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Bob Dylan: Rough And Rowdy Ways

Doug Collette By

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Bob Dylan: Rough And Rowdy Ways
Bob Dylan's Rough And Rowdy Ways is a uniformly excellent piece of work. On these ten new original songs, the Nobel Laureate blends folk, blues and country music with just the slightest dash of gospel and, accompanied with sensitivity by his touring band (plus a few additional musicians including Blake Mills and Fiona Apple), the seamless sound makes this thirty-ninth Dylan studio album superior to both of the other standouts of recent years, Time Out Of Mind (Columbia, 1997) and Tempest (Columbia, 2012).

It's also a cut or two above other efforts in the last few decades considered by general consensus to be outstanding. Love and Theft (Columbia, 2001) and Modern Times (Columbia, 2006 ) are more exercises and experiments in style, while Together Through Life (Columbia, 2009), despite co-authoring of the material by Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, is simply not in the same league as this earthy, poetic effort.

There's a deceptive but nonetheless readily discernible ebb and flow to these mostly slow to mid-tempo tunes. Guitarists Bob Britt and Charlie Sexton largely eschew solos, except on "False Prophet," and instead opt to provide sparing decoration to delicate melodies like that of "Mother Of Muses." Bassist Tony Garnier has been a linchpin of Bob's corps of road-warriors since the late Eighties and, like newly-recruited drummer Matt Chamberlain's approach to his kit, he generally applies a feather-light touch to the strings that only underscores the authority with which he handles his instrument.

Dylan's voice has always taken some getting used to, never perhaps more so than now during cuts like "Goodbye Jimmy Reed." Yet in demonstration of what he learned in his explorations of the 'The Great American Songbook' like Triplicate (Columbia, 2017), Bob remains comfortably within his range and tailors his delivery to more clearly enunciate the words he's so carefully-crafted. The way he hits notes and makes them resonate on "I Contain Multitudes" also reminds what a past master he is at sly phraseology. To be fair, there are moments where he sounds like he's giving a poetry recitation—hear "Crossing The Rubicon"—but that's appropriate in its own way given the density of language.

While there is no specific production credit here—Dylan's assumed name in that role from recent records, "Jack Frost," is conspicuous by its absence—but engineer Chris Shaw is duly noted, the same man who has worked on a number of Bob's albums in recent decades, including the mammoth archive release Trouble No More: The Bootleg Series Vol. 13 (Columbia, 2017). And there's also recognition of Greg Calbi for the mastering: his is a name appearing on all manner of rock, pop and jazz records where sterling recorded sound is the goal (and invariable the result of his expertise). The technical contributions of these two are simply another indication of what is clearly a supremely collaborative effort, further evidence of what Bob Dylan's learned in that regard from working with the savvy likes of Daniel Lanois on Oh Mercy (Columbia, 1989).

By all appearances from Rough And Rowdy Ways, the one time 'voice of a generation' (sic) is now acting as assiduously about his recording as his composing. And on that front, here he's taking his blend of symbol, metaphor and imagery to another level of intricacy altogether. Argue and debate what's personal ("I've Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You," "My Own Version Of You"), what's fictional ("Black Rider") and what's to be taken at face value ("Key West (Philosopher Pirate)"), the point remains that these lyrics, in combination with Dylan's vocals and the band's accompaniment, conjure vivid, sharply provocative impression(s).

For that reason alone, as has been the case throughout Bob's career, it remains dangerous to apply a strict interpretation to his work. Even a song as deceptively transparent as the seventeen-minute opus "Murder Most Foul"—noted on this back cover underneath a portrait of its ostensible subject JFK—will accommodate all manner of meaning(s). Yet what's preferable to automatically applying a profundity to its juxtaposition of the tragic and comedic—or simply discerning the multiple name checks both historical and contemporaneous—is savoring the palpable drama behind the author's vocal: the solemn piano of Alan Pasqua underneath the elegiac violin of multi-instrumentalist Donnie Herron, along with the author's own performance, only enhances the drama of its placement at the end of this track sequence. That decision on packaging is just one more instance of seemingly paradoxical but ultimately impeccable circular logic within Rough and Rowdy Ways. Inscrutable as he is, Bob Dylan doesn't appear in any of the photographs that adorn this digi-pak, inside or out. Instead, in an extension of the homage he offers to Jimmie Rodgers implicit in the album's title, "The Father of Country Music" appears inside pictured alongside the likewise highly esteemed Carter Family. And the front cover sports a shot taken by British photographer Ian Berry, circa 1964, simply one more cryptic but colorful image of many that speak volumes throughout this seventy-odd minutes.

Track Listing

I Contain Multitudes; False Prophet; My Own Version of You; I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You; Black Rider; Goodbye Jimmy Reed; Mother of Muses; Crossing the Rubicon; Key West; Murder Most Foul.

Personnel

Bob Dylan: voice / vocals; Charlie Sexton: guitar; Blake Mills: guitar; Donnie Herron: violin; Benmont Tench: keyboards; Alan Pasqua: piano; Tommy Rhodes: voice / vocals; Tony Garnier: bass; Matt Chamberlin: drums; Fiona Apple: voice / vocals.

Bob Dylan: guitar; Bob Britt: guitar; Donnie Herron: steel guitar, accordion; Blake Mills: keyboards, vocals.

Album information

Title: Rough And Rowdy Ways | Year Released: 2020 | Record Label: Columbia Records

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