Bob Dylan was my first lasting musical obsession. I mean, just like every other suburban kid in the nineties, I had my thing with Nirvana and Green Day, but Dylan was the first artist to really give me some sort of personal identity; his music did more than make me snap my fingers, but to waltz with new ideas, and ideologies that helped define me; both good and bad. Looking back at all my musical obsessions, I guess I am pretty lucky that most of my favourite musicians have long and fabled careers.
This is especially true with Dylan. Fans walk alongside him as they revisit his nearly sixty years in the limelight, trying to make sense of all his allusion. Throughout his Odyssean career, Dylan had many passing fancies; he flirted with politics, flirted with ladies, and flirted with religion, all delivered through a pall of heavy figurative language. Though a perpetual paradox with lyrically seductive and enigmatic word-usage, there are few artists more genuine than Bob Dylan. Everything he writes is real, even if it isn't necessarily true.
For Rough and Rowdy Ways, Dylan throws his audience a bone, and makes an album for everyone to enjoy. Instead of the listener having to decipher his cryptic message, Dylan speaks in very concrete terms. While most of Dylan's records are personal on some level or another, this one feels the most intimate; even more than his confessional eras. Rather than telling his story through far-drawn metaphor or innuendo, Rough and Rowdy is a plaintive look at life, death, and culture. He opens the album with "I Contain Multitudes," a delightful personal statement of himself, America's greatest musical riddle. The following song, "False Prophets" contains what might be my favourite, and most candid Dylan quote; Dylan's six decade resume summed up in one absolutely perfect stanza.
Well I'm the enemy of treason
Enemy of strife
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.
The rest of Rough and Rowdy Ways follows suit, as he fills his narratives with tangible people, places, and things, giving his audience far more grounding than his other works. The result is a beautiful Dylan record that is grounded in reality. "My Own Version of You" is a particularly interesting example, as the character, assumably Dylan, scours through morgues and monasteries looking for parts of real celebrities, trying to piece together the perfect version of his muse (again, maybe himself). Death and mortality has been a central theme of many of Dylan's songs since his latest renaissance, beginning with 97's landmark Time Out Of Mind, and Rough and Rowdy Ways is no exception. Dylan's best reference is "Black Rider," where he speaks directly to death, essentially telling him to stop bugging him. Dylan, usually a verbal highbrow, even throws out mention of death's dick size.
Musically, Rough and Rowdy Ways is a treat. It is very age appropriate; a tact that Dylan has mastered. It also captures a stylistic breadth that has come to exemplify a lot of Dylan's career. While highlighted by some jangly barroom and some baroque styles, much of the record is Dylan wistfully crooning over pastoral melodies; an aural stroll through the twilight.
The music world is a very odd place at the moment. A world pandemic has put an end to Dylan's "Never-Ending Tour," and at an austere 79 years of age his future is fairly uncertain. As time moves forward each new Bob Dylan record has had a bit more poignancy than the last, but never has there been a sense of finality like Rough and Rowdy Ways. For all we know, Dylan might put out a hip hop record in a couple months, but there is a good chance that this could be the last piece of Dylan art the world sees. If, by chance, this is the case, then Rough and Rowdy Ways is landmark elegy, and a beautifully deep and touching firsthand account of the life of a well-lived legend.