“Take me to the river, release your charms
Let me lay down once in your sweet lovin’ arms
Wake me, shake me, free me from sin
Make me invisible like the wind
Got a mind to ramble, got a mind to roam
I’m travelin’ light, and I’m slow comin’ home”
(Mother of Muses, Bob Dylan)
It’s the difficult 39th album, and Bob Dylan is sharing his 2020 visions with us, one song at a time, just when we needed it most, considering the hard rain of curses and plagues, wanna-be-kings and all the pawns in their game coming our way, as we all have to admit that the waters around us has grown. Bob Dylan is in the middle of the stream. Still is, as a cool breeze encircles him, rollin’ slow, going where the wild roses grow, just checking in to see what condition the human condition is in. As dark as it is, there is still faith, hope and charity.
He is coming down from the mountain when he comes, but it’s quite a stretch to argue that he’s been far away since the release of “Tempest” in 2012 – three studio releases, seven Bootleg Series releases, two box sets of live recordings, five “50th Anniversary Edition” compilations, all in all more than 120 (!!!) discs worth of both new and old never before released recordings, alternate takes and outtakes, studio & live – combined with almost 600 shows, lots of rewritten songs, the “Rolling Thunder Revue” movie by Scorsese, the release of “Mondo Scripto”, a long string of exhibitions of paintings, portraits, car doors with gunshots (!!!), revisionist art and iron works, the surprising and revealing “Musicares Person of the Year” Speech, oh, and of course the boxed “The Complete Album Collection, Volume One”, containing multitudes already, on 47 discs, the interviews and the opening of the overwhelming Bob Dylan Archives in Tulsa. Throw in a Nobel Prize Speech & a Nobel Prize Lecture and the French Legion of Honor, and we are reminded that the last eight years haven’t been so quiet after all. This just to underscore the interesting strength of demand and expectation when Dylan releases “Rough And Rowdy Ways” Juneteenth 2020, the anticipation only heightened even more by the three teasers, “Murder Most Foul”, “I Contain Multitudes” & “False Prophet”, the first of the three Dylan’s first #1 song at the top of a Billboard chart, fifty-eight years after his debut as Columbia Recording Artist. He really is a slow-burning candle in the wind, that young Dylan – he never seem to fade away. That 19th of June is the day for celebrating the end to slavery might be coincidental, but is still a nice touch of fate. Dylan’s fight against racism has always been a part of his work, in an interview in 2012 he is naming racism as the “height of insanity” and a sickness that always has been holding the United States back. These days he is proven right. Prophet or not, here he comes.
“The future for me is already a thing of the past” – these are the words from “Bye And Bye” on “Love And Theft” (2001), the album where he also sings “I’m drownin’ in the poison, got no future, got no past”. Even if the narrators might not be the same, time is in and out of mind, in songs written about twenty years ago, age don’t carry weight. Whatever it means, that the future is a thing of the past, the new phase of Dylan’s work from 2001, was a work of uncovering the tradition he loved, diving into it like Scrooge McDuck in his money bin, the difference though, where $crooge is greedy, Mr Dylan is endlessly generous in sharing his findings with his audience, both on albums and live on stage. From 2001 on he relives and revives tradition of pre-rock genres, even throwing in a Christmas album, bookending it with the great and mysterious “Tempest” (2012), always a gentleman thief of musical inspiration as well as poetical ideas and twists, as he mixes Shakespeare with Ovid and Homer, Henry Timrod and Edgar Allan Poe with Willie Dixon, Hambone Willie Newbern and Memphis Minnie with himself, making another round of his unique dylanesque stew of singing, of thoughts, of words and music, where the whole meal, the Jambalaya of connecting the dots and extending the lines, means endlessly much more than the diversity of ingredients. The past, not his past, was his future, he conquered it, once more with feeling, and at last facing one more mountain to climb, The Great American Songbook, breathing life and soul into standards that, in many cases, and for many, had turned into lifeless “muzak”, Dylan uncovering them, “some of the most heartbreaking songs put to record”, “lifting them out of the grave and into the light” with tasteful arrangements and exquisite phrasing, completing his journey through American music with a vocal style and tonal breath control that few would have thought possible a few years earlier. Still, he was fittingly, once more, annoying and upsetting a whole lot of critics and fans with this impeccable tour de force of Bob Dylan as Singer, a point he just had to make, and that he made. “People say I can’t sing!?” he says, tongue-in-cheek, in his Musicares Speech (2015), “I croak? Sound like a frog?….that my voice is shot? That I have no voice…?”, ensuring us that he has listened closely to the critics all the time, this day standing proud after the release of “Shadows In The Night”, living proof of his special and unique gifts as a singer and performer, himself the medium, bringing us the songs, meant to be heard, not read, as he pointed out in his Nobel Lecture two years later, then, of course, about his own songs, as literary valuable they might be. Poetry for your ears. So is “Rough And Rowdy Ways”. Poetry for your ears and for their tight connection to your heart. Dylan invites us to listen to another chapter, invites us into another room, unlocking the key to a place were we never been before, one more time wanting to share something really special. The listening is rewarding.
