By Soham Dasgupta
If some intrepid time-traveller had informed me a few months ago that a new Dylan album would be dropping, I honestly can’t say that I would have cared. For me, the last 40 years of Dylan have mostly been a sterile mixture of Christian devotionals, forgettable rock songs and “Here Comes Santa Claus.” What could this 79 year old man, half a century past his prime, possibly have to offer the world?
The unexpected early release of “Murder Most Foul,” the first single off the album (and the album’s closer) was likely the first sign that “Rough and Rowdy Ways” was going to be different. The song is an operatic seventeen-minute epic centered around JFK’s assassination. Dylan describes the event with simple, stark terms, describing JFK as a “sacrificial lamb” who was “shot down like a dog.” Brooding strings and soft piano accompany Dylan’s gravelly voice as he recounts the shooting like it’s a classical tragedy. As the song continues, he alternates between retelling the assassination and listing off the names of old songs and artists in the form of a radio request. The effect is powerful. It portrays music as a transcendent tool of communal healing and recovery — something that can help us get through the tough times together. Over the course of this pandemic, music has been a personal refuge for a lot of people, so I find this message particularly relatable.
Chronologically, “False Prophet” is the first song on the album that instantly stands out as an absolute banger. Dylan pulls zero punches, crooning:
I’m first among equals
Second to none
The last of the best
You can bury the rest
Dylan appears to embrace his own mythos here. He assumes the mantle of fame with zero reluctance, literally telling us that he “ain’t no false prophet.” He emphasizes the hoarseness of his voice, lending the song a certain unrepentant, in-your-face sensibility. The soft-boy early Dylan is absent as he conjures up images of devils and burying his competition six feet under. The message is delivered clearly and unambiguously, over a seedy guitar riff that sounds like it could be playing in the Roadhouse from Twin Peaks.
Another immediate standout, “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You” is a gentle waltz that functions as both a love song and a swan song. Dylan’s voice here is noticeably smoother and gentler. Soft guitars and gentle humming accompany him as he speaks to an unseen lover:
I’ve seen the sunrise, I’ve seen the dawn
I’ll lay down beside you when everyone’s gone
In another sense, it seems like Dylan is saying goodbye to all the people who’ve been touched by his music over the years. From his time as the “voice of a generation” in the mid 60s to the present day, he truly has “seen the sunrise” and “seen the dawn.” And when he’s done making music, there’s no doubt that his words are going to stick with people. It’s like Dylan himself puts it in “Murder Most Foul:”
Hush, little children, you’ll understand
The Beatles are comin’, they’re gonna hold your hand
The music of the Beatles was a comforting, reliable presence during a time of unprecedented turmoil and unrest. Perhaps Dylan wants his music to do something similar — to “lay down beside” us during tough times, so to speak.
I think it’s safe to say that Dylan is not the firebrand voice of the young generation he once was. “Rough and Rowdy Ways” is not the vanguard album that will bridge the racial divide, stop police brutality or catalyze mass-scale political change. But it does offer a much-needed dose of authentic sincerity in a time when detached irony and indifference are the laws of the land. Song after song on this album bursts at the seams with genuine, heartfelt emotion. If all this album does is hold our hand, maybe that’s enough.