Published Jun 18, 2020It can be argued that one of the few positives for music to emerge from this pandemic era is Bob Dylan's return to invigorating form. Forced to curtail his never-ending tour, the Nobel Prize-winning bard has buckled down to record and release his first album of original material in eight years. Beginning with the 17-minute epic "Murder Most Foul," three cuts from Rough and Rowdy Ways have emerged in recent months, fuelling high hopes that are totally fulfilled on this stunning tour de force.
Vocally, Dylan has rarely sounded better, proving himself a master of subtle phrasing right up there with a Chet Baker or Willie Nelson. The gentle croon on the tender "I've Made Up My Mind to Give My Love to You," the resonant croak of "Mother of Muses," talking blues style of "Goodbye Jimmy Reed," and the neo-spoken word approach of the album closer "Murder Most Foul" are all equally effective. Dylan's knack for surrounding himself with the most compatible players is again evident. Such instruments as cello, accordion, harmonica, steel drums and background vocals are employed judiciously to add subtle atmospherics, while the guitars and rhythm section are locked down tighter than a president in his bunker, especially on the bluesy grind of "False Prophet," "Crossing the Rubicon," and "Goodbye Jimmy Reed."
Dylan's vocals are front and centre, allowing listeners to gorge on the lyrical feast here. Dylan promiscuously dishes out allusions to and lines from old blues songs, Shakespeare, classical mythology ("Crossing the Rubicon"), the Bible and pop culture, and these both entertain and stimulate, as well as beg the question as to why intellectual references are so rare in contemporary music. Literary parallels can be drawn with Don DeLillo and James Ellroy.
Rough and Rowdy Ways is the work of a man in love with language and philosophy, and, at 79, he continues to take the pulse of the zeitgeist with unerring precision. He ain't no false prophet, he's an artist, he don't look back.