Favorite Track: "I Contain Multitudes" Least Favorite Track: "Black Rider"
2020 marks the return of the legendary Bob Dylan. For the first time in eight years we have gotten new music from the infamous singer-songwriter. Most new Dylan releases tend to serve as monumental musical moments that can be looked back upon as points of reference, time will tell, but I predict this project will be no exception. Rough and Rowdy Ways is Bob Dylan’s thirty-ninth studio album. This number almost seemed unrealistic to me until I took the time to sit down and indulge in every single one of Dylan’s releases; a process that provided me with an increased sense of context as to just how monumental the release of a Bob Dylan album is. Songwriters of his caliber have long been prime examples of everything I love about music so needless to say I heavily anticipated this album's release. However, after putting this project to the test I struggle to see exactly where all of this LP’s critical acclaim is generating from, especially when it’s compared to pristine records like that of Dylan’s 1965 masterpiece: Highway 61 Revisited.
From an instrumental standpoint Dylan approaches Rough and Rowdy Ways from a place of sublty and grace. He seems to embrace a “less is more” aesthetic here. The album is littered with slow burning acoustic pieces of classic folk and americana, but Dylan keeps the tempo down on a consistent basis. With that being said, I made the false assumption that there would be some kind of greater and cohesive lyrical narrative throughout Rough and Rowdy Ways since the performances take such a back seat here. This project isn’t absent of anything to say, nearly every track has a classic Bob Dylan story to tell, but in terms of a narrative that encompasses the whole project, Rough and Rowdy Ways draws a blank. Every track employs a completely different story arc, and while none of them are particularly unenjoyable nor exciting, they aren’t exactly linked to an overall narrative.
When Dylan strays away from samey, down-tempo, acoustic songs on this LP, he chooses blues rock cuts in exchange, an example is one of the albums singles “False Prophet”. The blues tune sounds equal parts sports bar banger and rockabilly. Another notable moment of this nature is “Goodbye Jimmy Reed” where Dylan pays homage to the musical icon. Unfortunately moments like these aren’t necessarily highlights, they just aren’t as tedious as what surrounds them. “Black Rider” is a fine example of the rest of this album’s tone. The track features some classic salutary storytelling from Dylan where he describes an instance where he was the victim of infidelity. Like many of its counterparts the track is bare bones, slow, and runs itself into the ground. Unlike Dylan's older work this track is vacant of conceptual questions bellowing to be discussed, but that’s not the problem. The problem rests in the fact that I don’t need this long of a track to understand the concept of cheating on someone, and at a certain point it just becomes uninteresting.
Similar to much of his work past the turn of the century, Dylan doesn’t sing on this album as much as he sort of riffs and rants over instrumentals. The best example of this is the closing track “Murder Most Foul”. On the vinyl version of this project, the sixteen minute tale inhabits an entire second disc due to its extensity. The track is essentially an audible short story retelling the the murder of former president Kennedy, (at least that’s what it starts as). The track quickly de-rails into nothing short of a rant, not about a specific thing, but about everything one could possibly think of. It employs this dirty and gritty lyrical delivery that almost implies that the content here is deeper and more abstract than I truly believe it to be. Maybe the point is just beyond my understanding, but with lyrics like “Ugliest thing that you ever have seen. They killed him once and they killed him twice, Killed him like a human sacrifice”, I don’t necessarily think that this track is the metaphor that critics are making it out to be.
Lacking the folksy yet complex instrumentation of a “Don’t think Twice it’s Alright”, and the sheer, metaphoric, and abstract storytelling of a Blonde on Blonde, I don’t think Rough and Rowdy Ways comes close to the early projects that made Bob Dylan. Throughout my life when I've found myself in love with a Bob Dylan track, it has been because of the way his genius mind tells a story. This album has stories, but I don’t think they compete with the best ones that Dylan has told. This combined with a lack of instrumental variance, and surface level concepts that are completely run into the ground, makes for a listen that can only be described as tedious.