Greetings, Glancers! <Large audible and visible sigh>. Bob Dylan. He’s a legend. One of the greats. A songwriter second to none. An icon. An inventor and re-inventor. His albums appear on every Best Of list you’ve ever read. So they tell me. Listen, I’m all for maturing as a fan of music and as a person – it’s one of the main reasons why I have this blog and continue these Albums Series – but as we’ve seen, sometimes your personal preferences simply trump what is supposedly good for you. It’s just like being healthy – I bought myself some ripe fruit to snack on during the day but here I am typing this and entire an entire 472 gram Ms Molly’s Trifle from Tesco. What’s good for you isn’t always good.
I have known of Bob Dylan all my life. As a Guns ‘n’ Roses fan from an early age, I loved their version of Knockin On Heaven’s Door and assumed the guy who wrote it must be a genius. I love Jimi’s All Along The Watchtower. And that’s the thing I struggle with when it comes to Dylan – he’s one of those artists who is maybe better served as a writer and staying away from the mic? Far from me to criticize a vocalist when my own sound like a goose slithering through the inside of an elephant’s trunk – but if I’m happy to criticize my own singing then I’m going to be picky about everyone else too. Dylan’s vocals are simply horrendous. Maybe over time you become accustomed to them, I don’t know. I certainly haven’t, though admittedly I’ve never given him much of a chance. In my ongoing quest to listen to every album ever recorded, Bob Dylan’s work will come up again and again but as much as a fan I am of folk music and of singer songwriters and of lyrics, I tend to pass his albums over because of how much I can’t stand his voice. But today I’ll be listening to his latest album for the first time and who knows – maybe now that he’s a hundred and eighty six years old, some of the mucus and pig fat oriented nature of his warbling will have been replaced by the dusky husk of a throat more attuned to the ravages of time and instead sound like an old and ragged yacht hewn from the most decrepit oak, moaning as it capsizes under the weight of its alcoholic crew. Now there’s a metaphor for ya.
Am I being shallow? Naïve? Puerile, dismissive, idiotic? Obviously there is more to music than vocals. Obviously. But when you’re a singer songwriter, vocals are at least 50% of what you are – the clue’s in the title. My problems with Dylan are not purely skin, or voice, deep. He has a handful of songs I’ve enjoyed and every so often one of his lyrics will ring true on a personal level. I’m going to say something now which is likely completely incorrect but, and again I’m speaking from an extremely ill-informed position given the number of songs I’ve heard from him, most of the songs and lyrics I’ve heard from him are simply moderately elevated love songs. You say there’s more to music than vocals? There are more things to write about than love. I know he gets political and I know he’s done protest stuff. Maybe that’s more my level, maybe those songs and lyrics will spark something inside me. Most of what I’ve heard is simply better written Celine Dion that I care equally nul for. But for everyone out there frothing in anger at my ranting or giggling from your highest of high horses – I’ll be the first to admit when I’m wrong and will happily slap my own chops if and when an artist’s quality clicks for me. I would much rather have music I love in my life than music I don’t, and that’s why I’m here.
As always, I begin by saying what I know about the album. In this case, it’s absolutely nothing beyond its name and the recording artist. The album artwork strikes me as deliberately retro. It seems like some 1950s swinging shindig based on the outfits and asses on display. It’s all quite faceless, to the extent that the dude on the right (who is staring into either a jukebox lit by Heaven’s golden shimmers, or some Tabernacle-esque fridge freezer unit) has seemingly suffered an unfortune bout of head-loss. The sparse room doesn’t suggest much in the way of rough and/or rowdy antics – but maybe showing up to your local juke dive in an ill-fitting skirt was enough to raise the eyebrows and middle wickets of those in attendance. Simpler time, simpler folk. You may have noticed I’m stalling. Fine, lets get on with it.
