Rough and Rowdy Ways is Dylan’s most direct and exquisite album in a generation
Artist: Bob Dylan
Album: Rough and Rowdy Ways
★★★★ (4/5 stars)
We generally find it impossible to write about Dylan without making our own experience as a Dylan listener a character in the story.
Since we are witnesses both to the history he made and the history we have lived through, we make the presumption that understanding his work requires this shared history. The first released track off of Rough and Rowdy Ways completely toyed with this expectation. On “Murder Most Foul,” Dylan incessantly dropped names and events from our shared histories. In so doing, I believe he was calling out those who cannot see him as an artist actively involved in his own present, and instead must only see him as a reference point for their own past. Likewise, the Never Ending Tour utterly fucked these kinds of expectations, and required the listener to understand that Dylan was living within the moment, regardless of whatever expectations you brought into the theatre. Dylan wanted you to be moved by the night, not the weight of legacy behind it.
Rough and Rowdy Ways is a wonderful, frequently exquisite album that deserves to be written about in its’ own terms, without too much interference from our own relationship with the most famous singer and songwriter of his time. It merits being seen within the rather extraordinary, high-quality context of Dylan’s recent recording and performance work, and not as something we scan with the UV light of shared history, giggling with inane glee at references we understand. Those references – and frankly, Rowdy Ways is full of them – are a trick of the light, a challenge: Dylan is saying, you can stop right there and get lost in the names, or you can actually stay with me, right here, right now.
So let’s start here, with a contrived simplicity that hopefully eschews (gesundheit!) the great torrent of analysis and asinine self-reflection that Dylan releases usually engender:
1. On Rough and Rowdy Ways, the absence of long-time drummer George Recile is a huge fucking factor. The sound, feel, and temperature of Dylan’s 39th (!) studio album is largely defined by the fact that for the first time in a very long time, Dylan is no longer dueling and sparring with one of the very best Caucasian drummers alive. Rough and Rowdy Ways is based around songs and a singer, and not a singer/songwriter who is part of a breathing, sparking, playful, shuffling, searing and soaring rock’n’roll band. In fact, Rough and Rowdy Ways is the first Dylan album in 28 years that is based primarily around the man’s songs and voice.
2. The dry, tense, deep “Black Rider” may be Dylan’s best non-romantic song in a generation. It is loaded with whiskey, sand, and starlight. It is full of cinematic tension and the weight of metaphor and history. Like much of Rowdy Ways, it is as ghostly and beautiful as something on Big Star’s Sister Lovers, and as full of charm, loss, and melody as one of the cuts from the rather wonderful American Songbook albums.
3. If “Black Rider” is the kind of intense and hypnotic track that makes your heart thump with awe and joy, “I Contain Multitudes,” “Mother of Muses,” and “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You” aren’t far behind.
4. Having said all that, I am not entirely sure 2012’s Tempest wasn’t a better album, and we all should give that another listen. However, Tempest did lack four-drop dead fantastic songs, though it may have been a better album qua album.
5. On Rough and Rowdy Ways, Dylan’s vocals are intimate, rich, and weathered but clear. It is, almost without a doubt, his purest and most vulnerable singing on original material in a generation. Everything about Rough and Rowdy Ways underlines how important the American Songbook recordings were to Dylan’s artistic arc. As a vocalist, composer of melodies, and arranger, on Rough and Rowdy Ways Dylan is clearly stepping off of a platform he built on the deeply underrated standards albums.
6. It’s effing amazing that in the last eight years, Bob Dylan has released four honestly terrific records: Rough and Rowdy Ways, Tempest, Fallen Angels (the second of the American Songbook records), and the third disc of the Triplicate collection.
7. I am not going to address the various lyrical and musical allusions and/or appropriations you may find on Rough and Rowdy Ways. If you want to read that sort of thing, there are plenty of other places to do so. Personally, I think that kind of trainspotting distracts from what is truly remarkable about this record; again, we should be able to appreciate a new Dylan record on its’ own merits, without dragging in our ability to cross-reference our shared histories. Having said all that, I will note the two things that jumped out at me like last night’s Blimpie. “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You” utilizes, without obfuscation or shame, the gentle, lilting musical theme from Offenbach’s “Baccarole.” And the feel and melody of “Mother of Muses” echoes –– though does not explicitly copy – the sway of Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times Come Again No More .”
VIDEO: Bob Dylan performs Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times Come Again No More” at Willie Nelson’s 60th birthday party
Got that? Now some details.
