Album Review: Bob Dylan – Rough And Rowdy Ways (Columbia)

At age 79, and with 38 studio albums behind him, Bob Dylan still manages to prove he is an artist unmatched with his new album, Rough And Rowdy Ways.

With his previous album of new material, Tempest, released 8 years ago, only to be followed by a series of Dylan singing old standards, I think most of us had given up on new songs from the old Bard.

But then, about two months ago, Dylan took everyone by surprise by releasing Murder Most Foul, a stunning song starting off commenting on the assassination of US President Kennedy in 1963 and then goes on for a nearly 17 minute stream of consciousness ramble where Bob names song titles (mostly from the late 50s and early 60s along with a seemingly random group of people including John Lee Hooker, Marilyn Monroe and Don Henley.

For a guy who seems, at first glance, wallowing in the past, Dylan’s Murder Most Foul felt disturbingly contemporary, especially in the middle of the Covid epidemic, Trump’s presidency and the Black Lives Matters protests.

Even the length of the track was strangely appealing…like having Dylan whispering in your ear for 17 minutes.

Since then two more tracks have been released, and now, today, the complete album.

Sure, Dylan’s voice is rough and gravelly, but that just adds more tension and emotion to the songs.

And what songs they are!

I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You is a slow boiling, Latin-tinged ballad that is both poetic and romantic as Dylan sings of “listening to the sound of sad guitars”.

Black Rider is dark and sinister. Its an intimate recording where I swear you can hear someone in the background moving around. Like most of the songs here, its one verse after another with no chorus.

Then comes Goodbye Jimmy Reed…a rocker that practically jumps out of the speakers. Dylan’s band lays down a rockabilly/blues groove while Bob wails on his harmonica. The lyric, “I can’t play the record because the needle got stuck” is a favourite of mine.

We’ve got one more short-ish track (at about 4 minutes), Mother Of Muses. It’s a gentle ballad with Dylan addressing his muse…”sing for me”, while managing to name check General Sherman, Montgomery and Patton.  Oh, and also Elvis and Martin Luther King for good measure.

From there Bob stretches out.

Crossing The Rubicon is 71/2 minutes of dirty swaggering blues. Bob is particularly croaky as he tells of Julius Caesar’s crossing of the famous river in 49BC. (Of course)

Then clocking in a 9:34 is Key West. I lengthy rumination on the search for love …its slow and languid and features some lovely accordion work. Again Dylan is naming people and songs…Down In The Boondocks, Try A Little Tenderness, Allen Ginsberg and Kerouac. The second disc is taken up with the 17 minute Murder Most Foul which you’ve no doubt heard and formed your own opinion about.

Finally a mention of the musicianship on the record. I don’t have first-hand info, but I found this which tells us that along with Bob’s regular band folks like Fiona Apple and Blake Mills contribute in some form or fashion. And Benmont Tench’s piano is stunning.

Despite these fine performances, the focus is always on Dylan, his vocals and his lyrics. Who would have thought that at age 79, ol’ Bob would serve up another masterpiece. But that’s just what he’s done.

I can’t wait to get the vinyl version!

Marty Duda