As dense and allusive as Bob Dylan’s songs can be, he’s been prone of late to drop ‘this way’ signs upfront.
‘Murder Most Foul’, his first original song in eight years, released in March, came with a ‘cover’ image of John F Kennedy, indicating that the 17-minute song-poem was focused on the Presidential assassination of 1963. The follow-up, ‘I Contain Multitudes’, was accompanied by a picture of Dylan himself, guitar in hand and eyes down the barrel of the lens, suggesting a more personal reflection on a life lived defiant.
‘False Prophet’, the third song to precede his forthcoming album ‘Rough And Rowdy Ways’, announced today (May 8), comes with a pack shot that’s no less portentous but certainly hints at a more cinematic noir-fiction approach: an illustrated skeleton, in 1920s top hat and tails, holds a gift box in the shadow of a hanged man. Gentleman Death come calling, if you will, bearing gifts to ease your passage.
With this in hand, it’s easier to dissect the looping, lolloping delta blues of ‘False Prophet’ as Dylan’s ‘Sympathy For The Devil’ or ‘Red Right Hand’. Some unknowable, dark-eyed devil stalking the land serves as an allegory for an age that puts industry before humanity, commerce before life.
“Another day of anger, bitterness and doubt,” our anti-hero muses, “I saw it begin / I opened my heart to the world and the world came in.” You can almost hear the tabloid press, disaster capitalist Tory donors and golf club and hotel-owning world leaders willing the lockdown to end and the curve to spike. It’s no accident, perhaps, that the skeleton is also holding a syringe.
Accompanied by a couple of ‘fleet-footed guides from the underworld”, this “enemy of the meaningless life” roams a ruined world delivering vengeance, choking the greedy with gold, shackling poisonous rulers and generally delivering retribution to the wicked. Dylan’s devil isn’t wreaking havoc or revelling in the horrors of the capitalist endgame; he’s more of a warrior of justice, punishing evil like a good little jobsworth imp should.
Of course, it’s always tempting to read Dylan himself into the character; the righteous protest singer taking down the cruel and corrupt with his own formidable social power to wield. If there is a touch of autobiography, Dylan is clearly proud of his work after 50-plus years in the game, taking on a boxer’s pre-match bravado (“I’m first among equals, second to none / Last of the best, you can bury the rest”) and nodding to the long-standing protest tradition he epitomised. “I sing songs of love, I sing songs of betrayal,” he growls, “can’t remember when I was born and I forget when I died.”
It all adds to the sense that ‘Rough And Rowdy Ways’ might well be a reflective late-era high point and worthy cap on his celebrated career. Something darkly wonderful this way comes.