In the past decade or so, Dylan and his record company have been harvesting the vault of his unreleased material, live tracks and alternate versions. Of course, Dylan was also on the road, so it has been awhile since any new music. This summer, he did release a new album. I wondered how it stacked up against his last release, eight years prior. Let’s look at both.
Tempest, released in 2012, was revered as one of Dylan’s finest works, or at least his best in years.
It took me several listens to find the sweetspot with this recording. Sometimes I need a map to figure out Mr. Dylan. His music can be all over the place. In his third act of life, Dylan has veered toward more traditional music, blues, folk and influences from deep in the American psyche. Perhaps he has gone full circle.
Dylan has frequently constructed his songs musically around a riff or a groove, and then repeating for the purpose of many verses, where he showcases his wordplay and lyrical prowess. This record employs a good band and they run with what Dylan gives them, but do not expect many solos or musical shifts in style. Music serves as a steady support to hang his word paintings. To say that Dylan is a wise man who channels his unique observations through rhyming and quirky phrasing, would be stating the obvious. Dylan deserves his 2016 Nobel Prize for literature.
At this point in life, Dylan as a vocalist is south of John Hiatt and just north of Tom Waits, the amount of gravel in his voice has at least doubled since I last heard him.
The reviews for this album were mostly enthusiastic and praised his lyrical precision. Rolling Stone called it his darkest album. The Chicago Tribune gave it a lesser review, saying “It’s a long, craggy album that drags at the end with two slow-moving dirges. But most of it is an inspired mix of blood and bawdiness.” Spin magazine said, “As a sonic experience, Tempest kicks most Dylan albums in the cojones. The guitars shine and crackle. The drums thump with a deep heartbeat fullness. The stand-up bass is round and resonant.” There you have it, a sampling of reviews.
“Duquesne Whistle” starts the CD with a bouncy, fast tempo, swingin’ song. The lyrics are co-written with Grateful Dead lyricist, Robert Hunter. This is a fun song. On first listen, I struggled to find the handle but it quickly grows on you. You might have heard something like this at the Ryman Opera House on a Saturday night.
“Soon After Midnight” is a slow waltz of a song, something of a 1950s ballad. Nice slide and steel guitar, it paints a picture of a slow dance in a small town.
“Narrow Way” A gritty driving blues, guitar song. Smart lyrics, but my complaint is that it meanders on for over seven minutes.
“Long and Wasted Years” A slow guitar chord progression that repeats and repeats. This repeat is good, to a point. Thankfully he keeps it under four minutes, this time.
“Pay in Blood” Perhaps the best song on the album, a fully realized rocker, worthy of the Rolling Stones. In fact, the riff sounds vaguely like something the Stones may have written in the early 1970s.
“Scarlet Town” Is another fine song, a slow-burning folk song, complete with fiddle and banjo. This could have been from the Rolling Thunder Revue period, it would fit in. The song is over seven minutes long and thankfully Dylan allows for some musical interludes.
“Early Roman Kings” More of a straight blues song, with accordion. Strictly, by the numbers. Not bad, not great.
“Tin Angel” Another story song, nine minutes in duration. One of his better lyrics, more complete and compelling.
“Tempest” A swampy, Irish-folk flavored song about the sinking of the Titanic. Dylan makes more of an effort to actually sing and uses what he has left in his voice for almost fourteen minutes.
“Roll on John” A tribute to John Lennon. A bit more musically expansive than a few other songs on the CD.
Rough and Rowdy Ways was released this month, album number 39 if you are counting at home.
Here are some of the reviews:
Rolling Stone said, “Dylan has brilliantly timed his new masterwork for a summer when the hard rain is falling all over the nation: a plague, a quarantine, revolutionary action in the streets, cities on fire, phones out of order. Rough and Rowdy Ways is his first batch of new songs in 8 years, and it’s an absolute classic.”
Mojo magazine said, “It’s not merely the novelty of new Bob songs that offers comfort in this black swan moment, it’s a set of songs that provides inspiration when it’s in short supply. Call it a vaccine against culture’s shrinking expectations and the subsequent sapping of spirit. or just call it great music.”
The Telegraph said, “For a river runs through the album – the river of time where everything washes together – and it is every bit as wild and turbulent as the album title implies.”
The BBC said this, “Rough and Rowdy Ways is more than a welcome addition to the ever-growing number of late works making up this new old-age pop star genre; it is exceptional. If it were a painting, I’d call it a masterpiece.”
Wow, after all of that, what can you say?
I realize now that reviewing a Bob Dylan album is a tricky proposition. The deck is stacked. I did not love it as much as the reviewers above. I asked a friend of mine what he thought of this new album and he said it was a stripped down version of Tempest, which is a fair assessment.
By this point, the 79 year old Dylan’s voice is pretty haggard, it has more gravel than a dump truck. A few more years and he will be a ringer for Louis Armstrong. That’s not a bad thing, just indicating the current state of Dylan’s vocal texture. Mostly, he’s understandable, and to his credit, he milks the earthiness of vocal limitations to cradle the songs he has written.
Rough and Rowdy Ways is a two-disc set. There are nine songs on the first disc, about 53 minutes of music. The second disc contains “Murder Most Foul” a seventeen minute song about the JFK assassination.
I found the music to be more diverse than Tempest, although the arrangements to be mostly simpler. Dylan is channeling 1950s and early 1960s America, but not rock and roll, these are sound-sketches from bars, backroads and where common folk lived.
“I Contain Multitudes” The musical arrangement is fairly restrained. One of the finest songs on the album.
“False Prophet” A bluesy song, with a heavy vibe.
“My Own Version of You” A slow moving, jazzy song.
“I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You” A slow, waltz like, meandering song. I could imagine Eddie Arnold or Jimmy Dean singing this song.
“Black Rider” Strumming guitars. “I take a sword and hack off your arm.”
“Goodbye Jimmy Reed” Brash, bluesy tribute to Jimmy Reed. “I didn’t play guitar, behind my head.” Sounds like a song from Blonde On Blonde.
“Mother of Muses” Quiet song with guitars and other string instruments. There’s a hint of an Irish folk song.
“Crossing the Rubicon” Loud, walking bluesy song.
“Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” Slow, drifting song with strumming guitars and accordion.
“Murder Most Foul” Dylan’s longest recorded song. It an encapsulation of the last 60 years of American life, and death. Dylan strings together cultural reference after cultural reference, against the murder of President Kennedy. I have listened to it a few times, it is clever, and compelling, though I would stop short of calling it a classic. Dylan does not spend much effort on the music or the performance. Piano and violin, with a few effects in the background. The melody hints at what it could be. The focus is on the story, and Dylan crisscrosses the American political and cultural landscape in what is a spoken-word delivery, rather than a singing effort.