It may have seemed after three-straight records covering traditional pop standards that Bob Dylan didn’t have much left to say.
But, true to form, Dylan surprises yet again by delivering a late-career masterpiece with “Rough and Rowdy Ways.”
It’s a moody, reflective, meditative, befuddling, funny and awe-inspiring turn for the Nobel Prize winner. Rich with biblical and pop culture references, at its core “Rough and Rowdy Ways” is a record on the borderline of this world and the next, wherever or whatever that may be.
“I’ve stood between heaven and earth and I’ve crossed the Rubicon,” Dylan sings on “Crossing the Rubicon,” one of several ruminations on mortality.
On the darkly funny “My Own Version of You,” Dylan channels Dr. Frankenstein for a macabre tale of creating, quite literally, what the title suggests. On the gorgeous “Mother of Muses,” the 79-year-old Dylan reflects on songwriting and mortality, singing “mother of muses wherever you are, I’ve already outlived my life by far.”
And who, exactly, is the narrator on “False Prophet” when Dylan sings “I’m first among equals, second to none, last of the best, you can bury the rest”? Is it God? Or Satan? Or maybe Dylan, who is used to being heralded as a prophet? On the apocalyptic “Black Rider,” an ominously foreboding confrontation with death, Dylan is conversing perhaps with the Grim Reaper about his distressed and imperiled soul.
The nine-minute epic “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” is breathtaking, only to be followed by the monumental 17-minute album closer “Murder Most Foul,” a reflection on the assassination of John F. Kennedy, but oh so much more.
That Dylan dropped this record, his 39th, in the middle of a pandemic, when life and death is part of the daily conversation, is just so, well, Dylan.
Dylan fans who love to pour over every possible meaning of his every utterance will have plenty to dig through on “Rough and Rowdy Ways,” his first record of new material since 2012’s “Tempest.”