Review by Cissi Tsang
Listening to Bob Dylan’s new album, Rough and Rowdy Ways, is like being transported to a late-night, run-down Americana diner. Close your eyes and it is like the music is coming from an old neon jukebox in a dusty corner. It all sounds comforting and familiar, like the 60s-styled blues stomp of Goodbye Jimmy Reed – your perfect quintessential background music.
On closer listening though – discordant and unsettling undertones start creeping into your consciousness. Very soon, you realise you are being drawn into Americana, Bob Dylan style – dark shadows mingling with touches of whimsy, like the flutters of Spanish guitar in Black Rider. Dylan is, “The last of the best // You can bury the rest”, he playfully notes in False Prophet.
The song that sums up this intriguingly dense, if sometimes uneven album is the 17-minute closer, Murder Most Foul.
Dylan starts with a rambling discourse on the assasination of John F. Kennedy, using it as a springboard to speculate what might have been. Along the way, he peppers the song with a multitude of cultural references, name-dropping over 70+ songs and somehow tying Shakespeare in with Stevie Nicks. It takes a while for Murder Most Foul to get going, with some strange (and sometimes humorous) tangents along the way. Much like the album itself, where Dylan inexplicably sings about going to monasteries and morgues to assemble his own perfect woman in My Own Version Of You, before getting back to the serious business of contemplating mortality.
Despite being larged mired in 20th-century speculation, Murder Most Foul (and the album in general) still manages to touch upon 2020’s apocalyptic feel. Lyrics like “I said the soul of a nation been torn away // And it’s beginning to go into a slow decay” sound as though Dylan is addressing the current state of America, with its mix of rising racial, partisan and pandemic-related tensions.
Dylan has always been able to pinpoint the poltergeists of cultural change, and this album shows his powers of observation and creative edge has not been diminished by age.