The past two years in late June, I’ve posted lengthy catch-ups featuring bite-size reviews of albums that I hadn’t gotten around to reviewing by the year’s mid-point. I didn’t do that this year because there just weren’t that many albums that I had much to say about that I hadn’t already mentioned on this blog in one way or another. But then right before and all through July, a bunch of albums came out that I really liked. So, now that we’ve taken a little break from posts in the aftermath of Criterion Month, I’ll try to keep that review-a-day energy rollin’ by reviewing a recent album each day this week. I’ll start off with the one that I probably have the most thoughts on…
Bob Dylan has been many different things to many different people (the majority of them being boomers), though he’s also such an enigma that it almost seems like he’s trying to be nothing to no one. So it’s no surprise that on his new album’s opening track, he claims he’s “a man of many contradictions” on a song called “I Contain Multitudes” without any of this seeming all that pompous. The fact of the matter is, he’s earned it. Dylan has a Nobel Prize now, which even when he was given it Leonard Cohen deemed so obvious that it was like ‘pinning a medal on Everest’. So the only question now is, in the twilight of his career, does Bob Dylan have anything more to say? Fortunately, the answer that Rough and Rowdy Ways offers is “of course”.
That all said, despite the praise that has been heaped on the album so far, I’m not sure it’s a huge leap from the other music Dylan’s been making since 1997’s Time Out of Mind effectively wrung in the 21st Century Dylan. This is a Dylan obsessed with no-nonsense blues, accompanied by the backing band that’s supported him on “The Never-Ending Tour” that has marked his past couple decades. It’s also a Dylan whose voice has sounded raspier than ever, while his lyrics retain the vividness of his best work even if the songs aren’t quite as melodic. It’s a period that’s encompassed the entire period that I’ve been a Dylan fan, and a period that I’ve enjoyed, even if I wouldn’t recommend any of these albums to new fans looking to check out what’s so great about this “voice of a generation”.
So there’s still a lot of the blues in this record, though there’s something more gentle and otherworldly about it, which feels quite befitting of Dylan’s age (he’ll be 80 next year). I’m not sure which of these more somber numbers I like the most (“I’ve Made My Mind Up About You” sure has a nice midnight glow to it), but most of them feel like Dylan is making his peace with something. Since it’s Dylan, who knows what it is exactly. But whether it’s God, ex-wives, or his fans, it sees Dylan writing with both the kind of clarity and mystery you’d want from him. Also, it’s made even better by the fact that Dylan’s voice sounds as clear as it has in a while, possibly due to the more subdued nature of these songs, or maybe because he finally quit smoking.
Lyrically, Rough and Rowdy Ways features a lot of reflecting, some of which has to do with Dylan’s mortality and some of which has to do with his place in the culture. The song that does the most of the latter would have to be the 20-minute opus “Murder Most Foul”. I already talked about this song a bit in one of my Quarantine Diaries, but the song takes on even greater power as the send-off song on this album that could be Dylan’s send-off LP. After spending much of the album reflecting on matters both personal and societal, there’s something reassuring that for all of the certainty with which Dylan can craft a tune, he still can’t quite make sense of the Kennedy assassination. It’s an event that’s forever linked with the generation that Dylan initially inspired, while the song is filled with enough detours that it feels like the strangest, most evocative version of an older person asking “where did the time go?”
Speaking of asking “where did the time go?”, I can’t help but notice that I actually haven’t spent much time writing about Bob Dylan on Mildly Pleased. This might be because prior to this year, he’d only released two albums in the time that this blog has existed (one of which I didn’t even review). He’s an artist that I’ve loved since high school, but I’ve never felt compelled to openly praise, since what’s the point of opining the brilliance of an old white dude whose brilliance, as Leonard Cohen stated, is already obvious. Still, his songs have constantly been in the background of my life, and whenever one of his songs appears on shuffle on one of my many musical devices he’s graced over the years, I often say to myself “thanks, Bob”. It’s a weird ritual that ties to the fact that every once in a while, hearing one of his songs really hits the spot and helps get me through whatever I’m going through. So for this album, I’ll have to say one more time…