Bob Dylan Condenses a Lifetime of Experience Into Poetic ‘Rough and Rowdy Times’
In times of plague and protests, the masses have often turned to poets to make sense of life and search for the beauty in it. Fortunately, Bob Dylan is still fleshing out works of a depth and detail that rival anything in his catalogue. Recent years found him covering American standards by the likes of SInatra, and as one cover album came after another, it seemed he might have finally said all he had to say. But Dylan is back with an hour-long album of ambitious songs that survey life, and dance with death. On “Rough and Rowdy Times,” he continues in the style that has characterized his work since 2012’s “The Tempest,” but takes further liberties in structure, and surpasses recent efforts in his wealth of cryptic, encyclopedic reference.
The opening track, “I Contain Multitudes,” sounds like a vision received in a stupor. The music is languid and sprawling, picking up rhythm for short spurts only to waver off freely, and Dylan rattles off non sequiturs in an unapologetically hoarse voice. He alludes to the literature of Antoin Ó Raifteirí and Edgar Allen Poe and the music of Beethoven and Chopin. He names specific songs by Carl Perkins and Gene Vincent, as well as Bob Luman’s “Red Cadillac and a Black Moustache,” which he himself covered. Among the more obscure references are the Angel of Forgetfulness from Jewish mystical tales and the “four pistols and two large knives” that Lincoln’s bodyguard carried to the presidential inauguration. There are innumerable connections that the imaginative annotator can make from the litany of references, and sometimes Dylan appears to pick particular nuggets of culture for no reason at all. As an artist at 79 years of age, he is the product of his life’s experiences, and a selection of allusions offers a glimpse into the passions that have persisted through the ages, as well as the trends that have changed with the times. In summation, Dylan utters, “I sing songs of experience, like WIlliam Blake.”
Another line from the opener that appeals to the album as a whole is “I sleep with life and death in the same bed.” The flash of historical and cultural references continues throughout the record, interspersed with musings on mortality. On “False Prophet,” a sluggish Southern blues number, Dylan runs through the motions over an unwieldy riff that juts back and forth, and finds brief definition upon the turnaround. He sets out to right wrongs, a man on a mission making tongue-in-cheek declarations and threats, as the rather farcical blues backing eggs him on. “My Own Version of You” is a fantastical outlier that takes the theme of morbidity beyond the self. Over a theatrical, jazzy backdrop, Dylan sings about wandering the Earth and stealing body parts from graves to recreate a lost love, “Bride of Frankenstein” style. Over a creeping four chord refrain, he schemes, “I’ll cut you up with a crooked knife, Lord, and I’ll miss you when you’re gone.” He goes on to extrapolate the meticulous cataloguing that began in the opener to his object of attraction, observing, “I can see the history of the whole human race… carved into your face.”
Dylan laments the loss of loved ones over the years on “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You,” a sluggish song in the style of an old spiritual. Along the way, he dwells on his own mortality, with some levity in his tone. The matter grows more somber on “Black Rider,” a Flamenco-tinged vignette of flickering guitars, named after one of the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse. Dylan turns his contemplation toward death, falling subject to passions, and calmly retreating back to a final acceptance, reckoning, “If there ever was a time, then let it be now.” “Goodbye Jimmy Reed,” named after a Mississippi bluesman of yore, places Dylan over another rusty jukebox jamboree, as he uses the eponymous legend to evoke the devilish spirit of delta blues, and cheekily juxtapose it with the puritan religiosity that still largely defines America. Dylan’s usual dry humor takes a rather farcical turn when he exclaims, “Gimme that old time religion / It’s just what I need” over a harmonica-laden blues romp.
Dylan sounds especially weary and haggard on “Mother of Muses,” which struggles through its lullaby-like melody like a winding down snowglobe, as he pays tribute to US generals from the Civil War to World War II, relating their sacrifices to the history that they enabled, and mentioning the likes of Elvis and Martin Luther King Jr. Death is never out of reach, as Dylan here notes, “I’ve already outlived my life by far.” On “Crossing the Rubicon,” he goes on to face the issue head on. Another twangy Southern blues track gives Dylan more of a conventional structure than most others, and he sings about charting his journey, preparing for the irreversible plunge, with a reckless spirit in his croaky voice, as he ventures past the titular Italian river “three miles north of purgatory, one step from the great beyond.” The accordion-heavy, country-tinged “Key West (Philosopher Pirate),” sounds assembled from a dream, even more so than the opener. Dylan’s lyrics fittingly describe a final journey of sorts, a quixotic odyssey to the furthest Florida isle, listening to ‘60 soul hit “Rescue Me” on a pirated radio station along the way.
The album ends with “Murder Most Foul,” the epic seventee-minute song that Dylan released in March, during the growing crisis of the covid-19 pandemic. The track recollects the day of the Kennedy assassination, and makes sense of the world’s shock through a litany of references that trumps those on any other song here. Dylan makes innumerable requests to popular disk jockey Wolfman Jack — “Play ‘Deep In a Dream,’ and play ‘Driving Wheel’ / Play ‘Moonlight Sonata’ in F-sharp.” As in “I Contain Multitudes,” Dylan presents life as a collection of cultural references. In this case, the plight with which songs and works are requested raises questions about the role of art during times of crisis.
Altogether, the encyclopedic ruminations of “Rough and Rowdy Times” come across as an attempt to make sense of life in the twilight hour. Historical figures, hit songs, and works of art and literature are all used as reference points to express the rich variety of experience, the “multitudes” that characterize life as we know it. While albums like “Modern Times” and “Tempest” still showed an attempt at something vaguely akin to conventional songwriting, Dylan is now bolder than ever in his free idiosyncrasies, and uses music only as a backdrop for his loosely structured verbiage. The quaint, rather esoteric blues and Americana variations that carry these songs frame his madcap collages into structures specific to certain eras and regions, while the lyrics dart across the globe and throughout the ages. Ultimately, the songs convey an open-ended inquiry into the opaque gestalt that is life, and paint a grainy, impressionistic picture in which Dylan’s voluminous references constitute the pixels.
“Rough and Rowdy Times” is available June 19 on Apple Music.