Bob Dylan is that rarity among artists: a living myth. Scores of scholars have cashed in on penning a thousand words pouring over each one he has sung or, very occasionally, said. His lyrics are credited with being a moving force in the ‘60s cultural revolution. He has proved immune to all fashions and trends, doing whatever strikes his fancy at the moment and letting his audience decide for itself whether it wishes to follow. Such was the case with Rough And Rowdy Ways, his 2020 album that in its release came both as an utter surprise and as a surprise in and of itself.
Musically, Rough And Rowdy Ways is anything but. There is an occasional bluesy snarl, but the vast majority is carefully assembled quiet layers, all instrumentation well blended and deliberately indistinct. In lesser hands such an approach could easily lead to tedium, but Dylan and company make it compelling.
Dylan’s voice has been reduced over the years to a lower register growl befitting a lion in winter. It isn’t pretty; Dylan’s nasally projection has never been pretty. Yet despite its limitations Dylan’s voice remains approachable without being inviting.
Lyrically, Rough And Rowdy Ways finds Dylan at his multilayered best, surface interpretations available but inevitably inviting deeper dives. Those wishing for references to his straightforward Slow Train Coming era faith proclamations will find an occasional tantalizing hint such as this brief nugget from “False Prophet:”
Oh you poor Devil — look up if you will
The City of God is there on the hill
Elsewhere Dylan slyly leaves the listener wondering. In “I Contain Multitudes,” is he referring to each individual’s multifaceted persona or a manipulator’s ability to chameleon their way into controlling others via channeling elements of their nature? All is not open to multiple interpretations; “I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You” is a straightforward love song begging to stand alongside “Make You Feel My Love” in the catalog of Dylan songs eagerly covered by others.
The album’s pinnacle is “Murder Most Foul,” an eighteen minute tone poem finding Dylan musing on John F. Kennedy’s assassination in a stream of consciousness vibe that weaves characters as disparate as Wolfman Jack and Stevie Nicks into the story while offering one final moment for Christians to ponder:
The day that they killed him, someone said to me, “Son,
The age of the anti-Christ has just only begun.”
Rough And Rowdy Ways isn’t background bubblegum music for pop poppers. It commands and demands careful listening. Short attention span sufferers will be left cold. But for the initiated thinker, the individual seeking challenge and meat from art, there have been few albums in recent times offering this much substance. The world has long known Bob Dylan is a visionary genius. With Rough And Rowdy Ways, he’s shown he doesn’t mind proving it once more.