Opinion | Bob Dylan’s rough and rowdy return
Dylan’s new album, ‘Rough and Rowdy Ways’, is one of his grandest statements. With it, the 79-year-old has delivered another masterpiece
It wasn’t until the mid-1970s, when I heard Blood On The Tracks, that I really began appreciating Bob Dylan’s songs. We were in our final year in school in Kolkata (it was still called Calcutta) and a friend introduced us to the album, on vinyl of course. Blood On The Tracks was already probably a year old but those were the days of scarcity, when laying your hands on a new album in India was not easy. For me, that album was like a turning point, shaping my tastes in music profoundly.
Looking back at the first couple of sessions we had with that album on an HMV turntable in a tiny room I had in my parents’ flat, it seems like a surreal experience. Blood On The Tracks and its songs, such as Tangled Up In Blue, Idiot Wind, You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go, and the exquisite pièce de résistance, Lily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts, with its complex story and fascinating characters, quickly became the only album we played for a long while. It would be much later that we got the controversial interpretations of the album. That it might have been a breakup album with autobiographical references to Dylan’s estrangement from his first wife. That was a notion that Dylan himself has always dismissed as untrue but it persists.
Dylan was 34 when Blood On The Tracks was released. He turned 79 this year. And four years ago, he famously became a Nobel laureate, receiving the celebrated award for literature. Since Blood On The Tracks, Dylan has released 24 studio albums, the latest of which, Rough And Rowdy Ways, came out this month. It wasn’t until last year that I got a chance to watch him live at a gig that was part of his enigmatically named Never Ending Tour, which began in 1988 and will, hopefully, continue.
Rough And Rowdy Ways is his first album of original songs since 2012, when he released Tempest. In between, his albums have been either covers of pop standards or classic American songs. We got a whiff of Rough And Rowdy Ways earlier this year when Dylan surprised everyone with the release of the epic, nearly 17-minute-long single, Murder Most Foul. That song, worth listening to on repeat multiple times, addresses the assassination of US president John F. Kennedy and traces the history of American society since, including the heady phase of counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s.
When Rough And Rowdy Ways came out on 19 June, a friend tweeted: “The lyrics of all the songs in Rough and Rowdy Ways, which released at midnight, is why Dylan won the literature Nobel in 2016." It was an apt description. Over the years, Dylan’s voice, never one that had universal appeal, has been ravaged by age. At the gig I watched last summer in a chock-full arena in Helsinki, if you weren’t very familiar with the lyrics of some of his classic old songs, you wouldn’t have believed he was performing them. His voice, always famously raspy, sounded like croaks. But for true Dylan fans, that doesn’t matter. What they look for are his words and his lyrical perspectives, influenced heavily by his keen interest in philosophy, history, relationships and society.
Of all Dylan albums, Rough And Rowdy Ways comes closest to the near-epiphanic experience I had as a teenager when I first heard Blood On The Tracks. Because Dylan explores a vast range of issues in this gorgeous new album: war, civil rights and religion. In the album opener, I Contain Multitudes, he sings: I sing the songs of experience like William Blake/ I have no apologies to make. True, he has none to make. The most fascinating part of Dylan’s lyrics is what you can make of the references. In the same song, he delightfully namechecks Edgar Allan Poe, Anne Frank, Beethoven, Chopin and, as a rare bonus, “them British bad boys, The Rolling Stones".
Eight years after his last set of original songs on an album, Rough And Rowdy Ways is Dylan’s zestful return to songwriting and recording. We are blessed and lucky for that. What is more, even his voice sounds better than it has in years. Yes, it is still raspy and ravaged, but he, variously, croons and growls, sings the blues, and delivers lyrics in spoken-word style. I can’t think of any of the 10 songs on the album that I didn’t enjoy but the one that really stood out was My Own Version Of You. At the core of the song is probably Mary Shelley’s concept of Frankenstein—of building a creature with different parts. Dylan sings: I’ll take the Scarface Pacino and The Godfather Brando/ Mix it up in a tank and get a robot commando/ If I do it upright and put the head on straight/ I’ll be saved by the creature that I create.
The best part of Rough And Rowdy Ways is that Dylan’s vocals are upfront and pretty much in the arc lights all the time, allowing listeners to devour the words, ponder the allusions and come up with their own interpretations. His band, a competent array of musicians with guitars and drums but also instruments such as the cello and the accordion, complements his vocals with excellence. As the songs unfurl one by one, each with its own cachet of surprising nuances, allegories and references, you begin to marvel at the true genius of one of popular music’s most brilliant artists.
Rough And Rowdy Ways is Dylan at his very best again. For Dylan fans, it’s an unimaginable treat that begs to be put on repeat. And to hope that this is not the last word from a man who will turn 80 next year. Eighty!
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