Bob Dylan Says It All on 'Rough and Rowdy Ways'

Photo: William Claxton / Courtesy of Sony Music

Bob Dylan returns as prophet, historian, and joker on his latest album, Rough and Rowdy Ways, an unending puzzle with rich content.

Rough and Rowdy Ways
Bob Dylan


19 June 2020

Bob Dylan didn't say anything for a while. Sure, he gave a Nobel speech. And he put out three albums (including a triple-album set) of pop standards as if his whole career had made a simple arc from Woody Guthrie to Frank Sinatra. But since 2012's Tempest, we've had little new from one of the foremost songwriters of the last 60 years. He must have been saving it up. After surprise track releases this spring, Dylan unveiled Rough and Rowdy Ways, a record with a decade's worth of words assembled like a strange jigsaw puzzle. It's a bleak record, with the music often hushed and distanced, but its hidden wit and surprising formal care make it another remarkable entry in Dylan's voluminous discography.

Many of the songs, particularly the opening "I Contain Multitudes" and the 17-minute closing "Murder Most Foul", sound like free association, but each song – and the album as a whole – works around tight thinking. Dylan gets the benefit of the doubt here; where an unknown writer might look confused, our sage poet often looks cryptic. But his prophetic posturing aside, Dylan speaks often clearly on this album. Scholars are going to quibble over which version of "Try a Little Tenderness" he references, but they'll agree he's talking about a song.

He still plays games, though. James Joyce claimed to have written Finnegan's Wake like he did in order "to keep the critics busy for 300 years". Dylan doesn't do that; he wants us to understand his references, even as he draws on Shakespeare, Homer, the apostles, and Leon Russell (who, like Dylan, had better taste in hats than the rest of them). The success of "Murder Most Foul", with its blend of mid-century culture and the Kennedy assassination, depends on our understanding at least the musical allusions. But puzzles remain. The Genius annotations alone will be debated and amended. And many of Dylan's lines will be overthought. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Sometimes a Rubicon is a just a river. Or is it?

The literary challenges roll up into a performance that draws from multiple voices in Dylan's career. The jazz/pop phrasings come through, but so the blues influences (Jimmy Reed even gets a tribute here). The wordplay could come from the Beats, or it could come from modern spoken word. Rough and Rowdy Ways has little, if any, rock 'n' roll, but the sneer remains. Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits might vaguely peek in a little. Dylan has long lost interest in conforming to expectations, so it's no surprise that on a new record, he either satisfies all of them or none of them. He sounds like Dylan, whatever that is.

With that approach, and with mostly heavy lyrics, the album could easily suffer under its bigness. After eight years, a legend comes back with a prophetic album full of heavy words designed to tease the critics while satisfying the masses. Dylan is wise to open the album with "I Contain Multitudes". The track moves on a slow breeze, but Dylan clearly sings it with a wink. Had he opened with "Mother of Muses", the whole album would have struggled through a pretentious paradigm. As it is, when that track shows up in the album's second half, it sounds like a sleepy call to arms. Dylan might sound at ease, but he still has plenty to say, and he wants to cover a big scope. There's nothing topical about the album, no matter how well it suits the time, but its sweep requires an epic muse and a gift to drill everything done to moments we can feel.

Fortunately, comedy balances the record's potential portent. Dylan buries little treasures throughout the record, but "My Own Version of You" highlights his wit. Referencing, of course, Frankenstein, the song covers some heavy thoughts with sharp couplets. "I'll take the Scarface Pacino and The Godfather Brando / Mix it up in a tank and get a robot commando," Dylan sings over a spooky backing. When he later asks, "What would Julius Caesar do?" he foreshadows his own upcoming "Crossing the Rubicon". The songs refer to each other, but they also refer to Dylan's previous songwriting. Although, to be fair, if you stack up enough words over six decades, some of them will look alike.

