By Andy Dunbar
“Today, tomorrow, and yesterday too / The flowers are dyin’ like all things do” Bob Dylan croons in “I Contain Multitudes,” the opening track of “Rough and Rowdy Ways.”
The Nobel Prize-winning folk icon has returned with his first album of original material since 2012’s “Tempest.” Although keenly aware of his place in his twilight years, Dylan is everything but content on his latest record. Where other 79-year-old rockstars would spend a 2020 release meditating on a life lived, Dylan assumes his rebel poet persona to place himself in the midst of religion, war, philosophy and history and emerges with a catalog of 10 tracks sure to be dissected long after he has left Earth.
Dylan references pop culture and history throughout the 70-minute runtime with the deftness of a musician who has witnessed the formative events of the past 60 years. He pays tribute to fallen legends such as Little Richard, Roy Orbison, Jimmy Reed and Allen Ginsberg, to name a few, and picks up the banner to march on with the demeanor of an artist who is among the last still standing from his era: “A lot of people gone, a lot of people I knew,” he sings on “I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You,” a lyrical and instrumental standout expressing his acceptance of mortality.
This fixation with mortality touches most tracks – “Mother of Muses” ends with the line “I’ve already outlived my life by far,” and “Black Rider” can be easily interpreted as a discussion with death. However, Dylan’s poignant acceptance of his age is balanced by his band’s quiet uplifting melodies and the vast assortment of other topics he tackles in his lyrics.
His fascination with history makes appearances in nearly every track, notably when he references the sinking of the Titanic, the Black Sunday dust storm, Lincoln’s assassination and Julius Caesar’s downfall with the two lines “I crossed the Rubicon on the 14th day / Of the most dangerous month of the year” (“Crossing The Rubicon”).
He goes on to mention President McKinley’s assassination in the ninth track “Key West,” and the epic 17-minute closer, “Murder Most Foul,” starts with a depiction of JFK’s death and follows the various musicians and celebrities who rose to prominence in the following years alongside Dylan. The track is accompanied by string and piano crescendos as Dylan paints a panorama of 1960s culture.
The instrumentals are by design a simple backdrop for Dylan’s poetry. This aspect of the record may hinder some listeners’ enjoyment. The instrumentals serve as a muted canvas for Dylan to paint his vocals over, with the exception of the raucous blues bangers “False Prophet” and “Goodbye Jimmy Reed.”
Dylan’s band takes inspiration from soul, blues and ambient americana to set the timbre for Dylan’s vocals. Because the instrumentals rarely take the forefront, the focus falls on these vocals, which are far from beautiful but effortlessly expressive as they mold to fit whichever tone the band sets. Whether it be gently crooning on “I Contain Multitudes” or growling over the abrasive “False Prophet,” Dylan has mastered his gruff vocal style.
As a young Dylan fan, it is difficult to express how special it is to be alive for a new album, particularly one that is sure to be among his last. In the wake of the recent passing of John Prine and Little Richard, it falls to music lovers to cherish Dylan’s music, influence and legacy.
The writer is a student at Providence College, studying English and music.