The Insider Review
By Madeline Barry
Bob Dylan, the illustrious singer and songwriter, who is often described as the voice of a generation (“a colossal accolade” that he has said “can get in the way”), just released his 39th studio album, Rough and Rowdy Ways today (June 19). It’s been eight years since Dylan released Tempest, his last album of original songs. Rough and Rowdy Ways comes at a pivotal point in both Dylan’s life and in history. At 79, the poet and Nobel Prize for Literature winner continues to be a font of prophetic knowledge amidst modern day chaos.
Within the first two lines of “I Contain Multitudes,” Dylan acknowledges the precious and precarious cycle of life. “Today, tomorrow, and yesterday, too/ The flowers are dyin' like all things do.” The song, like many on the album, continues to follow this Heideggarian train of thought. Time is finite and the knowledge of our inevitable deaths helps us to understand and contemplate our existence. At 79, Dylan acknowledges this inexorable fact. “I Contain Multitudes” feels like a reckoning of sorts. Dylan is comfortable with his contradictions. He croons about losing his mind if a lover does not come with him; claiming that half of his soul belongs to her. Moments later he demands that she “get up off my knee... keep your mouth away from me.” He is a “man of contradictions… a man of many moods” and he does indeed contain multitudes. He compares himself to Edgar Allan Poe, Anne Frank, Indiana Jones, the Rolling Stones, William Blake, Chopin, and Beethoven.
In a rare interview a week ago with award-winning historian Douglas Brinkley in The New York Times (June 12), Dylan speaks candidly about his identity: “’I Contain Multitudes’' is more like trance writing. Well, it’s not more like trance writing, it is trance writing. It’s the way I actually feel about things. It is my identity and I’m not going to question it. I am in no position to. Every line has a particular purpose.”
“False Prophet” has a bluesier feel than the hypnotic sounding “I Contain Multitudes.” Dylan’s voice takes on a gravelly tone, akin to the style of old blues singers like Bukka White. He sings, “I'm the enemy of the unlived meaningless life/ I ain't no false prophet/ I just know what I know/ I go where only the lonely can go.” The tone of “False Prophet” is unapologetic. Dylan is a rebel, the real deal: “Don't care what I drink/ I don't care what I eat/ I climbed the mountains of swords on my bare feet." Listen to his voice and lyrics and be transported to a dive bar surrounded by outlaws.
In the 16-minute 54-second track “Murder Most Foul”, Dylan speaks rhythmically over a heavy string sound. The first song of his to ever reach Number 1 on Billboard’s rock chart, it begins with a reference to the date of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The details of that brutal event are laced throughout the lyrics, serving as a kind of violent motif. In typical Dylan fashion, he expresses his discontent with the United States, “Goodbye, Charlie/ Goodbye, Uncle Sam/ Frankly, my Scarlett, I don't give a damn” “I said the soul of a nation been torn away/ And it's beginning to go into a slow decay.” Perhaps the most haunting and currently relevant line of all is his declaration that “only dead men are free.”
Towards the end of “Murder Most Foul,” Dylan invites the listener to play a wide range of artists. from Jelly Roll Morton to Beethoven to Dickey Betts. The allusions to these figures of the past and present, as well as many others sprinkled throughout the song, are not presented in a linear way; rather, Dylan’s timeline blurs the lines between then and now. “Murder Most Foul” forces us to consider the question, how much of history lives only in the past?
“My Own Version of You,” is described by Rob Sheffield of Rolling Stone as a “Bride of Frankenstein’ fantasy.” As a slide guitar twangs hauntingly in the background, Dylan sings about collecting livers, brain, hearts and “blood from a cactus” to create “my own version of you.” Dylan invokes some of mankind’s injustices, such as the Crusades and the selling of Trojan women and children into slavery. The lyrics are pleasingly eerie and the tune is catchy. There is violence, but there is also an emphasis on human connection. “I can see the history of the whole human race/ It's all right there, it's carved into your face.”
“I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You,” is slow, steady, and romantic. The lyrics call to mind a poem from the Romance Era. Dylan sings, “I'm sittin' on my terrace, lost in the stars/ Listening to the sounds of the sad guitars/ Been thinking it all over and I've thought it all through/ I've made up my mind to give myself to you.” Who is this lover? Chris Willman of Variety, surmises that “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You” is potentially a love letter to fans.
In “Black Rider,” Dylan sings to a mysterious enemy whom Sam Sodomsky of Pitchfork believes could be “death itself.” Dylan exclaims, “The size of your cock will get you nowhere,” and “Don’t hug me, don’t flatter me, don’t turn on the charm / I’ll take a sword and knock off your arm.”
“Goodbye Jimmy Reed” has a swinging feel. As the title suggests, the song is an homage to venerated bluesman Jimmy Reed. Dylan regards him as a deity of sorts: “Goodbye Jimmy Reed, godspeed/ Thump on the Bible, proclaim a creed.” The lively tune is fun, danceable, and humorous.
The themes of identity and death reappear in “Mother of Muses,” with lyrics like “Forge my identity from the inside out,” and “I’ve already outlived my life by far.”
Sheffield describes “Crossing the Rubicon” as a menacing tune. He writes, “In the sinister “Crossing the Rubicon,” he sneers, “I’ll cut you up with a crooked knife, Lord, and I’ll miss you when you’re gone.” When Dylan observes that it’s darkest right before the dawn—not the first time this weatherman has made that point—he follows with a throwaway “oh god” that can really chill your bones.”
As for “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)”, Sheffield describes this song as “the highlight from an album full of highlights,” while Willman says, “Dylan stretches to find something interesting to say about the title locale before finally throwing in the towel at the nine-and-a-half-minute point.”
And what has Dylan been doing during the pandemic? According to the Brinkley interview, the singer has been sheltering in place in his beachfront Malibu home and passing the time by doing a bit of painting and welding. Even though his spring tour in Japan was cancelled and his upcoming summer tour, which was supposed to start in Nevada, traverse the west and south and end in Bethel Woods, New York, is no longer happening, we can still hear the wise Dylan contemplate life, death, and identity by indulging in Rough and Rowdy Ways.
Madeline Barry is a high school English teacher at Northside Charter High School in North Williamsburg, Brooklyn. She teaches three sections of senior English and two introductory Latin classes. Figuring out virtual learning, listening to music, and writing for The Insider has kept her semi-sane during the quarantine.