by mr tambourine
Bob Dylan’s Rough And Rowdy Ways – An album Dylan was destined to make…
In this review, I would like to put my own take on this album and compare it to what I’ve heard prior to release. And also this should be a mix of a subjective and an objective review.
The best way for me to review an album is to go track by track, from first to last.
This album has 10 songs, that are more than 70 minutes long altogether. Which means the average length for every song is seven minutes. Being a fan of Dylan’s long songs, this was a treat for me.
Before we get into the track-by-track review, I have to mention that this is indeed a shocker of an album in many ways. There’s always a song someone refuses, there’s always something to skip. This album indeed doesn’t have a lowpoint and it doesn’t have a definitive sound because none of the tracks resemble each other musically and none of the tracks resemble some previous work from Dylan in his entire career other than having just a tiny deja vu here and there. In other words, this is new.
An album for the ages. A definite masterpiece.
I wouldn’t call this a “mortality” record like many have called it. Dylan’s been flirting with mortality his entire career. But what I will admit – this is the darkest, the most honest, the most realistic artistic portrayal of death Dylan has ever done. In a few songs it goes so deep, that you feel like the protagonist is just there, holding up his hand one last time and waving goodbye to his long-lived life.
For people who have avoided his work after Tempest, and some who have even avoided the work prior to that – all of them should bow down to the master. Because, Bob Dylan is back yet again. What’s more people who didn’t like Dylan’s Sinatra phase will understand it now and its influence on this record, not completely, but in a few cases on certain songs.
This is a musical genius, who knows a lot about good music, and about music in general. Whenever he finds a good influence for him to base his record upon, he’ll do it like nobody else. There’s constant talk about some kind of a river flowing through this record, but one thing is for sure – Dylan’s river never runs dry.
This material is serious material, and no one can top this in my opinion. This is a 79 year old man. And it may surprise everybody, but it didn’t surprise me. I said for years now, since Dylan has been performing great shows on his Never Ending Tour in the last 3-4 years, that if he makes an album of original material, that it would be one of his best yet.
I had to listen to stories that Tempest was the last album of original material, or that if he made a new album, it was gonna be in 2018. I remember especially after the “Moon River” and “It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World” performances in 2018, people started speculating about a new covers album. I knew it wasn’t gonna happen because Dylan never did more than three albums with the same theme. Which means, releasing another covers album back then would mean the 4th covers album in a row. I just couldn’t see it.
So I’m glad it worked out the way it did.
Dylan is certainly no false prophet, that’s for sure. This album yet again proves his amazing consciousness for the world where we live. This album should have been recorded in January 2020 in Los Angeles. Which means, the songs were written even earlier than that.
Even writing a song like “False Prophet” and using such a cover for the single release – with the skeleton holding a needle in one hand and a gift in the other – just priceless really.
And to release it on the Juneteenth (June 19) – on such a date with all the racism going on in America and a potential civil war on the way in the near future – and also with June 19 being similar to Covid-19 and the current pandemic going on – it all seems to fall so perfectly, all so well timed.
And I’m certain that if these are the end times and we soon all get swept from this Earth – this album will be the only thing that will survive. And future generations will need it – because it will be a fossil of our times. Future scientists will use this album to discover what happened to us – just like we used to research why dinosaurs were extinct.
Now that I confirmed that this is a “mortality” record, I would like to compare it to some other stuff and rank its position somewhere.
Since “Time Out Of Mind”, Dylan has never had such a dark record again. This is the first one since then. And in my preview of this album I predicted it was gonna be Time Out Of Mind 2.0. mostly because Dylan played four Time Out Of Mind songs (more than any other album) on his latest tour, so I felt what was coming.
But this is not Time Out Of Mind – Time Out Of Mind doesn’t compare to this. Time Out Of Mind to me is now a little baby compared to this. This is just on a whole different level.
Although, I can say one thing – maybe Time Out Of Mind was supposed to sound something like this. Listening to a few outtakes available to us thanks to Tell Tale Signs bootleg series volume 8, some of those alternate versions were darker than the released ones.
Also, Dylan’s voice was rusty back then. It’s much clearer and much more melodic now.
I will not dismiss the importance of Time Out Of Mind on Bob’s career – I will never do that, of course, but I’m just saying – this is another level.
And before we finally get into a track-by-track review, I just one to add one final thing: after this, the next bootleg series will have to be Time Out Of Mind. It would be perfect timing to do that. Bootleg Series volume 16 should be Time Out Of Mind full sessions. The bootleg series team definitely have it, they were even interested to release it for a while now, but haven’t yet decided to do so. I will repeat – the time is now. After Rough And Rowdy Ways, it’s perfect to reflect on it.
The name of the album, Rough And Rowdy Ways, probably isn’t too attractive. The cover too. But that aside – this album is nothing like it seems on first glance.
It starts off with “I Contain Multitudes” – one of the singles Bob released prior to the official release of the album. This one might seem like a drag but it’s definitely an amazing song. Usually, Dylan’s openers are amazing and often set the mood for the album. And are up-tempo. This one is not like that. But being like it is – I must admit I like it. It’s like opening a book – and this is the first chapter that gently lures you in and doesn’t want to spoil the book for you already.
The readers who are experienced would not be discouraged and would continue reading because the first chapter definetely showed some promise.
