Too much tertiary education... Former performer/wrestler, teacher, scientist; Published author & Father... Want to be a writer if I grow up...
Published June 21st 2020
New Dylan is good Dylan
Bob Dylan started the twenty-first century with a series of albums that were magnificent and then he received the Nobel Prize for Literature, which, based on the lyrics of more than 50 years alone, he deserved without a shadow of a doubt.
Now, eight years after his last album of original compositions, we have his 39th studio album: Rough And Rowdy Ways by Bob Dylan (2020)
It is logical, I guess, that a writer would improve as he or she gets older. Life experience comes into play, greater exposure to other writers occurs and the whole 'perfect practice makes perfect' adage rings very true. So, listening to the incredible lyrics on this album, it makes sense that Dylan's songwriting is as good as it has ever been, maybe the best. But that does not explain the incredible performance that comes across on this album.
Look, I am a fan of Dylan's songs. He has written way too many over the years that can be considered absolute classics. Maybe his delivery has not been the greatest, but listen to another artist perform his songs and you realise that Dylan is a master. Well, this album sees Dylan delivering. Now, I know, if you don't like Dylan's voice, this album is going to grate a little. But, even then, there is so much here lyrically that I think even that can be overcome. This is probably Dylan's most consistent album since Highway 61 Revisited (1965), which is by far my favourite Dylan album. The man is fast approaching 80, and he gives us this.
The album. 70 minutes long, 10 tracks. Let's go.
'I Contain Multitudes' We open with a song that… oh, come on. I am going to say this over and over. The lyrics are stunning. That is all there is to it. But the music, with an acoustic guitar and what sounds like a string quartet, is beautiful, and Dylan's voice sings, not drawls. There is a sense of sadness about it all as well, looking back on a life lived. What an opening track.
'False Prophet' There is something a little sleazy about the sound of this track. The voice is full-on raspy, but the lyrics seem to be talking about the way people have looked at Dylan through the years and this is his riposte. This is a blues track, pure and simple.
'My Own Version Of You' There is something of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein about the lyrics of taking bits of body and putting them together, but it has the sound of a song of longing. Third song, and the third different sound. This has the sound of Mark Knopfler after Dire Straits folded.
'I've Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You' There is something of a love song about these lyrics, but the way they read to me it feels like he could also mean his audience is the object he is giving himself to. This is the first track where his voice feels likes it is struggling, and yet it adds to the emotion of the track.
'Black Rider' This is a sad, sparse song, and Dylan's voice and delivery suits it. The "Black rider" could be Death or Time or something else, but Dylan is not ready to confront it yet. The mandolin sound gives it a sense of end-of-life reflection. It feels very real.
'Goodbye Jimmy Reed' A song based on the legendary bluesman Jimmy Reed, and sung in that blues style, this works and the lyrics are really incredible, with religious allusions and comments about some of the criticisms thrown his way over the years. I am probably missing a heap of the meanings here, but I have a feeling this whole album is going to be the source of essay upon essay for years to come.
'Mother Of Muses' Taken at face value, I think this is about dealing with his creativity. Looking deeper, I think it is more about the influences, positive and negative, on his life. A slow, sad song, but one of the lesser on the album. Not bad – definitely not – but not at the top.
'Crossing The Rubicon' A song about trying to get home, but with the Classical allusion that crossing the Rubicon means there is a point of no turning back. The lyrics are fine, but maybe the delivery was a little muted and it sounds like a few others that have come previously.
'Key West (Philosopher Pirate)' Nine and a half minutes long (but wait…), this is one of those long story-styled songs about Dylan and his music and, in a wider sense, his life. Maybe a fraction long for the way it was sung, still a wonderful track.
'Murder Most Foul' The longest song Dylan recorded for an album at over 17 minutes, and Dylan's first ever number one single! This song is simple – it is about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. But then there are shout-outs to songs – so many songs, bylines and titles – setting the stage for what came after the death. Nothing is left unsaid about the circumstances of the death. There is a sense of repressed anger about the track, and the delivery with the subdued backing instrumentation is spot-on. This sort of lyrical framework is why Dylan is regarded as the best of the rock generation. I listen to and get into so many artists based on the way they write songs, but when Dylan delivers like this… no-one can touch the man.
Bob Dylan is going to be looked at by future generations the same way we look at Wordsworth, Byron, Shakespeare now. He speaks of our generation and yet he speaks in a manner that is timeless. And when they look at the body of his work – the immense body of his work – there will be tracks from this album included. This is not a place-holder by a man with more years behind him than ahead; this is an album that is stunning.
Dylan fans have probably already ordered it. But I recommend it to everyone. Dylan… wow.