Reviews of any Bob Dylan album – and there have been a few – seem to bring out both the best and worst in music reviewers. Rough and Rowdy Ways, his latest and 39th studio album, is no exception.
The music scribes at least got a heads-up this time with Columbia Records launching three singles – “Murder Most Foul”/ “False Prophet”/ ”I Contain Multitudes” – to grateful Dylan fans – and reviewers reduced to agonizing over “virtual concerts” - over a six-week period leading up to the actual 10-track album release on June 19.
The worth of the samples was best captured – in a full album review – by Anne Margaret Daniel in No Depression: “They’re a good sampler of the record’s contents, but rather like the part of an iceberg that shows above the waterline. The heft and depth of Rough and Rowdy Ways is a pleasure, a relief, and a blessing in an age in which songwriting largely consists of consortiums of people penning computer-assisted hits. Dylan doesn’t play these silly games.”
Daniel added: “On Rough and Rowdy Ways, Dylan lets us in to his imaginative landscape, and the real and fictional folks who people it, in a way that he hasn’t since Highway 61 Revisited. The lyrics will take you by the throat and shake you; the smooth sound of the songs will charm you; and you’ll find couplets stuck in your memory for good well before the end of release day.”
Yes, as might be expected, it is Dylan’s lyrics – from “Blowing In The Wind” to “Murder Most Foul” - that have always both fascinated and infuriated reviewers. In his recent New York Times interview with historian Douglas Brinkley, Dylan stated: “The lyrics are the real thing, tangible, they’re not metaphors.”
Which prompted this from Sam Sodomsky in Pitchfork: “So when he sings about crossing the Rubicon, he’s talking about a river in Italy; when he tells you he’s going down to Key West, he wants you to know he’s dressing for the weather.”
Sodomsky added: “The lyrics are striking—dense enough to inspire a curriculum, clever enough to quote like proverbs.”
Dylan added in the Brinkley interview: “The songs seem to know themselves and they know that I can sing them, vocally and rhythmically. They kind of write themselves and count on me to sing them.”
Peggy Noonan reacted to this in her review for the Wall Street Journal: “Mr Dylan more and more speaks of fellow artists – fellow workers – with great tenderness. He reminds me of what Pope Paul II said, that artists know a special pain because they imagine a work and see it in their heads but can never execute it perfectly, can never achieve what they’d imagined, and forever carry the anguish of unmet ambition.”
That is the fascination. The infuriation – well perhaps irritation – is reflected by the likes of Event magazine which bleated its headline: “Bob Dylan’s first self-written album since 2012, Rough and Rowdy Ways may be energetically crafted and elegantly played but it lacks originality.”
Writer Tim De Lisle opined: “Dylan used to write lines that other people quoted; now he writes lines that quote other people. Rough and Rowdy Ways is borrowed from Jimmie Rodgers. I Contain Multitudes, coined by Walt Whitman, rhymes with ‘all the young dudes’, copyright David Bowie. As a magpie himself, Bowie might chuckle at that.
Dylan knows his music history, but he’s not adding to it any more. A colossus who once changed the world with his art has settled for making collages.”
The Event gripe was somewhat against the grain.
U.K. reviewer Bryan Appleyard wrote in The Sunday Times: “Considered, elegiac and richly allusive, this austere gem may be Dylan’s best album in 40 years.”
Another (obviously very) British reviewer Kitty Empire was equally effusive in The Guardian: “Greatness is often contested territory. Rough and Rowdy Ways, Bob Dylan’s 39th studio album, is awash with pre-eminence, both in its actual and its more unstable forms.”
She added: “Over 10 tracks, he seeds Rough and Rowdy Ways with deep musical and lyrical erudition, witticisms and considerable panache. References abound, to artists, songs and historical figures.”
The NME headline - “Arguably his grandest poetic statement yet” - was in sync with such praise. Writer Mark Beaumont declared: “ … with Rough and Rowdy Ways, he’s produced arguably his grandest poetic statement yet, a sweeping panorama of culture, history and philosophy peering back through assassinations, world war, the births of nations, crusades and Biblical myths in order to plot his place in the great eternal scheme.”
Beaumont wisely concluded: “Dylan is famed for his poetic allegories and allusive lyricism but the sheer breadth of cultural and historical scope he pulls off on Rough and Rowdy Ways must surely make his Ulysses, not least because you’d break Wikipedia trying to unpack it all.”
The Telegraph (UK): “At its heart, this is a serious work, with an underlying somberness. ... Almost 60 years since we first heard from him, the old protest singer is still composing extraordinary anthems for our changing times.”
Back across the Atlantic, New York Times was more guarded in its sub-head: “His first album of original songs since 2012 is a death-haunted, cantankerous collection with a late-night sense of seclusion.” NYT chief music reviewer Jon Pareles: “Latter-day Bob Dylan is for die-hards. His voice is tattered and scratchy, not always bothering to trace a melody. His lyrics can be cryptic or throwaway when they’re not downright bleak. His music is adamantly old-fashioned, and he’s not aiming to ingratiate himself with anyone.”
And, as with most reviews, the D-word is not far from mind. Pareles concludes: “Dylan refuses to settle down, or to be anything like an elder statesman. He sees death looming, but he’s still in the fray.”
There is no longer any whining – largely instigated by pseudo-intellectuals outside the music industry – which surrounded Dylan becoming the first writer of songs to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. In fact there now appears to be a gracious acceptance of this honour. No Depression: “The rhyming couplets in which Dylan writes are as sweetly and keenly turned as one might expect of a Nobel Laureate in Literature.”
If there is a need to quantify the reviews, then the obvious destination is the Metacritic website which aggregates reviews of all popular genre. Metacritic scored Rough and Rowdy Ways a whopping 95 based on 23 reviews.
This score was a red rag to the Event critic who caustically reacted: “But then Dylan always attracts acclaim. He even managed 62 on Metacritic with Christmas In The Heart, which subjected much-loved carols to murder most baffling.”
No wonder the great man, with no doubt a twinkle in his eye, declares on “False Prophet”: I’m the first among equals/ Second to none.
Editor Crossroads – Americana Music Appreciation