Death, Dylan, and the American way
Rough and Rowdy Ways, Bob Dylan’s 39th studio release, is not a protest or political album in the traditional sense. With a few notable detours, the 79-year-old icon hasn’t embraced the role of a public activist in decades. However, like his best work, the element of protest still exists here, folded into broader views on life and death. More pertinently, Rough and Rowdy Ways is a clear reflection of America’s jagged landscape — one of romance and mystery, creativity and fortune, protestations and politicking, conquests and colonialism. It makes for an exquisite, haunting listen. Like Dylan’s rise in the early 1960s, it comes during an inflection point in our country. And though it may have been written and recorded prior to the current surge of Black Lives Matter protests, its wide-ranging discourse — filled with allegories, liturgical references, and nods to past cultural titans — feels suited to the now.
Dylan’s first line establishes the staggeringly varied palette he is painting from: “Today, and tomorrow, and yesterday, too/The flowers are dyin' like all things do,” he sings on “I Contain Multitudes,” his voice the texture of sandpaper. “I'm a man of contradictions, I'm a man of many moods.” Dylan has always employed self-awareness as both a songwriting tool and a weapon against critics. By quoting Walt Whitman’s famed “Song of Myself, 51,” he’s using the technique more plainly, and less defensively, than he has in the past. But there is something darker at play than wistful references to bygone eras. For Dylan, the big and small truths of life can be grim.
In “Multitudes,” he talks of fighting blood feuds, carrying “four pistols and two knives,” and “sleeping with life and death in the same bed.” “Got a tell-tale heart like Mr. Poe,” he sings. “Got skeletons in the walls of people you know.” That sense of morbidity moves through the rest of the record like an undertaker. On “My Own Version of You,” he plays the role of Victor Frankenstein with a sociopathic, blood-curdling frankness. “I’ve been visiting morgues and monasteries, looking for the necessary body parts/limbs and livers and brains and hearts,” he sings like a killer convinced he’s doing the right thing. “Shimmy your ribs, I'll stick in the knife/gonna jumpstart my creation to life.” In “Cross the Rubicon,” one of several 12-bar blues numbers on the album, Dylan is on edge, referencing Dante, at the point of no return: “I painted my wagon, I abandoned all hope/And I crossed the Rubicon.” Over the molasses-drip of “False Prophet,” he seeks revenge — “Bury ’em naked with their silver and gold/Put ’em six feet under and then pray for their souls” — while flashing his twisted sense of humor over being labeled a prophet in real life. (In addition to the “protest singer” label, Dylan has often bristled at this title as well. "I never wanted to be a prophet or a savior,” he told 60 Minutes in 2002. “Elvis, maybe. I could see myself becoming him. But prophet? No." Saying otherwise on this Rowdy Ways cut feels more like a wink and a nod to the slippery persona he’s cultivated over the years, and the contradictions he thrives on, than an admission of inaccuracy.)
Wit aside, death still abounds. Even the longing romantic ballad “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You,” which may be one of the sweetest songs Dylan has ever written, has tints of The End: “Lot of people gone, lot of people I knew,” he sings over a plinking piano and shuffle snare. It’s a drop in the bucket next to the flamenco-led, Grim Reaper-starring tale “Black Rider.” The song sees Dylan ready to meet his maker (“Let me go through, open the door/My soul is distressed, my mind is at war”), but the first verse feels separate from the narrative: “Black rider, black rider, you've been living too hard/Been up all night, have to stay on your guard/The path that you're walking, too narrow to walk/Every step of the way, another stumbling block.” Through the prism of 2020, it reads like a metaphor for the struggles faced by Black people in America.
Race isn’t an overt focus on “Murder Most Foul,” a 16-minute song about John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the events that followed it, the music and movies that preceded it, and the long tail that moment in history has had on the American consciousness. At least, not at first. Dylan’s voice has depth here, weary of the world and its ability to lead someone “to the slaughter like a sacrificial lamb.” While there are numerous pop culture references to mull over, the last line in particular — ”Play the Blood Stained Banner, play Murder Most Foul” — gives pause. The “Blood Stained Banner” is the nickname of the final flag of the Confederacy. It's a slightly different design from the most famous version of the flag, one that is still bafflingly flown in parts of America, more than 150 years after the South was defeated. The Civil War and JFK’s assassination represent two major markers in a country that was built on violence. By indirectly connecting these two events, Dylan is not only showcasing two pinnacles of American brutality and bloodshed, but the fight that continues today over its pockmarked history. Cities are currently filled with the sounds of helicopters, of boots on the ground, of intermittent explosions, of cries and pleas for justice for all. Like Rough and Rowdy Ways, America is and has always been haunted by death. Dylan is again leaving it to us to connect the dots. A
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly listed Dylan's age as 74. He's 79.