Label: Columbia Records
Release Date: 19th June 2020
"'Murder Most Foul' is more of an experience rather than a singular song; almost as if it is a seventeen-minute educational podcast."
It’s safe to say that 2020 has been a year of weird surprises and plot twists beyond the realms of common imagination. That’s why when folk-rock legend Bob Dylan spontaneously released seventeen-minute ‘Murder Most Foul’ in March, detailing the assassination of JFK, it seemed like the most apt release. I was personally concerned that this was going to be Dylan’s version of David Bowie’s Blackstar; Dylan’s final musical offering, but the song turned out to be the first release off of Dylan’s new album Rough and Rowdy Ways, delivered to the world some two months later.
Rough and Rowdy Ways marks the musician’s first album of original material since 2012. One wouldn’t expect Bob Dylan to go rogue and delve into a genre he hasn’t yet attempted in a career spanning sixty years. His music has always been more about what he’s saying rather than the musical composition, and these storytelling tendencies necessitate his simplistic guitar-driven sound. This does not make his music formulaic; it has just meant that his career has had fewer reinventions because of his insistence to continue telling stories. Consequently, Rough and Rowdy Ways sounds timeless.
The opening song ‘I Contain Multitudes’ is a piece of self-assessment. He explained to The New York Times that the lyrics contain individual references that you need to stand back from to see the whole painting. He makes reference to Anne Frank and The Rolling Stones but does not go into detail as to why he chose these particular figures. Dylan saw the song as his identity, and something that shouldn’t be questioned so, therefore, should not be explained. It works extremely well as an opener: the listener is welcomed once more into the inner workings of Dylan’s mind before proceeding into the stories he wishes to tell on his thirty-ninth studio album.
Following on from this, ‘False Prophet’ is based on an existing folk song which is a common compositional device in much of Dylan’s discography, such as ‘A Hard Rains a-Gonna Fall’ and ‘With God on Our Side’. This track would not be out of place on the albums succeeding his apparent electrification in 1965. It could again be a piece of self-assessment, but perhaps in a more caricaturist manner. I’m sure over the years, many have complained that Dylan has been overly preachy, so lines such as "I ain’t no false prophet / I just said what I said" could be an unapologetic swipe at these criticisms.
The album does have its tender moments: it's not all about self-aware analysis of Dylan’s psyche. ‘I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You’ could become one of Dylan’s greatest love songs, along with ‘Make You Feel My Love’. It’s simple; it’s elegant; he uses beautiful imagery in its lyrics; it is romantic Dylan at his best, utilising his love of storytelling. ‘Mother of Muses’ is another slower track. Whilst the instrumentation of the album is consistently simple and sparse, Dylan’s craft does call for these softer songs to break up the complexity of the themes illustrated in the rest of the tracks.
Another Dylan trope that completes this album is his use of figures to base his songwriting around. Jimmy Reed of ‘Goodbye Jimmy Reed’ was an influential bluesman, a man of an era Dylan is more associated with. It also sounds like it belongs in Johnny Cash’s sixties; it has a Honkytonk guitar rhythm that is quite alien to popular music today. Similarly, ‘Key West (Philosopher Private)’ follows Dylan’s love of placing his music in a geographical context. This song particularly reminds me of ‘Mozambique’ off of Dylan’s 1976 album Desire.
Finally, we come to ‘Murder Most Foul’, the closing track and the first track Dylan released from this new project. This is Dylan’s storytelling at its absolute best. It may seem to be a beast of a track at such a long length, but it is quintessential Dylan, maintaining the same melody throughout in order to ensure the words stand out. Like many of the tracks on this album, it feels as if it belongs alongside old Dylan songs such as ‘The Death of Emmett Till’ and ‘Ballad of Hollis Brown’. Its length is what makes it new. It’s as if he had been practising the formula with these old songs, to finally complete the masterpiece of his dreams. It’s more of an experience rather than a singular song; almost as if it is a seventeen-minute educational podcast. To some, this may sound dreary, but the lyricism is so intricate that he continuously keeps the listener on their toes. The words he wrote only belong set to music.
Rough and Rowdy Ways is both textbook Bob Dylan and also the culmination of his career’s exploration of storytelling. I am extremely thankful ‘Murder Most Foul’ was just the beginning of a project. 2020 has been a terrible year, but it is comforting to know that Dylan is continuing to write such thought-provoking music.
Words by Sarah Jewers.
25th June 2020.