Bob Dylan’s new album, wrapped in mystery and dropping unexpectedly like a consolation gift amidst the pandemic (or ‘in the dark, in the wee small hours’, to borrow a line from one of its songs), is a major, lively, and beautiful release. It also marks another shift in musical style and creative direction, just when it looked like Dylan had settled into covering standards from the Great American Songbook.
Lyrically Rough and Rowdy Ways has been described as impressionistic—like layering colourful brush strokes of thought to build tone and emotion, more than to lay down coherent and focused narratives in standard verse/chorus structures.
The lyrics are fragmentary, and together with sparse, mellow arrangements they build a mystical, dreamlike atmosphere. If David Lynch makes more Twin Peaks, this music would fit right in at the Bang Bang Bar. Ambigious lyrics are often accompanied by suggestive deliveries, prodding the listener to tune in and prod beneath their surface.
I want to bring someone to life - someone I’ve never seen
You know what I mean - you know exactly what I mean
The tone is elegiac, and stretches across songs to bind the album together as a whole. There is something of a hypnotic, alternating rhythm that shifts back and forth between bluesy and dreamy. Musically each song has a distinct opening, and the playlist order fits so well together that after a few listens as one song fades it's impossible not to anticipate the opening notes of the next, as if preloaded in the listener's inner ear. This unbroken flow continues right up until ‘Murder Most Foul’, which plays like a gloomy 17-minute nightcap.
The tones and themes we are used to hearing from Dylan are all here: the hopeful, the sinister, death, justice, simmering anger, vengeance, romance, playfulness, mystery. RARW might mark a sharp turn away from Dylan’s recent work, but it retains thematic consistency with messages he’s hit repeatedly over the years and decades.
The fragmentary lyrics let the listener pluck out different, perhaps contradictory meanings and feelings from them (the theme of contradictory moods and character qualities is the subject of ‘I Contain Multitudes’).
It feels like a fresh manifestation of the thought process described in Series of Dreams, a song Dylan originally wrote for his 1989 album Oh Mercy and which always seemed to me to describe his songwriting process during the mid-60s “thin, wild mercury sound” period, as if in answer to the question “what do the lyrics mean?”
Wasn’t thinking of anything specific
Like in a dream, when someone wakes up and screams
Nothing too very scientific
Just thinking of a series of dreams
‘Goodbye Jimmy Reed’ makes the most direct link to that mid-60s period—remarkably, it sounds like it belongs on Blonde on Blonde, playing like a re-formulation of ‘Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat’ coming half a century later. Which makes it sound like a retread, but in fact makes the song exceptional: few if any of Dylan’s songs written since have recreated (or attempted to recreate) that sound.
Many songs have a political feel, though none have an explicit political subject—with the exception of ‘Murder Most Foul’, a sprawling rumination on the JFK assassination, which is included as the last track on its own disc, and feels separate from the rest of the album.
The lyrics throw out heavy shades of disgust and indignation, or make what feels like an attack on the politics of the moment, then drift into another thought or subject on the next line and obscure the blow, distorting the meaning and making you question whether you imagined it in the first place. You’re never quite sure how much meaning you bring to the lyrics as a listener, and how much was put there by intention.
In ‘My Own Version of You’ Dylan talks of assembling body parts and cultural ingredients to create a Frankenstein’s monster-type creature, apparently as an alternative version of someone he knows.
Who does the narrator want to create an alternative to, and for what purpose? It’s not laid out clearly enough to say with confidence, but I can’t help interpreting the song as describing the artistic desire to inspire the creation of an alternative to a dangerous politician: Donald Trump. The song would then be about creating a “better version” of Trump, culturally morphed to fix him and created for the purpose of replacing him.
I’ll bring someone to life - balance the scales
I’m not gonna get involved in any insignificant details
Some lines distort this reading, like they do most others, bringing romantic notions into the story, along with a whirlwind of other cultural references that shift the vibe towards that of a fun, fantastical daydream.
I’ll take Scarface Pacino and the Godfather Brando
Mix ‘em up in a tank and get a robot commando
If I do it upright and put the head on straight
I’ll be saved by the creature that I create
Still I find myself returning to the thought of Trump as the subject on each listen. There is, for example, what seems like a critique against nationalism and xenophobia of the “America First” kind:
I study Sanskrit and Arabic to improve my mind
I want to do things for the benefit of all mankind
And the closest we come to hearing what the narrator wants to be different in his version of the person in question? “Decency and common sense.”
As for the person in question, apparently it is someone who is literate only on the surface level, and is in the habit of deception.
Can you tell me what it means, “to be or not to be?”
You won’t get away with fooling me
A scathing final verse then ties the person being addressed to moral abominations from history and “enemies of mankind.”
I can see the history of the whole human race
It’s all right there - its carved into your face
Should I break it all down - should I fall on my knees
Is there light at the end of the tunnel - can you tell me please
Stand over there by the Cypress tree
Where the Trojan women and children were sold into slavery
Long ago before the First Crusade
Way back before England or America were made
Step right into the burning hell
Where some of the best known enemies of mankind dwell
The subject remains obscured, but I can't help but think the spectre of Donald Trump lies at the song's heart—and a big part of that reading comes from the delivery of the song, its intonation and feeling, as much as the lyrics themselves. How much have I brought into this reading myself? It’s impossible to say.
That’s the genius of how the album is written: it leaves a lot of room for the listener to breathe their own mind into the music. It also allows the delivery of certain messages and critiques without making direct political attacks that would thrust Dylan under the media spotlight—a place he has shown no interest in being for decades. It employs metaphor and suggestion as shaded weapons, to attack at an oblique angle in a way that doesn’t invite reply.
As political as many of the songs feel (or at least, feel in moments, before morphing into romantic or apolitical musings in the next moment), it is concern over the trajectory of the United States as a country, rather than individual politicians, that seems highest on the Nobel laureate's mind.
‘Murder Most Foul’ sets that tone pretty explicitly (where “him” here refers to JFK):
The day that they killed him, someone said to me, “Son, the age of the anti-Christ has just only begun.”
The least ambiguous political message on the first disc can be found in ‘Key West (Philosopher Pirate)’. On the surface level offered as (unconventional) navigational instructions, Dylan suggests:
You stay to the left, and then you lean to the right
This line is hard to read as about anything other than left/right wing politics, and taken as such sums up Dylan’s politics in recent decades well. Centre-left, borrowing some ideas from the right, but remaining firmly rooted in the left-wing principles he started out from in the early 60s.
Another fragmentary lyric a few verses later (with no contextualising line before it) returns to the idea of left/right divides:
I play both sides against the middle
Pickin’ up that pirate radio signal
Politicians should appeal to both sides of the political spectrum, seems to be the suggestion, by not straying too far from the centre. This message would chime with what Barack Obama said pointedly in a public address last November, warning Democrats against moving too far to the left.
Why does Dylan cryptically encode his political musings?
Part of it is probably the intellectual and artistic challenge. Veiled in metaphor and subtext, the message reaches the listener without drawing too much attention outside the realm Dylan is most at home in: that of the song and dance man. At age 79, he has no apparent desire to write the political protest songs of the moment, or battle with reporters like he did in his twenties. That’s a young man’s game, and by all indications he's more than happy to leave them to it.
Listen to Rough and Rowdy Ways on the right night, in the right frame of mind, though, and you’ll find yourself thinking ‘yes, Bob, I do know exactly what you mean.’ Whether you actually do, or not… that’s the pleasure of music steeped in mystery.