The latest Bob Dylan album Rough and Rowdy Ways happened to enter the world in June, the same month as the 50th anniversary of the release of the singer/songwriter’s Self Portrait, a collection of covers and lightweight originals dismissed outright by Rolling Stone magazine at the time with a one-word expletive. Over the intervening decades, however, some media representatives have reappraised that earlier album, situating it somewhere in the middle of the scale as neither a dud nor a masterpiece, which is probably where it belonged the entire time.
Unfortunately, the 21st century so far has witnessed the disappearance of the middle. The heralding of a new album by Dylan, or for that matter any other big name in the music industry, is immediately accompanied by expectations in the same way modern-day metrics-driven Major League Baseball anticipates exit velocities and launch trajectories well before the game has begun. Anything short of those prospects is deemed unsatisfactory; anything fulfilling expectations is called a masterpiece.
After an eight-year period during which Dylan released three CD sets interpreting the Great American Songbook, exactly where Rough and Rowdy Ways would be situated by the media was anyone’s guess. The only certainty was that the in-between was not an option.
“Murder Most Foul,” “False Prophet” and “I Contain Multitudes,” the three advance tracks unveiled in the spring, were immediately subjected to myriad interpretations, dissected for their allusions/references and examined for the debt they owe earlier musical and literary sources. Their existence forecast the pendulum swinging in favor of Rough and Rowdy Ways being a game-winning grand slam.
Those predictions are not wrong, yet there is an ironic twist to it, for Rough and Rowdy Ways is an album that lives in the in-between, embracing the contradictions that make us human. “I contain multitudes,” Dylan sings, quoting Walt Whitman, and the personas he creates, for most of the songs exist comfortably on both sides of that fine line of division. Even the recordings themselves are a balance of extremes, the musical backing largely quiet and contemplative, the words salient and tortuous.
In “Goodbye Jimmy Reed,” an unspecified location eschews any practice of either-or thinking as Dylan intones, “I live on a street named after a Saint…where the Jews and the Catholics and the Muslims all pray.” In “Crossing the Rubicon,” the path is both corporeal and metaphysical, the narrator’s actions equally divine and profane: “Three miles north of purgatory—one step from the great beyond, I prayed to the cross and I kissed the girls and I crossed the Rubicon.” The haunting “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” states, “You stay to the left and then you lean to the right” before the narrator confesses, “I play both sides against the middle.”
The album also manages to fashion an historic tableau populated by the likes of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Anne Frank, Nat King Cole, William Tecumseh Sherman, Elvis Presley, Sigmund Freud and Jack Kerouac, while such figures as Shakespeare, Whitman, Mary Shelley, the Everly Brothers and Carl Perkins are summoned more subtly.
For all its historic import, however, Dylan does not seem to be offering us a time capsule of his making. Instead, his new album seems to be opening one. Its contents consist of historical icons, musical legacies and pop culture references that define an age not that long ago that’s become obsolete, fading a bit more with each passing day.
In its finest lines, Rough and Rowdy Ways prefers to hold the moment it conjures gently, aware of its place, its contribution and its connections, a meticulous practice in a now impatient world. Those instances might tell us how we arrived at where we currently reside, but their most poignant message seems to lie in their treatment of each moment as a lifetime rather than simply a stepping-stone paving the way.
Perhaps it should be left to future generations to determine whether the album is a masterpiece. At that point, it can no longer serve as a palliative to the current global pandemic or compete with other CD releases this year. The future can only underscore the universal themes contained within the choice selection of details on Rough and Rowdy Ways and speak clearly and fluently of what the album might reveal about us.