The precocious young folkie who wowed Greenwich Village in 1961 can’t have foreseen his grandfatherly twilight, surely? Yet, thanks to this album, it will forever feel like he did. Because if ever there was a musical career that was perfectly sculpted, it’s Dylan’s. Explosive and iconoclastic at its beginning, deep and complex in its middle, warm and wise towards its end, even its blemishes serve the whole. And just when you thought he’d nodded off in his rocking chair while crooning his way through the Great American Songbook, he turns out a rich, witty, contemplative masterpiece like this, an album that makes the consolations of old age feel plentiful. That young, wise-beyond-his-years lad who arrived in New York, armed with far-fetched origin stories and a penchant for personal myth-building, couldn’t have scripted it better.
Rough And Rowdy Ways is exactly the album you’d want a 79 year old Dylan to make. Its dominant mood is gentle and reflective – the work of an older, slower man nodding sagely, as if at the rough and rowdy ways of youngsters (or his younger self) – with only a handful of obligatory blues puncturing the pace. Yet underlying the graceful, old-timey air, is the unflagging spirit of someone with plenty of rough and rowdy ways left in them. His fire might not shoot all-consuming flames into the air like it once did, but at its heart it still burns white hot. He’s a wily old coot is Bob; he’s metaphorically winking at us at certain points here as if to say “still got it, lads”. A clever aphorism here, a knowing remark there. In one moment, he’ll play the fusty codger who hasn’t installed the latest cultural update, as when he sings of “Them British bad boys, The Rolling Stones” (I Contain Multitudes). The next he’s showing us a lively and scathing turn of phrase: “The size of your cock will get you nowhere” (Black Rider). Those cliches of life in the old dog all apply.
I Contain Multitudes gets him about right. A statement of his own complexity and contradictions, it also serves as a useful metaphor for humanity. On the personal level, you don’t have to look far for intimations of mortality: “The flowers are dyin’ like all things do,” he sings. “I cannot frolic with all the young dudes”. That’s not his point though. He still has hard living to do. “I fuss with my hair, and I fight blood feuds”, “I drive fast cars, and I eat fast foods”. The two perspectives co-habit. Morrissey once sang “I think about life and I think about death, and neither one particularly appeals to me.” Bob’s less pessimistic. As he puts it, “I sleep with life and death in the same bed”.
This gentle but thoughtful opening presages some of the most genuinely beautiful music of his career.
I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You takes the heart-pouring love song template of Make You Feel My Love from 1997’s Time Out Of Mind and improves on it, if that were even possible. It sways back and forth in the same tender slow-dance, but the softer production and the subtle, doo-woppy backing vocals lend it added soulfulness. As do, perversely, Bob’s faltering vocals. That scraggy old mutt of a voice, unpalatable to many, feels like its reached its intended destination. Even his detractors might concede its weather-worn nature suits the music. He wields it more poetically than ever, skipping beats or elongating syllables as emphasis dictates. “Lot of people gone…” he croaks up into the air, without the energy to give the line flight, before spiralling sadly to the ground: “Lot of people I knew.”
Black Rider is frailer still. A sad beauty next to I’ve Made Up My Mind‘s prettiness and equally direct to the human heart. Backed by little more than single-strum, Spanish-tinged guitar chords, he addresses the figure of the title (Death? The Devil? Inner demons? A love rival?) in tones that are equal parts defiant, resigned and respectful. “My heart is at rest, I’d like to keep it that way… Go home to your wife, stop visiting mine”.
Albeit at a much slower pace, side one of Rough and Rowdy Ways flows with the same confidence and smarts that Highway 61 Revisited did 55 years ago. My Own Version Of You mimics the descending chord sequence and menace of that album’s Ballad Of A Thin Man. “I’ve been visiting mosques and monasteries / Looking for the necessary body parts / Limbs and livers and brains and hearts” and “Show me your ribs and I’ll stick in the knife”. Prior to that is the growly blues False Prophet – a half-speed From A Buick 6? Maybe a stretch, but let’s go with it to keep the analogy intact.
