Standing in the middle of Hyde Park last July, I waited for the greatest living folk songwriter to take the stage. The heat was unbearable, made worse by the alienating claustrophobia of the surrounding audience – 65,000 glassy-eyed boomers, each competing to see who had the most ancient concert t-shirt. When Bob Dylan’s band finally began to play, I couldn’t help but feel slightly underwhelmed as their performance drifted along. Classics were dismantled and reassembled to the point of being unrecognisable, often leaving the audience puzzled as to which of their favourite songs was actually playing. Most troubling to me, however, was the realisation the messianic figure I had envisaged now manifested before me as a frail, suit-donned figure whose rhythmic croaking barely resembled the studio recordings I’d listened to on repeat.
Additionally Dylan’s most recent full length releases – a trio of American folk standards culminating in the exhaustive 2017 triple-LP ‘Triplicate’ – didn’t have me particularly excited for any new material either. The lack of original songwriting from the Nobel Laureate left me with the distinct impression something vital was missing. Part of the enjoyment of Dylan’s work lies in trying to parse the hidden meanings from between the lines of the surreal imagery he conjures; without the distinct feeling of hearing an ancient prophecy, or being preached to, an album of effectively covers felt flat and inauthentic.
It was therefore with some trepidation I approached the announcement of over an hour of original material on Rough and Rowdy Ways. The initial single ‘Murder Most Foul’ (an astonishing 17-minute take on the murder of JFK) is impressive if only for its magnitude, but the constant references did worry me we’d end up with a record resembling his autobiographical memoir Chronicles – a long string of references to influential 60s figures, significant at the time but wholly insignificant to a gen Z’er such as myself (the book defeated me halfway through; trying to google every name became too exhausting). Luckily the following singles reestablished a more relatable groove – ‘False Prophet’ being his strongest song in a decade.
Additionally, Rough and Rowdy Ways features Dylan’s slickest band since The Basement Tapes, whose prowess more than make up for any shortcomings in Bob’s shaky vocals. Their tight riffs and baselines could elevate any vocals to greatness, but only Bob’s trademark cadence and charisma could truly do them justice. Some highlights include the infectious riffs of ‘Crossing the Rubicon’ as well as ‘Goodbye Jimmy Reed’, whose 12 bar blues would surely earn approval from even Reed himself.
Rare for Dylan is an album’s themes so deeply rooted in introspection and humility. After spending most of his career as counterculture’s unofficial poster child, preaching civil rights to impassioned adolescents, champagne socialists and Dads who ‘dabble in guitar’ alike, the once-in-a-generation poet finally turns inwards on his 39th album. Rough and Rowdy Ways takes no shame in tackling themes of existentialism, death and regret. ‘I’m not what I was, things aren’t what they were’, sings Dylan on ‘I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You’, one of many lines demonstrating Dylan’s cognisance of both his artistic deterioration and own mortality. These sentiments are a far cry from the eccentric bravado of his 60s persona; the cocky youth who’d deliberately spite his fans and dismiss reporters with witty one-liners (my favourite exchange – Reporter: ‘Are the many other ‘protest singers’?’ Dylan: ‘About 136… It’s either 136 or 142’).
‘I sleep with life and death in the same bed’, laments Dylan on opener ‘I Contain Multitudes’, and its clear mortality is firmly in his thoughts at the age of 79. It’s unclear how many records may be left to come and as Dylan’s ‘Never Ending Tour’ approaches its 33rd year, in hindsight I should be grateful for witnessing what could’ve been one of his final UK dates. What I perceived as a spiteful refusal to play the classics ‘as they were recorded’ is surely the natural reaction of anyone faced with playing the same tracks night upon night for 32 years.
After repeated listens, my unconscious mind can’t help but draw comparisons to Bowie’s Blackstar. Despite the disparate nature of their work, the parallels are stark; an aging legend dazzles audiences with a stellar return to form deep into their 70s, reminiscing on past successes and accepting the nature of their impending deaths. ‘Look up here, I’m in heaven’, sang Bowie on his final album, released just 2 days before his passing. We can only hope Dylan’s record doesn’t prove to be as grimly prophetic.