Realistically, only Bob Dylan could rhyme “Indiana Jones” with “those British bad boys the Rolling Stones” and make it sound profound. The unlikely lyrical couplet containing those pop culture references on “I Contain Multitudes,” the lead track of the new album Rough and Rowdy Ways. Dylan’s first set of new songs in eight years — with a couple stabs at crooning standards in between — stirs a mighty temptation to hunt for lofty commentary and heavy reflection in these gravelly words. Dylan has been thought to be musically pondering his own mortality since at least 1997’s faultless Time Out of Mind, likely earlier. As he grinds toward his eightieth birthday next May, with a Nobel Prize looped around his neck, the desire endures for some grand final statement.
I think Dylan himself would reject any of those readings. In a recent New York Times interview, he deflected any attempt to find deeper meaning, to tie himself to the grand sweep on American culture as he feels the weariness of his twilight years. “I didn’t really have to grapple much,” he says of writing “I Contain Multitudes,” and that’s wholly typical of his responses. There are no cheap claims of the art working through him or anything like. Instead, he’s a guy with a guitar and a notebook, a grizzled troubadour, sure that everything influences him and largely disinterested in probing the how and the why of it. He’s been doing this job for decades. Why examine the particulars of it now?
Besides, the pleasure of Rough and Rowdy Ways isn’t its novelistic sweep, but instead its unhurried assurance in song-making. More than half the tracks clock in at six minutes or more, and that’s not even including “Murder Most Foul,” the epic pushing seventeen minutes that is both part of this album and packaged together with it, like a spare room that was hammered onto the side of a house. And Dylan sometimes seems to be riffing through all the variants available to him as a practitioner of rock songs that proudly wear their indebtedness to vintage blues and folk. Here’s a sweetly reflective love song with “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You,” and here’s a classic bluesy breakdown on “Crossing the Rubicon.” Unbothered, Dylan calmly asserts he can do it all. Of course he can. He invented most of this, and what he didn’t invent he preserved with greater acumen than any of his similarly history-reverent peers.
“My Own Version of You” saunters, and “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” has a dreamy drift, like it’s captured the wandering thoughts of an entire universe falling asleep. And yet that ease doesn’t mean there’s no drive, no purpose. With a hey-big-spender thick guitar grind, “False Prophet” lays it all out, good and proper:
Well I’m the enemy of treason
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
So knock back another whiskey and settle in. There’s a fire still crackling, and the testifying is likely to go all night.