In times where “Fake news” is another word for the Truth, where orwellian speech is everywhere, one can only wonder, what words are not infected and contagious anymore, what words can be used without a mask? What language? The chimes of freedom are still flashing in Bob Dylan’s way with words, he, the conqueror and creator of his own language, second to none, still using building blocks from all times, mixing Shakespeare with “Duncan And Brady”, sanskrit with aerobics, the Egyptian book of the Dead with the blues, the whole new album bursting at the seams with breadcrumbs to further reading and listening, to thoughts from thousands of years ago, to songs and music centuries old, an endless trancelike conversation with it all, in a way that makes every original thought out there, old or new, a contemporary possibility to new insights and fresh knowledge. The scholars and professors will be kept working for years to come with the fine weave that makes “Rough And Rowdy Ways”, and it will be rewarding, of course it will, there is new treasure chests to observe. Still – first and last – just now we have to listen to the album, we have to listen to the songs, we have to listen to the Voice, to the sound of Dylan, to the sound of “Rough And Rowdy Ways”, as sung by Jimmie’s successor.
Even if one always should be careful to assert it, there is something about this album that makes it feel very personal. Even if it’s about the whole human race, the use of “I” is especially commanding in some of the songs, in an extra heartfelt way. Despite the variation in the songs and the temper of them, it feels like they were carved as a whole out of the same stone. “Murder Most Foul” is outstanding and has already lived a life for itself, still it’s connected to the mood and the color of the whole creation. The recordings of “Shadows In The Light”, “Fallen Angels” and the “Triplicate” is part of the secret, I think, when it comes to the use of instruments, microphones and engineering. Bob Dylan is back as the man of many voices, as he handles the distance from both the rough and rowdy blues and to the tender croon throughout the album. He alternates seamlessly between recitation and singing, but never without his distinct instinct for timing and phrasing, making every word count. Listen to him sing “I hope that the gods go eeeasy with me” and you might understand what I mean. There is a touching nakedness in there somewhere.
Bob Dylan is already the uncrowned King of Intertextuality, but maybe never more so than in this album, his oceans of knowledge of both music, history, religion (“I know all the Hindu rituals”) and literature, still flows freely and inventively, the intertextuality also including hints to his own work, maybe both conscious and unconscious, or trancelike, as he himself describes it in the New York Times interview, 12th of June, when he speaks about the album’s opener and whitmanesque prologue, “I Contain Multitudes”: “It’s one of those where you write it on instinct. Kind of in a trance state. Most of my recent songs are like that. The lyrics are the real thing, tangible, they’re not metaphors. The songs seem to know themselves and they know that I can sing them, vocally and rhythmically. They kind of write themselves and count on me to sing them.”
As if not already demonstrated, the rest of the album does it, too – it contains multitudes. Next out is the tough take-no-prisoners dirty blues of “False Prophet”, Dylan once again builds the song on an old and known bluesriff, as he last did it in “Early Roman Kings”. Even if he in the interview insists that he’s not involved in the business of improvising, well, call it what you want, the songs evolves live, from year to year, sometimes from night to night, as in the case of “Early Roman Kings”, growing from what might have been one of the least interesting tracks on “Tempest”, to a phenomenal live performance the last years. One would only hope that Dylan will show us the magic one more time from a stage, “False Prophet” already a killer track, just think about the reception of this verse:
“Well I’m the enemy of treason
Enemy of strife
I’m the enemy of the unlived meaningless life
I ain’t no false prophet
I just know what I know
I go where only the lonely can go“
Take that, Ratzinger! The Enemy of the Unlived Meaningless Life is speaking! That’s a label for you. Should be a sticker on the album!
