In their review of Rough and Rowdy Ways, Bob Dylan’s first original album in 8 years, Pitchfork alludes to the once-in-a-blue-moon interview that Dylan gave the New York Times shortly before its release: “Dylan is asked whether the coronavirus could be seen as a Biblical reckoning — a difficult question to imagine posing to any other living musician. We have learned to come to Dylan with these types of quandaries, and more often than not, we have left satisfied.”
Bob Dylan might as well be two thousand years old. Even in his mid-60s heyday, rather than riding the wave of psychedelia or discussing social issues explicitly (a tack which he’d pointedly abandoned after The Times They Are A’Changin’, with few exceptions), he was saying things like “Einstein disguised as Robin Hood, with his memories in a trunk, passed this way an hour ago with his friend, a jealous monk”, “Mona Lisa must have had the highway blues, you can tell by the way she smiled”, “I was riding on the Mayflower when I thought I spied some land.” It should be noted that Dylan, ever the man of mystery, has operated under many lyrical guises throughout his career (see: the searing heartbreak of Blood On the Tracks and Time Out of Mind, New Morning’s touching fragments of domestic bliss, the infamous trio of born-again Christian albums in the early 80s). But it’s worth considering the colorfully peopled, historically anachronistic mythmaking showcased in songs like “Desolation Row”, “Visions of Johanna”, and “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream”, among others, as a lyrical mode in itself — a mode in which Mona Lisa is a world-weary traveler, Einstein a cunning outlaw, and Dylan himself an explorer who discovered America. The three of them might even reach out across space and time and be friends.
“Tell me what’s next, what shall we do?”
Rough and Rowdy Ways brings this mode to the fore, with a twist. It’s not a verbose album, but it’s probably Dylan’s most allusive to date (“Murder Most Foul” alone references almost a hundred artists from the last 70 years of music history — more on that later). Still, nothing we haven’t heard before — after all, remember that this is the man who revolutionized rock lyricism by populating rock n’ roll rhythms with colorful quandaries and characters from folk and literature, and went on to win a Nobel Prize in literature. Allusion is Dylan’s bread and butter.
But here’s the twist: rather than merely spinning mythical yarns featuring characters and settings from history and fiction, as in the mid-60s, on Rough and Rowdy Dylan seeks to better understand himself by way of these devices. Call it outsourced introspection.
“I’m just like Anne Frank,” he sings on opener “I Contain Multitudes”, with emphasis on the word “just” in case you think he doesn’t mean it (imagine any other modern pop artist delivering that line without being cancelled). He goes on for good measure: “Like Indiana Jones, and those British bad boys the Rolling Stones.” Right off the bat, Dylan situates us in a world where these three wildly disparate cultural touchstones are of a piece with one another, and with him. However, he also “drives fast cars and eats fast food.” Fans and critics often speak of Dylan as though he’s synonymous with his songs — a fount of inscrutable poetry, a symbol of sagacity, something more (or less) than human. In a way, it’s more intuitive to think of him in the same terms as the Stones, Indiana Jones and Anne Frank than as a modern man in the 21st century. In “Multitudes”, Dylan bridges the gap — he understands himself as both a myth and a flesh-and-blood human.
In “False Prophet,” the second track and one of three obligatory blues barnburners (the others being “Goodbye Jimmy Reed” and “Crossing the Rubicon”), the mood shifts from shimmering introspection to snarled braggadocio: “I’m first among equals, second to none, the last of the best, you can bury the rest.” But then, in the very next line, we get “What are you looking at? There’s nothing to see, just a cool breeze that’s encircling me.” One moment, the bard casts himself as an undisputed legend — the next, he’s little more than air. And he doesn’t stop there. Dylan didn’t combat personal and professional turmoil, he “climbed a mountain of swords on my bare feet.” He didn’t experience the optimistic counter-cultural shifts of the 60s and the erosion of those ideals in the 70s, he “knows how it happened,” he “saw it begin.” He’s not an artistic maverick who follows his own internal compass at all costs, he’s “the enemy of treason, the enemy of strife, the enemy of the unlived meaningless life.” The language is at once down-to-earth and epic, the singing raw and hard-earned. “False Prophet” makes it easy to see why Dylan named The Odyssey one of the books that most influenced him in his Nobel acceptance speech, while also keeping the impression alive that an aging human being is wearing out his vocal chords, little by little, with every Homerian turn of phrase. It shows us what “Multitudes” tells us.
