“Who is that you’re listening to?”
That’s the question my wife Susan asked me a few days ago while I was washing dishes. I was listening to Bob Dylan’s new album “Rough and Rowdy Ways”. At first I thought my better half’s question was unusual… she was definitely familiar with Bob’s music, even if she hadn’t heard his latest release yet. Who couldn’t immediately recognize Mr. Dylan’s voice?
“I could understand the words more than usual when he’s singing.”
It’s funny that Susan said that. As I was taking my initial spin through Bob’s first album of new, original material in eight years (the less said about the Christmas record, or his triple disc collection of Sinatra covers the better) it did hit me that his vocals were oddly well enunciated. Gone was the unintelligible mumble that was his trademark… something that I think is sometimes exaggerated by comedians and non Dylan fans. Instead of a nasally singing voice he now has more of a deeper (although still nasally) growl, and the songs are delivered in more of a spoken word cadence. It’s almost like after 60 years he’s realized that he is one of the greatest poets in modern history, right up there with Emily Dickinson, Dr. Suess, and Andrew “Dice” Clay.
This isn’t the first time that Bob Dylan’s vocal delivery kind of changed. Compare his 60’s classics “Blowing In The Wind”, “Like A Rolling Stone”, and “Subterranean Homesick Blues” , etc… to his early 70’s work on songs like “Lay Lady Lay” and “If Not For You”. You’ll see what I mean.
“He sounds like Leonard Cohen, but not quite.”
Susan nails it. She wins. I’ve now listened to “Rough and Rowdy Ways” a few times, and the Cohen comparison is especially apt on songs like the autobiographical “I Contain Multitudes” and “My Own Version Of You”. My personal favorite tracks are the bluesy rockers “Goodbye Jimmy Reed” and “Crossing The Rubicon”, along with the very pretty (if clunkily titled) love song “I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You”.
The song that has gotten the most attention since its release as a “single” is the 17 minute “Murder Most Foul”, which is a musical U.S. History lesson that takes us from the J.F.K assassination up to the current pandemic. I’m still trying to unpack this whole song in my brain… the dozens of pop culture references are still revealing themselves with each listen. I initially didn’t like this song… the spare instrumentation and recitation of history made me wonder What if Billy Joel had recorded We Didn’t Start The Fire as a ballad, and made it four times longer?”. It’ll never be a sing-a-long favorite, but it is growing on me. Now I wish it was another 4 or 5 minutes longer just to address everything that’s happened in the past few weeks.
Where does this fit in Dylan’s catalogue? At this point it’s impossible to say… he’s released 39 studio albums, 12 live albums, 15 volumes of “The Bootleg Series”, 7 soundtracks, 3 documentaries about him, and that’s just scratching the surface. He has more songs than I do CDs, DVDs, records, t-shirts, and comic books combined. That’s a lot. “Rough and Rowdy Ways” is a very good album… I give it a B+. Stop in at Record Archive for your copy, or order it here https://shop.recordarchive.com/UPC/194397809824
Stay safe and see ya soon. -Billy