I usually start these posts with the positives. Before I do, at risk of repeating myself let me just restate that the vocals are not my cup of tea. Given I don’t drink tea, they’re not my hot chocolate either. I was correct in my assumption that the vocals would be more weary and gruff, and thankfully less nasal. Sounds a bit like Joni Mitchell after 300 cigs and covid. I’m never going to come around on the guy’s singing and if you struggle with vocals while listening to an artist, you’re probably never going to like listening to them. There’s less urgency here, and while he sounds like he’s the drunk propping up the furthest end of the bar spouting wisdom to anyone who will listen, he still sounds potent and virile. More like a sage imparting truths but knowing it’s going to fall on deaf ears. I could get through individual songs if I were to listen to this in the future, but listening to the entire album again in a single sitting would be a stretch for me.
We do get off to a promising start. I Contain Multitudes is rather lovely – relaxed, swirling Country guitars and a gentle vibe. I Contain Multitudes seems like a response and a slap in the face to my proclamation that he only writes love songs. You should aware that I’m being tongue in cheek for entertainment purposes, just in case you hadn’t picked that up. There are some great lines in here, but there are some absolute clangers too – you can’t win ’em all. False Prophet is a rough Blues song with a nifty heavy edge and solid riff straight from the 1930s. It’s fair to say Dylan has spent his career aping the African American Blues men he looked up to – it seems with age he’s finally able to sound like them. I think it’s impossible to write an authentic Blues song today. The genre is too long in the tooth, too limited, meaning we’d seen everything it had to offer by 1960. As limited as the Blues genre has always been (given the fact that it’s basically a hundred years old or more) there isn’t much that anyone can add to it. The only way to make a Blues song work today is to make it a pastiche. There are plenty of people plying their trade today by playing the Blues, but they are mostly writing to serve a specific target niche audience – either existing connoisseurs of the Blues, or guitar fans. Blues’ greatest strength was always that it was a framework to build upon, leading to a hundred offshoots and much of the best music of the 20th Century.
There’s a variety in these opening songs which I wasn’t expecting, but which sadly does not continue through the rest of the album. Beyond the vocals, that’s my main fault with the album – it quickly devolves into a series of Blues standards I’ve heard a hundred times before. Even within False Prophet we fall back into clichés and tropes from a musical perspective. If we’re calling this a Blues album that’s perhaps not a valid criticism, but I’ve always had an issue with a full album of straight Blues and I prefer the genre in small, vicious bursts. At least when the music and the vocals become parody and boring we have the lyrics to fall back on.
It is unsurprisingly the lyrics which stand out for me. Each song has a frame, a topic, yet each is peppered with asides and insights ranging from hilarious to razor sharp, and more often than not there are multiple references to Literature, Cinema, music, real life people etc. It’s truly a shame there aren’t more minds like Dylan in music today, or even some with a fraction of his fire, wit, and intelligence to breathe life into their songs. As is often the case with songwriters who overload their lyrics, it should be stressed just how difficult it is to build a coherent song and an interesting and catchy melody around the words. Today’s pop, or Popular Music as a whole, relies on simplicity – too many words are simply too difficult for most people to remember, and too many words either lead to convoluted rhythms and off-kilter melodies which don’t appeal to the masses, or overly simple beats and repetition which is the trap Dylan falls into. While much of the music works as a one off, and while genres like Rap are purpose built to allow for effusive wordy lyrics and repetitive music, managing to craft something which strikes the balance between music and semantics is challenging, and a challenge Dylan only partially succeeds with here.
I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You is almost a musical retread of the opening track, albeit one with more romance and sway, Black Rider attempts a more haunting approach but gives way to forgettable minimalism, while any number of other tracks are rehashed Blues rockers. The highlights for me are when there are slight twists or variances in the sound – Mother Of Muses is another sweet song with melodies to match, but infrequent surprising chord changes, while Key West introduces some different instruments and pushes Dylan’s vocals to offer some heightened emotion. Key West, as long as it is, has probably become my favourite on the album though I would probably enjoy it more if it were half the length. Murder Most Foul is the obvious centrepiece and has the vibe of an old dude strumming his guitar while perched on a rocking chair at sunset at the edge and end of the world.
