Rough And Rowdy Ways (Sony)
“Today, and tomorrow, and yesterday, too, the flowers are dyin' like all things do/Follow me close, I’m going to Bally-na-Lee. I'll lose my mind if you don't come with me/I fuss with my hair, and I fight blood feuds/I contain multitudes”
As obvious as it is, as narrow as it makes the line from a song about much more than one man or even one country, as much as it does apply to any of us – though still, not quite as much as it does to him – Rough And Rowdy Ways gives us Bob Dylan as “a man of contradictions, a man of many moods”, who can readily say “I contain multitudes”.
Along with some of his most rambunctious moments in years - after a run of new recordings which took his love of standards and American song through three idiosyncratic albums (the last of them a 30-track triple disc) which as much as they contained pleasures, took us beyond what was strictly necessary – Dylan has also found a path of elegance and comfort.
By which I don’t mean comfortable, for the future seen here is not roses and wine anymore than the past was, and the perspective of a 79-year-old is not set on a long vision forward. Death, his and ours, always feels a breath or two away: “I’ve grown so tired of chasing lies/Mother of Muses, wherever you are/I’ve already outlived by life so far”.
So, not comfortable but rather, capable of offering solace and wisdom, small grips on truth and reality, in a fashion we pretend we don’t need but can’t help but hold on to.
In a record which trawls through contemporary times like it was already the second or third draft of history, and dives into a longer past like it was fresh as this morning’s tweet, Dylan has also found a way to be both sage and participant, critic and consoler, with all those fragments of stories we tell ourselves to explain ourselves.
“Another day that don't end/Another ship goin' out/Another day of anger, bitterness, and doubt/I know how it happened/I saw it begin/I opened my heart to the world and the world came in.”
While back to the blues here, he’s refusing to shed the coat of the late-night balladeer, his voice varying from gutbucket to crooner, from confidante to stern preacher, but never a flicker of physical or existential weariness. Nor any loss of humour: sometimes a sparkle of mischief, sometimes a gulch of dry lines, and always, always, to be heard and read with an eye on truth’s innate slipperiness.
And bloody hell, if it doesn’t have some of the most romantic moments he’s ever put down on tape (as well as a song built from a vivisectionist’s fetid dream of building the perfect woman to stand in for the imperfect ones who can’t see his worth).
I’ve not yet managed a play through of this album without welling up during I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You, a slow waltz whose aches are welcome like the imprinted memory on muscle, whose gentle, plain invocations of certainty (“I’ve travelled from the mountains to the sea/I hope that the gods go easy with me/I knew you’d say yes, I’m saying it too/I’ve made up my mind to give myself to you”) roll free like the words of a resistor resisting no more, knowing time is not waiting any more than love ever was.
As with his never-ending tours, Rough And Rowdy Ways (a title taken from a Jimmie Rodgers song about the lure of the road even when you’ve found “a perfect lady” and “a cottage in the old hometown”) feels like a farewell from a man who isn’t in any hurry to leave. Like a summation of a modern America from a man who hasn’t decided where the past became the present.
Which is crucial to how you respond to this, as in the long - ok, very long - folk blues-in-extremis Murder Most Foul which had been disconcerting for some when released as the first single.
Disconcerting and challenging not just because of its length, which at 17 minutes requires a separate disc to the rest of the album, nor its melodic simplicity and minimalist setting of piano, occasional violin and scattered rolls of percussions, but its winding path through late 20th century America that sprang from the Kennedy assassination but was personal and discursive, eccentric and wide-reaching.
Murder Most Foul felt a song alone. But here, closing out the album, rounding up this experience, amplifying its sonic and emotional palette, it doesn’t just feel appropriate in tone and topic, but even more hypnotic and compelling. More satisfying and deeply comforting. And it makes the record whole.
While no other track approaches the length of that closing track, nor its library of names, places and myths, this is an album whose lyrics often come spilling out in quantity, imagery piled on imagery, references pulled in like a whirlpool drawing everything near into the vortex. In the links from Anne Frank and the Rolling Stones, Chopin’s Preludes and pirate radio stations, “Ginsberg, Corso and Kerouac” and “Louis and Jimmy and Buddy and all the rest”, the Bible and conspiracy theory corners of the Web, is a world that is fevered but febrile, close but maybe through a parallax lens.
It’s too early, too intensely near, to say for sure whether this album will finish as one of the best of Dylan’s late career, a period which has been studded with some genuinely great records. But for now it certainly feels like a masterpiece of the spirit.
“I go right to the edge, I go right to the end, I go right where all things lost are made good again/I sing the songs of experience like William Blake, I have no apologies to make/Everything's flowing all at the same time, I live on a boulevard of crime/I drive fast cars, and I eat fast foods/I contain multitudes.”