Legendary singer-songwriter and cultural icon Bob Dylan has now released almost 40 studio LPs. It appears even the most devoted of fans are struggling to keep up. The last record I caught up with was 2012’s Tempest, and I thought it was fairly good. I have similar judgement for Rough and Rowdy Ways. This seems to go against the general perception: that this is his modern masterpiece.
There’s no question that Dylan has lost little of his lyrical prowess, but I still struggle to grasp such universal acclaim. The songs here are created with care and arranged beautifully. This is undeniable. Dylan exudes class from start to finish, proving that age is no restriction for powerful art. As such, I respect and admire Rough and Rowdy Ways more than I enjoy listening to it. Whilst the final two tracks are ambitious and fascinating in their own right, I struggle to maintain attention throughout their lengthy durations. One could argue this is a flaw of the modern listener, yet there are countless albums I cherish that contain lengthy closers.
Dylan has always been a story-teller at heart. Here, his weighty words carry extreme levels of depth. Opening track “I Contain Multitudes” is rife with witty narration, and contains references to Beethoven and… Indiana Jones. It’s amusing, at the very least. Though I’m not head-over-heels for Rough and Rowdy Ways, I thoroughly enjoy the self-assurance, particularly on my personal favourite track, “False Prophet”: ‘I’m first among equals, second to none/the last of the best, you can bury the rest’. On the surface, this could easily appear boastful and smug, but the sheer boldness of it provides a sense of humour and satire. His wordplay is a joy to behold. It may be an old trick, but I get a real kick out of the repeated lines that close stanza’s on both “I Contain Multitudes” and “Crossing the Rubicon”.
Much of Rough and Rowdy Ways does indeed sound like a poem being recited, depicting the most vivid of imageries. For me, it simply grows a little tiresome after a while. If there were more bluesy romps like “False Prophet” and “Goodbye Jimmy Reed”, I think it would enhance the tales that Dylan unfolds. For all its strengths, the record often lacks a spark; a touch of magic that made his classics so extraordinary. Rough and Rowdy Ways is a good Bob Dylan album, but to compare it to his best seems premature. And ever so slightly ludicrous.7 10
Favourite tracks // False Prophet
Mother of Muses
Crossing the Rubicom
As Bob Dylan says in “I Contain Multitudes”, Rough and Rowdy Ways are songs of experience. This is not bright-eyed music. Grizzled and dusty, the album is as world-weary as it is worldly. Grandpa Dylan sits in his rocking chair by the fire and regales with old stories between stints of napping. The instrumentation is noir-like, all cigarette smoke and shadows. The guitars are gentle without losing their edge, the rhythm thumps along as reliably as a heartbeat.
I find myself in awe of Dylan rather than of the album itself. He is a cultural titan; Rough and Rowdy Ways is not, though it’s still a joy to listen to at times. My favourite parts are where the pulse picks up, with “False Prophet” and “Goodby Jimmy Reed” living up to the album’s name. (Never have a couple of harmonica toots made me happier.) If I sound that wry and cheeky at 79 I’ll be pretty pleased.
Predictably, Dylan’s wordplay and lyricism is the main attraction. Even at its slowest the album still manages to feel like a poetry reading, Dylan’s inflections always just so. Closer “Murder Most Foul” especially functions more like a post-script than a closer, his multitudese pouring out for a solid 17 minutes. Even at its most pedestrian the album feels stately.
That said, I have been baffled by glowing reviews for Rough and Rowdy ways. I’m as pleased as anyone to be hearing more music from Bob Dylan, but it’s almost an insult to his masterpieces to call this a masterpiece. Time may make a fool of me there, but I don’t think so. Those looking for ‘The Zeitgeist’ would be better served listening to the likes of Run the Jewels.6 10
Favourite tracks // Goodbye Jimmy Reed
For the work of a 79-year-old man, Rough and Rowdy Ways is fairly impressive – the lyrics are engaging, the production is crisp, and a couple of the tracks pack a decent punch. However, for a Bob Dylan record, this album is a bit of a letdown. Fans have had to wait eight years for Dylan to return to writing original material, and they have been rather shortchanged.
Not in length, mind. Notching up a solid 70 minutes in running time, Rough and Rowdy Ways certainly never feels like it has to hurry. But the final product is ultimately hamstrung by two big factors: Bob’s battered voice, and the band’s apparent instruction to stick rigidly to the template of each song. Yes, aside from a couple of very satisfying ten-second bursts on the guitar from Charlie Sexton in “False Prophet”, the album is pretty much devoid of solos, and boy could some of the songs do with a bit more Sexton.
Of course, like any Dylan record, it has its moments. There are satisfying rhymes aplenty (‘within ya’, ‘Virginia’), decent footstompers (check out “Goodbye Jimmy Reed”), and some gorgeous instrumentation (namely the violin and piano in “Murder Most Foul”) – but there aren’t enough of these moments to put this record anywhere near the pantheon of Bob’s best. If only someone in Dylan’s team were to have suggested an EP instead.5 10
Favourite tracks // False Prophet
Goodbye Jimmy Reed
Murder Most Foul