The blues numbers are the album’s most straightforward. Light relief, even. Goodbye Jimmy Reed pays a round-the-houses tribute to the late blues singer, gives Bob a chance to dust off the harmonica and contains some of the many cheeky lines on the album. “Where the Jews and the Catholics and the Muslims all pray / I can tell they’re Proddie from a mile away”. Crossing The Rubicon is a slow blues, musically distinguished only by its frantic opening stabs, but the lyrics contain bite: “I can feel the bones beneath my skin / And they’re tremblin’ with rage / I’ll make your wife a widow / You’ll never see old age”.
Then comes an epic album ending sequence to match his finest. Key West (Philosopher Pirate) is a song to cherish and lose yourself in. Echoing another Time Out Of Mind number, Highlands, it uses the Florida island as a metaphor for the promised land. But unlike Highlands, the destination is now more clearly spiritual than physical. Key West is “the gateway key to innocence and purity”, “a land of light”, “paradise divine”. For Bob, it’s now “on the horizon line”. The imagery and phraseology will be picked over by Bobologists for years – “Twelve years old, they put me in a suit / Forced me to marry a prostitute” – but it doesn’t need appreciating at that level. Musically, the song laps lazily at the shoreline, a street-cafe accordion adding colour to a dreamy melange of other instrumentation.
The fact it’s so hard to pick instruments from the mix is indicative of another of the album’s strengths. It takes a world class backing band to do “understated” this well. It’s done with painterly precision. On the surface, much of Rough And Rowdy…‘s backing is simply a light, hotel muzak swing, an unobtrusive shuffle designed not to tax Dylan’s old man grumble. Yet listen closely and you detect layers and textures that aren’t immediately apparent to the naked ear – the in-and-out of the stringed instrument playing slightly against the beat in I’ve Made Up My Mind…, the occasional percussive tap or pizzicato note in Black Rider.
Key West could’ve seen the album out and served as the album’s Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands, but Bob tops it. Murder Most Foul – at 17 minutes, his longest ever song – may seem an endurance test for some, and true, unless you’re listening for those aforementioned layers and textures, it seems to go nowhere musically. Yet it rewards both intent, meditative listening and casual, drift-over listening to calm the soul.
The fact that Bob is rambling on in the lyrics about JFK, The Beatles, Woodstock and Altamont in the manner of a retirement home pub bore might be taken as a sign of old age retrospection. Yet, there’s another way to take it. It serves to highlight the complete absence of contemporary commentary on the album. Rarely is anything released these days that isn’t in some way shaped by These Difficult Times, but that album may be Rough And Rowdy Ways.
Dylan did his social justice in the 60s, was feted for it and deliberately moved on. He is not available for further comment. This is almost defiantly not a 2020 album in tone or style. Here he is, standing back, surveying a grander timescale, placing us in a broad sweep of history. “I ask myself ‘what would Julius Caesar do?'” (My Own Version Of You). That’s the kind of temporal detachment we’re talking.
Rough And Rowdy Ways is of a piece with everything he’s done in the past 25 years, an exploration of anachronistic music and ancient truths. It’s like he’s held the best of that era back to give us now as a tonic, in lieu of any pronouncement on the state of the world. It has a universal wisdom and an artistry that will outlive contemporary mores.
Now there really is a Dylan album for every phase of life. “Summer days and summer nights are gone / I know a place where there’s still somethin’ goin’ on,” he sang 20 years ago on Love & Theft, making reaching 60 seem like an excuse for more mischief, not pipe ‘n’ slippers. Now he’s done the same sales job for turning 80. You can look on at the world, see its errors and horrors and know that this too shall pass. And so long as you keep your own spirit and truth about you, you may reach your own Key West: “The place to be if you’re looking for immortality… Key West is fine and fair. If you lost your mind, you’ll find it there…”