Legendary US folk singer Bob Dylan releases his first album of original songs in eight years Friday with the ten-track “Rough and Rowdy Ways.”
Dylan’s 39th studio album features a 17-minute ballad about the assassination of John F Kennedy, as well as a tribute to American electric bluesman Jimmy Reed.
“Rough and Rowdy Ways” is the Nobel winner’s first collection of new material since “Tempest” in 2012, although he has released a number of cover albums in the interim. It sees Dylan mix bluesy riffs with folksy storytelling, his signature raspy voice delivering lyrics that switch between bleakly haunting and darkly humorous.
At times he sounds warm, at other times scathing. In the album’s opening song “I Contain Multitudes,” the 79-year-old grapples with mortality.
He starts by singing tenderly, “Today and tomorrow and yesterday too / The flowers are dying like all things do.”
Later he says: “I sleep with life and death in the same bed.”
Dylan was asked about the lyrics in a recent interview with The New York Times, his first since he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016.
“I think about the death of the human race. The long strange trip of the naked ape,” he replied. “Not to be light on it, but everybody’s life is so transient. Every human being, no matter how strong or mighty, is frail when it comes to death. I think about it in general terms, not in a personal way.”
The songs run through 20th century pop culture, touch on myths and refer to historical and fictional figures — some light, others tragic.
In “I Contain Multitudes,” Dylan cites Indiana Jones, Anne Frank and the Rolling Stones in the same verse.
“Murder Most Foul,” first revealed in March, retells the shooting of President Kennedy in Dallas, Texas while describing the evolution of 1960s counterculture. The song, which rose to the top of the Billboard chart, is packed with artist name-drops including the Eagles, Charlie Parker, Stevie Nicks, Woodstock and The Beatles.
Dylan — some of whose most-loved songs from the 1960s and 70s addressed police brutality and racism, such as “Hurricane” — also mentions the Tulsa race massacre of 1921. The “Birdman of Alcatraz,” one of America’s most notorious serial killers, gets a mention, too.
Recounting Kennedy’s slaying, Dylan sings: “We’re gonna kill you with hatred, without any respect / We’ll mock you and shock you and we’ll put it in your face / We’ve already got someone here to take your place.”
In “False Prophet,” the album’s six-minute second track, Dylan sounds cocky and unapologetic as he addresses his own mythology. “I ain’t no false prophet / I just said what I said / I’m just here to bring vengeance on somebody’s head,” he sings over a slow blues riff.
Despite his ageing years, Dylan, awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama in 2012, has toured almost non-stop for the past three decades.
The coronavirus crisis forced him to cancel a string of dates in Japan and North America this spring and summer, but he has promised to be back on the road as soon as it’s safe to do so.