Bob Dylan’s ‘Rough and Rowdy Ways’ is a late-career triumph – review
The idea still persists that rock is a young person's game -- and there are still plenty of examples that back this argument up -- but as we're seeing the first generation of classic rock musicians enter their fifth and sixth decades as performers, we're also seeing a handful of them find ways to age gracefully and release music that puts a new spin on the music they wrote in their more youthful days, rather than trying to recreate it or fit in with the current times. In the mid/late 2010s, we saw David Bowie and Leonard Cohen do this and come out with some of the decade's best albums. We saw Neil Young and Robert Plant do this. Nick Cave's a little younger than those guys, but he's also always been ahead of his time and we've seen his stunning recent material fit perfectly alongside the work of Bowie and Leonard especially.
For a while, Bob Dylan -- who turned 79 in May -- has seemed more like an artist who was admitting his most creative days were behind him. It's been eight years since he released an album of new, original music (2012's Tempest, which is good but not like Blonde On Blonde good), and in the time since then, he released three covers albums, all of which featured traditional pop standards and/or songs popularized by Frank Sinatra. No disrespect, but the music covered on those albums even sounded outdated when Bob Dylan was first rising to fame, because of the more timeless and revolutionary music written by people like Bob Dylan.
Maybe he just had to get some passion projects out of the way, maybe he needed time to creatively regroup, or maybe he just didn't give a fuck what anyone thought of the music he was choosing to release (it's Dylan, so probably the third one), but whatever the case was, Bob Dylan is now back with his first album of new, original music in eight years -- 58 years after he released his debut album -- and it's the best record he's released in a long time. It's also a record that he only could have made now. It can't come off as a lesser version of his classic '60s and '70s work because it almost never sounds like that work. It hardly even sounds like Tempest. It's as close in spirit to Leonard Cohen's final recordings as Leonard's first album was to Dylan's early work. It's a little bit similar to the latest Nick Cave (who's a big fan of the album's lead single, "Murder Most Foul") album too. Dylan has taken on this speak-sung, stream-of-consciousness delivery that's been increasingly favored by late-career rock legends lately, and with it, he helps shape this new wave of music written by not-new artists. As someone who was never exactly, um, Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan has long been hit with criticisms of "he can't sing," and as his voice became more gravelly in recent years, his singing started sounded even rougher than it did in the '60s. But on Rough and Rowdy Ways, he uses it to his advantage. Much more so than Tempest, these songs are perfectly suited to the way his voice sounds right now.
Dylan's music on this album requires more patience than ever, and as it seems like many of his fans would agree, it earns it -- "Murder Most Foul" is 17 minutes long with basically no hook or even a tangible melody, and it became the first Bob Dylan song to top any Billboard chart. Dylan had put out long, rambling story-songs before, but not like this one. It just casually rolls on and on, referencing the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Woodstock, Altamont, The Beatles, The Who, Fleetwood Mac, Charlie Parker, Patsy Cline, Stan Getz, Thelonius Monk, Dickey Betts, and a handful of other counter-culture figures. It's fun to comb through all the references and marvel at the existence of the song at first, but "Murder Most Foul" doesn't get old. It begs for repeated listens, and it feels shorter each time. When you finally get to it as the last track on this 70-minute double album, those opening piano notes give off an instant rush of joy. You're not just in the album's home stretch; you're at its climax.
Rough and Rowdy Ways opens with the second single that was released from it, "I Contain Multitudes," a shorter song that's cut from a similar cloth as "Murder Most Foul." Those are the two early standouts on the album, and it's easy to see why Dylan chose to release them first, but the more you dig into Rough and Rowdy Ways, the more treasures reveal themselves. There are some revved-up blues rockers (third single "False Prophet" and deep cut "Goodbye Jimmy Reed") that add a little more immediacy to Rough and Rowdy Ways, but this is an album where the less accessible a song seems on the surface, the more it pulls you in. The brooding, descending chords of the almost-seven-minute "My Own Version Of You" and the stark, minimal "Black Rider" are among the album's most subtle songs, yet it doesn't take long for them to stop you in your tracks and emerge as clear standouts. The album's secret weapon is the penultimate, nine-and-a-half "Key West (Philosopher Pirate)," a ruminative, stream-of-consciousness song about a drive down to Florida that's as long and sprawling as the open road. Like a long drive through the middle of nowhere, you can really lose yourself in it.
With lines like "I sleep with life and death in the same bed" ("I Contain Multitudes") and "I’ve already outlived my life by far" ("Mother of Muses"), it's tempting to read into Rough and Rowdy Ways as some kind of admission that Dylan's days are numbered, which wouldn't be unheard of for someone nearing 80. But what really strikes me is how alive Dylan sounds on this album, as clever and unpredictable as he was in his earlier years. If by his third album of standards, it seemed like Dylan had closed the book on his career and legacy, Rough and Rowdy Ways tosses that book out the window and drives away, leaving whatever preconceived notions you thought you could have of Bob Dylan in 2020 in the dust. Who knows where he'll go next.
Rough and Rowdy Ways is out now on Columbia. Stream it below.
Here are the album credits, including Fiona Apple and Blake Mills: