Bob Dylan fans are a peculiar breed. As Joan Baez explains in Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home documentary, for those who get it, the Dylan obsession “goes way, way deep.” But in recent decades, this depth of adoration has seen Dylan-philes seek to highlight greatness in some fairly ordinary source material.
The 2010s consisted of one new originals album from Dylan, 2012’s Tempest, and three albums of Great American Songbook standards. Tempest had its moments of genuine vitality – ‘Duquesne Whistle’ and ‘Pay in Blood’ – but it was Dylan’s weakest collection of new music since the period before his 1997 comeback masterpiece, Time Out of Mind.
And what of the three ensuing LPs, the third of which, Triplicate, was a 30-track triple album? Well, much like 2009’s Christmas in the Heart, it was hard to tell whether Bob wasn’t just trolling his pious following. The records weren’t bad – his grizzled old man voice had gained a nice gooey sub-timbre, and the arrangements were nothing if not tasteful. But the 50+ Sinatra covers failed to reveal how Dylan had earnt such an absolutist following in the first place.
So, when Dylan returned with the 17-minute ‘Murder Most Foul’ this March, there was a twinge of “here we go again.” To be clear, no one in the history of popular music has excelled at long songs quite like Bob Dylan. Arguably his biggest hit, ‘Hurricane’, goes for eight and a half minutes across 11 verses. Even ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ – commonly deemed the greatest song of the 1960s – is in no rush, clocking in at six minutes.
But ‘Murder Most Foul’ is nothing like either of those songs. In fact, it’s unlike anything else in the songwriter’s six-decade back catalogue. It has a dream-like quality, brought about by its abstract, jazz-adjacent musical composition and the narrator’s unsteady perspective and repeated blurring of memory and historical fact. More crucially, it moves you in a manner akin to Dylan’s best material but does so without leaning on self-referential nostalgia.
This indicated things might be different on Rough and Rowdy Ways, Dylan’s 39th studio album. It’s a double album, with ‘Murder Most Foul’ the lone track on disc two. And while nothing else here conjures the same sense of quasi-delirium, the nine songs on disc one rise to the standard set by the album’s closing epic.
Rough and Rowdy Ways is a varied collection of Americana ballads, 12-bar blues rockers and Tin Pan Alley pop music, all bent to fit Dylan’s singular style. His voice will always scare away would-be fans, but the 79-year-old has attained a wizened strength from the Sinatra sabbatical. This gives songs like ‘I Contain Multitudes’ and ‘Key West (Philosopher Pirate)’ a moving emotionality that stretches well beyond the lyrics.
The lyrics are by turns introspective and entirely fantastical. The profusion of historical and popular culture references found on ‘Murder Most Foul’ becomes a sort of theme across the record. The likes of Julius Caesar, Karl Marx, Martin Luther King, Sigmund Freud, Harry Truman and Anne Frank are mentioned in the same breath as Elvis, Indiana Jones, Marlon Brando, Allan Ginsberg and Jimmy Reed.
Dylan’s late-career catalogue contains a surfeit of 12-bar blues variations, but he limits their number to three here. It’s a judicious move – in each instance Dylan and the band succeed at making the format feel not just effective but necessary. The first, ‘False Prophet’, sounds like the sort of late-‘90s Fat Possum signee that would’ve encouraged The Black Keys to make music. Then there’s the stomping ‘Goodbye Jimmy Reed’, which takes its musical cues from the titular Mississippi blues guitarist, but lyrically appears like a meditation on battles lost and won for Dylan.
The album’s penultimate song, ‘Crossing the Rubicon’, alternates between high stakes activity and cautious pragmatism. “I feel the holy spirit inside,” sings Dylan while Charlie Sexton’s guitar blazes beside him. “See the light that freedom gives. I believe it’s in reach of every man who lives.” But this sense of tangible becoming gives way to stern caution, as the band retreats into their box. “Keep as far away as possible,” grumbles Dylan. “It’s darkest ‘fore the dawn.”
Other highlights include ‘I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You’, an unironic love song encased in a tenderly melodic singer-songwriter arrangement; ‘Black Rider’, which adopts a medieval modality that gives it a literary, European quality; and the nine-minute ‘Key West (Philosopher Pirate)’, which sounds like a luxurious revisiting of ‘Goin’ to Acapulco’. Throughout, Dylan ponders the sick state of the world and scrutinises the security of his place within it.
Although Bob Dylan has never claimed to be revolutionising the form – his songs are typically mutations of existing compositions – he’s time and again changed how we perceive popular music, stretching the limits of its artistic potential. And he’s not done yet – for one hour and ten minutes, Rough and Rowdy Ways makes you feel like you’re hearing something that’s never been said, proving that at 79 years old, Dylan is still capable of going way, way deep.