Bob Dylan Brings It All Back Home
Bob Dylan has been preparing for this moment his whole life. His first significant composition committed to vinyl, ‘Song to Woody’, from his eponymous 1962 debut album, ends with this couplet:
"The very last thing that I'd want to do,
Is to say I've been hittin' some hard travelin' too."
It's a classic Dylan line, it can be read as a statement of warning to himself or a statement of intent. It makes more sense as the latter and on ‘Rough and Rowdy Ways’, Dylan, nearly sixty years later, is a man who has a million miles under his belt. He has made good on his promise to earn the respect that Woody Guthrie, “Cisco, Sonny and Leadbelly too" inspired in him.
Where the young man sang to his heroes, here the mature sage sings to Calliope, his 'Mother of Muses', “Got a mind to ramble, got a mind to roam, I'm traveling light and I'm slow coming home." The whole album carries the spirit of movement, through time and space, and of the twilight creeping in. Dylan has the wisdom of age and finds a beauty visible in the fading light that was obscured by the mid-day sun. It's elegiac in parts, but he is ever the iconoclast so it doesn't succumb to sorrow or nostalgia. Dylan's achievement here is to fold that all in while reminding us constantly that he is a force of nature that has touched every corner of the land. It's the statement of a man who has made it home and has tales to tell.
The opener, ‘I Contain Multitudes’ is as close to a self-analysis in song as Dylan has allowed us to see. The fencer, who has wielded a lyrical épée with precision, keeping the world at bay for decades, lowers the blade for a moment. Here that gesture grants us more than a simple touché. By kicking the album off with it, the track foreshadows where Dylan is going to take us on this 70-minute journey through the non- linear landscape that he has been traveling for a lifetime.
Before we get too settled in, Dylan slaps us with a warning in 'False Prophet'. If we want to come along for the ride we will need to buckle up as the reward will only be recognized by the committed. There's no getting out of the car (it's surely a red Cadillac) because the same avenging character from Tempest's “Pay in Blood” has the wheel:
"I'm the enemy of the un-lived meaningless life
I ain't no false prophet
I just know what i know
I go where only the lonely can go"
Dylan proceeds to retrace his artistic steps, beginning by teasing us with a knockdown funny allegory of the making of a creative life or maybe what critics see when they try to figure out the artist in the loping ‘My Own Version of You’. It's slapstick with an obscured message and an undertone of menace, "show me the ribs, I'll stick in the knife"
That creativity has been an ever-restless force for Dylan and in 2019 he revisited ‘Don't Think Twice It’s Alright’ as a sorrowful ballad, performed in a single spotlight, largely alone at the piano. It stripped out the bravado of the young man and replaced it with the acceptance of the older man. It's hard not to read that acceptance redirected into a plea for clemency in ‘I've Made My Mind Up to Give Myself To You.’ For all the thunder that Dylan can still summon he can also break your heart with his vocal tenderness and this is the album's nod to that version of himself. Dylan sits alone on his terrace on a starry night, talking himself into a hopeful outcome. Maybe she will be his, maybe she won't. It’s a beautiful serenade, tinged with more wistfulness than seduction, under-pinned with a classical music inspired sway
Elsewhere in ‘Black Rider’ Dylan croons at us as if from the shadowy deck of a cantina, backed by restrained strummed Spanish tinged guitar. It sounds gentle, but the lyric is portentous. On ‘Goodbye Jimmy Reed' he approaches the rough and rowdy delivery we might have been expecting, a homage to another influence along the trail and Dylan's message for the ages "i can't sing a song I don't understand". 'Crossing The Rubicon' could come straight out of the 2012 ‘Tempest’ sessions, another example of Dylan's fascination with old world vengeance and valor.
‘Key West (Philosopher Pirate)’ is the penultimate track but the symbolic end to the album. The gentle accordion and spoken reverie of Dylan's delivery wraps up our journey. It checks us into a road-house inn, at the end of the highway where a pirate radio station is playing. Still, it's Dylan, so nothing is completely genteel, he tells us of the 12 year old in a suit forced to marry a prostitute and confesses he's a man who doesn't "love nobody". But it’s warm here in the Keys and we all can dream of a final destination:
"Key West is the place to be
If you’re lookin’ for immortality
Key West is paradise divine.
Key West is fine and fair,
If you’ve lost your mind you’ll find it there.
Key West is on the horizon line."
If a 17-minute song can be a coda then the final track, the already pored over, 'Murder Most Foul' fills that role. It's a testament to the strength of this album that such an epic song could have been left off this release and it wouldn't weaken the overall effect of the rest. On its pre-release it launched a thousand rabbit hole expeditions to catch and corral all the references. Here in the context of the album, as it did when released at midnight in the middle of a pandemic, it stands apart, taking up its own disc and filling its own universe.
‘Rough And Rowdy Ways’ doesn't need that lyrical dissection, though that will surely come, to be recognized as a priceless addition to Dylan's canon and the American musical heritage. He has marshaled his voice, not the one of a generation, but the woefully under-appreciated expressive instrument, to breathe a range of emotion into this sweep across the topography of his mind and his memory. A sweep, that yes, contains multitudes.
It is a great American novel with a Don Delillo ambition, a Cormac McCarthy border trilogy dystopian eye, Walt Whitman's grasp of verse, a Philip Roth gravity all infused with a pulp fiction spirit and the footnotes of the blues. It reaches back to the ancient worlds of Greece and Rome for its context. It's anchored with a musicianship that ebbs and flows through its ten chapters and that is always flawless, whether its task is to elevate Dylan’s often spoken word delivery or drive his defiant growl. It's the gospel album he spoke of making when discussing 'Tempest' but here his salvation is found in the cultural and musical touchstones of his life. It's an album where the songs sound effortless in their composition, whether drawn from immediate memory or ancient texts but everything is put in place with meticulous design. It's a record to make you laugh and to make you cry, to make you think and to make you feel, to make you question and to make you believe. It's the musical memoir that only Dylan could have written and there is a beautiful majesty in the fact that he has.