Rough and Rowdy Ways: Masterpeice or Misfire?
Bob Dylan has cemented himself in music history as one of the most influential artists to ever have picked a guitar. Back in the early 60s, he became a leader of the musical protest movement with breakout albums such as “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” and “The Times They Are A-Changin.’” Soon after, he completely changed his image by plugging into his first ever electric set at the Newport Folk Festival. This new image of Dylan brought about a fresh style of album releases like “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Blonde on Blonde.” These albums came with a heavy sound and darker writing. As Dylan aged, and his world view evolved, he entered yet another stage coming into the 70s. He toured with The Band, played his famous Rolling Thunder Revue, and released his “Blood on the Tracks” album, hailed by some as the greatest album ever made. By the time “Desire” dropped in 1976, everyone knew who Bob Dylan was, but few could interpret his cryptic writing. He still drew from his protest and rock stages of the past, but continued to evolve with the musical age and reach new heights. Throughout the 80s, 90s, and 00s, Dylan put up swaths of new records, yet none of them seemed forced nor mass produced. In 2016, he won the Nobel Prize for literature, but hadn’t written an original song for several years. And that was the last we heard from Bob. Until now. With his recent release “Rough and Rowdy Ways,” Bob Dylan has re-entered the musical scene. But is the album truly a work of genius, the message of a prophet, Dylan’s final masterpiece? Or is it just a washed up old man rambling on for far too long? To find out, we have to break down the album, song by song.
The album begins peacefully with “I contain Multitudes,” in which a soft guitar rests upon Dylan’s aged and scratchy voice. It is packed full of allusions, from Edgar Allen Poe to Anne Frank to Shakespeare to Chopin, and many more. Even the title and refrain are a reference to Walt Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself.’ This is rightly so, since the song itself is an allegory of Dylan’s vast works from the past. Just as all of the names he drops in the song are individual pieces that belong to a greater whole of history, all of Dylan’s albums and stages fit together like a drawn out puzzle. Looking back on his life, he sees that every song he has ever written belongs, yet he still has more waiting to come. And this promise from the past sets of the new album.
After this song fades out, we are hit with a much faster, louder, “False Prophet.” This song reckons Dylan’s rock stage, echoing rhythmic electricity and shouting infamous maxims. Despite this, the song remains dialed down enough to fit into the calm album, and the writing remains cryptic enough to confuse any English major. The album continues with “My Own Version of You,” appearing as a mysteriously diluted version of Frankenstein. As he searches for the rights body parts to create a new being, Dylan takes up humorous aspect, while bringing singers, actors, and historical figures into his big mix. The song also seems to reference the current political state, and its lack for decency or common sense. It appears a dark time, but as Dylan searches for light at the end of the tunnel, he combines the properties of the album’s first two songs to create a piece capable of leading into the next: “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You.”
After some faint hints during the last song as to whether or not his ‘own version of you’ was going to be love related or not, Dylan brings us fully into his beautiful ballad of love. He shows that the scratch in his voice can settle down to fit the flowing sensuality of the music for this piece. His relaxing pledge of loyal intimacy is the perfect calming presence to split the middle on this side of the record, yet it hints at the end of more than just an album. After a legendary legacy, Dylan uses this loving piece to say that he has traveled to all the places he wanted to go, and now he is ready to give himself to God. This imagery is an alluring bridge to “Black Rider,” the song that follows.
“Black Rider” is on its own a subtle representation of death and its many forms, but it can be better understood as part of a trilogy of songs, along with the two pieces that follow. These are “Goodbye Jimmy Reed” and “Mother of Muses” respectively. Each of the songs expresses a theme relating to religion in all of its mythology. This is one of Dylan’s favorite themes, reappearing over and over again throughout his discography. This triplicate of spiritual pieces comes with three complimenting musical accompaniments, so that when listened to in a row, they become a passionate serenade to death, saints, the mother of muses, and all things holy. In “Mother of Muses” specifically, the tone of classical works such as the Iliad is hearkened by the calling of a muse for divine inspiration to tell the story. The story that Dylan then goes on to tell is entitled “Crossing the Rubicon.”
This song is the point of no return. That’s what “Crossing the Rubicon” means. On one level, Dylan commits himself invariably to his love and his determinations. On another, the album itself enters its final incarnation. It becomes clear what “Rough and Rowdy Ways” is, and always has been. Dylan ‘feels the holy spirit inside,’ and is crossing the Rubicon into the afterlife. This does not mean that he is dying, but rather that he senses his life has passed the mark of eternity, and there is no return. But the musical tone of the song is not dark; on the contrary the lighthearted guitar shows that Dylan has acceptance for this end, and it shows that the entire album has been a testament to the end road, the stairway to heaven. It is a spiritual culmination of the life of a Great, coming to a close. But how can you possibly represent such non-duality with simple words and song? The answer is simple: “Key West (Philosopher Pirate).”
I have listened to this album way too many times, but each time I do, ‘Key West’ gets to me in a way none of the other songs can. It is a purely spiritual experience, drawing from the realms beyond this world. Of course, with a writer as transcendent as Dylan, there no inherent meaning to any of the songs; each time you listen, you could get something different out of it. And ‘Key West’ is by far the hardest song on the album to interpret. So just feel it instead. Closing out the first side, these nine minutes simultaneously feel like a heartbeat and an eternity. The song is immortality, it is the Great Beyond, it is ‘the horizon line.’ These infinite themes are manifested in Dylan’s representation of an island paradise, and how it has treated those throughout history. He wonders how it will treat him.
The second side of the record is comprised of only one song. It’s 17 minutes of Dylan talking about Kennedy’s assassination. But “Murder Most Foul” is so much more. The song itself follows a three act structure. Firstly factual and filled with historical nuance, the primary act sets the stage for the song, and provides for it a grim, yet also nostalgic tone. The music here is almost pleasant, a predictable violin that reflects Dylan’s tone of voice. Then, he transitions away from the historical in favor of the surreal. Inserting an increasing amount of metaphors into the story, Dylan begins to switch his point of view and speak to different people. The music becomes less predictable, with random outbursts of piano and varying crescendos, as if to personally lament the death of Kennedy. This represents a deeper struggle to grasp the finality of such an event, as Dylan continues his battle with the theme of death. As we enter the third act, the purpose of the song warps towards what the album has been shouting all along. The slightly eerie feeling from just a minute ago is lifted, and we transcend into a much humbler, cleaner, more melodic musical accompaniment. Each instrument from all of the sections in the rhapsody come together to play softly and simply. The lyrics reflect this simplicity. Dylan repeats the same line over and over, asking for different songs or movies to be played, as if in a trance. These requests are the final lines of the album, the end of the journey, their meaning incomprehensible.
Just like it’s cover, this album is far from perfection. Its shaken, slightly blurry, and off kilter. It seems old, maybe even underground. But that’s what makes it a masterpiece, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. The graininess is earned, and by then end of it, we want more. But if this album has taught me anything, it’s that all things must come to an end. And so closes the great battle with death. We can never win, but death can be defeated. Bob Dylan will live forever as one of the greatest writers of all time; And not only does he know it, but he shows it with “Rough and Rowdy Ways.’
Authors Note: I know a music reveiw isn't commonplace on photography websites, but it only felt fair considering the immense influence Dylan has had on my poetry, and art in general. Keep on keeping on-