Another apocalypse; another side of Bob Dylan. The man really knows how to pick his moments. Dylan has brilliantly timed his new masterwork for a summer when the hard rain is falling all over the nation: a plague, a quarantine, revolutionary action in the streets, cities on fire, phones out of order. Rough and Rowdy Ways is his first batch of new songs in 8 years, and it’s an absolute classic—it has the bleak majesty of latter-day Dylan albums like Modern Times and Tempest, yet it goes beyond them, tapping even deeper into cosmic American mysteries.
You can hear all the rolling thunder in his 79-year-old voice—as he sings in a catch-your-breath moment from “Mother of Muses,” “I’ve already outlived my life by far.” But the man offers no words of comfort—he just spins these outlaw tales with the cold-blooded wit and sardonic passion that keeps him pressing on. As he declares early on the album, “I’ll pick a number between one and two / And ask myself what would Julius Caesar do?”
Dylan gave his first taste of the new music with his 17-minute epic “Murder Most Foul,” which he dropped as a midnight surprise in late March, the early weeks of the pandemic, a few end-of-the-world meltdowns ago. It sets the tone for the whole album—a hallucination of American history as a jukebox, a late-night musical tour of the Desolation Row where we find ourselves right now. All over Rough and Rowdy Ways, he mixes up Chicago blues, Nashville twang, Memphis rock & roll. His voice sounds marvelously nimble and delicate, whether he’s preaching doom, pitching woo, or cracking jokes like “I’ll take the Scarface Pacino and the Godfather Brando / Mix ‘em up in a tank and get a robot commando.”
The singing here is a revelation—Dylan still busts out the gruff Howlin’ Wolf snarl he perfected on Tempest, but he sounds far more loose and limber, full of finesse. In raw blues stomps like “Goodbye Jimmy Reed,” “False Prophet,” and “Beyond the Rubicon,” he’s a master of deadpan comic timing; in ballads like “Key West (Philosopher Pirate),” he’s all breathy calm. His past few records were covers of old-time standards, inspired by crooners like Frank Sinatra—doing those songs live, he’d even dip the microphone stand way down low, Ole Blue Eyes-style. His crooner albums were delightful on their own terms. But in retrospect, he was using those records as vocal workshops, figuring out how to do fresh tricks with a new fucked-up voice, just as he did on his two early-Nineties albums of folk-blues covers. So now he revels in how fierce and tender he can sound with sixty years of road dust in his lungs.
Dylan spends the album rambling through hard times all through the land, in portraits of rovers, gangsters, thieves, sinners. As he warns, these songs take place “three miles north of Purgatory, one step from the great beyond.” “My Own Version Of You” is a “Bride of Frankenstein” fantasy with Dylan as a mad scientist, assembling a creature in his lab out of stolen body parts. He promises his creation, “I’ll gonna make you play the piano like Leon Russell / Like Liberace–like St. John the Apostle.” In the sinister “Crossing the Rubicon,” he sneers, “I’ll cut you up with a crooked knife, Lord, and I’ll miss you when you’re gone.” When Dylan observes that it’s darkest right before the dawn—not the first time this weatherman has made that point—he follows with a throwaway “oh god” that can really chill your bones.
“Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” is the highlight from an album full of highlights: a poignant 9-minute accordion noir about an old desperado heading off to Florida to make his last stand, brooding over the end times, with only his radio as a reminder of the life he left behind. His Key West is a poison paradise, where “the fishtail palms and the orchid trees / They can give you that bleeding-heart disease.” He requests a song, asking his radio to give up the Sixties soul oldie “Rescue Me,” as if the song is his last chance to jolt himself into remembering how it felt to have any inspiration left in his heart. As he murmurs, “Key West is fine and fair / If you lost your mind, you’ll find it there.” It conjures up the elegiac vibe of Robert De Niro at the end of The Irishman.
“Murder Most Foul” ends the album with a boom—the song was already powerful as a stand-alone single, but it hits even harder as the finale here. The title comes from Hamlet, on an album where Dylan also drops references to Richard III, Julius Caesar, and Macbeth. (“I dig Shakespeare,” he said in March 1966. “A raving queen and a cosmic amphetamine brain.”) “Murder Most Foul” takes on the JFK assassination, but the historical background is just the cue for a song that aims much wider. Like John Wesley Hardin, Lenny Bruce, Blind Willie McTell, Isis, or St. Augustine, JFK is just a mythical folk hero who inspires Dylan to go off in a new story of his own. He uses Kennedy as a departure point for a long fever-dream ramble through cultural memory, sending a prayer out to the DJ, like a cross between Walt Whitman and Wolfman Jack. Dylan ends the song with a long roll call of musical legends: John Lee Hooker, Etta James, Thelonius Monk, Dickey Betts, Bud Powell, Lindsey Buckingham, Stevie Nicks. He also salutes his original rock & roll idol Little Richard, in an accidentally timely farewell.
Like so many of the past decade’s finest songs about the country—Lana Del Rey’s “The Greatest,” Kendrick Lamar’s “King Kunta,” Nick Cave’s “Higgs Boson Blues”—it’s a litany of cherished national myths and icons falling apart. But for Dylan, the only vision of America that still makes sense is a swirl of half-remembered songs across the radio dial, long after midnight. “Murder Most Foul” is a song about how people turn to music for solace, in times of turmoil. But it’s also a song about how the music is part of the turmoil.
As Dylan pushes 80, his creative vitality remains startling—and a little frightening. (Light a candle for the late Leonard Cohen: he no longer owns the crown for the best album ever made by a 79-year-old.) Dylan never stays in one spot too long; hell, it took a global pandemic to put a pause on his Never Ending Tour. But he refuses to rest on his legend. While the world keeps trying to celebrate him as an institution, pin him down, cast him in the Nobel Prize canon, embalm his past, this drifter always keeps on making his next escape. On Rough and Rowdy Ways, Dylan is exploring terrain nobody else has reached before—yet he just keeps pushing on into the future.