and lyrical approach is deliriously allusive. Historical, poetic, and musical references abound. You’ve got your Roman legions and the American Civil War. Edgar Allan Poe rubs shoulders with Allen Ginsberg; Elvis duels with Sinatra; Martin Luther King Jr. and John Kennedy fly together; and Anne Frank and Indiana Jones share time and space—not as unusual a juxtaposition as has been suggested elsewhere, since the fictional Jones originally gained fame as a Nazi hunter.
Many of the songs find Dylan – or, one should say, the songs’ narrators – in an existential crisis. Dylan sings, “I’ve traveled a long road of despair / I’ve met no other traveler there” on “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You.” “My soul is distressed, my mind is at war,” he sings on “Black Rider.” On “Mother of Muses,” he complains, “I’ve already outlived my life by far.” It’s a wonder that he still knows how to breathe.
Dylan leavens the despair with his trademark mischievous wit. “I’m nothing like my ghostly appearance would suggest,” he sings on “False Prophet.” On “Goodbye Jimmy Reed,” he teases, “I can’t play the record ‘cause my needle got stuck.” Even on the dark and otherwise gloomy “Black Rider,” he can’t resist a good internal pun: “Some enchanted evening I’ll sing you a song.”
The album concludes with “Murder Most Foul,” the 17-minute opus that was first released nearly three months ago, the first hint we had that there was a new Dylan album on the way. In the intervening weeks since we first heard it in late March, that song has taken on new resonance. Dylan was eerily prescient in his invocation of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre in the line: “Take me back to Tulsa, to the scene of the crime.” That reference to Tulsa and its blasted history in the wake of what has gone down since, and the release of the album on Juneteenth, and on the same weekend as Donald Trump’s controversial campaign rally in that city – which is, coincidentally, also home to the nascent Bob Dylan Center – goes even further to suggest that Dylan has his antenna finely tuned to a channel not available to us mere mortals.
Seth Rogovoy is editor of the Rogovoy Report, available at rogovoyreport.com
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