fri 14/06/2024

CD: Bob Dylan - Rough and Rowdy Ways | reviews, news & interviews

CD: Bob Dylan - Rough and Rowdy Ways

CD: Bob Dylan - Rough and Rowdy Ways

Bob returns with an unadulturated, stone-cold masterpiece

When “Murder Most Foul” was dropped into an unsuspecting world under lockdown, the surprise was palpable, given that eight years had passed since Tempest, filled by Sinatra covers and seasonal tours. That it was a 16-minute epic that took Dylan’s writing into new areas (including No1 on Billboard) – and this on the verge of his eightieth year – is also astonishing.

Mixing the modes of popular verse with his own telling twists of imagery and narrative, “Murder Most Foul” was a widescreen, mythological retelling of the Kennedy assassination wrapped up in a lengthy ‘king list’ of players, songs and singers, the list of names extending way before and after Kennedy’s death as if to suggest some immortal flow through 20th-century popular music’s Elysium Fields. Against a circling piano and delicate touches of cello and bass, and recorded so that you can all but feel the air in the room, Dylan’s voice and lyric does all sorts of things with time, combining the linear progress of the murder ballad with the circular time of the king list.

DylanTwo more songs have also been released, “I Contain Multitudes” and “False Prophet”. Both turn out to be bigger on the inside than the outside. “Multitudes” brushes through a plethora of places, characters and times, and opens the door onto one of the strangest, strongest and plain weirdest of all Dylan’s albums. It’s a first-person song, but the ‘I’ has never felt less individual, packed as it is with the inner multitudes of experience, age, persona, projection, association and shared culture.

And so it is throughout this magnificent album, where the first person is a fractured entity, blown open wide. As serene as the surface of the music often is, there’s a restless and protean poetry broiling down below, embracing multitudes and leaving plenty of loose ends to tease out and chew over. At times I feel the influence of Western Lands-era William Burroughs, not that Dylan’s taking from him so much as expanding on the principles and the results of Burroughs’ methods, embedding them in the structure of the songs.

“False Prophet” carries Dylan’s heavily barked voice on a slow march, a beat as heavy as nails hammered into a coffin. The lyrics are a bragging, proclaiming blizzard of imagery slipping between Iron Age and classic film noir, peopled by the folk and blues traditions’ stock company of players and settings.

“My Own Version of You”, meanwhile, is a gentle, funny, creepy, evocative – a weird Frankenstein-meets-Reanimator tale, set to a spiralling rhythm, at times with some of the spirit of Oh Mercy’s “Man In The Long Black Coat”. The opening lines are darkly funny, brilliantly delivered: “All through the summer into January, I’ve been visiting morgues and monasteries, looking for the necessary body parts, limbs and livers and brains and hearts.” It’s hardly a Valentine’s. Verse after great verse lead off at tangents before returning to the shifting chorus, a genius song that roams far but holds tight.

As serene as the surface of the music often is, there’s a restless and protean poetry broiling down below, embracing multitudes“I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself To You” is sung gorgeously, captured perfectly, played subtly, set up on a circling vocal chorus. It’s a song of devotion, but not necessarily devotion to any human or worldly object of affection. It’s paired with “The Black Rider”, a song possibly drawing from the play of the same name by William Burroughs, Tom Waits and Robert Wilson. It circles quietly around the figure of death, its wagons hitched up to the fleeting and ruling passions emptying out of life – rage, love, suffering, fortitude, fear. It’s beautifully spare in instrumentation – one of the few Dylan band recordings without a drummer – and hauntingly sung.

Cranking it back up to life is a raucous tribute to bluesman Jimmy Reed, a Highway 61-style rocker with plenty of arresting, crackling, lascivious verses – “Transparent woman in a transparent dress, suits you well I must confess – I’ll break open your grapes and suck out your juice, I need you like a head needs a noose.” To follow, and in stark contrast, “Mother of Muses” is lush, slow and stately, its arrangement leaving plenty of air and space in the song, adding to its profound sense of timelessness. The lyrics are steeped in classical mythology.

As is “Crossing The Rubicon”, which features the album’s biggest burst of harmonica (alongside a blow or two on "Goodbye Jimmy Reed" ), cranking up from the get-go to become another album – and career – highlight. Dylan is at his mercurial best here, declaiming vivid tableaux over a blues steeped in the blood of the ancients, the heroes of Homer and Julius Caesar slitting the throats of their foe. Over seven and half glorious minutes, verses return again and again to that point of no return, and all the irreversible ways of getting there, and crossing the Rubicon.

DylanWhich brings us to “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)”, the first disc’s final song (“Murder Most Foul” stands alone on the second), and its longest. It’s carried on a soft, see-sawing riff overlaid by accordion, it’s atmospherics summoning up an American road trip into the Elysium Fields, where the likes of Hemingway, Tennessee Williams and Shel Silverstein once found homes. Maybe Dylan has a home there too. Maybe he’s got some real estate he wants to boost, because he sure makes Key West sound welcoming. It’s casual, metaphysical, full of detail, wonderfully sung – I heard touches of Blood on the Tracks and even Nashville Skyline rise out of the music here and there – with Dylan the intuitive master lyricist making his spring-heeled way through a plethora of times, faces and places, all returning to roost on that two-word sign, Key West.

What to make of it all? It’s a masterpiece. Even after repeated and detailed listens, it feels endless and bottomless. What a piece of work. It’s bizarre, eccentric, unlike anything else he or anyone else has done. It ranks with the very best. Entropy is meant to be the third universal law of the universe, so for a 79-year-old artist to produce a work of such expansiveness, humanity and mystery – well that might be the greatest mystery of all.



Note spelling of blues singer's name - you have Jimmy Reid here, Jimmy Read here( whereas the correct spelling is, I believe Jimmy Reed

Great review. Just to add that Key West was also crucial to one of America's greatest poets, Wallace Stevens. Just try 'The Idea of Order at Key West'. He and Hemingway also had a famous fist fight there - with Stevens coming off worst! I haven't heard Dylan's song yet, but it would be wonderful if he managed to work that in.

'..for a 79-year-old artist to produce a work of such expansiveness, humanity and mystery – well that might be the greatest mystery of all.' Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear! At what age does one stop being capable of expansiveness, humanity and mystery, I wonder?

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