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Albums of the Year 2020: Bob Dylan - Rough and Rowdy Ways | reviews, news & interviews

Albums of the Year 2020: Bob Dylan - Rough and Rowdy Ways

Albums of the Year 2020: Bob Dylan - Rough and Rowdy Ways

Dylan pulls out the stops for this late-period masterpiece

Given Dylan’s last album of originals was in 2012, and his standards phase had concluded with a slightly meandering three-disc set in Triplicate, expectations of anything other than an archival release or new tour announcement from Dylan in 2020 were low – until, that is, some weeks into the first lockdown, when his longest ever song dropped out of a clear blue sky.

"Murder Most Foul" began with cringey rhymes and rose and revolved into a most extraordinary, time-defying meditation and reverie, pulling from the aethyr all the names of power from the 20th century’s canonical list of musical greats. Two more songs soon followed its way onto the internet, and then the album itself, and what an album it was. Rough and Rowdy Ways is one of Dylan’s best, up there with Freewheelin', Highway 61, Blood on the Tracks, Time out of Mind, Love and Theft. And like all those great albums, it sounds like none of them, and none of them is like each other. You can all but feel Dylan wearing his years singing standards right against his skin, such is the intimacy, delicacy and force of his best performances. The skeletal web of guitar that sustains "Black Rider", the wave-like motions of the whole band working as one on "Key West" or "I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You", the shimmering nature of the settings for ‘"I Contain Multitudes" and "Mother of Muses" - they’re one of a kind. Musicians such as Fiona Apple, Blake Mills and Bob Britt, who augmented Dylan’s stage band – itself a fresh iteration for what are at present his final concerts of autumn 2019 – added their own signature touches to this album’s soundscape.

As for the lyrics, they spill out like guts from a belly, making prophecies, and they keep on coming. As a lot of listeners have commented over the past months, it feels like you’ll never get to the bottom of them. Here, Dylan’s own legend has become material for him in the same way that the songs and phrases and rhymes of the Anglo-American folk and blues traditions are, as is the poetry of the Classics – this is an album diffused with the light of ancient texts, and ruled by that most strangest and most powerful of muses, memory (Dylan’s is photographic, remember?). All these elements combine and regenerate into a seemingly effortless Burroughsian commingling of diverse sources and routes. There is no "I" in these songs, no single figures in a fixed landscape. These songs progress via the multitudes of the associational rather than the linear. They are songs of many shifting figures in many different landscapes where nothing is fixed and everything flows like Heraclitus said it would. There are moments that are intimate, that express love, that emit warmth and heat, but often set alongside the indifferent, the celestial, the bestial, murderous, violent and cold. Such is life, such is happiness, as one of his beautiful lines tells it. These are fully tenanted songs, lived in by multitudes. They strike me as unlike anything he’s ever done, and that only he could do them.

“Bless old Bob. I mean, I love his new album, man,” Keith Richards was quoted midway through the pandemic. You know he knows. This is special stuff. In an extraordinary year, Dylan released an album that equals and perhaps even surpasses the best work he’s done. That’s amazing.

Two More Essential Albums of 2020

Cunning Folk – A Casual Invocation

Roger and Brian Eno - Mixing Colours

Musical Experience of the Year

Lankum at the Abbey Theatre (online)

Track of the Year

Bob Dylan - "Key West"

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