Bob Dylan has a lot to say these days.
On “Rough and Rowdy Ways,” his first album of original material in eight years, the enduringly revered bard sings about mortality, history, pop culture, love and inspiration — and a whole lot more. A lot more.
Like almost every Dylan album of self-penned tunes, “Rough and Rowdy Ways” demands numerous listenings to reveal itself. His longest 10-song collection ever is packed with rhyming couplets, references to literary and historical figures, and shout-outs to various musicians and songs.
Who else would thrust Harry Truman and John Kennedy, Don Henley and Stevie Nicks, Patsy Cline and Charlie Parker, William Shakespeare and Edgar Allan Poe, Al Pacino and Marlon Brando, Indiana Jones and General Patton, and Freud the psychoanalyst and Calliope the muse into the same album? And that is just the beginning.
“Rough and Rowdy Ways,” his 39th studio album, is filled with melancholy meditations and swaggering blues, self-styled mysteries and graceful elegies, and oblique self-references and quotable lines. At 79, Dylan remains as trenchantly sharp and delightfully confounding as ever.
And obsessed with rhyming.
Jones and Stones, dudes and multitudes, Jerome and home, scales and details, “in ya” and Virginia. That’s just a few from the one-man subterranean rap crew.
The Duluth-born, Hibbing-reared singer-songwriter has always been a master of his own time. Without any advance notice, he dropped three selections from “Rough and Rowdy Ways” at midnight on three different Fridays this spring. Those tunes bookend the new 70½-minute double album.
Backed by gently plucked guitar, Dylan opens with “I Contain Multitudes,” letting us know that he’s a complex soul, “a man of contradictions, a man of many moods.” Apparently content with his life, he has “no apologies to make.”
And he fires off one of those Dylanesque lines that will be analyzed and quoted for years to come: “I sleep with life and death in the same bed.”
Next up is the last of his three pre-album singles, “False Prophet,” a sluggish shuffle delivered with a gnarling voice and a sideways eye. Is Dylan disowning all the acclaim heaped on him or trying to own it?
“I’m first among equals, second to none, the last of the best,” he boasts. With a growl, he concludes quizzically: “I ain’t no false prophet. I can’t remember when I was born, and I forgot when I died.” With shades of Victor Frankenstein, Dylan unleashes the very rhymey “My Own Version of You,” in which the monster he creates — is it himself? — will play piano like Leon Russell and Liberace. Sonically, this has the flourish of neither colorful keyboardist but rather plenty of underwater surf guitar. With Dylan’s vocals upfront over what sounds like a soundtrack to an old silent movie, this moody piece recalls the evocative jazz of Dylan’s three recent collections of standards.
The laureate continues his soft croon on the dirge-like “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You.” This is either Dylan’s most romantic song in years or his best spiritual since his born-again days. In any case, he hopes “the gods go easy on me.”
Backed by light flamenco guitar, Dylan offers his most dramatic vocalizing on “Black Rider,” the story of an enigmatic character who has been on the job too long. Fiction or self-commentary? Dylan always keeps us guessing.
At least “Goodbye Jimmy Reed” refers to a real-life person, the late Chicago master of the blues shuffle. Dylan’s ambling blues starts with a galvanizing spark reminiscent of his own 1965 tune “Highway 61 Revisited,” invigorating “Rough and Rowdy Ways” with a bracing shot of adrenaline.
“I can’t sing a song I don’t understand,” proclaims Dylan, who seldom explains what he understands about his songs.
In interviews, including a rare one published last weekend in the New York Times, Dylan insists his songs “come from out of thin air.” Maybe that’s why he salutes “Mother of Muses,” a delicately pretty Appalachian hymn, praising those creative goddesses for clearing the paths for Elvis Presley and Martin Luther King. Eventually, Dylan spins the song about himself, confessing his mortality.
“I’ve already outlived my life by far,” he points out. “Free me from sin,” he sings in perhaps his deepest voice ever, “make me invisible like the wind.”
He rides the wind on the home stretch of “Rough and Rowdy Ways,” with arguably his most compelling and provocative closing trio of tunes on an album since the 1960s. Kicking off with stinging snarl, the bluesy yet spiritual “Crossing the Rubicon” celebrates a life well lived.
“Three miles north of purgatory, one step from the Great Beyond,” Dylan declares to a mesmerizing, sinewy groove. “I stood between heaven and earth and I crossed the Rubicon.”
“Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” further explores mortality as he takes stock of himself once again. A dreamy, accordion-accented dirge with a Western feel set in south Florida, this 9½-minute reflection sonically evokes Bruce Springsteen’s equally spare “Streets of Philadelphia.”
“Death is on the wall,” Dylan notes. Acknowledging that he’s been truly blessed, he proudly states, “That’s my story but not where it ends.”
“Rough and Rowdy Ways” ends with “Murder Most Foul,” a 17-minute epic that ostensibly chronicles the assassination of President Kennedy and its aftermath, including great cultural touchstones such as the Beatles, Woodstock and six dozen others, some pre-JFK. One could interpret this monumental rhyming collage as a commentary about a leader with a vision realized, or simply a yearning for the good old days. Either way, you can’t forget a line like “I hate to tell you, mister, but only dead men are free.”
In explaining one of his songs, for a change, Dylan told the New York Times: “I don’t think of ‘Murder Most Foul’ as a glorification of the past or some kind of send-off to a lost age. It speaks to me in the moment.”
That is what “Rough and Rowdy Ways” does — it’s Dylan speaking to us in the moment, with a whole lot to say about us and himself.