Its interesting that Bob Dylan has placed his 17-minute epic, ‘Murder Most Foul’ (MMF), as a separate disc to the nine-track Rough and Rowdy Ways (RRW), the main event, thus giving it particular prominence. Would he have done the same, I wonder, with those other lengthy album closers, ‘Desolation Row’, ‘Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ and ‘Highlands’?
How many of Dylan’s near-contemporaries (Bob Dylan was released in March 1962, nearly 60 years ago) can release an album that has garnered such interest and praise as Rough and Rowdy Ways? The Rolling Stones? Paul McCartney? Stevie Wonder? Elton John? Van Morrison? Neil Young? The only over-50 years old rock/pop figure that I think could generate an equivalent interest is Tom Waits, who seems to have genuinely retired, at least from the music business. Bad As Me, Waits’ last record came out in 2011, the preceding year to Dylan’s last album of self-composed numbers, Tempest. Both were released well before ‘Generation Z’ self-identified, making them now seem very much things of the past.
Dylan, however, has retained the ability, consciously or not, to reflect in his material the mood of Anglo-American ‘progressives’, and perhaps larger society as a whole. He did it famously in the 1960′s with his ‘protest songs’ (at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis) and his ‘wild mercury years’ of 1964-6; at the time of the attack on the Twin Towers (Love and Theft was released on 09/11/01); and now, in the spring/summer of 2020, with RRW and MMF, the titles of which reflect on the murder most foul of George Floyd, just one example of the rough and rowdy behaviour of so many cops, American and European. The eschatological tone of these recordings suits the devastating toll of Covid-19 and the controlled fury of the Black Lives Matter protests. To compound the sense of historic syncronicity, Bob Dylan was himself born in Minnesota and attended its Minneapolis University, not far from where George Floyd was killed by yet another rogue cop.
Kitty Empire pointed out Dylan’s supposed “lack of interest in modernity”, in her review in The Observer (which will be discussed in the next blog), a charge that could be supported by the artists’ last three albums, which have all consisted entirely of material culled from the ‘Great American Songbook’ (I especially liked the first, Shadows in the Night, if anyone’s interested). Now, I’ve never been a fan of Dylan’s ‘blues’ numbers, dating back as far as ‘Pledging My Time’, and now including RRW’s ‘False Prophet’, ‘Goodbye Jimmy Reed’ and ‘Crossing the Rubicon’, but usually the lyrics and that voice make up for any musical clunkiness. To counterpoint Empire’s ageism, I offer Mark Beaumont, from the NME (yes, that NME), who comments thus on Dylan’s shape-shifting:
“Bluesman, silent movie clowns, soul queens, rockers, hippies and pin-ups - Dylan revels in a hundred years of creative progress as if in accusation of America’s immutable ideological savagery”.
The first track on RRW is ‘I Contain Multitudes’, a lift from Walt Whitman (who also gifted ‘I Sing the Body Electric’ to Weather Report for the title of their second album in 1972). This certainly seems apposite, and the much commented upon referential incontinence of RRW and (especially) MMF, is one of the most immediately striking aspects of these most consequential recordings.