The lyrics to “I Contain Multitudes” are amazing – there is not a line that’s bad, even the Indiana Jones one, which people like to mention a lot. I like it, and I must admit it’s the line that gives this song its existence. For the first three verses you feel it’s just like any song or just a basic song and it feels like it’s not even a Dylan song musically even though it’s his lyrics without a doubt. The Indiana Jones line gives a life to the song and that’s where it gets interesting. And musically, that’s where the song starts growing.
Although the probably weakest track, at least musically on the album – it shows promise and once it ends, it forces you to play it more and is definitely a grower.
Great opener for an album like this.
I can also say that it reminds of Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour era. It’s like his reciting the song on a few occasions.
“False Prophet” feels like it comes from out of nowhere.
People who have listened to all three Sinatra albums, and after hearing Multitudes as the opener, probably will think that it’s gonna be the same album that drags your life away with its somber and gentle arrangements. But it’s not.
False Prophet immediately turns it around 180 degrees and is musically miles better than I Contain Multitudes.
Another single released to promote the album, False Prophet proves how much energy the 79-year old has. And it’s full of that same black humor we got so used to from Dylan.
The next song, “My Own Version Of You” to me, is a horror, dark jazz-swing type of song. It definitely is Bob being Dr Frankenstein who tries to assemble a perfect lover.
I like this so much. I think I can safely say it’s one of many highlights. Dylan’s lyrical delivery and a play with words is astonishing. It feels like Dylan is rapping a few times. Just amazing.
The fourth track, “I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You” could be one of the rare songs that takes me back to Dylan’s post 2000s period. I thought of, for some reason, a cover of “Return To Me” which Dylan recorded for the Sopranos in 2001. But this is miles better of course. Dylan’s singing is definitely beautiful for the most part here.
We haven’t gotten many love songs like this from Dylan in a while, so romantically delivered and with a stunning melody. Takes me back to classics like “Is Your Love In Vain” and “Emotionally Yours”. It’s one of the rare songs, arranged by Dylan, that feel like a lovely wedding song.
And I don’t want people to misunderstand me here – I believe Dylan is a great singer and has written amazing love songs – but I honestly don’t think he puts his heart into them always and his soul too as much as he maybe needs to, at least for the songs to feel romantic and for weddings. Here, it feels like he’s really trying to bring the best out of him. A perfect wedding song.
The fifth track, Black Rider is a very much overlooked song. Reminds me of psychedelic stuff being made nowadays but much more musically engaged and with conviction and naturally delivered. Also reminds me of Bowie’s “Blackstar” and Cohen’s “You Want It Darker” and Nick Cave’s recent work (like Ghosteen for example) – but a mile better. Mix all of what I’ve mentioned so far with Nancy Sinatra’s “Bang Bang”. Dylan’s most haunting vocal yet and one of his most haunting songs. You thought “My Own Version Of You” was gonna be scary – this is even more. This is the one that portrays death at its finest.
Modern female singers, like Lana Del Ray or Lorde for example, could cover this song a lot, but they won’t capture the emotion of the original probably. But I encourage them to still do it.
The sixth song, Goodbye Jimmy Reed, is a hybrid of Love And Theft and Highway 61 Revisited. There’s even some Thin Wild Mercury here. I wouldn’t say this is one of the highlights though but it’s definitely not a bad song. It’s just that it could be the most predictable track on the album, other than the upbeat tempo that kicks in after a slow Black Rider. The most predictable because it feels like the track that mostly resembles what he has done throughout his career, while other tracks are like nothing like he’s ever done probably, nor anyone else to be honest.
The seventh song, Mother Of Muses takes me back to Oh Mercy sort of. Ring Them Bells could be the most similar one. But I also get vibes of a Christmas melody sort of. Plus, I don’t remember Dylan ever singing so well. His vocal, similar to Black Rider, although seemingly surrendering, is tender, dark and beautiful. Black Rider moves you like a Hitchcock movie, but Mother Of Muses sends shivers down your spine with its beauty.
The eighth song is Crossing The Rubicon. This one feels as if Cry A While was recorded for Time Out Of Mind. Melody similar to Cry A While, Dylan’s vocal similar to False Prophet and ‘Til I Fell In Love With You from Time Out Of Mind. But it’s still, nothing like he’s ever done. The way the slow arrangement keeps you interested – I don’t remember being so captivated for a blues song like this. Usually blues songs run you by. This one doesn’t. It keeps your attention.
The ninth song, Key West (Philosopher Pirate) is a masterpiece. Best track on the album in my opinion, one of Dylan’s best songs ever probably, maybe his best of the entire late career run. It’s nothing like I expected it to be.
It’s a weird hybrid of Most Of The Time, ‘Cross The Green Mountain and Red River Shore, half-baked underrated Dylan songs which I always loved. But it’s nothing like he’s ever done. Sure, he’s done amazing 9+ minute songs, we all know it. But with such a consistent melody and vocal delivery? I don’t really thinks so. This one takes the crown. It made me bow down to the king.
The last track, “Murder Most Foul” of course, is a masterpiece as well. I don’t think it’s better than Key West, but it’s definetely up there somewhere. What a way to close the album. Two songs that combined last 25+ minutes, such masterpieces. Dylan usually ends it with one masterpiece that can sweep away the rest of the album. This one has two mesmerising epics that take the breath away. I’m stunned like I never was before.
Rough And Rowdy Ways should be played for days. Not to mention months or years. Definitely worthy of all the attention it received. If this doesn’t win album of the year then this world is dying. And it will feel like it’s hardly been born, in that case.