“My Own Version of You” is Dylan going full Frankenstein, filled with energy and wit, “visiting morgues and monasteries” to find what he needs, trying to recreate a perfect “You” that might as well be himself, using Pacino and Brando as ingredients, and that can play piano as Leon Russell. The song is a fast waltz, in a kind of Brecht/Weill-landscape, a dramatic tension and a nervous pace, as it all has to happen soon, before it’s too late. Dylan is eagerly rapping as much as singing.
“Can you tell me what it means: To be or not to be?
You wont get away with foolin’ me
Can you help me walk that moonlight mile
Can you give me the blessings of your smile
I’ll bring someone to life, it’s all about powers
Do it in the dark, in the wee, small hours“
My personal favorite, so far, just has to be “I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You” – it goes straight to my heart, a ballad as wistful as anything I’ve heard by this artist, the soft and tender vocal, the back-up-singers in the background, humming the tune of Offenbach’s Barcarole, a song played at Titanic the night it went down, the deeply touching lyrics of a narrator contemplating his life, in a melancholy mood remembering “Lot of people gone/lot of people I knew”, now ready for one last leap of faith. Beautiful beyond words!
“I´m sitting on my terrace lost in the stars
Listening to the sounds of the sad guitars
Been thinking it all over, and I thought it all through
I’ve made up my mind to give myself to you.”
As Dylan often has been referring to the Revelation when he need the strong pictures, as he maybe sings to the ceremonies of the third Horseman of the Apocalypse, “Black Rider”, known for his business in famine and justice, still, at times it’s like the “I” this time adresses the pale horse, Death itself, giving him a fight to the very end. It’s like a mystic folk song, found at the bottom of a lost and burnt-out library, the nice mandolin work adds an almost Eastern feeling to the song.
“Black rider, black rider, tell me when, tell me how
If there ever was a time, let it be now
Let me go through, open the door,
My soul is distressed, my mind is at war
Don’t hug me, don’t flatter me, don’t turn on a charm
I’ll take a sword and hack of your arm“
In the last verse the song connects the American Songbook and the folk tradition: “Some enchanted evening, I’ll sing you a song/Black rider, black rider, you been on the job to long”, as he both hints at “Some Enchanted Evening” by Rodgers and Hammerstein, a song he visited on “Shadows In The Night” and the murder ballad “Duncan And Brady”. The songwriter is using his warehouse eyes, finding the exactly perfect fit in the shelve at the top. It all comes together. Anything goes. It’s called songwriting!
You can almost see Jimmy Reed smile and tap his foot from the beyond as Dylan is using all carburetors when he comes driving the full blown steel blue vehicle of the blues, as “Goodbye Jimmy Reed” bounces through the speakers, it just makes you wanna dance. The narrator is tired of the prodding of any kind, as he himself settles on an old receipt: “Give me that old time religion, it’s just what I need”. Not so hard to understand, as he elaborates on his thinking in the NYT interview, asked about why there hasn’t been more attention to the gospel music of Little Richard:
“Probably because gospel music is the music of good news and in these days there just isn’t any. Good news in today’s world is like a fugitive, treated like a hoodlum and put on the run. Castigated. All we see is good-for-nothing news. And we have to thank the media industry for that. It stirs people up. Gossip and dirty laundry. Dark news that depresses and horrifies you.”
Once more there is a proclaim of creed towards the songs and the singers, himself as much as anyone else. Every song of the album consists both richness and complexity, and you can never be entirely sure that you got it all, you have to listen just one more time, to the words, to the vocals. And then one more time.
“Mother of Muses” reminds me of “Ring Them Bells”, a beautiful melody and a prayer to the higher powers of inspiration. The mother of Muses herself, Mnemosyne, the goddess of remembrance and memory, the one that you with age might have to approach more often than before, daughter of Uranus and Gaea, of the Sky and the Earth, bringing nine new muses after sleeping with Zeus. Of course Bob Dylan makes a song for this remarkable mother of mothers, the song starting as a prayer: “Mother of Muses sing for me/Sing of the mountain and the deep dark sea.” Then he gets even more inspiration when writing the song, falling into trance once more, remembering another theme that ought to be mentioned.