The addition of drummer Matt Chamberlain, recording for the first time with Dylan, has made a significant, and perhaps defining, difference on Rough and Rowdy Ways. The airy, adept Frenchman Street swing that George Recile brought to Dylan’s live performances and recordings (from 2001 to 2018) is gone, replaced by a straight, adept, wholly unobtrusive backbeat, with little or none of the Southwestern/Memphis/New Orleans push and pull that has been such a big part of Dylan’s 21st century sound. There is nothing wrong with Chamberlain’s playing, but it is decidedly odd to hear Dylan and his band with such a “straight” drummer. This relatively unheralded change in the band equals a very, very significant change in the released record.
In fact, Rowdy Ways is a hugely straight record, nearly devoid of the swing, hiccups ebbs and stutters of Tempest and the five standards albums. Recile, like guitarist Charlie Sexton and bassist Tony Garnier, was always challenging Dylan, pushing him, pulling him, and working in, above, below, and around him. Until 2019, Dylan, regardless of his legend, was clearly a member of the ensemble (and what an ensemble it was; I have long contended that the Never Ending Tour band was one of the greatest rock’n’roll bands I had ever seen). He was a singing, songwriting band member, as opposed to a vocalist/songwriter the band was backing. For instance, there is never any doubt that Tempest is the work of a real band. But that just isn’t the case on Rough and Rowdy Ways, which shifts the focus entirely to Dylan’s songs, with relatively little obstruction of purpose. True, there is no escaping the utter joy and genius of Sexton and Garnier, who still perform magnificently, but now they are following, not co-leading. At the end of the day, this unusually straightforward quality may actually make for a more engaging and hypnotic album.
Now, it’s very hard to know which came first: Did Dylan set out to make an unusually straightforward album, which places his words and music at the front and center of the arrangements? Because that’s a choice, and Dylan’s choices are always worth noting. Or did the departure of the mega-dynamic Recile (and the constraints in performance and arrangement caused due to the fact that this album was likely finished during the pandemic) bring about this significant change?
I don’t know, and I won’t guess.
However, I do think that Dylan’s vocal approach on Rough and Rowdy Ways is most definitely intentional. The vocals are Dylan’s clearest and most intimate (on original material) in a generation. Some may be tempted to say that Dylan has upped his vocal game considerably, but this simply isn’t true. He sang like this (using the vulnerable, tender, higher end of his baritone range, with barely any cracking or frogging) for sustained periods of time on Triplicate, Fallen Angels, and Shadows in the Night. However, employing this voice on original material is a huge fucking step, and we appear to be witnessing another significant Dylan vocal metamorphosis.
We also note that Rough and Rowdy Ways almost completely lacks the textural diversity of Tempest, which was dusted and dancing with very audible acoustic guitars, pianos, banjos, and varying reverbs and mixing techniques. On Tempest, like many “classic” rock albums, each song was treated as its’ own very special object. For instance, during the Tempest sessions, clearly someone was thinking, does “Scarlett Town” need a banjo doubling the acoustic guitar, which is already doubled by a National Steel (playing chords, not slide), with piano chords softening up the guitar picture? Does “Duquesne Whistle” need clarinets way up front, and a snare placed high, front, and center? Does “Narrow Way” need a Dave Davies/early-Clapton type rhythm guitar accented by a violin?
Rowdy Ways does not trouble itself with such things. Though this is certainly not a return to the (seemingly) barely rehearsed and barely overdubbed recordings of the early 1970s, the band seem to find their sound, carefully nail down their parts and arrangements, and play it very straight, largely staying out of Bob’s way. This is a key element to stress, since it marks an enormous difference from most of Dylan’s recordings and performances this century. The result is Dylan’s most straightforward and unadorned album since 1992’s Good As I Been To You. Although this is by no means the pure folk collection that album was, Rough and Rowdy Ways once again finds Dylan’s voice, rhythm, rhyme, and relationship to the lyric front and center. For the first time since that album, Dylan is not functioning as a member of the band; instead the band, although stellar, completely serve the song and the singer.
This opens up Rowdy Ways for some truly gorgeous spaciousness and minimalism, where just the gentlest breezes and whispers of arrangement accompany Dylan. This allows songs like “Black Rider,” “I Contain Multitudes,” “My Own Version of You,” “Mother of Muses,” and “Key West” – heck, over half the album – to glow, engage, resonate, haunt, and shimmer the heart. And although I may slightly – just very slightly – prefer the diversity and swing of Tempest, on Rough and Rowdy Ways Bob Dylan has made an album that must be seen as one of the best records of his post-Desire recording career, a record that is deep, rich, effecting, warm, and provocative.