“Forge my identity from the inside out”
Once the first two tracks have set the stage, reminding us of the subtleties and contradictions that come with being Bob Dylan, we get a left hand turn. With the third track, “My Own Version of You,” Dylan narrates a comical quest to “bring someone to life” by way of harvesting “limbs and livers and brains and hearts” from “morgues and monasteries.” He addresses the nascent being: “I can see the history of the whole human race, it’s all right there, it’s carved into your face. Should I break it all down, should I fall on my knees? Is there light at the end of the tunnel, can you tell me please?” We come to understand that this “someone” Dylan seeks to animate is less a person or creature than an edifice for the idea of a capital-T Truth. And once he’s committed to extracting that Truth from his creation, all “truths” to be found elsewhere are inadequate (“They talk all night, and they talk all day, but not for a minute do I believe anything they say”). In other words, rather than reflecting on himself directly, Dylan invents an omniscient being to whom he can turn for answers. By the end of the song he doesn’t get any, but the kinds of questions he asks the creation (“Can you tell me what it means, to be or not to be?”, “Can you help me walk that good land mile?”) give us some idea of the nature of his search.
And this is just the beginning of Dylan’s outsourced introspection. A longing to submit to someone (or something) external in hopes of self-actualization is a strain that runs through every remaining song, in one way or another. It’s right there in the title of “I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You”, a seemingly straightforward love song that, knowing Dylan, is anything but. “Black Rider” is more ambiguous, but it’s at least clear that Dylan addresses the titular rider with the hope of discovering some hidden self-knowledge: “Black rider, black rider, tell me when, tell me how…let me go through, open the door, my soul is distressed, my mind is at war.” “Goodbye Jimmy Reed” seems to be a tribute to the late, great bluesman, although several lines (in the first person, no less) call into question who the song is really about. I find it hard to believe that Dylan, who’s made a career of stubbornly adhering to his own artistic vision no matter the consequences, wrote the words “I can’t sing a song that I don’t understand” or “Never pandered, never acted proud, never took off my shoes, throw ’em in the crowd” without thinking of himself. In the hymn-like “Mother of Muses” he implores some transcendent figure to put him in league with the likes of Calliope, General Patton, Elvis and Martin Luther King, and also to “make me invisible like the wind” (can one be done without the other?). In both “Crossing the Rubicon” and “My Own Version”, he expresses a certain kinship with Julius Caesar (“I’ll pick a number between one and two, and ask myself, ‘what would Julius Caesar do?’” is another line that only Dylan could pull off in earnest). In “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” the Florida island is not only a scenic beach locale, but a mythical cure-all for the most profound personal ills: “Key West is the place to be, if you’re looking for immortality”, “Key West is fine and fair, if you lost your mind, you’ll find it there”, “Key West is the gateway key to innocence and purity, Key West is the enchanted land”. On paper, these lyrics verge on parody. It’s a small miracle — a testament to what a truly singular artist Dylan is — that he manages to spin an engaging nine-minute song from these lines without once resorting to affectation or irony. And despite its length, “Key West” is only a warmup for what comes next…
“Perfectly executed, skillfully done”
Everything comes to a head with the gargantuan, hallucinatory, pseudo-historical epic “Murder Most Foul”, Dylan’s longest song to date at seventeen minutes, certainly the apotheosis and maybe the logical limit of his mythmaking. Lyrically, the song is a wildly exaggerated, impressionistic account of John F. Kennedy’s assassination that morphs into a eulogy for the man and the idealized America that also died on that “dark day in Dallas” (“the age of the antichrist has just only begun”), then morphs again into a series of 74 (count ’em) commemorative radio song requests to real-life DJ Wolfman Jack, featuring some of the most celebrated musicians America has ever produced. How exactly this “play it” section relates to Kennedy’s death, like many aspects of the song, is unclear. Is Dylan asking Wolfman Jack to play these American standards as a tribute to the President? Do these specific songs hold personal meaning for him? Was he just riffing in the studio? (many of the rhymes do sound decidedly un-planned…)
What’s clearer is that Kennedy functions similarly to the “someone” in “My Own Version of You” — not the man or the politician, but a vessel for truth, joy and innocence. However, the situations are opposites. “My Own Version” describes a potential birth, brimming with possibility. “Murder Most Foul”, on the other hand, is a eulogy. It’s as though all the scaffolding of self-mythologizing and outsourced introspection up to this point in the album has collapsed with the killing of JFK, the final arbiter of truth and goodness “being led to the slaughter like a sacrificial lamb” and “shot down like a dog in broad daylight”. Everything has fallen apart in the wake of the “greatest magic trick under the sun”. Dylan zooms out to survey the wreckage, watching America scramble in slow motion to pick up the pieces.
