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Bob Dylan 2020: Listen Twice, It's Alright

Bob Dylan's new album, "Rough and Rowdy Ways," came out June 19.
NPR
Bob Dylan's new album, "Rough and Rowdy Ways," came out June 19.

Bob Dylan returned to songwriting in 2020, just when we needed him most.

As we welcome all the new music being released this fall, I wanted to bring attention back to Bob Dylan's latest record, an album sure to be considered by many to be one of the best of the year.

After several records of Dylan interpreting songs from the Great American Songbook, many associated with Frank Sinatra (and Dylan most definitely did them his own way), this past summer saw the release of "Rough and Rowdy Ways."

This is Dylan's first album of new and original songs since 2012, and significantly, these are the first new songs we've had from Dylan since he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016. Of course, the songwriter would deny that he has anything to prove. As he pointed out in his song "Series of Dreams" (released in 1991), he's "already gone the distance."

The recommendation that a record "rewards repeated listenings" certainly applies here. Dylan made his reputation on his lyrics, and he delivers them on this album within a musical setting comprised of the blues and the old-timey melange that he has favored for the past twenty years or so.

When he began writing his own songs within the folk music idiom, he soon became the leading light of a new generation of folk singer-songwriters. The Minnesota native only a few months shy of his twentieth birthday when he struck out for New York City in 1961. Within a few years, Dylan's love of rock 'n' roll emerged in his work, becoming intertwined with that singer-songwriter culture. To the consternation of purists, folk rock was born.

By the late 1960s Dylan had become perhaps the preeminent figure in the burgeoning counterculture. In the ensuing decades, his stock has risen and fallen and risen again. After a career of almost sixty years, even many casual fans (or non-fans) may be curious to find out what he has to say.

Listeners have been analyzing and interpreting Dylan's lyrics through all of his phases and stages. With the new "Rough and Rowdy Ways" there is a lot to dig into. Cultural references and allusions, along with observations of the world and its ways abound throughout this nearly eighty minute album. Plus, at times Dylan seems to be telling us about himself and what it's like to be this far along on his particular journey.

The recommendation that a record "rewards repeated listenings" certainly applies here. Dylan made his reputation on his lyrics, and he delivers them on this album within a musical setting comprised of the blues and the old-timey melange that he has favored for the past twenty years or so.

One discernable difference here is that the gravelly, phlegmy voice we've come to expect from Dylan is somehow easier to understand. Its more precise, with a bit more enunciation. Could it be a result of singing all those standards?

The unexpected release of new music from Dylan first came this past March, just as the country found itself in a COVID-19 lockdown. Like every other musician, Dylan was off the road. He had been playing live throughout the world so consistently since the late 1980s that his roadwork came to be known as the "Never Ending Tour."

So, Dylan released "Murder Most Foul," a nearly seventeen minute song that he said had been recorded "a while back." The song's subject is the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy. Along with providing narrative details, the songwriter speculates on what really happened on that sad day and ruminates on how America went wrong as a consequence.

(By the way, that's Fiona Apple very unobtrusively playing piano on that track. Nowhere on this record does the music draw attention to itself; it simply provides the best setting for Dylan's lyrics.)

There's no filler on "Rough and Rowdy Ways." Each song is like an intricate word puzzle that joins up with the others on the album to form an interconnected jigsaw puzzle.

Take the song "My Own Version of You." Dylan seems to be casting himself as a kind of Dr. Frankenstein. From the outset he tells us he's getting the parts for his creation not in the expected "cemeteries," but rather from "monasteries." He then proceeds to keep the listener off balance with more koans and riddles.

Here's one more example of the songwriter's mastery. "Goodbye Jimmy Reed" conflates "that old time religion" with the pure and honest blues that Dylan has loved throughout his career. The track harkens back to his album "Highway 61 Revisited." His seasoned road band, including guitarist Charlie Sexton, play the song straight ahead and without flash.

The events of the past few years, and particularly 2020, have reinforced Dylan's somewhat dark and apocalyptic worldview. If we too are feeling that way at this moment in history, then we're ready to hear Dylan express that view and perhaps provide us with some catharsis.

"Rough and Rowdy Ways" is a record that can stand among Dylan's best. The man has evolved through the decades, but he remains quintessentially Bob Dylan. There's no one else like him.