Simply as a game – as semiotic play – Rough and Rowdy Ways would entertain and impress, but Dylan goes deeper than that. "Murder Most Foul" reads like a thesis of itself, the decline of American pop culture as Kennedy falls. Dylan finds dismay in all that's been lost, in Dallas, then in Altamont, throughout the era, but he recognizes the power of music in crisis. "Don't ask what your country can do for you," he sings, paraphrasing Kennedy while ignoring the second half of the quote. Everything sounds so lost, so we play "Misty" and "Key to the Highway" and "Lucille". Each song choice works as a song but signifies something more until we're asked to play "Murder Most Foul", Dylan's own song, but a reference to Hamlet and regicide, a tight wrap on Kennedy's death, but a not to fratricide, too, and the perpetual communal undoing that the song peacefully wars against.

By the end of "Murder Most Foul", Dylan has delivered a meditation on nearly every topic imaginable (we could double the size of this review by uncovering the religious material). The wordplay will keep critics arguing, as to whether playing for "the king on the harp" refers to Little Walter, B.B. King (hinted at by the Lucille reference), or Saul and David. The heart will keep fans returning. Bob Dylan didn't say anything for a while. When he did, he said it all. It's just going to take us some time to hear it.





The Texas Gentlemen Share the Powerful and Soulful "Last Call" (premiere)

Eclectic Texas band, the Texas Gentlemen return with a vibrant, imaginative LP that resists musical boundaries. Hear their latest epic single, "Last Call".


Vincent Cross Pays Tribute to Folk Hero via "King Corcoran" (premiere)

Gangs of New York-era James "The Rooster" Corcoran was described as the terror of New York's east side. His descendent, Vincent Cross, retells his story with a "modern dark fairy tale".


Eddy Lee Ryder Gets Lonely and Defiant with "Expected to Fly" (premiere)

Eddy Lee Ryder explores the loss of friendship and refusal to come of age, cloaked in the deeply dramatic and powerful song, "Expected to Fly".


Rock 'n' Roll with Chinese Characteristics: Nirvana Behind the Great Wall

Like pretty much everywhere else in the pop music universe, China's developing rock scene changed after Nirvana. It's just that China's rockers didn't get the memo in 1991, nor would've known what to do with it, then.


Creative Disruption in 'Portrait of a Lady on Fire'

Portrait of a Lady on Fire yearns to burn tyrannical gendered tradition to ash and remake it into something collaborative and egalitarian.


Fave Five: The Naked and Famous

Following two members leaving the group in 2018, synthpop mavens the Naked and Famous are down to a duo for the first time ever and discuss the records they turned to help make their aptly-named fourth record, Recover.

Evan Sawdey

Fleetwood Dissects the European Mindset in His Moody, Disturbing Thriller, 'A Young Fair God'

Hugh Fleetwood's difficult though absorbing A Young Fair God offers readers a look into the age-old world views that have established and perpetuated cultural rank and the social attitudes that continue to divide us wherever we may reside in the world.


Art Feynman Creates Refreshing Worldbeat Pop on 'Half Price at 3:30'

On Half Price at 3:30, Art Feynman again proves himself adept at building colorful worlds from unexpected and well-placed aural flourishes.


The Beths Are Sharp As Ever on 'Jump Rope Gazers'

New Zealand power-poppers the Beths return with a sophomore album that makes even the most senior indie-rock acts feel rudimentary by comparison.


Jessie Ware Returns to Form on 'What's Your Pleasure'

On What's Your Pleasure, Jessie Ware returns to where it all began, the dance floor.


The Jayhawks Offer Us Some 'XOXO'

The Jayhawks offer 12-plus songs on XOXO to help listeners who may be alone and scared by reminding us that we are all alone together.


Steve McDonald Remembers the Earliest Days of Redd Kross

Steve McDonald talks about the year that produced the first Redd Kross EP, an early eighth-grade graduation show with a then-unknown Black Flag, and a punk scene that welcomed and defined him.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.