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Bob Dylan's 'Rough And Rowdy Ways' Breathes, Expands And Contracts

Jun 30, 2020
Originally published on June 30, 2020 9:29 pm
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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Our rock critic Ken Tucker has a review of Bob Dylan's new album called "Rough And Rowdy Ways." It includes the longest song Dylan has ever released, the almost-17-minute track "Murder Most Foul," which became Dylan's first No. 1 hit single when it came out in March. The new studio album is Dylan's first collection of original material in eight years.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I CONTAIN MULTITUDES")

BOB DYLAN: (Singing) Today, tomorrow and yesterday, too, the flowers are dying, like all things do. Follow me close. I'm going to Balian Bali. I'll lose my mind if you don't come with me. I fuss with my hair, and I fight blood feuds. I contain multitudes. Got a telltale heart.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: When Bob Dylan commences his new album singing "I Contain Multitudes," the most important thing to realize in this invocation of Walt Whitman is that Dylan is also saying you do, too. He's insisting that we each contain multitudes, that we shouldn't limit ourselves to one identity, one ideology, one set of facts about our lives. Dylan isn't looking within himself here. He's looking outward, and not at an audience. He's looking at you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MURDER MOST FOUL")

DYLAN: (Singing) 'Twas a dark day in Dallas, November '63, a day that will live on in infamy. President Kennedy was riding high. Good day to be living, and a good day to die. Being led to the slaughter like a sacrificial lamb, he said, wait a minute, boys; you know who I am? Of course we do. We know who you are. Then they blew off his head while he was still in the car, shot down like a dog in broad daylight. 'Twas a matter of timing, and the timing was right. You got unpaid debts; we've come to collect. We're going to kill you with hatred, without any respect.

TUCKER: The first time I heard the epic-length song "Murder Most Foul," I scoffed at its puns and cheap rhymes. I'm just a patsy like Patsy Cline - really, Bob? But I waited a day, and I played it again, and then again and again because the song took hold of me. Just under 17 minutes, with Dylan speaking his couplets over rippling piano and violin, it sweeps you up in a swirl of historic events. Let's reenter the song in the middle of the second verse.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MURDER MOST FOUL")

DYLAN: (Singing) When you're down on Deep Ellum, put your money in your shoe. Don't ask what your country can do for you. Cash on the barrel head, money to burn. Dealey Plaza, make a left-hand turn. I'm going down to the crossroads, going to flag a ride, the place where faith, hope and charity died. Shoot him while he runs, boy, shoot him while you can. See if you can shoot the invisible man. Goodbye, Charlie, goodbye, Uncle Sam. Frankly, Miss Scarlett, I don't give a damn. What is the truth, and where did it go? Ask Oswald and Ruby, they oughta know. Shut your mouth, said a wise, old owl. Business is business, and it's a murder most foul.

TUCKER: "Rough And Rowdy Ways," the title a nod to a Jimmy Rogers song, is an album that breathes, that expands and contracts as you listen to it. The good songs inflate with interest. The mediocre songs start to shrink and slink away. One example of the mediocre is the maudlin "Black Rider." It contains one funny, dumb, penis joke, and that's about it.

TUCKER: The jokes and the melody are much sharper on the Dr. Frankenstein riff he develops on "My Own Version Of You."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY OWN VERSION OF YOU")

DYLAN: (Singing) All through the summers into January, I've been visiting morgues and monasteries looking for the necessary body parts, limbs and livers and brains and hearts. I'll bring someone to life, is what I wanna do. I wanna create my own version of you.

TUCKER: There's a striking amount of upbeat rhythm and blues on this album. Dylan bursts with a braggard's pride on the song "False Prophet."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FALSE PROPHET")

DYLAN: (Singing) Well, I'm the enemy of treason, an enemy of strife. I'm the enemy of the unlived, meaningless life. I ain't no false prophet. I just know what I know. I go where only the lonely can go. I'm first among equals, second to none. The last of the best, you can bury the rest. Bury 'em naked with their silver and gold. Put 'em 6 feet under, and I pray for their souls.

TUCKER: Just as you're coming to terms with the line, I'm the enemy of the unlived, meaningless life, Dylan makes you laugh out loud with a boast worthy of Muhammad Ali. I'm first among equals, second to none. The last of the best, you can bury the rest. And the lovely, waltz-time ballad called "I've Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You" may have little to say beyond restating the title phrase in various ways, but that doesn't make it any less lovely.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'VE MADE UP MY MIND TO GIVE MYSELF TO YOU")

DYLAN: (Singing) I'm sittin' on my terrace, lost in the stars, listening to the sounds of the sad guitars. Been thinking it all over, and I've thought it all through. I've made up my mind to give myself to you.

TUCKER: Dylan recently gave a rare interview to The New York Times with the historian Douglas Brinkley, the chief value of which is to confirm that Dylan is very much absorbed in current events, which is useful to know in listening to the music here because no matter when it was actually recorded, this album demonstrates how an artist can engage with their time without trying to score points for virtuousness. Oh, yeah. And you know what else can't come across in a print interview? His band really rocks.

DAVIES: Rock critic Ken Tucker reviewed Bob Dylan's new album called "Rough And Rowdy Ways." On tomorrow's show, we talk with Radley Balko, author of "Rise Of The Warrior Cop." It's about what he describes as the militarization of America's police forces and the military culture within some police agencies. Balko writes about criminal justice and civil liberties for the Washington Post. Hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOODBYE JIMMY REED")

DYLAN: (Singing) I live on a street named after a saint. Women in the churches wear powder and paint. Where the Jews and Catholics and the Muslims all pray. I can tell they're Proddy from a mile away. Goodbye, Jimmy Reed, Jimmy Reed indeed. Give me that old time religion. It's just what I need.

DAVIES: Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with assistance from Charlie Kaier. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOODBYE JIMMY REED")

DYLAN: (Singing) Goodbye, Jimmy Reed. Godspeed. Thump on the Bible, proclaim a creed. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.