“Sing of Sherman, Montgomery and Scott
And of Zhukov and Patton and the battles they fought
Who cleared the path for Presley to sing
Who carved the path for Martin Luther King
Who did what they dared, and they went on their way
Man, I could tell their stories all day”
The narrator is falling in love with Calliope, one of the nine, the muse of epic poetry, the muse of Homer, now he’s begging her mother: “She don’t belong to anyone, why not give her to me?” Still ambitious, still want to write. Maybe the prayer was made before “Murder Most Foul”?
Julius Caesar was crossing the Rubicon river prior to the civil war, the rise to dictatorship and of the Roman Empire, the expression forever used as a metaphor for passing the point of no return. The song “Crossing The Rubicon” starts with Caesar by the river, but the song itself winds “Three miles north of purgatory/One step from the great beyond” in a blues that exposes both the ghost and the sound of John Lee Hooker, with a little touch of “Cry Awhile” in the way the tension in the song builds, the changes between the softer and the harder parts of the lyrics and the vocals, using both ideals and violence if needed: “Others can be tolerant/Others can be good/I cut you up with a crooked knife/Lord, and I’ll miss you when you’re gone/I stood between heaven and earth/And I cross the Rubicon.” A song tough as hell.
The beautiful slow ballad recitation “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” in more than one way makes the bookend to “Time Out of Mind”, the narrator here describing the flatlands as opposed to the “Highlands” described on another milestone album, from 1997, the songs thematically close, the place to look for immortality, for Paradise Divine – the honeysuckle blooming in the Highlands, “gentle and fair”, the bouganvillea in Key West, “fine and fair”. As the narrator in Highlands tells us that “The sun is beginning to shine on me/But it’s not like the sun that used to be”, the narrator in the Flatlands of Key West describes that you can “Feel the sunlight on your skin and the healing virtues of the wind”, still not the journey’s end, but “Key West is on the horizon line”, and, as we already know, “Beyond the horizon it is easy to love”. The narrator is still trying to get to heaven before they close the door, (if there ever was a door), and it might be that he is getting closer this time. The simple hudsonesque accordion chords and the gentle drums, the humming choir in the back, the commanding and at the same time tender vocals of the phraser-in-chief himself, it all comes perfect together in the album’s first closer, singing about a beautiful place that might slowly sink in years to come, as a metaphor not so different from «Titanic». “Murder Most Foul” is the second, almost as a second chapter in itself, a guide to the next phase. Don’t forget to dance. Don’t forget to listen. Stay observant. Listen. Listen. Listen. He even starts the song quoting Bill Monroe’s White House Blues.
The future is a thing of the past. There is no such thing as an original thought, we just have to go back and admit that we always are recycling the great questions of existence, and that the limitless ocean of experience and art before us, still is an efficient tool to use when we are climbing new heights in the difficult mountain of both self-knowledge and understanding of this strange and beautiful world, where “wisdom is thrown into jail”. “Rough And Rowdy Ways” makes a new piece of the puzzled road map of your soul as you can find it in the art of Bob Dylan.
It took rocks and gravel to make a solid road, and it took some hard travelin’, too, now it sure has been some rough and rowdy ways from the debut in 1962 till now. It sure has been one helluva ride. Then again, when Bob Dylan considers a new album, the bar is already placed almost impossibly high, knowing he’ll be judged against the highest standard of them all, his own work. That he still is expanding the possibilities of what a song can be, still makes songs and albums that couldn’t be made any other time than today, any other than him, is as impressive as ever. The years between “Tempest” and today has been absolutely necessary building blocks to be able to bring it all the way home, one more time.
“Rough And Rowdy Ways” is a new milestone, his best in the 2020’s.
«Rough And Rowdy Ways» is as rich as Aladdin’s Cave and as deep as the Pacific Ocean. You only see the top of the iceberg. If you think you got it, you have to listen more.
I remember thinking that “Tempest” would make a great swan-song. This is even more true of the testament we get in “Rough And Rowdy Ways”.
Still, I don’t think it will be. Surely, the best is yet to come.
p.s. The cover is the perfect for a ‘song and dance man’. d.s.