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Bob Dylan - Rough and Rowdy Ways (Album Review)

Thursday, 25 June 2020 Written by Spencer Lawes

The opening moments of Bob Dylan’s 39th album, the 70 minute ‘Rough and Rowdy Ways’, are mellow, unassuming and basic. As ever, though, his voice and its musical accompaniment are quite separate beasts. Once he delivers the opening lines of I Contain Multitudes, chasing a few drawn out, plain notes, it all begins to make sense.

The music provides a canvas for Dylan’s poetry. Following blues patterns and tropes, it doesn’t challenge form or threaten to take centre stage. It smoulders like embers that never burn out, delivering a sense of improvisation, as though Dylan was performing over the house band at an open mic night. It’s the perfect backdrop for his words.

Which are, perhaps unsurprisingly, brilliant. On Mother of Muses, Dylan manages to knit years of history into a single stanza. 

“Sing of Sherman, Montgomery, and Scott, and of Zhukov, and Patton, and the battles they fought," he intones. "Who cleared the path for Presley to sing, who carved the path for Martin Luther King, who did what they did and they went on their way. Man, I could tell their stories all day.” 

But it’s Key West (Philosopher Pirate), the penultimate of 10 long tracks, that is the most complete. It’s an impeccably well-balanced, sombre moment where Dylan’s verses feel the most connected to his music. It’s the only time the instrumentation is permitted to tell part of the story, allowing us to become lost in the narrative in a moment of escapism.

Essays will be written about ‘Rough and Rowdy Ways’, and rightfully so. As Dylan enters his seventh decade in music, this episode requires as much attention as any preceding it. It’s music to ponder and, in these uncertain times, he has treated us to an album with immense weight and depth, which might be his best work this side of the millennium.

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