Bob Dylan’s ‘Rough and Rowdy Ways’ a pulp masterpiece: Review


Tip: Don’t mess with Bob Dylan, who, at 79, rips, sniffs and cackles through his new album “Rough and Rowdy Ways” as a man with something — or absolutely nothing — to prove.Here he threatens to turn someone’s wife into a widow; there he promises to bring revenge on someone’s head. In one song, he tells a guy, “e will take a sword and hack your bra,” before adding in printable language that the size of the guy’s manhood won’t get him anywhere—a real shock (and a real pleasure) to hear from a Nobel laureate.

Then there’s “My Own Version of You,” a “Frankenstein”-like fantasmagoria that opens with these incredible verses:

Throughout the summers until January
I visited morgues and monasteries
Looking for the necessary body parts
Limbs and livers, brains and hearts

Rappers call lines like these “bars,” and on “Rough and Rowdy Ways, Dylan is throwing them away as if it were light work for a tough case like him.

The hard talk is hard news for Dylan, whose genius has run neck-and-neck with his wickedness for the half-century in which he was the most revered of rock singer-songwriter (and as often as not angry). “Tempest,” from 2012, was particularly wet with gore — “I have dogs could tear you limb limb,” he grumbled in “Pay in Blood” — who suggested that he had found nothing in his in-depth study of the story to inspire any optimism about the future.

Yet “Rough and Rowdy Ways,” her first album of new documents in eight years, to be released on June 19, is more mischievous than petty. This may be the side effect of Dylan’s years of burying himself in his love of Frank Sinatra and the Great American Songbook on three cover albums (including a 30-track juggernaut) released between 2015 and 2017. Obviously, he is not a crooner; in most of his new songs, his voice is a brutally ravaged wheezing.

But you can detect a bit of Sinatra’s mischievousness in the spry Dylan delivery here – the clear pleasure Sinatra has taken in depicting roguish smoothies and silver-tongued thugs.  “Go home to your wife / Stop visiting mine,” he sneers about the “Black Rider” guitar from “Black Rider,” “One of these days, I’ll forget to be nice.” It shines and winks at the same time.

It’s a funny moment, of course, for a (relatively) funny record. Without the COVID-19 pandemic, Dylan’s Never Ending tour would head to the Hollywood Bowl for a show next week. And the murder of George Floyd by the police has only darkened the mood of the country.

“It made me sick endlessly to see George tortured to death like that,” Dylan told The New York Times in a recent phone interview from his Malibu home. (When asked how he got away with quarantine, the singer said he painted and welded a little, making it even harder to imagine how Bob Dylan keeps himself entertained all day.)

But as always Dylan is not worried about reflecting the times; he takes the long-term view on an album full of names and totems of the past. In particular, there is “Murder Most Foul,” the 17-minute epic that appeared as a surprise single in March in which it traces the twisted meanings of Kennedy’s assassination—not a simple event, as it happens, in the troubled history of American race relations.

“Mother of the Muses” questions the motivations of various well-known military figures “and the battles they fought”; “I Contain Multitudes,” which Dylan called trance writing, quotes one of Walt Whitman’s famous verses and names, Anne Frank.

He also seems to have nature on his mind – lots of references to the weather and the seasons and flowers, as in “Key West (Philosopher Pirate),” where he has more swagger-ific bars on bougainvillea flowering – with sex: “I break open your grapes / I suck the juice,” he sings, practically licking his lips, in Goodbye Jimmy Reed, “while his breathless delivery in “Crossing the Rubicon” makes you feel even dirtier.

“Goodbye Jimmy Reed,” who drinks – and imitates – the influential bluesman, is far from the only song here in which Dylan pays tribute to a musician; he also mentions Leon Russell, Etta James, Thelonious Monk, Patsy Cline, the Eagles (!), Elvis Presley and the Rolling Stones, with whom he seemed embarrassed to have been roped in Desert Trip (aka Oldchella) a few years ago. But perhaps winning this Nobel has relieved the remaining worries of being seen the wrong way.

Speaking of music, no one gets less attention than Dylan’s from word-obsessed critics. Yet , “Rough and Rowdy Ways” comes out one wonder after another, with the killer game of the singer’s road band, which from last fall counts Matt Chamberlain on drums and Bob Britt on guitar alongside Dylan with old faithful hands. (A spokesperson for the singer stated that the album bore no producer credit, although its latest was produced by Dylan under the pseudonym Jack Frost.)

“False Prophet” and “Goodbye Jimmy Reed” are gloriously scuzzy roadhouse stomps; “My Own Version of You” and “Crossing the Rubicon” slide along on the grooves you can feel. And although Dylan spends most of the album moaning and croaking in a simulated mode, a few cuts are almost incredibly pretty, including “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give MySelf to You,” which couldn’t get close to embodying the scene he puts at the top of the song: “I’m sitting on my terrace, lost in the stars / Listening to the sounds of sad guitars.”

The music makes you want to believe its small number of small hours; the diabolical grip in his voice reminds you to think twice.


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