The laid back 9 minuter Key West leads thematically and tonally into Murder Most Foul perfectly, thought having too such long tracks back to back at the closure of an album I struggled with was enough to push me over the edge first time around. Taking breathers between chunks of the album is definitely the approach for someone like me who isn’t a fan. Depending on your level of fandom, Murder Most Foul is going to feel either like an intimate one to one session with your favourite poet, or a visit to your senile grandfather’s a stale living room on Christmas Day as he regales you with memories of fabricated events. I imagine this may be seen as a crowning achievement by Dylan’s diehard followers, but after the fourth minute of my first listen I was begging for it to end, to change somehow, a different lilt to his delivery, some variance in the music. But it goes on in exactly the same pattern for another twelve minutes. The lyrics are less like a Burroughs-esque series of insightful hallucinations, and more like a list of names, popular phrases, events, and references deliberately selected for no other reason than to rhyme and to spruce up the bird’s eye view of the USA which pervades the whole album. It’s less a sign of relief when it ends than a sigh of regret that I didn’t turn it off after four minutes.
My opinion of it has since increased with subsequent listens and with reading the lyrics. It’s an effective re-account of the last 60 odd years of American history. The little subtle musical touches come though with more effort on the listeners behalf – the strings doing their own thing, the scattered piano, the comparisons and in-jokes in the lyrics with references which will fly over the heads of most who are not musically or historically inclined, but work wonderfully for those of us who can catch even 50% of them. We cover music and the new bands and waves of the 60s, juxtaposed with the violent event of November 63, 80s horror movies, the Civil Rights movement, and any number of other popular phrases and moments in time. It’s a song I can listen to on its own, for its own merits rather than at the end of a long album, and even with that I do struggle getting through the entire running time. The music simply doesn’t change enough and as much as I appreciate the lyrics I’d love to see some smart arse do a Prog version of this to actually spice up the music and give the words a proper home.
I understand I’ve been quite negative with this post, but I should close with the key positive I took from the whole experience; Dylan is still here. While I’ve never been a fan, and probably never will, that’s fine. He’s not for me, but for all of the people he is for, for the millions still around who do love him or are yet to discover him – the dude is still going when many many others have fallen to the ravages of time, health, lack of staying power, or lack of talent. I’m positive that those the album was written for will hold it dear, as they should. For me, it’s always cool to see people with genuine talent (regardless of how I enjoy or feel about that talent) and real experience still making music today. We know that music as a Business is catered to, by, and for the young, and that the entire spectrum of successful popular music today is extremely narrow – so I admire those who can sustain an audience and success over such a ridiculous stretch of time. While there are countless thousands of musicians out there today who have been performing since before I was born, an almost insignificant fraction of those are known or are successful to any respectable degree versus the plethora of new, recent, short term, and up and coming acts who come and go with the wind. Dylan has been doing it long before I existed, and his songs and his words will be here for hundreds of years to come, assuming we haven’t fucked up the planet beyond repair before then.
I’m loath to continue doing this score business, but I suppose I’ve started so have to keep it up.
Sales: 3. As I always mention, I’m not really sure how to gauge this one anymore. It went Silver in the UK, which is okay, but elsewhere data isn’t forthcoming or strong. What are Dylan’s sales usually like? I imagine this spiked for a couple of weeks at release, then tanked. 2 or 3 on this one, lets give him the benefit of the doubt.
Chart: 4. We know the album at least peaked at Number 1 in various Countries, including the UK and US, and he even managed his first Number 1 single, somehow.
Critical: 5. The reviews have been overwhelmingly positive. When the dude finally bites the dust and people can do a retrospective of his entire body of work, I’m not sure if this will still be seen in as favourable a light, but for now you based on the current influx of Year End top spots and glowing praise, you can’t really go lower than a 5.
Originality: 2. Maybe there’s some original stuff in here for Dylan – I didn’t hear any Grime or Dubstep, but maybe he does enough differently from what he has done before. To my ears it’s a very simple Blues, Folk, Americana infused album with little or no originality beyond the lyrics, though it’s tougher to call lyrics original just because no-one has used a particular turn of phrase before.
Influence: 2. I don’t see this influencing anyone, at least not in the same way as his early work undoubtedly influenced others and will continue to.
Musical Ability: 3. A few guest stars, but for the most part there isn’t a lot of complexity on display or much opportunity for the musicians to show off their ability. 2 or 3 here, max.
Lyrics: 5. It’s not flawless, but nothing is. I don’t many albums in the 2020 list are going to get a 5 in this category, but Dylan’s wordsmithery, use of language and wit, and storytelling have enough lyrical flourish to put most other songwriters to shame.
