Dylan’s ‘Rough and Rowdy Ways’: He’s Still Bobbing and Weaving. And Still Taking Notes.
Trying to explain a Bob Dylan record makes about the same sense as trying to explain a sunset. While you can tick off things you like about it, there’s no way to explain what’s really going on.
It’s accurate to say Dylan’s new album, Rough and Rowdy Ways, is his first recorded collection of original songs sings 2012’s Tempest.
It’s accurate to say a lot of the songs are written in the first person and ruminate on subjects age-appropriate for someone who just turned 79 — life, death, sin, redemption. A bunch of the stuff Dylan has seen and thought about and, yup, written about, over those 79 years.
It’s accurate to say he’s thinking about what comes next. Fourteen years ago, in “When the Deal Goes Down,” he wrote, “More frailer than the flowers, these precious hours,” and the hours haven’t gotten any less frail since then.
Rough and Rowdy Ways talks about the Great Beyond and incorporates lines like “I’ve traveled from the mountains to the sea / I hope the gods go easy with me.” That’s presumably not a wish that the gods will steer him to good hotels when he resumes touring.
Still, the easiest way to look at this new record might be to start with what Dylan calls it.
Rough and Rowdy Ways tips one of Dylan’s many hats to a 1929 recording by Jimmie Rodgers, the pioneer country singer with whose work Dylan has long been lovingly fascinated. Back in 1997 he assembled a dozen friends like Bono, Willie Nelson and Van Morrison for an album of revived Rodgers songs. While it didn’t sell a million copies, it’s a great collection.
Anyhow, Rodgers recorded the song “My Rough and Rowdy Ways” in Dallas on Oct. 22, 1929, a week before the stock market crashed and set off the Great Depression that would shape the world into which Bob Dylan was born a dozen years later.
That was 1941, by which time Jimmie Rodgers was long gone. He died in 1933, age 35, from the tuberculosis that in 1929 he already knew would kill him young.
Rodgers sang songs about tuberculosis, including the sadly unprophetic “Whippin’ That Old TB.” He also sang sentimental pop ballads about mother and home. He sang a lot of songs, and some of them told stories about his life, and one of those was “My Rough and Rowdy Ways.”
It’s not a long song. At two and a half minutes, it’s two minutes shorter than anything on Dylan’s new album. So it’s pretty direct and simple.
The singer has decided to settle down. He’s found a wife, they’ve bought a home. But he can’t shake the siren call of his earlier life, when he drank and gambled and did what he wanted, when he wanted to do it.
The trappings of respectability and responsibility will never erase that part of how he looks at life.
Jimmie Rodgers sang “My Rough and Rowdy Ways,” at the age of 32, as a rounder who wasn’t ready to give up his fun. When Dylan invokes the phrase at 79, it feels more like a matter-of-fact declaration: Here I am, this is what you get.
It’s easy to find places throughout the record where Dylan reiterates that theme. “I Contain Multitudes” warns the listener that whatever he or she thinks Dylan may be, it’s at best a partial answer. Maybe he’s that. He’s also more.
This makes him, among other things, elusive, which will shock exactly no one who has followed Dylan’s career and music. Pin Dylan down? Slap a label on him? You might as well try to peel an apple with a chainsaw.
Rough and Rowdy Ways, like most of Dylan’s work this century, is a quiet record. Where the Dylan of Highway 61 Revisited roared through town like a freight train, this Dylan walks down the old canal towpath, pausing to admire the wild roses or catch a tune blowing in the wind. One isn’t better than the other. They’re just different ways to get where you’re going.
What hasn’t changed is his ability to put words together. From “Black Rider”: “I’m walking away / You’re trying to make me look back.” From “I Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You”: “I’m not what I was / Things aren’t what they were.” He writes like no one else.
On Rough and Rowdy Ways, he rummages through sights and sounds he’s known and loved. His tribute to blues singer Jimmy Reed has a Jimmy Reed beat. “Key West” starts with the opening lines of “White House Blues,” first recorded by one of Dylan’s other country favorites, Charlie Poole, in 1926.
Rough and Rowdy Ways contains multitudes of declarations, philosophical and otherwise. It’s not a casual listen. It’s not background music for a summer evening. It’s not the record with which to introduce your local teenager to Bob Dylan. It’s a record riddled with chilly darkness pierced by periodic rays of light, not a surprising way to see this mean old world after almost eight decades in it.
“Got a mind that ramble / Got a mind that roam,” Dylan sings in “Mother of Muses.” “I’m traveling light / And I’m a-slow coming home.”