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Bob Dylan’s Rough and Rowdy Ways

Bob Dylan’s latest reviewed

Bob Dylan

‘Rough and Rowdy Ways’

By Manning Patston

“I’m a man of contradictions, I’m a man of many moods”, Bob Dylan croons on the opening track “I Contain Multitudes”. 

Behind the soft, atmospheric pedal steel, these rare lyrics of inward definition feel like the bookend to Dylan’s creative saga. Since the 60’s, fans, critics and the press have all attempted to pinhole Dylan somehow. Define him, label him, make sense of his esoteric musings. Now, at age 80, on his 39th studio album, we’re treated to some long sought after self-definition, unshrouded in metaphor or parable.

“The lyrics are the real thing, tangible”, the artist told The New York Times when discussing the ten-track album. This new unguarded honesty throughout Rough and Rowdy Ways makes it one of Dylan’s most approachable albums. It’s refreshing, spiritual, and uncompromised in its messages. Many tracks run well beyond the five-minute mark, signifying the meditative nature of Rough and Rowdy Ways in Dylan’s discography. Take “False Prophet”, the third single from the record. Clear-cut self-analysis presents itself, backed by bouncing delta blues.  “I’m the last of the best. You can bury the rest”, Dylan smears.  “I’m the enemy of the unlived meaningless life”.  Dylan fan or not, it’s hard to deny the troubadour these victories.

And yet, Rough and Rowdy Ways still revels in signature Dylan crypticism.  “My Own Version of You” litters references, from Frankenstein to Julius Caesar, as the protagonist manifests an ideal creation. Some observers believe the track is about fans and critics’ construction of the ideal ‘Dylan’, but this is, of course, subjective. The dizzying sway of the track’s instrumentation certainly implies confusion. “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You” is a beautiful moment of somber balladry in 6/8 time. Though Dylan’s weathered voice strains and cracks, it does embellish a new, bleak meaning to the otherwise sweet track. He’s made up his mind and comes to peace with it, but this choice has come far too late. “I hope that the gods go easy with me”, Dylan submits.

“Goodbye Jimmy Reed” presents the first (and only) moment of uptempo blues on the record. It’s a welcome shift in pace, and Dylan even teases listeners with a few harmonicas notes. Sadly, they go nowhere, but that’s Dylan for you. “Never pandered, never acted proud”. While the stomping song is an ode to legendary musician Jimmy Reed, it’s also Dylan’s liberating moment of raucousness on an otherwise solemn tracklist.

The last two tracks on Rough and Rowdy Ways are pure hypnotism. “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” is accordion-driven, with minimal brushed drums. ‘Key West’ is positioned as both a place of an afterlife and a real place on Earth. Though the lyrics are rich and complex, it’s clear that Dylan’s consciousness is obsessed with the idea of death and where it will take him. Hell, opener “I Contain Multitudes” spells it out: “I sleep with life and death in the same bed”. 

At long last comes Dylan’s seventeen-minute triumph and first #1 song (somehow).  “Murder Most Foul” begins as a retelling of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, then soon evolves into a slideshow of cathartic release and the necessity of art in times of trial. Dylan lists off cultural prominence in a desultory fashion: “Play it for Lindsey and Stevie Nicks”, while Fiona Apple‘s wandering keys play amidst swelling strings.

Overall, Rough and Rowdy Ways is an essential chapter in Dylan’s catalogue. The artist slows things down to find meaning in a holistic reflection of an unabridged life drowning with significance. 

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Author Bio

Manning Patston is a writer and musician from Sydney. Sucker for folk music and cultural happenings. More of his writing can be found at Happy Mag

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