Two months later, “Murder Most Foul” hits different: “We’re gonna kill you with hatred / Without any respect / We’ll mock you and shock you / And we’ll put it in your face,” Dylan sings in the song’s first verse. His voice is withering. “It’s a Murder. Most. Foul.” Dylan has spent decades seeing and chronicling American injustice. Forty-four years ago, on “Hurricane,” he sang frankly about police brutality: “If you’re black, you might as well not show up on the street / ’Less you want to draw the heat.”
This week, Dylan will release “Rough and Rowdy Ways,” a gruesome, crowded, marauding album that feels unusually attuned to its moment. Unlike many artists who reacted to the pandemic with a kind of dutiful tenderness—“Let me help with my song!”—Dylan has decided not to offer comfort, nor to hint at some vague solidarity. Lyrically, he’s either cracking weird jokes (“I’ll take the ‘Scarface’ Pacino and the ‘Godfather’ Brando / Mix ’em up in a tank and get a robot commando”) or operating in a cold, disdainful, it-ain’t-me-babe mode. Dylan’s musicianship is often undersold by critics, but on “Rough and Rowdy Ways” it’s especially difficult to focus on anything other than his voice; at seventy-nine, he sounds warmed up and self-assured. There are moments when he appears to be chewing on his own mortality—he recently told the Times that he thinks about death “in general terms, not in a personal way”—but mostly he sounds elegant and steady, a vocal grace he might have acquired while recording all those standards. “Three miles north of Purgatory, one step from the great beyond,” he sings calmly on “Crossing the Rubicon.”
Dylan is a voracious student of United States history—he can, and often does, itemize the various atrocities that have been committed in service to country—and “Rough and Rowdy Ways” could be understood as a glib summation of America’s outlaw origins, and of the confused, dangerous, and often haphazard way that we preserve democracy. He seems to understand instinctively that American history is not a series of fixed points but an unmoored and constantly evolving idea that needs to be reëstablished each day—things don’t happen once and then stop happening. In this sense, linear time becomes an invention; every moment is this moment. This is why, on “Murder Most Foul,” Buster Keaton and Dickey Betts and the Tulsa race massacre of 1921 and Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicksand the Birdman of Alcatraz can coexist, harmoniously, in a single verse. That Dylan named another dense, allusive song on the album, “I Contain Multitudes,” after a much-quoted stanza from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”—“Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”—also seems to indicate some reckoning with the vastness and immediacy of American culture. (Dylan’s interests are so wonderfully obtuse and far-ranging that it’s sometimes hard to discern precisely what he’s referring to: Is the “Cry Me a River” that he mentions on “Murder Most Foul” a reference to the jazz standard made famous by the actress Julie London, in 1955, or to the dark, cluttered revenge jamthat Justin Timberlake supposedly wrote about Britney Spears, in 2002? My money is on the latter.)
Now thirty-nine albums in, it’s tempting to dismiss Dylan as sepia-toned—a professor emeritus, a museum piece, a Nobel laureatecoasting through his sunset years, the mouthpiece of some bygone generation but certainly not this one. (It’s hard, admittedly, to imagine bars of “I Contain Multitudes” finding viral purchase on TikTok.) The sheer volume of writing about his life and music suggests a completed arc, which makes it easy to presume that there’s nothing useful, interesting, or pertinent left to say. Yet, for me, Dylan’s vast and intersectional understanding of the American mythos feels so plainly and uniquely relevant to the grimness and magnitude of these past few months. As the country attempts to metabolize the murder of George Floyd, it is also attempting to reckon with every crooked, brutal, odious, or unjust murder of a black person—to understand a cycle that began centuries ago and somehow continues apace. What is American racism? It’s everything, Dylan insists. Indiana Jones and J.F.K. and Elvis Presley and Jimmy Reed—nothing exists without the rest of it. None of us are absolved, and none of us are spared.
- Rough and Rowdy Ways
- NYT Critic’s Pick
Latter-day Bob Dylan is for die-hards. His voice is tattered and scratchy, not always bothering to trace a melody. His lyrics can be cryptic or throwaway when they’re not downright bleak. His music is adamantly old-fashioned, and he’s not aiming to ingratiate himself with anyone.
But for those who have stuck with him this far, his new album, “Rough and Rowdy Ways,” is at once a summing-up and a taunt, equal parts death-haunted and cantankerous. “Today and tomorrow and yesterday too/The flowers are dyin’ like all things do,” he sings as the album begins, in “I Contain Multitudes.”
“Rough and Rowdy Ways” is Dylan’s first album of his own songs since “Tempest” in 2012, and song for song, it rivals the grim, gallows-humored conviction of his albums “Time Out of Mind” (1997) and “‘Love and Theft’” (2001). After “Tempest,” Dylan recorded collections of vintage pop standards, but he hasn’t tried to emulate the urbane concision of Irving Berlin or Hoagy Carmichael on the new album. Instead, the music is often rootsy and open-ended, while the many verses of lyrics move through ever-shifting perspectives.
At 79, Dylan is entitled to the long view, and his new songs riffle through history, biography, theology, tall tales, myths and threats. “Three miles north of purgatory — one step from the great beyond/I prayed to the cross and I kissed the girls and I crossed the Rubicon,” he declares, over a slyly lurching blues, in “Crossing the Rubicon.”
“Rough and Rowdy Ways” often feels quietly conspiratorial. The band — Dylan’s long-evolving touring band — patiently circles through slow, stealthy vamps or, in more upbeat moments, lopes through 12-bar blues shuffles. The music has a late-night, after-hours sense of seclusion and confidentiality, the sound of musicians who have been listening to one another long and intently.
The album title echoes “My Rough and Rowdy Ways,” a song from the 1920s by the country-music forefather Jimmie Rodgers about not entirely settling down. Dylan’s new songs are, for better and worse, a blizzard of allusions: song titles and musicians, historical figures and movie characters, authors and hints of quotations. Dylan builds a cultural pantheon and, for once, he lodges himself in it.
The album’s first two songs, “I Contain Multitudes” and “False Prophet,” include declarations like, “I sing the songs of experience like William Blake/I have no apologies to make.” Later, in “Goodbye Jimmy Reed” — a Jimmy Reed-style electric blues that also harks back to Dylan’s own “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” — he growls, “Never pandered, never acted proud.” Rarely one to tell his own story, even in his memoir, “Chronicles, Volume One,” Dylan seems candid for those few lines.