Review: Bob Dylan – Rough and Rowdy Ways

Adam Baker takes a deep dive into the 39th studio release from singer-songwriter royalty, Bob Dylan…

It’s Bob Dylan. If you’ve listened to him before – or even know a little bit about him – you’ll know not to expect a dance-around-the-kitchen pop song while you make your breakfast in the morning. Not that anyone actually does that unless they’re made out of pure Hollywood. You’ll also know that expecting him to be completely in tune is a stretch but that it also doesn’t matter.

The nasal ‘Tambourine Man’ of old has now developed a gruff growl and the whole pace of his new album, Rough and Rowdy Ways, is slower than his rebel-rousing folk days. Through some of the songs (namely False Prophet, my personal favourite), there is even a swinging jazz bar sort of vibe that you may expect to hear from someone encircled in smoke in a well-cut, dark suit. There isn’t a discernible chorus as such but there’s something catchy about the menacing guitar riff that’s pleasing to hear over and over again.

He’s 79 now, but he’s still very much Dylan. There’s still an element of non-conformity. There’s a 17-minute song about the death of JFK. There’s no real relevance to today as such but it’s beautiful storytelling set to music. The whole album – or maybe even just Murder Most Foul – could be considered as more of a podcast or an audio book because you need to listen to the lyrics to appreciate the music. I know that’s something pretentious music snobs say to fans of Gucci Gang but if you regard it as an entirely different experience then there shouldn’t have to be. Essentially, it won’t be played in any clubs – nothing from the album will.

It isn’t perfect by any stretch, the first song on the album, I Contain Multitudes, goes on a bit too long and I have no idea what he means by: “I’m just like Anne Frank, Like Indiana Jones”. The whole song is sort of like a memoir or a personal statement – with a list of things that Bob does and doesn’t do. I just don’t see the point to it. This is a small thing but I don’t like the font on the album cover, it sort of looks a little bit like the ‘WordArt’ interpretation of 1940s advert writing. I just think it cheapens the whole thing.

It is a new thing though, there are nods to the past- to musicians and cultural references throughout the life of the bard but its nothing like I’ve heard from him before. Neil Young has just released an album called Homegrown that was recorded in the 70s and never put out. I’m not sure what I think of that (I know I’m meant to be reviewing Bob’s new album but I promise there’s a point to this). We’ve heard Neil Young’s 1970s music- its very good- but do we need more of the same?

That’s why I like Rough and Rowdy Ways, it isn’t a copy of old music or a formulaic production of music for music’s sake. It’s a 70-minute story with different genre-based chapters. There are some folky sounds of slide guitar and gentle brushes on the drums in I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You (which may be the longest title for a song I’ve ever seen) but there’s also some crunchy blues tones in Goodbye Jimmy Reed –almost quintessentially so with the chord changes and guitar licks. It’s astonishing how different each song sounds as he sings/speaks/croaks in very much the same way throughout.

It’s quite a traditional idea – to tell a story through music, almost like a bard in the corner of a darkened alehouse – if that bard provided the 20th-century social commentary of course.

Rating: 8/10

By Adam Baker

Feature Image Credit: Columbia Records

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