Melody: 3. Not great – there are a couple of songs with a hook or two which I have found myself humming after I’ve stopped listening, but I suspect that is more to do with the sheer length and repetitive nature of the melody rather than the quality. Again, I’ll give the benefit of the doubt, but this is a weak 3. More likely a 2, definitely never getting a 4.
Emotion: 3. I would argue that most of the emotion people feel from this album is more down to what it represents than the genuine content – it’s probably one of the last, if not the very last, albums from a man who has been doing it for 60 years. The music and lyrics at least in part reflect this. But I found it a mostly bland affair. At this point he’s hardly trying to convert any new fans so I’ll split the difference and go with a 3. 6
Lastibility: 3. Purely because it’ a Dylan album, you know people will be talking about this for years and decades to come; it’s not some flavour of the month pop album, it’s a release by one of the most important artists of the 20th Century. I don’t think it will have the staying power of his most famous releases in terms of what people reach for when they want a bit of Bob, but it’s not going away. 3 or 4 here.
Vocals: 2. I could easily go a 1 here, and he really wants me to go that low with his insistence on making songs longer than they need to be, but the timbre of his voice has improved with age, removing much of the nasal quality with grouchy gravel. Still, it’s not the sort of vocal I’d ever choose to listen to.
Coherence: 4. It all holds together – you know what each song is going to sound like and feel like, and all of the music and lyrics are trenched in American folk and blues.
Mood: 3. The mood is held together by the coherence, but slips for me because of the lack of emotion I felt.
Production: 3. A crisp and clear no-nonsense Production. The vocals are front and centre in the mix, though everything feels balanced. I would have preferred more expansion and invention with the instrumentation – not that it’s needed for an album like this, but it would have made the whole more interesting.
Effort: 4. It feels effortless and I don’t think the musicians or anyone else involved put in, or needed to put in, more effort than was required. Then again, there’s the pressure to put out a good Dylan album, and what may be the last Dylan album, so I’m sure everyone did their best without pushing their creativity. Dylan himself, given his age, probably put in the most effort and clearly spent a lot of time pondering over the lyrics and overall ideas for each song.
Relationship: 2. Depending on how you few this category – how do you personally relate to it, or how do you think most people will relate to it – will dictate your score. Personally I didn’t relate to it much at all – there is too much distance created by the stuff I didn’t enjoy – and while I can empathise with the thing, I didn’t care for it. Fans will go high on this score because they have a higher chance of relating to the guy they love, but first time listeners or people like me who are not fussed either way will likely not get a lot out of it from this category.
Genre Relation: 4. I can’t exactly criticize the album for being a generic Blues album, then give it a crap score in this category. When it plays the Blues it feels like the Blues, when it goes Folk, it feels Folk. It’s not the best of either world, but you know what it is. Of course you could argue that when someone has been going for as long as Dylan has they essentially become a Genre all of their own, in which case yous should ask how it relates to his other work.
Authenticity: 4. It feels personal, it feels real. It doesn’t feel like a product manufactured for the masses and it doesn’t feel like he’s done it purely for his fans. At this point he can do whatever the hell he wants, and he has,
Personal: 2. I don’t think there’s enough I liked here to go with a 3. Maybe that will change with time, but I doubt it. We know fans will go a 5 here, unless they’re particularly strict and the individual songs were not to their taste, but I can’t see a fan going less than a 4. A 1 would be harsh even for me, because I appreciate the effort and talent involved. But he’s not an artist I’ll be able to enjoy, unless someone else is performing his songs.
Miscellaneous: 3. The album cover isn’t the most exciting, ripped straight from a hundred 50s and 60s album artwork like some shoddy easy rock compilation. You have to suspect this might be his last album which does offer some interesting side notes, and he did pull together some notable guest stars. Nothing exciting, but enough to get a 2 or a 3.
That’s actually an interesting score. I enjoyed Biffy Clyro’s album more than this, but this gets a better score (by a single point). Does that mean the system works? Hopefully it shows that any bias is decreased. Let us know in the comments what you think of Rough And Rowdy Ways!