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Spins: Bob Dylan • Rough and Rowdy Ways

| July 9, 2020

Bob Dylan

Rough and Rowdy Ways


In 2012, Bob Dylan released his 35th studio album Tempest. The collection was loaded with potent songs like “Pay in Blood,” “Scarlet Town,” and “Early Roman Kings” that served Dylan well during stops on his Never Ending Tour. The album earned stellar marks from musicologists, but despite a strong launch did not receive the public attention it merited. The rough-hewn singer spent the next several years lending grit to the catalog of his velvet-voiced hero Frank Sinatra with 2015’s Shadows in the Night and 2016’s Fallen Angels. 2017’s sprawling Triplicate dug deeper into the Great American Songbook. Casual fans sat baffled at concerts as the Bard crooned standards like “Autumn Leaves” and “Young at Heart,” even as his stellar live band delivered gorgeous performances of these chestnuts–including stirring solos by Charlie Sexton. Longtime fans expected the mercurial folk legend to do as he pleased in his own playground while they waited to hear “Tangled Up in Blue.” If there was any motivation on Dylan’s part to build anticipation during this exploratory stretch for new original material, it worked. Rough and Rowdy Ways arrived last week to acclaim as a #1 album.

That’s good news for Bob. The good news for fans is that Dylan indeed pulled no punches and crafted a knockout set. It’s not as dark and deadly as Tempest, but Rough and Rowdy Ways is just as sharp in its variety while making room for wisdom, perspective, cranky observation, wit, and a century’s worthy of pop culture references alongside those familiarly grim musings. The 17-minute “Murder Most Foul” (Dylan’s longest song in a catalog famous for some very long songs) accommodates all of the above, as Dylan returns to the 1963 assassination of President Kennedy and uses it as the foundation for his stream-of-consciousness description of the troubled state of the union up to the present day. In addition to its steely-eyed retelling of Kennedy’s death, the undulating song finds redemption in a soothing string of Easter-egg references to songs, artists, and musical flashpoints spanning Dylan’s favorite genres.

The album benefits mightily from the intuitive interplay of a seasoned band that tracked the songs together live, hot on the heels of a three-month trek that stunned the crowd at UIC Pavilion last October. The wry statement of self “I Contain Multitudes” is rooted in rustic Americana but shifts craftily with wisps of the torch-pop Dylan internalized on Triplicate–while namechecking “those British bad boys the Rolling Stones.” The band never overplays, but unfailingly provides a captivating and spacious palette upon which Dylan can unfurl his gravel-etched prose. Sometimes the players support through contradiction. During one good-natured warm and inviting passage led by Donnie Herron’s lilting pedal steel, Dylan gets venomous. “You greedy old wolf, I’ll show you my heart,” he states with bravado and clenched fists. “But not all of it, only the hateful part.”

Guitarists Sexton and Bob Britt intertwine with sly rhythm and a bawdy riff both borrowed from Billy “The Kid” Emerson’s 1954 “If Lovin’ Is Believing” during “False Prophet.” Over drummer Matt Chamberlain’s ambling shuffle, Dylan declares that he’s seen it all and is willing to tell hard truths about the turmoil around all of us. “I’m just here to bring vengeance on somebody’s head,” he growls.

Dylan casts himself as Dr. Frankenstein as the band spins a swirling and eerie soundtrack for the cinematic “My Own Version of You.” During “Black Rider,” Dylan tells a shadowy tormentor to kiss off. At first he seems fearful, but grows bolder when the brigand turns chummy. “Don’t hug me, don’t flatter me, don’t turn on the charm,” Dylan sneers. “I’ll take a sword and hack off your arm.” The song contains another singularly outrageous turn of phrase and condemnation that will coax shocked laughter from anyone who still imagines Dylan as the young folkie singing “Blowin’ in the Wind” in 1963. Check out the song. You’ll know it when you hear it.

The band shines again on the shuffling roadhouse blues “Goodbye Jimmy Reed,” propelled by Chamberlain and longtime sideman Tony Garnier’s loping bass. Dylan’s lyrics gather old-time religion, rustic blues, desire, and survival as an unrepentant iconoclast. The band crafts a shimmering and tranquil setting for “Key West,” a light-hearted description of a veritable paradise for any philosopher pirate. Herron’s accordion conjures summer breeze, straw hats and piña coladas. “If you lost your mind, you’ll find it there,” sings Dylan, wistfully.

Dylan is resolute and persistent during “Crossing the Rubicon,” a song that seems to tap the tenor of the times. “What are these dark days I see?,” Dylan asks. It’s another lanky blues musing that overflows with turns of phrase to make any nimble-tongued street poet nod in respect. “I’ll cut you up with a crooked knife,” Dylan warns. “Lord, and I’ll miss you when you’re gone.”

At 79, Bob Dylan has focused all of his experience and crafted what any engaged fan could credibly claim as his or her favorite Dylan album. We can hope that it won’t take another eight years for another new set. If it does, any weatherman who knows which way the wind blows would suggest that it’ll be worth the wait. But you won’t need to hear it from that guy.

– Jeff Elbel

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Category: Spins, Weekly

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