I hate to be the one to break it to you, friends, but one day Bob Dylan is going to die. You know it, I know it, and on his newest album Rough and Rowdy Ways, it’s clear the 79 year old singer-songwriter also knows it.
After eight years and three albums—one being a triple album—chock full of sleepy-time renditions of Frank Sinatra covers, Rough and Rowdy Ways is Dylan’s first album of original songs since 2012’s Tempest. This was arguably the weakest of his releases since his resurgence that started in 1997 with Time Out of Mind – which was also in the wake of a couple of cover albums.
It is clear to see the long strides of greatness that Dylan has cranked out of the course of his career. As he runs out of gas, we see him disappear into cover albums, gospel music, or more experimental fare, although it’s difficult to explain what happened from Empire Burlesque through Under The Red Sky. Even the gods stumble, as a friend of mine likes to say.
And while Dylan’s Sinatra examination wasn’t terrible by any stretch, it just wasn’t what I preferred for a Bob Dylan release. Finally, picking up perfectly from where he left off with Tempest — but with a much stronger album — Dylan’s Rough and Rowdy Ways plays very internal, personal, and we find that, believe it or not, in spite of his philosopher / prophetic status of the past 60 years, we learn Bob Dylan is as human as you and I as he appears more vulnerable than ever before.
Dylan doesn’t go quite as heavy-handed on mortality as say Leonard Cohen did in his final years—Leonard made three albums about the topic before Death finally caught up with him, perhaps more unexpectedly than even he’d considered—and death and dying isn’t broad-stroked, but rather sprinkled throughout, often as a contemplation within self-reflection. And typically Dylan tells us more about ourselves than he shares about himself, and whatever he shares about himself is saran-wrapped in metaphor so tight, you need to be a literary scholar to even start to figure it out.
Each track contains not only multitudes, but there is clear reference to Dylan’s mortality as he is aware that there are fewer days ahead than behind, and with all the self-reflection, this one cliche statement could be the theme of this album. “I can’t remember when I was born / And I forgot when I died,” from ‘False Prophet’ is just one example of this. And “While I cannot frolic with all the young dudes / I contain multitudes,” from ‘I Contain Multitudes’ stresses the same idea.
In ‘Mother of Muses,’ it seems almost as if not only is Dylan almost out of days, in spite of all his living, he may be running out of words. “Mother of muses, unleash your wrath / Things I can’t see, they’re blocking my path.” And, “Wake me, shake me, free me of sin / Make me invisible, like the wind. / Got a mind that ramble, got a mind that roam / I’m travelin’ light and I’m a-slow coming home.”
And if you want to get deep into death metaphors, I’ll just go ahead and say that if he doesn’t make his point clear with shy references throughout, the song ‘I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You,’ isn’t about a woman. It’s also probably the best song on the album behind, of course the apocalyptic and mildly disturbing 17 minute ‘Murder Most Foul’ that was released in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, adding to the “Twilight Zone” vibe that had already taken over planet earth.
But my favorite song on the album has to be ‘My Own Version Of You,’ which would play perfectly as the closing credits of a Jim Jarmusch Frankenstein film if there ever could be such a thing. In the song, Dylan searches any place there might be a body to bring life, and as a man nearing the end of his, it’s clear he loves it so much he wants to make more of it possible in any way possible—in this case, at one point suggesting a Pacino / Brando robot commando that he explains, if done right will save his own life.
And of course, there’s plenty of great pop culture references that make these songs fun—certainly more fun than three albums of Sinatra lullabies—and keep you chuckling. Dylan deals with the heavy topics of vulnerability, self-reflection, and answering that last roll call with a sense of humor bemusing us along the way, before wrapping up with a death that arguably marked a change in the course of history with the assassination of JFK.
Of this most recent era of Dylan that really got its legs with Modern Times, Rough and Rowdy Ways transcends the period’s prior releases and is a perfect stopping place before taking us into the next age, which may or may not be the Great Beyond.
Words by Lucas Hardwick