Album of the Week: Bob Dylan, 'Rough and Rowdy Ways'

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Bob Dylan, 'Rough and Rowdy Ways'
Bob Dylan, 'Rough and Rowdy Ways' (Columbia)
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Andrea Swensson - Album of the Week: Bob Dylan, 'Rough and Rowdy Ways'
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I'll be totally honest: when I first heard that there was a new Bob Dylan album full of original material on the way, my first thought was, "Not now, Bob!" With so many important conversations happening right now around police brutality, anti-blackness, and white supremacy, I could not fathom how Bob's words might fit into our present moment, or where in my busy mind I might even make space to absorb this new work.

But here's the thing about Bob Dylan's poetry: it's always managed to exist outside of time. In the '60s he was reminiscing about Woody Guthrie, and in more recent years he has once again seemed to slide backwards through the ages, obsessing over the work of Frank Sinatra and the Great American Songbook. The struggles he's written about have never been rooted in the exact moment they occurred; it's why he shunned the idea of being a voice for his generation during the political uprisings of the '60s. The songs on Rough and Rowdy Ways name-drop several generations' worth of actors, singers, writers, activists, and icons, piecing all their stories together into a puzzle that shows how history can't stop skipping, skipping, skipping and starting over again.

Rough and Rowdy Ways is Bob's first album of new material in 8 years, and easily one of his strongest releases of the 21st century. Frankly, it's everything I've been craving from him for the past two decades: deeply personal and incisive lyrics, unfussy compositions, and expressive singing. I can't recall the last time his voice sounded so vulnerable and lovely. He's seen it all, and he's here to sing about it: the cold-hearted cruelty that keeps halting humanity's progress; the cyclical and inescapable violence and injustice; the aching desire to find love and be loved.

It's clear from listening to his words that Bob Dylan has been in a period of deep reflection, looking back on his past experiences, mourning the people who he's lost. When he sang "My heart is at rest, I'd like to keep it that way," in the song "Black Rider," I found myself holding in my breath. "Black rider, black rider, tell me when, tell me how / If there ever was a time, then let it be now." Is he saying goodbye to us? Or is he simply twisting another phrase around his finger, winding us up for the next thousand shows of his Neverending Tour?

I don't know where Bob Dylan is going, but when he gets there, I know he's going to stare back at us through a prism, scattering a dozen tales from a dozen eras across the room into a jagged outline of the truth.

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