Bob Dylan’s 39th studio album, Rough and Rowdy Ways, finds the aging Nobel Prize-winning singer-songwriter looking to the past and settling comfortably there both in terms of sound and subject matter.
Although it has been eight years since Bob Dylan has released an album of original material, there are no significant fireworks here save for the final track, and first single, that at 16 minutes is the longest song in Dylan’s discography. That finale, “Murder Most Foul,” is undoubtedly something that demands the listener’s attention for its length alone. Dylan has described some of his writing on this album as “trance writing,” and it particularly feels that way in the longer tracks and a track such as the album opener, “I Contain Multitudes,” which glom onto phrasings and repeat them until they resemble a mantra. Additionally, “I Contain Multitudes” and “Murder Most Foul” overflow with what feels like free-associative references. However, while the individual references can often fail to impress (from “Multitudes,” we get the redundant line, “I sing songs of experience like William Blake”), the sheer stacking of them creates an interesting effect on the listener. This is more successful in “Murder Most Foul,” however.
“I Contain Multitudes” is what it sounds like, with Dylan invoking Walt Whitman’s famous phrase to then lyrically contradict himself in a myriad of ways. However, the multitudes never feel that compelling—“I drive fast cars, I eat fast foods, I contain multitudes” —but rather kind of cute, which makes this song feel like something akin to Dylan’s version of Meredith Brooks’ “Bitch.” “I Contain Multitudes” does prepare us for the sheer exhaustive number of references Dylan is going to make throughout this album. Dylan quotes or name-checks writers from Whitman to Shakespeare, Edgar Allen Poe, and Mary Shelley; he quotes the Bible; he quotes musicians, and in “Murder Most Foul,” he refers to nearly every notable name or place associated with the Kennedy assassination.
Most of Rough and Rowdy Ways has Dylan honoring his blues idols of the past and working in their style. Songs like “False Prophet” and “Goodbye Jimmy Reed” lean towards the rocking side of the equation with appropriate blues lyrics such as “I can’t remember when I was born/ and I forgot when I died.” Dylan is clear about his influences throughout the album, and here is very straightforward in his emulation of those musicians he admires. Rather than sounding as if he is invoking the past, and trying to add a modern sheen to it, he digs right back into blues and blues-rock he would have heard growing up and recreates it just so.
There are a few quieter tracks that stand out, however. “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You” is surprising in that it is a genuinely melodic piece of music. Dylan’s songs typically leave an impression on the listener through Dylan’s unpredictable vocal performance or the poetic lyrics. However, here, we get a gentle, sweet melody that lifts his voice rather than bends to the shape of his distinctive yawp.
“Black Rider” and “Crossing the Rubicon” are both great examples of a slower, moodier version of the blues that Dylan clearly has an interest in. “Black Rider,” in particular, has Dylan telling a generally awful person to scatter. With an enjoyable amount of salt in his voice, he sings, “my soul is distressed/my mind is at war/don’t hug me, don’t flatter me, don’t turn on the charm/I’ll take a sword and hack off your arm.” Underneath Dylan’s words, we hear a slightly ominous strum creating an atmosphere such as one before an Old Western gunfight.
The finale of Rough and Rowdy Ways sees his two most extended tracks back-to-back. “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” is nearly 10 minutes and is essentially what you would expect to hear from a philosopher pirate in Key West. It has interesting moments of writing, particularly the section in which Dylan discusses his relationship to Judaism through extended metaphor, but it overall becomes quite sleepy.
“Murder Most Foul” is a beast of a song. There is so much to unravel and contains an endless line of referenced pop culture that you could try to determine the importance of (everything from Tommy to Don Henley). The smart choice is in the production, which features a spare piano melody accompanied by a plaintive violin. This keeps the focus on Dylan’s words, which are undeniably the most crucial aspect of the song. While the song feels as if it’s ballooning in the middle of an extensive repetitive sequence, the song’s cumulative weight is powerful. At the start, Dylan is relatively straightforwardly recounting the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and by the end, he has somehow painted a Boschian portrait of a country that is mired in the past, and which has shot itself in the head while walking around for decades pretending as if no wound existed.
Much of Rough and Rowdy Ways can feel scattered, as Dylan harnesses his “trance writing” and seems to write whatever comes to him for a stanza at a time. However, when he’s relatively focused—such as in “Murder Most Foul” or “I’ve Made Up My Mind…”—and when his voice is highlighted well, the album can offer listeners that unique Bob Dylan experience they value.