Bob Dylan's Rough And Rowdy Ways
It's the kind of record you make when you've outlived your life by far
|Stephen Thomas Erlewine||Jun 23, 2020|
"I already outlived my life by far," sings Bob Dylan on "Mother Of Muses," one of the slowest and sweetest songs on Rough And Rowdy Ways, his 39th studio album. Who can say where Dylan believes his extra innings began? Possibly it's 1997, the year he released Time Out Of Mind after recovering from a near-fatal heart infection, or possibly it's when he walked away from a nasty motorcycle accident in 1966, or maybe it's something less dramatic that's been tucked away from public view. The precise inspiration for this line doesn't matter as much as what it means: Dylan knows that he's been around a long, long time, continuing to write and sing songs for decades after his legacy was readily apparent.
Dylan occasionally nods to his outsized reputation on Rough And Rowdy Ways—the heavy blues "False Prophet" is a sideways glance at Pope Benedict XVI, who considered the singer/songwriter a "so-called prophet"—but he never seems burdened by his history. He is, however, quite comfortable living in the past, settling into musical styles that were old-fashioned when he released his first album back in 1962 and ruminating about people and places that once were. As the years pile up, memories intermingle, or as Dylan sings on the album's opening cut "I Contain Multitudes," "everything is flowing all at the same time."
Overlapping eras and events could reflect the rhythms of the mind at an advancing age but it also echoes these modern times, where everything is new again and nothing ever fades away. Dylan conveys this constant churn through a procession of allusions, a trick he unveiled on the lengthy, lugubrious "Murder Most Foul" where John F Kennedy's assassination becomes a portal to the twentieth century. Snatches of recited lyrics, borrowed movie dialogue, song titles, and celebrities intertwine with JFK iconography, each successive line spinning into the next so it seems as if the song could last as long as the 20th Century itself.
A few other songs on Rough And Rowdy Ways vibrate with similar dream logic, a technique Dylan calls "trance writing" in his recent New York Times interview with Douglas Brinkley, but even these numbers are filled with concrete images and names pulled from a shared cultural subconscious. There's no tricksterism here but there also is no shortage of humor, with Dylan spinning off bawdy jokes, puns, and cornball quips. When these jibes are threaded into "Murder Most Foul" the effect can be surreal and disorienting but they have a mitigating effect on whatever meditation on mortality Dylan might offer, shining a bit of light into shady corners.
Death creeps along the edges of Rough And Rowdy Ways but it never haunts its bones the way it did on Time Out Of Mind. The finite nature of existence is merely acknowledged as a simple fact, something to be battled, baited, and eventually accepted. Part of that acceptance is Dylan embracing his age, finding a way to sing with a voice diminished by smoke and persistent use. Recitations are a key weapon in his arsenal but the years he spent singing standards popularized by Frank Sinatra taught Dylan how to play with his phrasing, so he can sound tender even when murmuring intentional absurdities. As he spins through his Rolodex of memories and pop culture touchstones, he doesn't so much as nod to anything that happened in the past quarter-century or maybe even past 1975. He has little interest in rock & roll or folk, preferring to pound out blues and croon against a piano plinking away during the twilight hours of a dingy saloon. It's a hybrid that's old-fashioned in its sound but not in its sensibility.
Reviving or outright reworking vintage tunes and tropes has been Dylan's stock in trade since the start and, if anything, he's gotten more brazen as he's gotten older. Witness "False Prophet," which NPR's Tom Moon rightly notes is lifted from "If Lovin' Is Believing," a 1954 side from Sun Records blues artist Billy "The Kid" Emerson. Dylan's theft is brazen but only evident to others who have spent as much time listening to old records as he has. That time isn't only heard, it's felt within how he appropriates, twists and reinvents traditional forms, giving plenty of space for his band to follow his shifts in styles and mood. Rough And Rowdy Ways was largely recorded with the band who has followed him through the trenches of the Never Ending Tour, so they're accustomed to his fondness for gutbucket grooves and delicate ballads, knowing they'll have space within the grooves and between the verses to add heft. Some guests wandered into the studio, including Benmont Tench, Blake Mills and Fiona Apple, but they're there for color; indeed, it's hard to discern precisely where each musician cameos.
The band plays with ease and earthiness, the casual tone countering the evident care Dylan crafting the album, a combination that keeps Rough And Rowdy Ways lively even at its slowest and softest moments. Much of this freshness can be credited to how spry Dylan sounds. He savors his own words, relishing the opportunity to deliver punchlines both sublime and ridiculous, sharpening his attack on the flinty "Black Rider" yet succumbing to the ebb and flow "Key West (Philosopher Pirate)" and allowing himself a moment of elegance on "I've Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You," the lone song that appears to be written in response to his Sinatra tributes. The romantic ballad is an outlier in its sweet intentions but it, like the rest of the album, it's designed to be played in the wee small hours of the evening, when moods range from ruminative to reflective.
Rough And Rowdy Ways is ideally suited for the after hours, just after all the sensible folks have headed to bed, and perhaps that's appropriate for an album made at the twilight of Dylan's career. Time hasn't yet run out for Dylan but the darkness of the hour suggests the end is near, but instead of dwelling upon the impending final bow, he's just rolling on, cracking jokes and sighing to himself about times that used to be. It's not a farewell. It's the kind of record you make when you've already outlived your life by far.