It’s not as if the man who wrote “Subterranean Homesick Blues” has ever been at a loss for words. But you’d have to look at one of the hip-hop deluxe editions that have been flooding the marketplace recently to find anything approaching Bob Dylan’s new “Rough and Rowdy Ways” for sheer volume of verbiage. The track list for his 39th studio album may look economical, at a mere 10 songs, but if you’ve been paying attention to the warmup tracks he released ahead of the collection, you know how deceiving that appearance is. The already legendary “Murder Most Foul” lasts 17 minutes, and even a more minimalist number like “False Prophet” squeezes 10 verses into its 6 minutes. So any fans frustrated that Dylan hadn’t released an album of original material since 2012’s “Tempest” can rest assured: Now that the most celebrated songwriter in rock history is back, he’s making up for lost rhyme.
That said, all those thousands of words are no guarantee of self-revelation or true confession when it comes to Dylan, although those things are surely there, hiding in plain sight. For the most part on the hugely satisfying “Rough and Rowdy Ways” (which borrows its title from an ancient Jimmy Rodgers perennial), Dylan is in much the same freestyling lyrical mode he’s been in since 2001’s “Love and Theft,” the moment at which he seemed to decide, probably presciently, that the 21st century would best be served by some kind of juke-joint dissociative disorder. Now, as on that pivotal work, it makes for songs that can be as confounding as they are thrilling. What an accomplishment it is to be 79 and achieving new levels of elusiveness — riveting elusiveness — as his mystery train rolls closer to the station.
Both the album and his 60-year career are effectively summarized in the title of the opening track, “I Contain Multitudes.” The line is taken from Walt Whitman, but even by that poet’s multiple personae-encouraging standards, Dylan’s attitude toward life as a near octogenarian is an almost hilariously slippery, constantly self-contradictory thing. Is he lover or fighter? Man of peace or angel of death? All of the above — within a single verse, sometimes — but between the humbler moments, there’s a complicated, slightly scary, often hilarious braggadocio that really does rival that of our finest rappers. (Or of the gunslinger Bo Diddley in his prime, at least.) “I’m nothing like my ghostly appearance would suggest,” he sings with comic awareness on “False Prophet,” “I’m just here to bring vengeance on somebody’s head.”
It gets more metaphorically violent from there. “Don’t hug me, don’t flatter me, don’t turn on the charm / I’ll take a sword and knock off your arm,” he warns the spectral title figure of “Black Rider,” who may or may not be his alter ego. In “Crossing the Rubicon”: “I can feel the bones beneath my skin, and they’re trembling with rage / I’ll make your wife a widow / You’ll never see old age.” But later in that same song, he’s mellowed out enough to “feel the Holy Spirit inside, see the light that freedom gives / I believe it’s in the reach of every man who lives.” “Every Grain of Sand,” meet gangsta rap.
The album has three hard-blues stompers in “False Prophet,” “Crossing the Rubicon” and “Goodbye Jimmy Reed.” The last of these is the funniest and brashest song on the album, as Dylan pretty much venerates the title bluesman as a god, telling the heavenly Reed: “Give me that old-time religion, it’s just what I need” and “Goodbye and goodnight — put a jewel in your crown and put out the lights.” These may be the three numbers you’ll probably return to the most for sheer enjoyment, if you have any affinity at all for that brand of cocky, primal blues. (Or of early rock ’n’ roll, since it has been noted among fans that “Prophet” cops its feel and some electric guitar riffing from an obscure Sun Records B-side, albeit to highly different effect. Someone who quotes the bard as often as Bob does on this album would be the first to tell you: there’s nothing new under, or after, the Sun.)
Yet it’s hardly all about the rowdiness of the album title, or fit for the jukebox pictured in the vintage cover photo. A gentler and sometimes enticingly melodic feel is more predominant through the remainder of the tracks, which doesn’t mean Dylan doesn’t usually still have trouble in mind.
“My Own Version of You” has menace to it, too — it is about grave-robbing (and whatever metaphors that confers) — but it tones down the blues-rocking musical rhetoric to create a sense of soft suspense. There’s far more intrigue there than in “Key West (Philosopher Poet),” which, with its accordion opening, might offer the closest analog to Dylan’s mid-’70s work. While this penultimate number has a more genial quality that may come as refreshing amid the tongue-in-cheek fire and brimstone of some of the preceding songs, it’s the only epic-length inclusion that wears out its welcome, as Dylan stretches to find something interesting to say about the title locale before finally throwing in the towel at the nine-and-a-half-minute point.
Better by far is “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You,” a complete outlier here, in being a rare callback to the simple and unabashedly romantic spirit that was all but last heard in “Make You Feel My Love.” It comes as close as anything Dylan has written in decades to being straight-up, even though he can’t help but mess with its relative simplicity a little by throwing his vocal timing off off the beat — something the many troubadours who are bound to cover the tune in years to come will probably see fit to fix for him. The lyrics of this lilting 6/8 ballad beckon: “I’m giving myself to you, I am, from Salt Lake City to Birmingham / From East L.A. to San Antone / I don’t think I can bear to live my life alone.” Is he singing to a love interest, as he does only in fleeting couplets through the rest of “Rough and Rowdy Ways”? Or is that highway-routing TripTik of cities really meant to address anyone who attended the Never Ending Tour? Dylan would seemingly be the last artist to ever tempt hokum with anything as blatant as a love letter to fans, but this, however cloaked, could be it.
Also surprisingly sweet is “Mother of Muses,” which hails the spirit of creativity without any feisty filters; it’s almost his version of Leonard Cohen’s “Tower of Song,” with less cynicism about the price of being an artist. It’s the moment when you realize those three albums of standards Dylan released since 2012 weren’t just marking time while he waited for a muse to return: They were teaching him to really sing again, with a renewed tenderness that complements the playful phrasing that has never eluded him. There’s no reason to fear a reprise of the especially gravelly vocals that characterized his work for much of the 2000s. That level of rasp does show up occasionally, but more for comic or emphatic effect than as his sole go-to. Aged as it is, Dylan’s voice hasn’t sounded this pleasing to the ear since the 1980s.
You could and should write a whole separate review of the final number (the first song released in advance of the album), “Murder Most Foul,” an epic ballad of American disenchantment that Dylan has in fact partitioned all to itself as Side 4 of the LP version or Disc 2 of the CD set. As a conspiracy-minded trip through every stray detail of the JFK assassination, but also a lyrical pastiche of references to half the pop culture and hep culture of the past six decades, “Murder Most Foul” is the reason a website like Genius was invented, to have clickable explications of every phrase and the multiple allusions that can be packed into one deceptively mundane line. It’s a song that, all by itself, contains multitudes within multitudes within multitudes.
In one musical work, Dylan distills a vast and lifelong sense of exploration, as somebody who’s discovering not just the links between Kennedy and his assassins but between King James and Etta James, Beethoven and Warren Zevon, and finally, in the last line, his two favorite sources, Shakespeare and the Gospel. By the end, you can almost imagine Dylan coming into focus after all, against all odds: as our greatest dot-connector.