After an eight-year period of releasing various albums of American Standard covers, Bob Dylan has finally returned to writing new material. The 79-year-old Nobel laureate hardly requires an introduction; his songs and rebellious persona are immediately recognizable, now the stuff of legend. Over the past six decades, Dylan has been regarded as a master storyteller whose work has become deeply ingrained in and reflective of American culture. It comes as no surprise then that Rough and Rowdy Ways, Dylan’s first album of original music since 2012’s Tempest, is nothing short of spectacular.
On Rough and Rowdy Ways, Dylan peels back layers of metaphor, opting instead for lyrical directness to create an album that is both a personal reflection in the twilight of his life and a monumental chronicle of the artist’s place in the epochs of history. Featuring contributions from a list of prolific musicians such as Blake Mills and Fiona Apple, Dylan’s new album is a sprawling canvas of death, tragedy, love and legacy, delivered with his charismatic wit and humor while also capturing him at his most vulnerable.
Rough and Rowdy Ways is remarkable in its scope, containing a lifetime’s worth of references to the generations of art that Dylan has lived through and learned from. The arrangements on the album are gorgeous yet sparse, largely muted in favor of highlighting Dylan’s voice front and center. Opening track “I Contain Multitudes” finds Dylan opening himself up and confessing to his own contradictions. “I sing the songs of experience like William Blake,” he croons, not in an attempt to brag, but rather as an honest accounting while he runs the gamut, from quoting Walt Whitman to referencing Indiana Jones and Chopin.
Dylan’s words find comfort and unity in the inevitability of death. “Today, and tomorrow, and yesterday, too/ The flowers are dyin’ like all things do,” he sings, his vocals capturing a feeling of acceptance as an atmospheric array of acoustic and electric guitars swirl around the song’s verses. Dylan’s lines are exquisite, his lyrics pure poetry, and much of the album displays his gentle wisdom.
But Dylan has not lost his edge. The album roars to life with tracks such as “Goodbye Jimmy Reed” and “Crossing the Rubicon,” two tracks of pure classic blues rock filled with sharp wit, truly putting its “rough and rowdy” title to the test. Single “False Prophet” rambles and sways with stinging guitar lines, bolstered by Dylan’s menacing growls and stomping drums. Nearing 80 years old, Dylan still displays unwavering confidence; he sounds unstoppable and completely justified as he proclaims, “I’m first among equals/ Second to none/ The last of the best/ You can bury the rest.”
In its smaller moments, the album is equally impressive. “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You” finds Dylan at his most delicate, a gentle choir cooing beneath his weary vocals. The track is a powerful statement of devotion, showing listeners a yearning side of Dylan beyond the myth and the legend. Not since before Dylan went electric has he sounded this personal, this human.
“Murder Most Foul,” the album’s near 17-minute grand finale and shining moment, is downright Shakespearean. Using the assassination of John F. Kennedy as the backdrop for a journey through the annals of history, Dylan invokes the muses — in this case legendary DJ Wolfman Jack — to play the hits, recounting landmark events of the subsequent decades, from the Beatles, Thelonious Monk and Buster Keaton to Etta James, Stevie Nicks and Marilyn Monroe. It’s a massive landscape of life, each verse a vivid, relentless reckoning of generational tragedy and the art that followed, backed by a cascading orchestral arrangement that builds across the song’s runtime. “Murder Most Foul” reaches astonishing heights, a powerful bookend to an already extraordinary album unlike any of its peers.
Rough and Rowdy Ways is the mark of an artist nearing the end of his line, yet refusing to slow down in his ingenuity, a masterful achievement of music that warrants repeat listens. To say that the album kills it is an understatement: A murder most foul indeed, Mr. Dylan.