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Review: Bob Dylan’s ‘Rough and Rowdy Ways’ is a savage pulp-noir masterpiece

Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan’s first album of original material in eight years is as lurid as it is wistful.
(Chris Pizzello / Associated Press )

A word of advice: Don’t mess with Bob Dylan, who, at 79, rips, snorts and cackles through his new “Rough and Rowdy Ways” album like a man with something — or absolutely nothing — to prove.

Here he is threatening to make somebody’s wife a widow; there he is promising to bring vengeance on somebody’s head. In one song he tells a guy, “I’ll take a sword and hack off your arm,” before adding in unprintable language that the size of the guy’s manhood will get him nowhere — a genuine shock (and a genuine delight) to hear from a Nobel laureate.

Then there’s “My Own Version of You,” a “Frankenstein”-like phantasmagoria that opens with these incredible couplets:

All through the summers into January
I’ve been visiting morgues and monasteries
Looking for the necessary body parts
Limbs and livers and brains and hearts

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Rappers call lines like these “bars,” and on “Rough and Rowdy Ways,” Dylan is tossing them off as though it’s light work for a hard case like him.

The tough talk is hardly new for Dylan, whose genius has run neck-and-neck with his nastiness for the half-century in which he’s been rock’s most revered singer-songwriter (and as often as not resented it). “Tempest,” from 2012, was particularly wet with gore — “I got dogs could tear you limb from limb,” he growled in “Pay in Blood” — that suggested he’d found nothing in his deepening study of history to inspire any optimism about the future.

Yet “Rough and Rowdy Ways,” his first album of new material in eight years, due June 19, is more mischievous than mean-spirited. Perhaps this is the aftereffect of the years Dylan spent burrowing into his love of Frank Sinatra and the Great American Songbook across three albums of cover songs (one of them a 30-track behemoth) released between 2015 and 2017. Obviously, he’s no crooner; in most of his new songs, his voice is a brutally ravaged wheeze.

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But you can detect a bit of Sinatra’s playfulness in Dylan’s spry delivery here — the clear enjoyment Sinatra took in portraying roguish smoothies and silver-tongued thugs. “Go home to your wife / Stop visiting mine,” he sneers over the last-wine-bar-on-Earth guitar of “Black Rider,” “One of these days I’ll forget to be kind.” He’s glowering and winking at the same time.

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It’s a funny moment, of course, for a (relatively) funny record. Were it not for the COVID-19 pandemic, Dylan’s so-called Never Ending Tour would be winding its way toward the Hollywood Bowl for a show next week. And the police killing of George Floyd has only darkened the country’s mood.

“It sickened me no end to see George tortured to death like that,” Dylan told the New York Times in a recent phone interview from his home in Malibu. (Asked how he’s been faring in quarantine, the singer said he’s been painting and welding a bit, which actually makes it even harder to imagine how Bob Dylan keeps himself amused all day.)

But as always Dylan’s not worried about reflecting the times; he’s taking the long view on an album stuffed with names and totems from the past. Most notably, there’s “Murder Most Foul,” the 17-minute-long epic that first appeared as a surprise single in March in which he traces the twisted meanings of the Kennedy assassination — not an uncomplicated event, as it happens, in the troubled story of American race relations.

“Mother of Muses” ponders the motives of various well-known military figures “and the battles they fought”; “I Contain Multitudes,” which Dylan called “trance writing,” quotes one of Walt Whitman’s famous verses and name-drops Anne Frank.

He also appears to have nature on his mind — lots of references to weather and seasons and flowers, as in “Key West (Philosopher Pirate),” where he’s got more swagger-ific bars about blooming bougainvillea — along with sex: “I break open your grapes / I suck out the juice,” he sings, practically licking his lips, in “Goodbye Jimmy Reed,” while his panting delivery in “Crossing the Rubicon” somehow makes that one feel even dirtier.

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“Goodbye Jimmy Reed,” which toasts — and mimics — the influential bluesman, is far from the only song here in which Dylan pays tribute to a musician; he also mentions Leon Russell, Etta James, Thelonious Monk, Patsy Cline, the Eagles (!), Elvis Presley and the Rolling Stones, with whom he seemed embarrassed to have been roped into Desert Trip (a.k.a. Oldchella) a few years ago. But maybe winning that Nobel eased any remaining worries about being viewed the wrong way.

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Speaking of music, nobody’s gets less attention than Dylan’s from word-obsessed critics. Yet “Rough and Rowdy Ways” rolls out one marvel after another, with killer playing from the singer’s road band, which as of last fall counts Matt Chamberlain on drums and Bob Britt on guitar alongside Dylan’s trusty old hands. (A spokesman for the singer said the album carried no producer credit, though his last few were produced by Dylan under the pseudonym Jack Frost.)

“False Prophet” and “Goodbye Jimmy Reed” are gloriously scuzzy roadhouse stomps; “My Own Version of You” and “Crossing the Rubicon” creep along on grooves you can smell. And though Dylan spends most of the album moaning and croaking in a mock-villainous mode, a couple of cuts are almost staggeringly pretty, not least “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You,” which couldn’t come closer to embodying the scene he sets at the top of the song: “I’m sitting on my terrace, lost in the stars / Listening to the sounds of the sad guitars.”

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The music makes you want to believe his wee-small-hours act; the devilish catch in his voice reminds you to think twice.


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