It all sounds deathly serious. But in some ways, “Murder Most Foul” is hilarious — most distinctly in its depiction of Kennedy, who is at various points “the king”, “Mr. President”, “the invisible man”, and whose point of view we actually enter as he’s being shot: “Riding in the backseat next to my wife, headed straight on into the afterlife. I’m leaning to the left, I’ve got my head in her lap, hold on I’ve been led into some kind of a trap”. It’s important to reiterate that “Murder Most Foul” is not a character study. Dylan simply uses the 35th President as a springboard and occasional touchpoint for abstract mythmaking. It’s not terribly difficult, and quite amusing, to imagine the song stretching indefinitely, with consistent but increasingly infrequent passing references to JFK’s assassination.
Perhaps funnier still is the way Dylan portrays both the perpetrators and the effects of this unholy regicide. “They mutilated his body and they took out his brain. What more could they do? They piled on the pain,” he explains coolly, undeterred from his non-melodic, recitative delivery. And yet “they” are never named, or even located in a physical body at any point in the song. In fact, the song is hardly about the murderers at all, but rather a pervading, shapeless, holistic loss (“The soul of a nation’s been torn away, and it’s beginning to go into a slow decay, and it’s thirty-six hours past Judgment Day”) that starts to take on comic qualities as Dylan layers the dread.
I’m inclined to believe that Dylan was in on the absurdity of exalting Kennedy to the degree that he does. But there’s not a trace of irony to be found in “Murder Most Foul” — just mourning, weariness and reckoning tossed off with unbridled sincerity, ridiculous as it often is, over a funereal cocktail of piano, strings and the odd cymbal swash, less for texture than to occasionally confirm there’s still a rhythm going. By the second half of the song, when Dylan makes his first request to Wolfman Jack (“Play me that ‘Only the Good Die Young’”), the instrumental backing is largely improvised — the simple I-IV, IV-V chord cadence persists, but the timing of those changes has become highly irregular, making manifest the lyrics’ earlier evocations of decay. By the same token, Dylan doesn’t stick to any one meter or syllable count as he rattles off musical references. His delivery is almost as unstructured as the fully free-associative content — “almost” because he does maintain a simple rhyme scheme, but this is the only constraint. All of this makes the song ripe for parody. A modern hip-hop version of Dylan’s radio requests? Why not? “Play Playboi Carti, play Lil Uzi Vert, play Kendrick Lamar, play Earl Sweatshirt.” How about grunge? “Play Soundgarden, play Kurt Cobain, play it for the teenagers in some kind of pain.” All praise is due to Dylan for gifting us a paint-by-numbers myth, a canvas on which to project our own.
Though “Murder Most Foul” works as a standalone composition, it also fits within the context of Rough and Rowdy Ways. Only at the very last line do we come to understand how. After sixteen-and-a-half minutes devoid of self-reference, Dylan breaks the fourth wall by requesting that Wolfman Jack “play ‘Murder Most Foul’”. These four words turn the entire song on its head. By adding the song to the procession of musical requests, Dylan may aim to imply that his music is in the same league as America’s all-time greatest. But whether or not he’s earned a place on this list — by his own standards, or anyone’s — is less interesting than the stamp the last line puts on the album’s project of outsourced introspection. Think about what it means for Wolfman Jack to play “Murder Most Foul” on this hypothetical radio show. The song meanders from the Kennedy section into the “play it” section, until the very last song request: “Murder Most Foul”. So the Wolfman puts it on again, and by the second half he scrambles to queue up Dylan’s playlist once more, finally ending on…”Murder Most Foul”. And so on. Ironically, creating this infinite loop is the only way Dylan can finally put his search to rest. He’s constructed a self-propagating, personal myth destined for immortality on the airwaves. There’s no longer any need to create new ones. After spending the length of the album looking to mythical figures for answers to the puzzle of his own identity, he’s found a way to slip gracefully among them, making himself at once invisible and omnipresent in the process. “Perfectly executed, skillfully done” indeed.