From familiar folk-rock instrumentals spring songs of the self. Bob Dylan’s 39th studio album Rough and Rowdy Ways was released on June 19th, to high praise from critics and fans alike. Listeners have found in these songs a window to escape lockdown through — and yet, like all of Dylan’s greatest albums, this one refuses to turn away from reality.
The album features the 79-year-old singer calling on the 20th century’s greatest artists and icons as his own personal muses, mapping out a rich cultural history in the process. Rough and Rowdy Ways imagines the past as an entity we should look in the eye. The truths of artistic history, unfixed as they may be, stand still for a moment under Dylan’s gaze. It’s as though we need not ask for a further explanation; you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.
Bleak at one moment, mischievous the next, Dylan knows how to take his audience from one mood to another, without it feeling like forced self-reinvention. Despite the variety of styles and influences on the album, Dylan moves seamlessly from blues rock tracks like ‘False Prophet’ to the delicate piano and violin arrangements of ‘Murder Most Foul’. When I first listened to the album from beginning to end, I was immediately taken by ‘I Contain Multitudes’. With a title deriving from Walt Whitman’s beautiful ‘Song of Myself’, Dylan’s first track delivers on the implied promise to explore multi-layered personal identity. He sings: ‘I’m a man of contradictions, I’m a man of many moods’, identifying himself with literary greats such as Edgar Allan Poe and William Blake. Putting on many faces and taking them off again, Dylan presents liberated selfhood as something that can be not only achieved but danced with.
Rough and Rowdy Ways contains multitudes of recognisable images that spark wider examinations on the world we live in. Frankenstein’s creation becomes the starting point for a search for emotional intimacy, while JFK’s assassination sparks reflection on the frailty of human life. Currently, my favourite song on the album is ‘Key West (Philosopher Pirate)’. This dream-like accordion ballad addresses all the wandering people ‘like Ginsberg, Corso and Kerouac’, and encourages this neo-Beat generation to pursue self-discovery through travel: ‘If you lost your mind, you’ll find it there.’ There’s something incredibly comforting about ‘Key West’, as if Dylan is inviting everyone ‘born on the wrong side of the railroad track’ to find a place they can call home.
In his celebrated autobiography Chronicles, Dylan confesses his belief that he’ll never write anything quite like his old classics again. ‘Those kinds of songs were written under different circumstances,’ he writes, ‘and circumstances never repeat themselves… To do it, you’ve got to have power and dominion over the spirits. I had done it once, and once was enough’. In all honesty, I think Dylan isn’t giving himself enough credit here. Yes, his more recent albums aren’t the same as Highway 61 Revisited or Bringing It All Back Home, but they don’t have to be. Listening to Rough and Rowdy Ways, as well as other later Dylan albums, I’m not struck by the sense that he’s lost ‘power and dominion over the spirits’. As Dylan states himself in ‘Key West’:
‘That’s my story, but not where it ends.’ The spirits are still at his command; they’re just casting new spells.
– Sylvie Lewis
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