Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Bob Dylan - Rough and Rowdy Ways (Columbia, 2020)

Given his advancing age and penchant for the Great American Songbook, many fans had despaired that they would not hear another album of his original songs from Bob Dylan during his lifetime. But with the surprise release of a seventeen minute epic, news soon came of a full length release. This is a strong album of witty and thoughtful lyrics backed by tasteful and for the most part understated music that suits the wordplay very well. The opening track "I Contain Multitudes" is deceptively quiet, up until Dylan starts throwing lyrical bombs, comparing himself to Anne Frank and name checking The Rolling Stones, while alluding to secrets that Edgar Allan Poe and William Blake would admire, and toting pistols and knives like the very Stagolee of legend. "My Own Vision Of You" is a leering piece of wonder, where Dylan makes the most of what is left of his voice to land a whopper about building his own woman, Victor Frankenstein style. Taking inspiration from film, music and history, his deceptively genial singing looks for just the right place to put the knife in, while the music sways a cockeyed and disorienting waltz. The following track, "I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You" is the exact opposite, where Dylan takes what he has learned from making three albums of American Songbook material, and sings a genuine and unironic love song backed by the gentlest accompaniment. "Goodbye Jimmy Reed' is a swaggering blues rocker, using the late bluesman as an opening into a song that weds stomping drums and some nasty electric guitar to lyrics that that take a sly swipe at religion and morality. They return to this steady mid-tempo shuffle for "Crossing the Rubicon" historically where Julius Caesar made his intention of conquering Rome known to the senate. For Dylan, the lyrics move into a more revelatory spiritual frame, one of having to pass through great turmoil and strife before finding peace and contentment. The final track was the first released a month before the album, the monumental "Murder Most Foul." Bob Dylan is no stranger to lengthy songs, early in his career, he created monumental epics like "Desolation Row," "Visions of Joanna" and "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" where the words seemed to flow like water from pure spring. As great as 1997's Time Out of Mind album was the album's sixteen minute closer "Highlands" seemed more like getting lost in the fields of Scotland and the fourteen minute retelling of the sinking of the Titanic that was the title track to Tempest dragged as well. So what could he do with a seventeen minute stream pf consciousness track? Quite a bit, actually. It is ostensibly about the assassination of John Kennedy, but he also thinks long and hard about the social impact of the murder. The Beatles are in the wings, but Dylan is reciting American musicians from John Lee Hooker to Charlie Parker to the Eagles. It's strange, rambling and unlike anything he's done, presenting in lyrical form a tipping point in time that had vast consequences for all that came after it. This was a very good album, one you definitely need to sit with for a while to be sure, but one that rewards repeated listenings. Dylan has nothing to prove, hardly cares if people scoff, so has the freedom to take chances with his lyrics that a younger musician might not dare, and these chances pay off splendidly. Rough and Rowdy Ways -

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