“I sing the songs of experience like William Blake,” Bob Dylan growls, introducing his 39th epistle on the follies, frustrations and secret strengths of a species at war with itself, “I’ve got no apologies to make.”
He’s the rebel poet, approaching twilight, laying out generations of hard-earned wisdoms with no punches pulled and no regrets. At 79, following a trio of covers albums of American standards largely associated with Sinatra, you might expect Dylan to make a world-worn and contemplative sort of record, but one that had little left to say. Instead, with ‘Rough And Rowdy Ways’, he’s produced arguably his grandest poetic statement yet, a sweeping panorama of culture, history and philosophy peering back through assassinations, world wars, the births of nations, crusades and Biblical myths in order to plot his place in the great eternal scheme.
Rough? Perhaps, but it certainly has the warmth and lustre of the intimate and home-made. And rowdy? Dylan’s sure been rowdier. Even his most recent album, 2012’s celebrated ‘Tempest’ – one of several 21st Century Dylan records hailed a masterpiece and considered the crowning achievement of his later career, until now – relied on a certain barnyard boogie, jump blues, country rock and ragtime swing to tell its tales of old, weird America, Lennon and the tragedy of the Titanic.
With ‘Rough And Rowdy Ways’, he’s moved past such trad-rock frivolities as impetus, melody, chorus, even rhythm in places. Instead he requires of his band just a series of soft and simple canvasses, woven largely from gentle spiritual, lustrous country, Southern blues or gothic Americana – often resembling enclosed, traditionally structured atmospheres rather than songs – onto which he can project his sprawling literary visions of death, degradation and the horrors of history.
From the start, he places himself front and centre. Set to a languorous haze of acoustic, slide guitar and cello, ‘I Contain Multitudes’ is as full and rounded a self-portrait as you could hope for from one of music’s most shrouded and enigmatic legends. “Got a tell-tale heart like Mr Poe,” Dylan purrs in grainy low register as he spills out admissions of vanity, hate, promiscuity, guilt, paranoia, extravagance, rebellion and enduring love, from himself or the array of characters he contains. “I’m a man of contradictions, I’m a man of many moods, I contain multitudes,” he sings – in as much as Louis Armstrong, Tom Waits or a spluttering lawnmower might ‘sing’ – quoting Walt Whitman to evoke his galaxy of internal emotions.
There’s a closing-book feel to the song that sets a tone for the album, not just in the open-casket hush of the music or the rich lyrical references to a panoply of cultural figures from literary greats to cinematic heroes and rock’n’roll peers – he rhymes “Indiana Jones” with “The Rolling Stones”. It’s in the overt reference to mortality: “Today and tomorrow and yesterday too, the flowers are dyin’ like all things do”. Throughout ‘Rough And Rowdy Ways’, death rides – dark and hoarse.
Over 71 minutes Dylan develops a complex relationship with the Reaper. The steamy Southern blues of ‘False Prophet’ could be read as Bob inhabiting the sharp-cut cowl himself, roaming a godless and greedy world with underworld guides at his side, dispensing justice and revenge on those unworthy of redemption. Then, on the sparse, flamenco-flecked Western noir ‘Black Rider’, death is the caller Dylan’s been warily expecting at his own door: “Tell me when, tell me how,” he calmly intones, “if there ever was a time then let it be now / Let me go through, open the door / My soul is distressed, my mind is at war”.
By ‘Crossing The Rubicon’ – another gritty Southern blues and the only point the album teeters towards the formulaic – he’s making his peace, settling his affairs and preparing to make that irreversible journey “three miles north of Purgatory, one step from the Great Beyond”. The nine-minute ‘Key West (Philosopher Pirate)’, meanwhile, is a rather idyllic deathbed confessional. Over a lustrous country lilt our protagonist recalls a colourful life “born on the wrong side of the railroad track / Like Ginsberg, Corso and Kerouac”, married at 12 (“she’s still cute and we’re still friends”) and ending up in Heaven’s waiting room at the very bottom of America, filling his final days with gumbo and Hindu rituals.
As much as languid spiritual ‘I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You’ – gorgeous, limpid and brushed by drowsy steel drums – laments those Dylan has lost along the road, he also has fun with mortality. ‘My Own Version Of You’, a sultry vaudevillian blues, finds him robbing graves and morgues for “the necessary body parts” to create a replica of a lost lover, like Victor Frankenstein with a mafia flick fetish: “I’ll take the Scarface Pacino and The Godfather Brando, mix it up in a tank and get a robot commando”. It also morphs into an metaphor for our melting pot culture as Dylan sees Trojan myth, the first crusade, Hamlet, the birth of America, Freud, Marx and Sinatra in the eyes of the monster he’s created: “I can see the history of the whole human race… carved into your face”.
Dylan is famed for his poetic allegories and allusive lyricism, but the sheer breadth of cultural and historical scope he pulls off on ‘Rough And Rowdy Ways’ must surely make this his Ulysses, not least because you’d break Wikipedia trying to unpack it all.
Dots are connected between America’s God-fearing traditions and the lure of ‘50s delta blues on ‘Goodbye Jimmy Reed’ (a legendary Mississippi bluesman), to illuminate how raw humanity clashes with religious strictures. The mournful military tattoo ‘Mother Of Muses’ lowers its cap for the US generals from the Civil War to WWII who “cleared the path for Presley to sing, who carved the path for Martin Luther King”. Religion, music, war and civil rights are all part of the same broad tapestry; Dylan just pulls at the threads to see what unravels.
It all culminates in the evocative 17-minute epic poem ‘Murder Most Foul’, so eminent within the album and such an ambitious culmination of Dylan’s life’s work that it’s given its own CD on the physical version. Delivered with the piano ambience and glacial melancholy of Lou Reed and John Cale’s ‘Songs For Drella’, it places the JFK assassination at the core of the modern America’s dilemma: “The day that they killed him,” Dylan sighs, the weight of the modern world on his tongue, “Someone said to me, ‘Son / The age of the Antichrist has just only begun’.”
The roots of the erosion of US democracy plays out against a backdrop of counter-culture revolution. Between flickering scenes from Dealey Plaza and Parkland hospital, Dylan widens the shot to take in the birth of rock’n’roll, The Beatles, Woodstock and Altamont, before unleashed a bombardment of musical, cinematic and social references stretching the entire 20th Century, like ‘We Didn’t Start The Fire’ grew up and got a degree. Bluesmen, silent movie clowns, soul queens, jazz greats, rockers, hippies and pin-ups – Dylan revels in a hundred years of creative progress as if in accusation of America’s immutable ideological savagery. JFK, he’s saying, was just the highest profile, on-camera bloodstain to be splashed across the stars and stripes.
“The song is like a painting, you can’t see it all at once if you’re standing too close,” Dylan recently told The New York Times, “the individual pieces are just part of a whole.” As such, it’s a vision of which DeLillo, Picasso or Eliot would be proud, and serves as a fitting close on a record that aspires to be the musical equivalent of the Great American Novel. It would be foolish indeed to assume that ‘Rough And Rowdy Ways’ is Dylan’s last word, but it’s certainly a historic address.
Release date: June 19
Record label: Columbia