There was a time when music writers put extra effort into analyzing Bob Dylan’s music than he put into recording it. This isn’t a criticism: Dylan’s habitually slapdash execution enriches his imaginative and prescient. The peculiar cognitive dissonance that arises from his potent conflation of formidable and informal modes has enchanted. Dylan’s finest jokes have been on the expense of those that would interpret them as grand statements: Ask not at whom the Bard cackles; the Bard cackles at thee.
In the 21st century, nonetheless, this dynamic modified, as Dylan has retreated into formalism. Since his vital comeback on the flip of the millennium with Time Out of Mind (1997), he has embraced a extra meticulous, and in the end extra standard, singer-songwriter mode. While he’s all the time assembled rickety rafts of verbal jetsam — culled from cultural references, twisted idioms, random concrete nouns — this tendency reached a brand new degree of transparency, as he began writing songs comprised fully of rearranged vernacular expressions and cliches. Similarly, the music weaves parts from folks, blues, and jazz and crooner pop genres (and infrequently snippets from songs within the public area) right into a cunningly imprecise simulation of American music historical past.
Always a grasp thief, he has grow to be a collage artist as properly. It’s as if he learn Greil Marcus’s many hundreds of compliments over time and determined to emulate Marcus’s concept of him as a historic trickster — or, as Carl Wilson put it in Slate, a “living archive” whose work preserves and transforms artifacts from a misplaced folks world.
In idea, there’s an interesting paradox between the normal materials he attracts on and his postmodern method of jumbling all of it. After 20 years, the novelty of this method has worn out: removed from undermining Americana’s formal conservatism, it’s the one viable method a folks or blues artist can soak up 2020. Reimagining historical past has grow to be the conference, and so Dylan’s music these previous 20 years has affirmed requirements of craft and respectability he by no means heeded earlier than, as well mannered and well-manicured as you’d anticipate from a Nobel Prize-winning establishment. If something, Time Out of Mind and the opposite acclaimed albums that adopted are too good, or possibly simply good in a brand new method: clean, lovingly crafted, flawlessly sequenced from starting to finish. These intricate and infrequently meaningless albums lack the endearing vulgarity that has all the time distinguished him. Once his collages may now not be mistaken for the rest, they misplaced their stress.
Because of his repute as a protest singer, critics have heard veiled political commentary in each new Dylan album. Rough and Rowdy Ways, out since June, isn’t any extra a touch upon the present international pandemic or resurgent civil rights motion than Love and Theft (2001) was a response to 9/11; there’s all the time some disaster for brand new music to align with coincidentally.
Still, that is his gloomiest album since Time Out of Mind. Even extra surprisingly, it’s additionally good enjoyable. Neither tough nor rowdy, however quite lonely and somber, reliant on the shadowy acoustic textures forged between Dylan’s guitar plucking and delicate string preparations, Rough and Rowdy Ways finds Dylan drifting by means of a cavernous expanse, croaking his doggerel into the void. Even the blues exercises brood; when he rocks, on “Crossing the Rubicon” and “False Prophet” (during which he rewrites Billy “The Kid” Emerson’s “If Lovin’ Is Believing”), his raspy guitar riffs pout morosely.
Refreshingly, the album additionally lacks the courtly crooner ballads he lined on his latest Sinatra tribute albums and tried, clumsily, to write down himself on Love and Theft and Modern Times (2006). Instead, beautiful sluggish burners like “Black Rider” and “My Own Version of You” intensify his ghoulishness, taking a mischievous delight within the creaking of his voice. The latter music, particularly, conjures a wonderful menace; whereas gleaming pedal metal chords crawl spookily down the size, Dylan threatens to create a Frankenstein monster: “Looking for the necessary body parts/limbs and livers and brains and hearts/I’ll bring someone to life is what I wanna do/I wanna create my own version of you.”
He may very well be speaking to one in all his songs — though the freshness of his uncooked supplies is up for debate, because the historic references scattered all through Rough and Rowdy Ways are typically broadly predictable. Whether growling “I’m gonna make you play piano like Leon Russell/like Liberace, like St. John the Apostle” on “My Own Version of You” or sighing “I’m just like Anne Frank, like Indiana Jones/and them British bad boys, the Rolling Stones” on “I Contain Multitudes,” his playful allusions date to antiquity or the mid-20th century on the newest. In a Washington Post overview, Chris Richards means that Dylan is itemizing canonical figures who, like Dylan himself, “live alongside one another in our cultural memory bank.” Less generously, one would possibly marvel why Dylan’s referential creativeness is so restricted; as archives go, his may protect a number of extra oddities, particularly modern ones. (I await in useless his TikTok music, to not point out his Black Lives Matter music.)
The album peaks in its closing sequence. The penultimate music, “Key West (Philosopher Pirate),” is as daft as its title — over shimmering seashore music, in a voice drunk on blood and sunshine, Dylan sings a rapturous, nearly operatic ode to the island, going overboard in his reward: “Key West is the gateway key to innocence and purity/Key West is the enchanted land.” Swaying to a well-recognized melancholy tune (right here, Dylan recycles his personal “Most of the Time”) over Donnie Herron’s woozy accordion, “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” resonates due to the specificity and absurdity of its conceit; in contrast to the synecdochic purple herrings that populate the remainder of the album, it’s a music about one thing, emotionally direct and weirdly transferring.
Then, “Murder Most Foul” begins as a tearful account of the Kennedy assassination, over equally saccharine piano and strings. It’s the uncommon music the place Dylan appears to pander to the newborn boomers who love him, particularly since he additionally mentions Woodstock, Altamont, and a slew of different assorted 1960s references, mumbled softly in his dry whisper (finest line: “I’m just a patsy like Patsy Cline”). After 10 minutes of this, he begins requesting songs for DJ Wolfman Jack to play: “Only the Good Die Young,” “Tom Dooley,” “St. James Infirmary,” “The Port of King James,” and others. He continues this for an additional seven minutes till, lastly, he requests his personal music — “Murder Most Foul” itself — and it fades out.
Mawkish and compelling, “Murder Most Foul” gives a revelatory glimpse into Dylan’s mind: in fact he thinks of historical past as a playlist, simply as his songs recycle historical past. The prolonged repetition underlines the music’s formulaic nature, as if he hit copy-paste 100 occasions and altered all of the music titles (“Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” which, like lots of his finest songs, is an embellished listing of nouns, works the identical method). Here, Dylan’s collage reaches yet one more degree of self-awareness: made aware of itself as collage, “Murder Most Foul” spirals endlessly round in a mise-en-abyme. From right here, there’s nowhere to go however Key West.
Pursued by arbiters of status, Dylan swore by no means to be pinned down. His function as specific collage artist is itself one other masks — his newest method of avoiding which means, of refusing to have phrases put in his mouth. He has probably endured on this vein so comfortably for therefore lengthy as a result of it represents a formalization of what he’s all the time performed: flip subtext to textual content. This permits him to write down songs that keep away from revealing which means proper on the floor. Having discovered such a chic technique, it’s no marvel he ought to begin chasing his personal tail. The pleasures available on this course of are attractive when you savor self-enclosed musical puzzles or the salty grain of an outdated voice.