A Review of Bob Dylan’s Album “Rough and Rowdy Ways” by Duncan C. Eddie.
Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016. There was considerable debate and discussion around whether he ought to have received such an esteemed award. Is he not primarily a songwriter and musician? Singer Patti Smith went on Dylan’s behalf to receive the Award. He waited for some considerable time before giving his speech for receiving it, which he presented in recorded form.
His new album “Rough and Rowdy Ways” presents some of Dylan’s distinctive traits in a thoughtfully composed, convincingly performed,and well produced way. The album reveals the consistently prominent themes which are to be found in the course of his rich catalogue of songs.
Dylan loves words. He plays with them.He covers a broad spectrum of themes with them. He loves reading; he has great respect for writers. As a young singer arriving in New York and being a temporary guest in friends’ homes, he would absorb the literature available along with the record collection. I use the word “absorb” with deliberation. His hosts referred to him being like a sponge, which absorbed the the songs, poems and literature available to him. Following this process of digestion, they would later resurface with Dylan’s own reshaping of them.
Dylan loves books; he loves plays; he loves songs and he loves movies. The striking uniting theme through these different media, is that he loves a good story. In his acceptance speech of the Nobel Prize , he refers primarily to three literary works: Homer’s Odyssey, Moby Dick and All quiet on the Western Front . For him, such universally applicable stories are engaged with through literature, songs and movies. Life itself in its rich complexity is refected through these media. Much of Dylan’s song-writing skills have crafted a mirror that reflects society, culture, politics, ourselves as we are.
Dylan’s album “Rough and Rowdy Ways” pays tribute to many of the influences of Western society and culture. For Dylan there is no distinction between “highbrow” and popular movies and songs. They all have an impact across the board, one way or another, for good and for ill. A prime example of this cognizance is the song which he released at the time when Covid-19 lockdown restrictions were being imposed across the Western world and Asia: the song “Murder Most Foul”. The story base of the song is the assassination of the American president John F. Kennedy. The 17-minute reflection broadens the scope to several universal themes and a recognition of many cultural influences. The expansive list of song references with apposite coin phrases reveals how Dylan engages with culture and life. Themes of goodness, sacrifice, betrayal, and destruction pave the way for the apocalyptic atmosphere of the song. The experience of listening to it in its entirety is deep and mesmerising.
Another song with a story, which Dylan gives an interesting twist on is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in ” My Version of You”. With dark, macabre humour, he retells the story. Is he suggesting that we all have a Dr. Frankenstein element to us which wants to recreate people as we would like them to be or to use them for our purposes? We struggle with people as we find them, so the solution is to make our own version of them. It is an intriguing and uncomfortable thought, hypnotically presented.
Interestingly the above song with its narcissitic and manipulative effects is followed by the most faith base song on the album “I’ve madeup my mind to give myself to you”. As with several of Dylan’s romantic songs, declaring love and longing, there is often an ambiguity regarding who is the object of his love. Other examples from his back catalogue are “To make you feel my love” and “Forgetful Heart”. My understanding of the song is that it is Dylan’s statement of his ongoing faith in and commitment to God.
If I had the wings of a snow-white dove
I'd preach the gospel, the gospel of love
A love so real-a love so true
I made up my mind to give myself to you.
A feature of this album is the forthright expressions of very different and contrasting themes with the accompanying emotions. The album is a rich tapestry describing the complexity of human nature with personal reference from the author, as conveying what you might call the overture song of the album “I contain multitudes”, using a quotation from Walt Whitman’s “Song Of Myself”.
Let me briefly indicate the flavour of some of the other songs. “Black Rider”is sombre in tone, expressing hostility and foreboding towards this mysterious presence. Is it the Grim reaper, the Devil, the dark side of oneself? “Good-bye Jimmy Reed” an up-tempo rocking songwith suggestive and earthy use of language. This is followed by the sublime “Mother of Muses”. In interviews, Dylan has referred to his song-writing as being an activity he has no choice in. He was chosen by the mysterious persistent presence of the Muse/God and was an instrument or channel for the songs top be written and sung.. Again the sense of reverence for the other is expressed:
Mother of muses unleash your wrath
Things I can't see-they're blocking my path
Show me your wisdom-tell me my fate
Put me upright-make me walk straight
Forge my identity from the inside out
You know what I'm talking about.
There are other wonderful songs on the album; “Crossing the Rubicon” and “Key West”, which would need another post to give them reasonable consideration.
This album very clearly shows that Dylan, the prophet, the poet, the growling, searching, reflective and meditative songwriter is alive and well. He continues to exercise his gift of crafting songs with a rich tapestry of words from a variety of textures and frames of reference. He accompanies his love of words, stories and verbally constructe images with well suited musical accompaniment. He is aware of his contradictions, but he has faith in a God who works through and with him. These new songs by Dylan performed strongly and sensitively, communicates the treasuresof grace and art, which we can all continue to be blesse by. The man of contradictions has much of value to say to us with our contradictions. And Dylan once again points beyond himself to his Maker and ours.
Duncan C. Eddie ( Minister of Holburn West Church, Aberdeen)