The Politics of ‘Rough and Rowdy Ways’

Bob Dylan’s new album, wrapped in mystery and dropping unexpectedly like a consolation gift amidst the pandemic (or ‘in the dark, in the wee small hours’, to borrow a line from one of its songs), is a major, lively, and beautiful release. It also marks another shift in musical style and creative direction, just when it looked like Dylan had settled into covering standards from the Great American Songbook.

Lyrically has been described as impressionistic — like layering colourful brush strokes of thought to build tone and emotion, more than to lay down coherent and focused narratives in standard verse/chorus structures.

The lyrics are fragmentary, and together with sparse, mellow arrangements they build a mystical, dreamlike atmosphere. If David Lynch makes more Twin Peaks, this music would fit right in at the Bang Bang Bar. Ambigious lyrics are often accompanied by suggestive deliveries, prodding the listener to tune in and prod beneath their surface.

The tone is elegiac, and stretches across songs to bind the album together as a whole. There is something of a hypnotic, alternating rhythm that shifts back and forth between bluesy and dreamy. Musically each song has a distinct opening, and the playlist order fits so well together that after a few listens as one song fades it becomes impossible not to anticipate the opening notes of the next, as if preloaded in the listener’s inner ear a few seconds in advance. This unbroken flow continues right up until ‘Murder Most Foul’, which arrives like a gloomy 17-minute nightcap.

The tones and themes we are used to hearing from Dylan are all here: the hopeful, the sinister, death, justice, simmering anger, vengeance, romance, playfulness, mystery. might mark a sharp turn away from Dylan’s recent work, but it retains thematic consistency with messages he’s hit repeatedly over the years and decades.

The fragmentary lyrics let the listener pluck out different, perhaps contradictory meanings and feelings from them (the theme of contradictory moods and character qualities is the subject of ‘I Contain Multitudes’). It feels like a fresh manifestation of the thought process described in , a song Dylan originally wrote for his 1989 album and which always seemed to me to describe his songwriting process during the mid-60s “thin, wild mercury sound” period, as if in answer to the question “what do these surreal lyrics mean?”

‘Goodbye Jimmy Reed’ makes the most direct link to that mid-60s period — remarkably, it sounds like it belongs on , playing like a re-formulation of ‘Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat’ coming half a century later. Which makes it sound like a retread, but in fact makes the song exceptional: few if any of Dylan’s songs written since have recreated (or attempted to recreate) that sound.

The Politics

Many songs have a political feel, though none have an explicit political subject — with the exception of ‘Murder Most Foul’, a sprawling rumination on the JFK assassination, which is included as the last track on its own “disc” and feels separate from the rest of the album.

The lyrics throw out heavy shades of disgust and indignation, or make what feels like an attack on the politics of the moment, then drift into another thought or subject on the next line and obscure the blow, distorting the meaning and making you question whether you imagined it in the first place. You’re never quite sure how much meaning you bring to the lyrics as a listener, and how much was put there by intention.

In ‘My Own Version of You’ Dylan talks of assembling body parts and cultural ingredients to create a Frankenstein’s monster-type creature, apparently as an alternative version of someone he knows.

Who does the narrator want to create an alternative to, and for what purpose? It’s not laid out clearly enough to say with confidence, but I can’t help interpreting the song as describing the artistic desire to inspire the creation of an alternative to a dangerous politician: Donald Trump. The song would then be about creating a “better version” of Trump, culturally morphed to fix him and created for the purpose of replacing him.

Some lines distort this reading, like they do most others, bringing romantic notions into the story, along with a whirlwind of other cultural references that shift the vibe towards that of a fun, phantasmal daydream.

Still I find myself returning to the thought of Trump as the subject on each listen. There is, for example, what seems like a critique against nationalism and xenophobia of the “America First” kind:

And the closest we come to hearing what the narrator wants to be different in his version of the person in question? “Decency and common sense.”

As for the person in question, apparently it is someone who is literate only on the surface level, and is in the habit of deception.

A scathing final verse then ties the person being addressed to moral abominations from history and “enemies of mankind.”

As implicit as the subject is, I can’t help but think the spectre of Donald Trump lies at the song’s heart. How much have I brought into this reading myself? It’s impossible to say — and I think that’s a big part of the genius of how this album is written. It leaves a lot of room for the listener to breathe their own mind into the music.

It also allows the delivery of certain messages and critiques without making direct political attacks that would thrust Dylan under the media spotlight — a place he has shown no interest in being for decades. It employs metaphor and suggestion as shaded weapons, to attack at an oblique angle in a way that doesn’t invite reply.

As political as many of the songs feel (or at least, feel in moments, before morphing into romantic or apolitical musings in the next moment), it is concern over the trajectory of the United States as a country, rather than individual politicians, that seems to be highest on the Nobel laureate’s mind.

‘Murder Most Foul’ sets that tone pretty explicitly (where “him” here refers to JFK):

The least ambiguous political message on “disc 1” can be found in ‘Key West (Philosopher Pirate)’. On the surface level offered as (unconventional) navigational instructions, Dylan suggests:

This line is hard to read as about anything other than left/right wing politics, and taken as such sums up Dylan’s politics in recent decades well. Centre-left, borrowing some ideas from the right, but remaining firmly rooted in the left-wing principles he started out from in the early 60s.

Another fragmentary lyric a few verses later (with no contextualising line before it) returns to the idea of left/right divides:

Politicians should appeal to both sides of the political spectrum, seems to be the suggestion, by not straying too far from the centre. This message would chime with what Barack Obama said pointedly in a public address last November, warning Democrats against moving too far to the left.

Why does Dylan cryptically encode his political musings?

Part of it is probably the intellectual and artistic challenge. Veiled in metaphor and subtext, the message reaches the listener without drawing too much attention outside the realm Dylan is most at home in: that of the song and dance man. At age 79, he has no apparent desire to write the political protest songs of the moment, or battle with reporters like he did in his twenties. That’s a young man’s game, and by all indications he’s more than happy to leave them to it.

Listen to Rough and Rowdy Ways on the right night, in the right frame of mind, though, and you’ll find yourself thinking ‘yes, Bob, I do know what you mean.’ Whether you actually do is anyone’s guess… but that’s the pleasure of music with mystery in it.

Cinema, short fiction, politics. Brain like a moose. Blog:

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