The release of this new album has generated a lot of press. People pay attention when the greatest songwriter in many generations releases his first new material in about eight years. Most of the articles claim Rough and Rowdy is a “return to form.” I couldn’t disagree more. Tempest was a fine album. New Morning was a “return to form” (sort of).
Anyway, I think almost everybody would agree that Rough and Rowdy is a fine recording, especially remarkable given that the artist is pushing eighty years-old. Does it rank with his best work? Well, no, it’s no Bringing It All Back Home. But it’s damn fine in its own right. Few artists are still producing great or even near great work so late in life. Beethoven, Cezanne, maybe Cohen. The list is short.
Dylan’s willingness to continue the struggle to create reminds me of something he said in a 2004 interview with 60 Minutes.
So far I have followed the roadmap God has made for me a long time ago, and if I had not held up my end of the deal, I would not be here at this point, at this stage of my career. I do what I have to do. Being here proves that I am holding up my end of the deal. At the same time, it implies that there is still a road ahead of me. Nobody knows how long this road is going to last, I take nothing for granted, but when I die the deal will have been fully accomplished, and then the deal will go down. And if that happens, at the end of the trail, I’ll be with You in heaven”.
Before this album, Dylan had been fixated on the Great American Songbook era for quite some time. Shadows in the Night, the 2015 release. Followed the next year by Fallen Angels. Finally, Triplicate in 2017, a three-disk end-of-show Fourth of July-like extravaganza. Although, Rough and Rowdy contains no cover material, the musical influence of that era, displayed in the crooning of, for instance, Mother of Muses, and the jazz-lite of the keyboards of I Can Multitudes, is unmistakable.
Dylan has always made both musical and lyrical references to old songs, movies, TV shows, novels, and poems in his songs. That tendency really took off with “Love and Theft” (thus the title) and has continued through Rough and Rowdy. It’s a lot of fun to try to hunt all the references down. See the discussions of each individual song to see the specific references myself and others have identified.
Rough and Rowdy is an excellent recording. Several songs, in my opinion, rank among Dylan best. My favorites are Key West (Philosopher Pirate) and I Contain Multitudes. Black Rider deserves an honorable mention. The only clunker is Mother of Muses which, while it has interesting lyrics, is something of a failure musically and as a performance. It’s perhaps the only song where I’ll be clicking skip on a regular basis.
If I could make a change on the album, or any of the more recent albums for that matter, is that I wish Dylan would allow the band little more freedom to up the energy level a bit. The sounds to me a bit too restrained for its own good. Perhaps if Robbie Robertson had agreed to join the project, he could have brought a bit more energy. Maybe next time.
Anyway, Rough and Rowdy is a fine, fine effort, far surpassing anything we could have reasonably expected at this late stage in his career. Hat’s off to the man.
Oh. I forgot to mention that the title, Rough and Rowdy Ways, is a tip-of-the-hat to the Singing Brakeman, Jimmy Rodgers. Dylan has a long history with Rodgers songs, covering his Blue Yodel No. 8 on the famous bootleg, Minnesota Party Tape (1960), Blue Yodel No. 1 (T for Texas) during the Dylan/Cash sessions, and My Blue-Eyed Jane on The Songs of Jimmy Rodgers: A Tribute, which was organized by none other than Bob Dylan. See below the liner notes Dylan wrote for the tribute.
Jimmie Rodgers of course is one of the guiding lights of the Twentieth Century whose way with song has always been an inspiration to those of us who have followed the path. A blazing star whose sound was and remains the raw essence of individuality in a sea of conformity, par excellence with no equal. Though he is claimed as The Father of Country Music, the title is limiting and deceiving in light of today’s country music and he wouldn’t have understood it. In his time, he was better known as “The Singing Brakeman” or “Blue Yodeler” and hence in some circles, he has come to be known as the “Man Who Started It All” which is more to the truth for he was a performer of force without precedent with a sound as lonesome and mystical as it was dynamic. He gives hope to the vanquished and humility to the mighty. Indeed, he sings not only among his bawdy, upbeat blues and railroading songs, but also Tin Pan Alley trash and crooner lullabies as well. He makes everything unmistakably his own and does it with piercing charm. Jerry Lee Lewis once said that there are only four stylists – Jimmie, Al Jolsen, Hank Williams and himself. Jerry Lee doesn’t give out compliments lightly. If we look back far enough, Jimmie may very well be the “man who started it all” for we have no antecedent to compare him. His refined style, an amalgamation of sources unknown, is too cryptic to pin down. His is a thousand and one voices yet singularly his own.
The artists on this compilation as diverse as ever, all have one thing in common – all have been amazed, moved and enormously affected by Jimmie like no other. Why? Because Jimmie was alive in a way that others were not and are not. His message is all between the lines and he delivers it like nectar that can drill through steel. He gets somehow into the mystery of life and death without saying too much, has some kind of uncanny ability to translate it – he’s like the smell of flowers. He stood over there far apart, this is so obvious. No supporting actor in a melodrama or a screw in a machine, not a team player, no old liner or stick in the mud, he is the ringmaster general and is as in the Warren Smith ballad, the man who “…held your hand and sang you a song”. What more could he do?
We love the man and we love what he did in the short time he was here and we know that he rose above insurmountable odds in giving of himself with Herculean effort to achieve it, that he worked against time with a disease that was a quick assignment to the cemetery. We don’t salute ourselves in making this record but we point you back there so you can feel it for yourself and see how far off the path we’ve come. Times change and don’t change. The nature of humanity has stayed the same. Jimmie is at the heart of it all with a seriousness and humor that is befuddling, notwithstanding that infamous blue yodel that defies the rational and conjecturing mind. His is the voice in the wilderness of your head…only in turning up the volume can we determine our own destiny.