More about: Bob Dylan
Pretty but redundant songwriting from an artist who no longer has his finger on the pulse
“I ain’t no false prophet/I just said what I said” Bob Dylan sings on his new album Rough and Rowdy Ways. It’s a line that describes its composer well, though it was written to describe someone else. Bob Dylan is not a false prophet. Not any sort or prophet, in fact. If you’re a Bob Dylan diehard you’re about to receive a real lockdown treat: this is a record replete with tenderness and beauty. For the rest of us, Rough and Rowdy Ways is merely a pretty album from a member of a nostalgic generation. An album of 'I said what I saids’ from a man whose predictions no longer hold any sway.
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March's release of ‘Murder Most Foul’ - a lament about the assassination of JFK - was Dylan's first original material in eight years. Swiftly followed by ‘I Contain Multitudes’ then ‘False Prophet’, all three were gentle percussion-light folk tunes laced with metaphor and simile. They fizzled with the vital rawness of Dylan’s familiar throaty narration. Lyrics also followed a tried Dylan formula: tireless streams of couplets with hard rhymes that decree the decay of our world. For many, it was a surprise and welcome return.
As a trio, and later as part of a longer album, that magic falls away. Bound together, Dylan's gloomy lyrics morph from observation into dogma on the back of similarly antiquated musical styles. For the generations of young people doing their best to stay positive in a world they will inherit, it’s just another gloomy worldview from an old artist with few fresh ideas.
“Of course we do, we know who you are/then they blew off his head while he was still in the car” Dylan sings with the hard ’T’s of a child hoping their teacher notices the rhyme they have made. The shaking strings and tentative keys are a pretty landscape for the narration on 'Murder Most Foul' and indeed, the music on Rough and Rowdy ways is some of Dylan’s strongest compositions in a decade. But alongside a stream of quasi-poetic one-liners, it acts more of a piece of nostalgic navel-gazing than a relevant twist on an old pedigree.
The sixteen-minute ‘Murder Most Foul’ is a counterweight to a 52-minute A-side that weighs heavy with gloom. “Is there a light at the end of the tunnel?” Dylan asks rhetorically on the bluesy ‘My Own Version of You’. 'Go back to the gutter, try your luck..." he growls on 'Crossing the Rubicon'. On 'Black Rider' he goes full doomsday, forseeing and tempting an inevitable end.
It's a defeatist attitude that constitutes an old way, an old way that's also evident in the soundscapes Dylan explores in CD number one: ‘False Prophet’ deals in early rock ’n’ roll while ‘My Own Version of You’ pays tribute to RnB (heavy on the B) and ‘I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You’ is woozy with doo-wop.
All of these genres are exceptional disciplines for which we can thank for most of our modern music. But there are endless historic examples to revisit, many of them performed impeccably by the Black artists who pioneered them. The problem here is that Dylan does and says nothing new with his compositional talent. With its staunch nostalgia and morbid flush, Rough and Rowdy Ways sounds in many ways like an artist’s swan song.
In a rare and recent interview with the New York Times, Dylan admits to the increasingly moth-eaten views of his generation, proving so a sentence later by insisting that technological vulnerabilities are no concern of the young: “they could care less” he says. In fact, anxieties around the growth of technology (and apocalyptic fears) are not the property of the old. Studies show that it is the youth who tend to be more cautious about the information they put online. And if I may speak for the young in saying: we don’t need any more scaremongering from elders whose generation are responsible for the problems we have inherited.
Bob Dylan's place among the Greats is not a fact for debating. When you lift an old Dylan record down from the loft or fish it out from the record shelf, it’s a joy to wipe the dust from its cover and balance it under the player's needle. The problem is that with Rough and Rowdy Ways, the dust comes caked in. This is certainly an album that could hold its own next to some of Dylan’s best. But Dylan’s best are more than forty years behind him.
Rough and Rowdy Ways is released on 19 June 2020 via Columbia
More about: Bob Dylan