How absurdly foolish it would be to write off Bob Dylan, now 79 and ever so occasionally prone to a lapse of judgement that leaves us wondering. Then again, Bob has made a career out of making us wonder, not just where he’s headed but where his head is at. And wonder too at the infinite majesty of his words even as they puzzle us, their enigma a spell that Bob likes to weave to ensure that he never, ever, bores us.
Bob Dylan no longer sings in the accepted sense of the term, even if he ever did. His recorded voice now is a cross between a croon and slightly mumbled speech, like an ancient storyteller who draws us closer so that we might listen to his wisdom in the midst of a forest by night where a flickering campfire illuminates his lined face and birdsnest hair. In this respect he’s trespassing on the territory mined by Tom Waits, and not just in vocal texture – the backing tracks on Rough And Ready Ways echo the kind of sparse blues and loose jazz favoured by Waits.
That creased face is nowhere to be seen on the sleeve of this new CD. On the front there’s a bar-room scene, a dancing couple, a man stooped over a juke box, and on the inside a group portrait, two men and two women, that looks like it was taken on an American city street in the 1920s. It sets the mood. The reverse is given over to a portrait of John Kennedy, 35th President of the USA, gunned down in Texas, an infamous incident that haunts Dylan still and is the subject of the album’s key track, ‘Murder Most Foul’, previewed recently along with two others, and at almost 17 minutes the longest song Dylan has ever recorded, occupying the whole of a second, separate CD.
‘Murder Most Foul’ is a 189-line poem that constructs a through-my-eyes misty history of the second half of the 20 century, namechecking many cultural references along the way, among them The Beatles (‘Hush, little children, you'll understand, The Beatles are comin', they're gonna hold your hand’), Woodstock, Altamont, Tommy perhaps linked with Elvis (‘Tommy can you hear me? I’m the acid Queen, I’m riding in a long black limousine’), Patsy Cline, Wolfman Jack, various bluesmen and jazz musicians, silent movie stars, Marilyn Monroe and even The Eagles and Stevie Nicks, all enumerated and delivered in a voice dripping with regret over a backdrop of gentle strings and tinkly piano, uncredited but probably played by Benmont Tench from Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers. As it floated by I found myself back in a school dormitory in York on the night of 22 November 1963, half a dozen 16-year-old boys alerted to Kennedy’s fate by one of us with a transistor radio. Clearly obsessed with this murder most foul, Dylan has constructed an epic that stands alongside anything he has ever recorded, which is saying something. It also trashes ‘American Pie’, the only song to which it compares.
The first CD opens at a similar tempo. ‘I Contain Multitudes’, the second previewed song, its title taken from a poem by Walt Whitman, sees Dylan reflecting on his place in the world and, perhaps, a few personal mysteries he prefers to keep buried. As wistful as it is gracefully tuneful, it might even be construed as an answer to Sinatra’s ‘My Way’, and like ‘Murder Most Foul’ there are numerous cultural markers on which to ponder: The Rolling Stones, Beethoven & Chopin, David Bowie, Edith Piaf, Edgar Allan, Anne Frank and William Blake.
The third of the songs previewed, ‘False Prophet’, set to a dense, bluesy rhythm, sees Dylan in a darker universe, one that radiates a degree of anger. ‘I’m first among equals, second to none,’ he sings, not without bitterness. ‘The last of the best, you can bury the rest.’ It reminded me of the cynicism of ‘Positively 4th Street’.
Five of the remaining seven songs, ‘My Own Version Of You’, ‘I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You’, ‘Black Rider’, ‘Mother Of Muses’ and ‘’Key West (Philosopher Pirate’)’ conform to the album’s dreamy, shimmering tempo, a sun-baked Spanish guitar giving ‘Black Rider’ a hint of Mexico. On ‘Goodbye Jimmy Reed’, Dylan’s studio band conjure up the same feel as those who played behind him in the Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde era. Finally, ‘Crossing The Rubicon’ is another first-person monologue, set to a stately blues tempo.
Virtually alone among his contemporaries, Bob Dylan has declined to bow to any form of modernity. That’s not for him, any more than following trends or jumping on bandwagons. He led, even if there was nowhere much to go; he is who he is and nothing will change him. This has result in the odd misstep but here, on Rough And Rowdy Ways, we have a shining illustration of how this old rocker continues to give us something magical on which to dwell, that spell Bob Dylan weaves that will never, ever, bore us.